Some Useful Tips on Gain Staging
In order to achieve a great tone, you need to maintain proper levels throughout your audio chain. This topic is truly important for musicians and engineers alike. I always make sure that I keep the levels in mind when I’m tracking as it does affect the sound.
So let’s see how gain affects the sound…
Zero means Zero in the Digital World
It’s not secret that the analog domain is loved by so many.
I mean the old timers love to sit around and reminisce of how the analog days used to be. Boring!
One thing that makes analog so desired is that it takes change very well and tends to be more forgiving than its digital counterpart. Basically if you hit analog pretty hard, it won’t sound that bad and it actually might sound good. I’m not guaranteeing that it will always sound good because analog still has it’s limits.
Many people, including myself, think that analog distortion is very delightful. On the other hand, digital distortion is almost never desired, though I was able to get a cool kick drum sound by using digital clipping.
When you are using digital gear, you have to be aware of the entire signal chain that comes before. If your sending a signal to hot to a digital reverb or delay, it’s going to clip in an unpleasing way.
I’ve had experiences where I didn’t really notice the digital clipping; it can really sneak up on you. I got complacent and thought that my gain staging was good.
Analog Is King
When you drive the analog input, it can yield great results. If you are reading this and you have had the luxury of spending time with tubes, you know what I mean.
There’s a little secret trick that guitarist’s do and that is to hit the preamp before going into the guitar amp. It is actually often the last piece in the chain.
You might be asking what it sounds like, right?
Well it kind of livens up the guitar sound. I try and make the preamp hit a few dB’s harder than it would if it were in bypass mode but you would still want to leave it on all the time.
Ouch, I need Some Hearing Aids
A problem that most people have with gain staging is when there just doesn’t seem to be enough signal coming from the effects.
Often times, when guitarists will come in for a recording session, they will turn various pedals on. The volume will then turn out a lower signal then when it’s in bypass mode. They might not notice it when they are jamming on their own, but by the time the band starts to play, their volume is noticeably lower.
This happens because overdrive pedals actually compress the sound by bringing up the overall sound and limiting the peaks. The overall sound will seem similar but infact it’s actually not.
So if you are going to be recording bands live in the studio than it’s going to be important for you to get the gain staging right. No one wants their sound jumping all over the place.
If you don’t hit the amp with enough signal than you are going to end up with a sound that seems dull and has less character. It just doesn’t sound quite right and it will take a little while for you to get used to because your ears are going to play tricks on you.
Two is Sometimes Better Than One
Effects tend to do some pretty interesting things when you start playing with the gain. Send a hot signal into an analog effect, now tell me what you hear!
You can end up with some weird phase effects with fuzz pedals, if you don’t send it enough gain. You just need to be aware of what is digital and what is not. Try to keep reminding yourself of that. You might even have to get the digital effects out of the way by moving the effects around.
Who doesn’t like the sound of two compressor in serial right? Try using that technique on an analog phaser. It can also sound cool if it’s overdriven.
If you do use two compressors, just use the first one as a gain device. Increase the ouput of the first compressor quite a bit and then drive it into the input of compressor 2. That’s exactly how they produced the sound of Led Zeppelin records; by using two 1176’s and absolutely no amps were used. Crazy right?
These principles can be used on any effects like spring verbs, delays, choruses etc. Also keep in mind that that’s its rare to want the output signal lower than the input signal unless for an effect.
So go make some music and tell me what happens, in the comments below.