Years ago, when working in an analog studio it was very important to make sure that you gain-stage all of your equipment properly. That simply means that the signal running from one piece of equipment to the next piece of equipment was at an ideal level, so that all the pieces of equipment were working together to give you the best sound.

If the signal was too low, you had problems, if the signal was too high, you had problems. You had to be constantly aware of this, because you were using a lot of analog equipment. You had a console, out-board equipment, effects processors, EQs, compressors, all of these things that were working together. Every time you sent a cable from one piece of equipment to the next, you had to make sure that the gain-staging was happening correctly.

You may think that if you’re using plug-ins in a digital environment you don’t have to do gain-staging anymore. That is not necessarily the case, especially when you are using multiple plug-ins on a single track.

The problem is that each plug-in has its own gain structure. You can increase the volume of the track significantly or decrease it significantly by adjusting the input and output levels of a particular plug in. The problem that arises is that you can potentially have very different levels from one plug in to the next, and that can adversely effect your sound.

When I am talking about gain-staging for plug-ins, what am I talking about? It is simply adjusting the input or output level of each plug in so that the signal maintains a steady level as you go through the plug-ins.

Let me give you three reasons to gain-stage your plug-ins.

1. Prevent clipping.

This should be fairly obvious for all of us. You don’t really want your signal to clip when going through multiple plug-ins. Sometimes this may be desirable in certain rare cases, but usually you want things to go through very smoothly with no clipping.

Keep an eye on each of your plug-ins, because sometimes there can be clipping on the plug-in and you won’t see it on the track itself. Then you have to click on the plug-in itself to see if the clip light is illuminated. That’s not very productive, so make sure you have a healthy level without being too close to clipping when you begin.

2. Maintain an optimal level with no noise.

Some plug-ins create noise as a part of their sound, especially ones that try to emulate analog outboard equipment. If you send a signal that is too low or too quiet into one of these plug-ins and increase the gain of that plug-in, suddenly you are increasing the noise as well.

Make sure you are sending a nice healthy signal into your plug in.

3. Effective AB-ing of your settings.

When you want to AB your settings, you do it because you want to make sure that what you are doing in the plug-in is helping the sound.

Unfortunately, if the plug-in adds a lot of gain to the sound, you will always think that the affected signal sounds better than the unprocessed signal, because our brains tell us that louder is better.

To avoid this, make sure the bypass volume is roughly the same volume as the unprocessed volume. This will allow you to make actual helpful decisions when you are mixing and testing out different plug-ins.

There are some reasons to gain-stage your plug-ins.

How do you gain-stage YOUR plug-ins?

[Photo Credit]

  • Cheyne Kohl

    Hi Joe! I hope you can help me here! I recently read an article that was talking about using trim plug-ins to set your gain input into your first plugin at -18 rms. I read in all my plug-in manuals and found all (but 3-4) operate best when the signal is at -18 dbfs (rms). I set all my channels to have an rms of -18 (which required me to turn up every track on September Lady), but some of them began to peak over 0.0 db. Not only this, but the clip lights inside the plugins were consistently in the red. I’ve also had to turn my faders WAAAAY down after getting each track to reach -18 rms. This just feels so counter-intuitive and I’m not sure what I am doing wrong. Can you offer any advice? Should I be so concerned with this plugin level ideal?

    • Cheyne Kohl

      Feel free to answer this on the webinar ;). Maybe others will be interested in the answer as well!

    • I never real got into all that scientific gain-staging. Sorry, I don’t really have an answer!! I don’t do any of that stuff.

    • Juan Manuel Güiza

      Cheyne. Depending on which DAW you’re using, you’re probably not gain-staging at the right spot. You have to aim at lowering the gain of your actual recording, lowering the fader won’t work because this (usually, depending on your daw) happens after your recording’s actual gain, and after plugins have already altered the gain of the channel. Audio channels have a routing direction. Your recording happens first, and then it goes downwards through your plugin inserts chain, sends, panning and finally your fader (this is how PT works) (adversely, a master channel works upwards in PT, meaning the signal will go upwards from the fader).Pro Tools has “clip gain”, which allows you to lower the actual gain of a recording before all your plugins occur. If you don’t have “clip gain” in your daw, you’re probably gonna have to find a way to bounce your recordings separately, with a lower gain that should be around -18dB. Once you do that, you’ll notice a huuuuge difference in the way plugins respond, and no more clipping should occur within them.

  • Johanna

    great article, than you!

  • Donniebott

    Well said. 🙂

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  • Jerry Mateo

    this really helps i always have the gain problem and always worry about it after definitely a quick obvious thing that just never came to mind helped alot thanks

  • Anonymous

    Good article and a sadly overlooked subject! Well done.

  • Astewart

    Never thought of it that way. I knew about it with analog equipment, but not in the digital world.

  • Raphael Cassis

    It is always nice to know something more to care about 🙂

    Tks Joe 

  • Raphael Cassis

    It is always nice to know something more to care about 🙂

    Tks Joe

  • Ftoth

    I still worry about gain staging, but it’s a remnant from my 16bit and 24bit working days. With 32bit float point processing even if you clip the output of one plugin, bringing down the input on the next plugin in the chain will not have any effect on the sound–provided the plugin has input gain reduction. However, you have to be sure that your plugins are using floating point calculations instead of integer math. I’m slowly learning to worry less about gain staging, because at first I didn’t trust that clipping is impossible with 32bitFP, but I’m learning to trust the technology.

  • Pre-fade metering and the bypass button on the plugin. Simple as that. If the level on the meter looks about the same with the plugin inserted or bypassed, then that’s good enough for me. Obviously plugins will affect the level to some degree, some more than others, but if it looks about the same, then I’m satisfied.