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?