Is gain staging something you struggle with as a Mixing engineer?
My name is Andrew Aurora and I help Artists, Producers, and Mixers bring their creative vision to life through Mixing and Mastering
And today I am going to talk to you about gain staging.
Gain staging is something that confused me as a beginner and confuses many beginners, but my goal in this post is to give you a very simple method to make sure your mixes are gain staged perfectly, or close to it, every time!
Gain Staging is basically how you manage your audio levels in such a way that everything hit's the way you want within your template and sounds the best it can without bringing up too much of the noise floor and without clipping. I don't personally think there is any one right way to gain stage your music, but I think everybody has their own way of doing it, and I am going to show you my way
This will be easiest to follow along with if you watch the video linked at the top of this post, but if you would rather read then I will explain the best I can in text
The first thing you are going to do is create a very simple template with no plugins and only basic routing.
My recommendation is you create drum tracks and route them all to a drum bus, guitar tracks and route them all to a guitar bus, vocal tracks and route them all to a vocal bus, etc.
If you would like to break this down further and have more in-depth routing like a kick bus, overheads bus, backup vocals bus, etc., then you can, and I would advise it for the exercise we have coming up
This is also subjective to what genre your doing, so if you're doing EDM you may have chord tracks and a chords bus instead of guitar tracks and a guitar bus
You can make this template more complex over time, but my goal with this post is to help you build a foundation from scratch
Whatever you like is up to you, but for the sake of this post I am doing the standard routing that I mentioned above.
From here, add a limiter on every bus in your template. These limiters isn't meant to limit anything, they're only meant to act as faders. I will explain more about this later
Step 2: Clip Gain
Take whatever song you have and import the tracks into your template and put the tracks on their corresponding template track (i.e. kick on kick track, snare on snare track, etc.)
From here you are going to adjust the gain on each track using clip gain so the waveform covers 50% of the track, while 25% above and below the waveform is not covered.
Basically 50/50. (Refer to the image below for an example)
If you are dealing with a very dynamic performance then make the loudest part of the waveform cover 50% of the track, and possibly even chop the audio up and clip gain the louder and quieter parts separately
When clip gained at this level your individual tracks will almost always be hitting roughly -6 in terms of gain, giving you plenty of headroom on each individual track
Step 3: Set A Volume Goal
Once everything in your session is clip gained accordingly, now it's time to identify what your volume goal is on your master bus.
I personally aim for -12, but you can aim for anywhere you want.
I personally recommend you aim for no louder than -6 because this is going to be the volume that you start mastering at, and the standard mastering volume is -6
I personally aim for -12 for extra headroom, but it's not necessarily better or worse, it's just what I do.
At this stage of the process, if you were to hit play on your session, you will most likely find that you will be clipping on your master bus, or at least be way over your volume goal
That's ok, because we are about to fix that
Step 4: Volume Balancing
Earlier I mentioned putting limiters on your busses. This is where that part comes in
These limiters are going to act as faders and aren't meant to limit anything.
But why not just use the fader? I'm happy you asked
There are two reasons; first is because of automation.
You can make more fine automation moves if your faders are at unity than you can if they are at -20, for example
The second reason is because I don't like the way it looks to have faders all over the place. It looks messy, and I like a clean looking session.
So how this is going to work is you are going to pick an element to start balancing around and use your limiters to do so.
I recommend starting with the kick, and the goal is to have the kick drum hitting your target volume on the master.
If your target is -6, then the kick should already be pretty close because of the clip gain level
If you're aiming for -12 like I usually do, then what you are going to do is go to your kick bus (assuming you made a kick bus) and use the limiter's output level to adjust the kick volume until it's hitting -12 on the master, or whatever your target volume is
(NOTE: If any of your elements are hitting - or nearly hitting - the ceiling on your limiters then bring the input gain going into your bus down so you have more headroom. Cubase has this option on every bus. Pro tools has a trim plugin you can use. I'm not sure about other DAWs)
Once your kick is balanced at the right level, start balancing every element of your song using the limiters.
Your basically going to be mixing with volume-only, focusing only on balancing every element where you think they sound best volume-wise in correlation to each other
Once this is done and you think everything is volume balanced properly, you will have a very basic template to work with
If you pop any other song into this template and clip gain the tracks the way I said, they should be pretty close to volume balanced
If they aren't, and the guitars are too quiet (for example) you can just go to the guitar bus and raise the output ceiling on the limiter a little bit to get them volume-wise where you want them, and you should have plenty of headroom to do so
Or if the bass is too loud (for example) you can use the limiter on the bass bus to bring it down a little bit. That simple!
Now, you may notice after balancing everything and hitting play that you are once again hitting over your target level on your master bus.
All you are going to do is use the input gain on the master (if you are in Cubase) or use the trim plugin (if you are in pro tools, or whatever tool you have available to adjust input gain in your DAW) to bring the volume coming into the master down to your target level.
This way, once you bring tracks into your template and clip gain them accordingly, you should always be hitting close to your target level
This exercise is meant to give you a very basic template that makes it simple for you to have your gain staging correct every time
However, perfecting your template will take mixing and mastering hundreds of songs to get everything set up the way you want it and dialed in perfectly
I recommend from here that you take your simple template and start importing multiple songs into it to make sure it's pretty dialed in, and start adding your favorite plugins and routing, gradually making it more your own.
At the end of my video I show you what it looks like to pop a track into my personal template that I have refined over the years and clip gain it the way I told you.
Just by doing that my song sounded 80% mixed, and ideally one day my template will be so refined that every song I import sounds 90% mixed before I start doing anything.
Keep working on it and you will get it, and if you have any questions don't hesitate to reach out to me on my socials.
I hope you enjoyed this post about Gain Staging Made Stupid Simple
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