Gain Staging Made STUPID SIMPLE

Gain Staging

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!

Let's jump right in

Gain Staging Made STUPID SIMPLE


So What Is Gain Staging?

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

Gain staging will be closely related to balance, and if you want to have a very simple guide for balancing then go check out my video "The Ultimate EDM Mixing and Mastering Guide"


Step 1: Routing

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)


gain staging


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.

That's ok.

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

Conclusion

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

BEFORE YOU GO, I wanted to mention my 'Essentials To Become A BEAST At Mixing & Mastering.'

I created this free resource to help new mixers have a clear guide on what they need to focus on to be on the fast track to Mixing & Mastering great records.

When starting out with mixing, it can be really daunting trying to figure out what to focus on and where to put your energy.

I wanted to provide a clear guide AND some of my favorite resources (such as my favorite books and other mixing resources) to help you build a strong foundation to build off of on your Mixing & Mastering journey

To pick this free resource up, click the button below


Andrew Aurora
Andrew Aurora

I hope you enjoyed this post. I share new content weekly here on my blog on how to bring your creative vision to life so you can start creating amazing music. Please share any content ideas you would like for me to create for you!

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