6 Gain Staging Mistakes That Everyone Makes (Are You?)

There is a plugin in every DAW that seems useless, but is actually essential. Without it, your mixes might sound like this.

That plugin is the gain plugin. Gain staging is commonly misunderstood, so in this video I’m going to reveal 6 gain staging mistakes that everyone makes. Because if you want to make music that sounds professional, you absolutely need to get this right.

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There’s a plug-in in every DAW that seems useless but it’s actually essential, and without it your mixes would sound something like this.

That plug-in is the gain tool.

Gain staging is commonly misunderstood, so in this video you’re going to learn what the 6 biggest mistakes are that I see people make over and over again.

Because if you want to make music that sounds professional you absolutely need to get this right, so keep watching and if you want the quickest, easiest way to apply gain staging to your mixes you can download our free DAW templates that would instantly fix the gain in your mixes.

There’s a link in the description below or you should see a link on the screen now.

Let’s dive right in.

Rob Mayzes here from musicianonamission.com and first I want to show you one of my recent mixes. Pay attention to the first plug-in slot.

Notice all those gain plug-ins. You’re about to learn why those plug-ins are the difference between an amateur and a pro mixer.

So, mistake number 1 is not truly understanding what gain staging is. You go through this process every single time you mix, so you need to understand it.

Yet most people don’t actually understand why gain staging is important and instead just blindly follow advice they hear online like set every channel to minus 18 dBFS. We’ll come back to that later.

Now, we can split gain staging into two realms; recording and mixing.

Now, gain staging is something you want to think about through the whole process. At every point we want to make sure things are at the right volume that’s basically is what gain staging is when we’re recording we want to make sure we’re recording with the right gain so we got the right volume when we’re mixing.

Every time you load up a new plug-in you want to adjust the output level, so that we’re maintaining the same volume throughout this whole process.

When you’re recording it’s crucial that you don’t record hot.

Recording hot is a remnant of the analog days. We don’t need to do that anymore with digital gear.

In fact, the closer you get to clipping which is when you get to 0 dBFS the digital ceiling. As you approach that ceiling your preamp is going to sound worse. So, instead we want to make sure we’re peaking below minus 6 and we want to treat minus 6 dBFS, and you can just look at this in your DAW when you’re metering and you’re setting the levels. We want to treat minus 6 as our ceiling for recording and we want to aim to be around minus 18.

That figure does exist for a reason. It is the sweet spot and we’ll come back to that idea, but you want to be averaging around minus 18 just eye-ball it. You don’t need to be precise. Make sure you’re peaking below minus 6 that’s the main thing.

As we move into the mixing phase we just want to maintain that same headroom, because now we’re just making sure that we don’t hit zero on any of our channels. As long as we’re not hitting zero it’s fine.

Let me show you how quickly you can do this at the beginning of a mix in the preparation phase.

So, here we have some tracks ready for mixing. They’d been recorded, edited, bounced down, and imported into a new project.

Now, the first thing I would normally do is go for and check all the names, label everything clearly and once we’ve done that I want to check gain on everything. So, everything is set to zero and we just want to have a quick look through. I’m just going to hit play and we’re going to look for any channels that are really high on the meter or really low, and that’s pretty much it.

Okay, so this is a great example. Can you see how much we’re clipping on the buss? I haven’t done anything yet just by importing the tracks…

We’re clipping by 13 decibels. This is why gain staging is so important.

So, let’s find out what the guilty channels are.

Okay, so we’ve got some really obvious ones here. So, we’re just going to go to the built-in gain plug-in in Logic. It’s called Gain in Studio 1. It’s called Mix DAW everything has its own name.

So, now let’s just adjust this gain plug-in until we start to see that the channel is sitting around minus 18 and we don’t need to be precise.

And let’s just go ahead and mute this, because it sounds awful.

So, now this is sitting around minus 18. We can do the same to the others, and because we’ve already done it here we can just copy that across and there we go minus 18, minus 18 and this is what I tend to do is just copy these plug-ins. We don’t have to be exact.

So, we’ve got a couple here in stereo so we need to load up a new plug-in for those in stereo and get that in the right spot.

So, I’m going to go for and do this on every channel in the mix.

So, I’ve done the bulk of the work. Now, let’s give it another shot. Let’s un-mute that buss.

We’re still clipping, but now we can see that all the channels themselves are fine. We’re not clipping on any of the channels. It’s just that all of these channels added together are now clipping on the mix buss, but it doesn’t matter we can just add a gain plug-in there.

Now, that all our channels are fine we can just add a gain plug-in to the actual master fader itself and now let’s adjust this until we’re peaking at around minus 6.

Cool, so now I’m ready to mix.

Now, back to this idea of the minus 18 dBFS sweet spot that sweet spot only exists only if you’re with analog modeling plug-ins or amp simulators, anything where the incoming level is going to vary the tone of how that plug-in works.

If you’re just using a compressor and EQ anything like that it doesn’t matter. It’s just 1s and 0s it’s digital, so as long as we’re not clipping it’s fine but when you are using analog modeling plug-ins, saturation, amp simulators it’s good to be in that minus 18 sweet spot.

So, treat that as a target, but don’t obsess over it. It’s a guideline not a rule.

I’ve mentioned this sweet spot in an article in the past and everyone started to obsessively making sure every single channel was exactly minus 18 dBFS all the time.

And that’s mistake number 2 obsessing over gain staging. It should only take 2 or 3 minutes if that at the beginning of the preparation phase.

You just saw me do that that’s all you need to do.

Now, moving on quickly to mistake number 3 which is clipping on the busses.

Just because you’ve set every channel individually to around minus 18 but not obsessing over it, right?

You could still be clipping on your mix buss or on your group busses if you have all the guitars for example, going to one channel it could be clipping there. So, don’t forget to check those and if you find you’re nearing zero and you need some headroom and you want to be again minus 6 the absolute ceiling here just add a gain plug-in on the group or on the mix busses.

Fine, that’s all you need to do, but just don’t forget about them.

Mistake number 4 is not level matching plug-ins.

Like I said this is something you need to think about throughout the whole production process when you’re recording, when you’re mixing.

Every time you load up a plug-in you want to try and make sure the output is about the same.

So, when you boost loads on an EQ just cut the output a little bit.

When you’re using a compressor bypass-engage, bypass-engage and check and compare until you can adjust the gain and the volume is the same with the compressor or roughly the same as it is before the compressor. Do this with every plug-in.

If you have a plug-in that adds loads of volume, but doesn’t have an output control you’re going to have to add another gain plug-in afterwards.

Mistake number 5 is spending money on gain staging.

You might be tempted to go out there and buy Waves New Level plug-in or there’s a VU Meter plug-in that you want to get.

You don’t need it just do it with your eyeballs.

Use the gain tool that comes with your DAW. Every DAW will have some mind of gain plug-in.

It might not be called gain. It might be called Mix Tool like in Studio 1. It might be called Gain like in Logic, but find that plug-in where you can just adjust the gain, adjust the level using one simple plug-in that’s all you need, and then you can just eyeball it on the channel meter.

You don’t need to spend money on a dedicated VU Meter just to do gain staging.

Finally, mistake number 6 is low fader syndrome.

Sometimes you find after balancing your mix that some faders are really low. Maybe it’s a percussion part that’s just really low in the mix, so you’ve got the fader way down at the bottom but the problem is the closer you get to the bottom of the fader the less resolution you have.

One tiny movement could be a change of 10 decibels, whereas when we’re at zero a tiny movement will be less than 1 decibel.

It’s not a linear scale it’s algorithmic, so we want to make sure we’ve got all of our faders sitting around zero after we’ve done our initial mix.

Again don’t obsess over this just if you notice if any faders that are really, really low add a gain plug-in, cut it with gain instead so you can bring up the fader to zero and it’s that easy.

So, those are 6 biggest gain staging mistakes.

But how do you avoid all of these mistakes at once without spending too much time and energy on the gain staging process and getting distracted from the stuff that really matters.

Well, I put together a gain staging DAW template that would instantly fix you mixes.

If you want a fast and easy way to apply everything you’ve learned here so your mixes can sound professional and radio ready and not distorted and like bedroom demos go grab the templates. They’re completely free.

There’s a link in the description below and you should see a link on the screen now.

Now, I want to hear from you. Which of these mistakes have you made in the past?

Leave a comment below and let me know.

That’s all from me.

Rob here from musicianonamission.com. I’ll see you next time and remember create regardless.


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