Proper gain staging in a digital audio work station (DAW) is often miss-understood. Setting proper levels is crucial to getting good sound. So the question is what is good gain staging?
Understanding why good gain staging is important
Proper gain staging is crucial because it affects every thing in your mix. Plugins are affected by it, faders are affected by it, mix buss is affected by it. In short set your gain staging well and everything works better.
So what is proper gain staging then? Well in the analog world it was “get it as close to 0db as possible”. In digital it is quite different. “0” would mean instant distortion. This has to do with how digital is calibrated. In the digital realm every thing is calibrated to dbfs. Where analog is calibrated to 0dbu.
Thats great but what does it mean?
When you are using analog equipment you want to follow the old adage of getting the signal as close to 0dbu as possible. However when that 0dbu comes into the digital realm it will read at between -12dbfs and -18dbfs. The difference there largely depends on the maker of the DAW software.
All plugins are designed to work when the signal is at the -12 to -18dbfs level. If you record louder signal than that your plugins will react differently than they have been designed to. It also affects your faders. You want to keep your faders where they have the most resolution and control from the changes you make. That is generally up around the 0 or U mark.
what is the bottom line?
Record your signal quieter! Keep the levels around -18dbfs. When you are adjusting your mic pre set the gain so your DAW meter is peaking around there. Don’t follow the old adage about recording with hot levels. That simply isn’t true any more. You want to be conservative in the digital world so you don’t clip something.
Here is a quick video explaining proper gain staging in a DAW.
Don’t forget to check out my other blog post on using filters or how to sweep EQ to find and control frequencies.
You can also get a free studio gear guide here