In my opinion, gain-staging is the most important step of the mix process. Properly preparing your audio sets the foundation for your mix; unfortunately, this step is often neglected or misunderstood. I’m starting a series of short articles on how to apply analog mixing practices to the digital domain, in the hopes of simplifying this fundamental process.
One of the biggest differences between analog and digital is the way the equipment responds to level. When recording through tape & tube equipment, there’s a sweet spot in the middle of the range where fidelity and signal-to-noise is optimized. Get the level too low and your signal gets lost in hiss; get the level too high and it’ll distort. 24-bit digital is an entirely different picture; get the level too low and it’s not much of a problem, as long as your peaks aren’t clipping. Compounding this problem is the fact that digital meters don’t do the best job of representing what we actually hear.
Because we’re not fighting for a smaller sweet spot, we tend to be more relaxed when it comes to gain-staging in the digital world. This is fine for recording, but it creates big problems when you enter the mix stage, because:
- if your levels aren’t consistent, your faders won’t be representative of the actual mix.
- if you have multiple tracks that are close to peaking, they’ll clip your master bus when combined.
- saturation, distortion, and analog-emulation plugins are level-dependent just like analog gear.
What we want is tracks whose levels are consistent in relation to each other, high enough to optimize signal-to-noise, low enough to leave plenty of headroom on the master bus, and gain-staged for use with analog emulations. How do we do this? Read on…