Gain Staging in a DAW does NOT Matter!!!

Kenny’s Tip of the Day - Gain Staging in a DAW does NOT Matter!!!

For years we’ve been living with this myth that the rules that applied to analog recording situations must also apply to digital ones. Or Gain Staging inside our computers or DAWs.

And this one has hung around for decades at this point. I’m assuming it’s because older engineers (like me) have come from the analog world and it was always good practice to have proper levels at EVERY stage of the process.

So if I was recording to Tape, I would need to get the perfect recording level to that tape. And that had a very small tolerance. Too hot and it distorted, but too low and it was noisy. Or full of hiss. That also no longer exists. True. We can still distort if we record too hot (clipping) but if we record too low, there’s really NO noise to worry about. So it matters very little to get this part perfect. There’s plenty of wiggle room here. But we’ll get back to this in a bit.

After hitting the Tape Machine, that sound would come back to the console where we would need to adjust the Line Trim on each channel. Making sure we weren’t overloading the console at that point.

Next we had inserts for adding effects. You needed to be careful to get the level TO the effects correctly and they had input levels as well. And you had to come back out of them at the right level again because now you were going back to the console. So each of these levels need to be just right. Consoles also added their own noise which needed to be avoided.

Once we finally left the channel, we then are hitting our busses. Again, we needed to check our levels here to avoid overloading them too. Then there might be Sub-Groups and finally we had the Master 2 Buss or the Master Fader. That too had signal coming to it and also had to be gain staged properly. This was no small task and it became a very important part of the engineer’s job. So much so, that it became almost subconscious. We did it without thinking. Eventually.

Then came DAWs and we brought this process to the computer as well. The DAW also had adjustments at all of the same places. So we continued to do what we considered to be “best practice”. After all. It wasn’t hurting anyone. Use it. Teach it. Who cares?

And that’s true for the most part but it’s also not accurate to the equipment we’re now using. I remember a thread going back over a decade ago where a guy suggested his mixes sounded so much “warmer” or more “analog” when he started Trimming each track down -18dB before he started mixing. That thread went on for 100s and 100s of pages and I believe the consensus was that it worked!!!! Ugh.

Let’s talk truth. Unlike with analog systems. Digital systems don’t care about level. In other words, if the signal is -2dB or -30db, the signal will be identical except for those volume differences. Noise and Distortion do NOT change in the audio. So you can mix at -30dB and boost that final mix by 28dB and you will have the same exact same mix as the -2dB mix. Digital doesn’t care where or when you adjust it. It figures it out and makes the proper adjustments.
So what does this mean? It means that “proper gain staging” is mostly irrelevant in a DAW. Anything you Clip at one stage can be fixed further down the line. You don’t need to check the level on every single channel, buss or plugin to make sure it’s operating at peak efficiency. It is. And if you are clipping somewhere, you can always fix it later.

So this doesn’t mean that there are NO rules. Just that there are a lot less of them. 

Rule #1 - Record at conservative levels. There’s no reason to record as hot as possible and many reasons not to. Noise is no longer a factor so the optimal level of most input equipment (your mic preamp and converter) is -18dB. That’s where your front end works best. You can go a bit hotter with peaks in the -10dB to -8dB range but anything more and you’re pushing your preamps and convertors out of their preferred range. And for no reason. So record lower.

Rule #2 - Once you’re in the DAW or the computer - All bets are OFF!! Go crazy. Normalize your levels. Bring up their gain. Boost everything as much as you want. It doesn’t matter anymore as long as you follow rule number three.

Rule #3 - Pay attention to your Output Level. Is that clipping? If it is, bring it down. Use a trimming or volume plugin or just lower the Master Fader. As long as this level is not clipping to your Digital to Analog Convertor (which is your final output stage) you’re GOLD. It’s all good. You’ve done your job.

Exception to the above rules. If you use an emulation plugin where the manufacturer tells you to hit that plugin with a certain level to get the best out of it, do as they say. But if it’s a quality plugin, it should have an input gain on that plugin to achieve that level and a good meter. 

So to recap. Gain Staging in a DAW does NOT Matter!!! It’s an outdated philosophy that has hung around for far too long. Do away with it and get back to doing what’s important. 

Create something!!

You can learn more by watching my tutorials at www.groove3.com

I hope this message finds you well. Kenny Gioia