Production Tip Tuesday: Gain Staging

Welcome to yet another installment of Production Tip Tuesday. I hope you are using these skills and techniques to improve your production quality and creativity. In the last PTT post I discussed EQ techniques. EQ is a dynamics processor meaning it changes an audio signals volume. In this segment of PTT I will be going over gain staging, or in other words, the order in which to place and use dynamics processors.

Proper gain staging is all about using each dynamics processor to its full potential. By doing so you must ensure a few things.

  • That you are not adding noise to your signal whether it be clipping/distortion or hiss/buzz from the noise floor being increased.

  • That you are removing unwanted/unnecessary frequencies at the proper place in the chain.

  • That you are not removing wanted/necessary frequencies.

On a side note, adding noise is perfectly acceptable when it is intended and desired (distortion, tape hiss, etc.), but for our purposes we are treating our audio is if we want a clean clear signal.

For my mix sessions I start with my own pre-made Ableton Live template that has my essential dynamics processors pre-loaded onto each channel. This really helps cut down on the busy work of loading up each individual processor each time for every track. By having a pre-made template I can just import my stems and I’m ready to go. Each channel has these processors in this order: utility plug-in, high pass filter, compressor, EQ, low pass filter, and one more utility. Bellow I will explain step by step what each processor is doing and why it is placed in the order it is.

You might be using a different DAW than me, but all of the things I’m going over can be used cross platform.

Audio Utility: I start with this for one main reason. Stereo width. Not all signals should be in stereo. Using the utility, I can narrow the stereo field of tracks. This is mainly used on bass, kick, and snare. Sub bass should always be in mono. “Why?”, you might ask. Because most, if not all, sound systems use only one subwoofer channel. Also, a stereo sub signal could cause detrimental phase cancellation which would weaken your signal. For the kick, mono is usually best so it sits dead-center in the mix to be the point of focus for the beat. The same can be said for the snare, although I normally don't put it in full mono. I still want the higher stereo frequencies to give the listener a sense of space for the drums.

High Pass Filter: A high pass filter works just how it sounds. It allows frequencies above a set limit through while filtering out the frequencies below with a slight roll off. The purpose of the high pass filter is to remove any unwanted low frequencies from your signal so it doesn’t muddy the mix. It’s important to place the high pass filter before you get to the compressor because low frequencies usually carry more “weight” with them and take longer to fully develop which can negatively affect how the compressor reacts to the audio signal.

Compressor: Before we get too much further here I want to say that I am not going in depth on how a compressor works. I’m just going to scratch the surface here, but I will come back to this topic in a later PTT blog post. A compressor is a way of attenuating an audio signal once it passes a set threshold. They help you tame transients and reduce dynamic range - the difference between the softest and loudest parts of the audio. Setting the attack and release time tells the compressor when to start and stop working. Setting the ratio tells the compressor how much to attenuate the sound. Make up gain is then used to increase the signal level after the compressor has squashed it. Compressors help bring punch to drums, power to bass, and presence to vocals and instruments.

EQ: In the last PTT blog post I actually covered this topic in detail. You can read the full post by clicking here. I place the EQ after the compressor because if I placed it before the compressor all of my EQ work would be ruined. The compressor reduces dynamics and if I want to boost certain frequencies the compressor will just bring them back down. By placing the EQ after the compressor I can reduce the dynamic range of the signal as a whole and then fine tune specific frequencies with the EQ.

Low Pass Filter: A low pass filter works in the same fashion as a high pass filter, but on the opposite side of the spectrum. This is the final step in the dynamics chain (followed by one final audio utility which I will explain next). The low pass filter isn’t used much, but comes in handy when it’s needed. My biggest use for it is on sub bass. I set the filter to about 1kHz to 2.5kHz with a gentle roll off to pull out the unused frequencies so they don’t muddy the mix. It can also be used on instruments and tracks that you don’t want to be the focal point of the song. By pulling out a small amount of high end in backing tracks you create room for the main attraction of your songs allowing the high frequencies to grab the listener's attention without being distracted by the supporting tracks. Just keep in mind you don’t want to remove too much or your song will sound very lackluster.

Audio Utility (2): This final audio utility is used strictly for volume automation. This is one of my most important tips. If you use the mix fader on the channel to automate your track volume you will run into issues when you need to increase the overall volume of the track. By using an audio utility you can automate the track volume from the gain knob and still use the mix fader to adjust overall track volume from the top level. It’s simple things like this that can take your mix sessions to the next level.

I know this is a lot of information to take in, but I hope that you can take some of this and implement it into your own process. It’s important to be using each dynamics processor to its fullest potential and this is the way to do that. Once you have a solid grasp on these concepts and how to use these tools you can then begin to transform them into your own process by adding and subtracting what you use and how you use it.

As always, if you have questions or comments leave them below. I’d also love to know what else you’d like me to cover in upcoming PTT blog posts. If there’s something you’re struggling with or have questions on let me know and I’ll add it to the list. If you’ve made it this far into the post I’d like to say thank you by offering 20% off mixing and mastering your first song. Just enter the code GAINSTAGE at checkout. This code will be good through this month of May. Don’t miss this opportunity to take your music to the highest level!