WHAT IS 'GAIN STAGING' AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
If you've been producing or mixing music for a while, you've probably come across the term 'gain staging'. For some people, gain staging is a familiar concept which comes as second nature in the production process, but for many it can seem like a difficult theory to grasp.
Most people will understand that when recording a vocal take, your interface or preamp will have a Gain control which, if pushed too far, will lead to obvious and audible distortion. Getting the level right at the input stage is part of the gain staging process but it doesn't just stop there.
It's important to bear this concept in mind inside your DAW too. Several plugins - including the Logic stock plugins - are designed to emulate analogue hardware. This means that, like your interface or preamp, the louder you push the input of the plugins, the more distortion and saturation artefacts are introduced by the plugins.
So what does this mean in practice?
If you've spent some time with Ultimate Pop Vocals pack, you may have come across a scenario where you've loaded up a vocal chain and the processing has just felt like way too much. The audio is distorted, it sounds over-compressed and just generally a bit bad.
Or perhaps you've loaded up a chain and thought "wait, the compressor isn't actually doing anything?", "I really have to crank the distortion up to hear it working" and you find that the vocal chain isn't really doing anything at all.
That's right, I just said that perhaps my vocal chains sound bad, or that they might not even be doing anything at all...
BUT there's a caveat. The caveat being that I can say with a great deal of certainty; it's not actually the vocal chain itself that sounds bad, it's the way the vocal chain is being applied.
The chances are that if any of the vocal chains are behaving in the ways I mentioned above, it's almost certainly because the dry vocal signal is either too loud or too quiet in the first place.
Let's take the Phat FX plugin as an example. In the Ultimate Pop Vocals chains, I'm using the Phat FX plugin almost exclusively for its great sounding saturation models. If we run a signal into the plugin which is too hot (too much level), we'll be experiencing high levels of saturation even with the smallest percentage of saturation added in within the plugin.
Conversely, if the level running into the plugin is too low, we'll have to really crank the percentage of saturation up to hear any audible change.
However, if we get our gain staging correct and make sure we're running an optimum level into the plugin, we'll be able to dial in much more precise amounts of saturation and achieve a varying range of tones, getting the most of an incredibly versatile plugin!
But what is an optimum level?
Ideally we're looking to hit the vocal chains in the pack somewhere around a peak level of -12dBFS to -8dBFS. This will get the optimum performance out of the plugins whilst also retaining plenty of headroom to avoid any unwanted overloading of your mix. It's also important to bear in mind we're talking about a peak level before any of the processing is applied.
The Logic meters are post-insert, meaning that the level displayed above the volume fader shows the level of the audio track after the vocal chain processing has been applied. So how exactly do we monitor the level of a vocal before the processing?
You can either bypass all of the plugins on the track and see what the meter says, or we can insert the Level Meter plugin (in the Metering section of the plugin menu) after the Gain plugin (and before any other plugins) in the vocal chain. This will allow us to see the level of the dry vocal going in to the vocal chain.
But what happens if the level of my vocal is too loud before hitting any of the plugins?
This is where the Logic 'Gain' plugin comes in handy (found in the 'Utility' folder in the plugin list). You'll notice that every one of the vocal templates in the Ultimate Pop Vocals pack comes with the Gain plugin inserted first in every chain. This is solely for the purpose of helping us gain stage the chains properly.
If our level is slightly too hot before hitting any of the plugins, we can use the Gain plugin to trim the level down to somewhere between -12dBFS and -8dBFS. Similarly, if the level is a little quiet, we can gain it up using the Gain plugin.
Once you're happy that the level is roughly where it should be, you'll find the vocal chains will now be performing to their optimised standards meaning you should get the best results you can from them.
The other thing to remember is that whilst these levels are important, at the end of the day we're making music, not doing science experiments. Gain staging is important but these numbers don't have to be exact, and there's even scenarios where it doesn't have to apply at all. Sometimes pushing a vocal way too hard can be just the effect that you need in the mix. Remember to mix with your ears and not with your eyes.
A final thought is - maybe you've got the gain staging of the vocal chains just right and the processing sounds good on its own, but now the vocal itself is too quiet in the mix... what to do?
Turn everything else down.
This whole process can be applied across the entire mix - ensuring everything in your session has plenty of headroom and you're not hitting the channels too loud from outset has many benefits including more precise fader resolution, much more open and dynamic mixes, and ultimately better sounding records.
For more information on gain staging your mixes, check out this article from MusicTech.net: https://www.musictech.net/tutorials/logic-pro/how-to-gain-stage-in-logic-pro-x/
Happy mixing! 🙌
Don’t just stop there either. If you want to take your tracks to the next level, get the Ultimate Mastering pack now and up the sound of your mixes immediately!