When you are are recording multiple tracks, gain staging is crucial. Have you ever pushed up the volume on a track and it wouldn’t cut through? Do you have issues with your sounds distorting or clipping? Gain staging is the issue.
When we talk gain staging we are talking about the levels of your signals beginning at your source, guitar amp, vocalist, and then through your signal chain. The key is to have the source sound the way that you want it to sound first. Do NOT compromise YOUR sound unless yo you really have to. This happens more often in live sound where the sound engineer asks you to turn down. Now if you are insanely loud in a coffee shop, your are in the wrong place. But a good sound engineer knows how to use his signal chain to allow you to keep your sound the way you like it.
In the studio you have the same tools as in live sound, and usually a few more. Choosing the right mic is the first step. Choose a mic that matches your source. If it is too loud, grab a mic with an attenuation pad. This will allow you to knock down your input signal into your preamp. That’s usually all you would need to do keep your headroom open. Keeping your headroom open is key as the more tracks your are sending to the master buss, the more headroom you loose. If your tracks are peaking into the yellow, you are usually OK. Some tracks, kick and snare mainly, can go well into the the yellow and over, which usually ends in the -3db range.
After you get the right level on your mic, make sure your preamp level is set correctly. If you are using built in preamps that are native to your audio interface, I recommend starting with the volume all the way down. If you are hearing distortion with the volume up just a tad, then you need to attenuate the source (mic, DI). Make sure the signal is clean at low levels and then turn up your preamp until you are getting the signal to sit around -12db to -10db range, with peaks in the -6db range. A good preamp will also have a trim on its output to achieve the best sound.
The key to gain staging is to keep your headroom open. Headroom is simply the room you have before your tracks peak at 0db. Try not to use limiters to keep your headroom down as normally a compressor can take of this for you. If you are using a limiter to get a particular sound or have a take that just needs it, then go for it. Don’t worry if your recording is not loud enough. That comes later once your finished tracking and mixing. If you are in appropriate levels and you think its too low, turn up your monitors to the desired level. Once you place a mastering plugin on the master buss, your final recording will be plenty loud and come together nicely. One trick that I use is to use a master compressor setting that I know works with the style of music that I am producing, have it on the master buss while I am mixing to hear how the changes I make to each track effects my master mix.
Please feel free to ask any question below.