Drums are potentially one of the most important elements of a song, driving the rhythm, and setting the tone.
If drums are not gain staged properly during recording or mixing, you will experience issues with distortion or clipping when using too much gain, and increased noise floor when using too little gain.
Gain staging, in a nutshell, is the process of adjusting the levels where necessary on an audio signal flow to prevent distortion, clipping, and reduce the noise floor.
The goal is to get the levels consistent throughout each track and the master, allowing the levels coming into the channel to be the same as the levels coming out of the channel.
To achieve a correct gain stage you need to start with getting your levels right from the recording process. You can do this by setting your levels on your mic preamp to get the loudest possible recording while keeping the levels below 0 DB analogue.
It is important to note that 0 DB analogue is the equivalent of -18 DB digital and leaves enough headroom for the mixing and mastering process. This is the well known “sweet spot” in gain staging audio levels.
Once in the mixing stages, you want to gain stage on each individual track using a trim, or gain, plugin on your DAW. The goal is to bring up the levels to between -18 DB and -10 DB with peaks no higher than -6 DB for each channel. This will help to leave enough headroom for the final master channel.
You want to keep your faders as close to 0 DB as possible to maintain as much quality as possible.
The next step is to set up a VU meter to help gauge where your levels are sitting below 0 DB and be able to monitor the volume of each channel. Check to see that your signal is not clipping or reaching levels of poor quality, generally anything above -6 DB.
After EQing, adding a compressor or playing around with saturation to get the sound that you’re after, your levels will need gain corrections. Once a compressor is added, you can use makeup gain to increase gain where it was lost.
You can use automation to gain stage channels that have significantly varying levels.
Before working on the master channel, you can make gain corrections on the mix busses to further improve the levels there.
Lastly, before moving on to the mastering phase, you want to make sure that you have enough headroom on the master channel to leave room to work with and make improvements.
To understand the process of gain staging further, keep reading this article as we explain gain staging terminology and various steps and techniques to achieving great gain staging results.
Definition of Gain Staging Terms
Before attempting to learn how to gain stage correctly, take time to understand the basic terms used for this process to help you grasp the concept easier, and get started on a better footing.
The noise floor of a recording is the percentage of sound that is made up of noise. Noise, being, any unwanted frequencies or signals other than the one you are trying to hear or record.
The higher the noise floor of your recording, the worse it will sound and the more unwanted frequencies will be audible.
On a quiet recording, if you turn the volume up to a comfortable level, the noise floor will be much bigger than if you recorded your instrument at a good level from the start.
In any audio track, there are peaks and troughs in the frequencies. Leaving appropriate headroom is a crucial part of successful gain staging.
Headroom, despite the complexity of the meaning of the term, is quite simple to understand.
During gain staging, headroom is the space left, or ‘safety zone’, between the highest peaks of a track and 0 Decibels.
Without enough headroom, you run the risk of distortion and clipping from peaks exceeding 0 DBFS. 0 Decibels Full Scale is the so-called “ceiling” of sound levels.
Clipping is a result of a lack of headroom in a track to compensate for unexpected high frequencies.
When a peak exceeds the maximum limit of sound for a WAV file at 0 DBFS, the peak is ‘clipped’ off creating a distortion of the frequency in question.
For some, clipping is a sought after distortion effect, but in most cases, it is best avoided to preserve audio quality.
Signal to Noise Ratio
In an audio recording, as mentioned before, there is always some percentage of noise floor present.
The signal to noise ratio is the comparison between the amount of the desired audio signal and the amount of noise present in a recording.
During recording, the goal is to achieve the highest signal to noise ratio as possible without pushing too much into the headroom for a quality result.
DBFS is an abbreviation for Decibels Relative to Full Scale and is a unit of measurement used to measure amplitude levels or gain.
In gain staging, 0 DBFS is the “point of no return” where a peak that surpasses this point starts clipping.
There are a lot of abbreviations in audio production! Don’t let this intimidate you, over time you will remember each one’s meaning, I can assure you.
Peak and RMS
In your audio track, there is the peak and there is the RMS. The peaks are the loudest sound levels in the track and the RMS is the average sound level of the track.
As a general rule for correct gain staging, you want your RMS to be at a good level without your peaks clipping or cutting too much into the headroom.
A volume unit meter, or VU meter, measures the signal levels of a track. In most DAWS, a VU meter is referred to as an FS Meter, or Full-Scale Meter, and is much more accurate than the vintage, analogue VU meter devices once used.
The purpose of a VU meter, or FS meter, is to monitor the volume levels of a signal to determine whether they are at the right levels, are peaking too high, or are dropping too low.
A modern, digital VU or FS meter displays the volume fluctuations of a signal in DBFS. If the peaks rise above about -6 DB, the meter will show red, indicating that the levels of the signal are poor.
Steps To Correct Gain Staging While Recording Drums
The first step to achieving great quality sound is to start with a good quality recording.
You can’t out edit a bad quality recording, so follow these steps to correct gain staging when you record your drums.
Setting your levels on the mic preamps
A mic preamp is the first, and most crucial gain stage that your drum recording goes through. If the levels are not set correctly on the mic preamp, you run the risk of a bad signal to noise ratio, or clipping.
Once you have plugged your mic into the preamp, you want to set the levels using the gain knob. Have somebody play the drums while you turn the knob. Slowly turn the gain knob until you reach the sweet spot as close to 0 DB analogue as possible.
If you record your drums loud enough and don’t have to turn the gain knob too much to stay in the healthy peak range, you will have a very good signal to noise ratio. This sets you up for a successful gain staging process along the signal flow.
Setting the levels for a headphone mix for the drummer
Drums can be loud, so making sure the click track is loud enough for the drummer to feel comfortable is important.
Many drummers prefer their click track very loud. Unfortunately, a loud click track can be picked up by the microphones during a recording session, adding unwanted noise.
A pro tip when using a click track is to provide the drummer with noise-canceling headphones so they can hear the click track without it being picked up by the microphones.
Monitor the inputs in your DAW to make sure your levels don’t go above -6 DB
If you are recording a full drum kit, you will have many inputs to monitor and gain stage to get a quality recording.
You want to make sure that each input is at the same level as the other inputs and is being played at a good loudness from the get-go.
For each input, monitor the levels on your DAW and adjust the gain where needed. Turn the gain knob until the peaks from each input are reaching between around -10 DB, and no higher than -6 DB on the meter.
You want to aim for as close to -10 DBFS as possible, to give you a healthy signal to noise ratio from the initial recording.
Gain Staging For Drums During The Mixing Process
Once you have a good recording to work with, you want to make sure that your drums are fitting into your mix and are loud enough to pack a punch without distortion.
You need a good enough recording to avoid being able to hear the noise floor when the volume is turned up, so make sure your recording is good enough before continuing onto the mixing phase of gain staging your drums.
Each track in the mix will vary from one another in volume and gain. The goal is to get each track on the same level from the start to make the mixing process run smoother.
Set up a trim plugin on each track
To get started, set up a trim, or gain, plugin on each drum track so you can adjust the gain for each one individually.
Get each track closer to the same level in the mix and create more headroom for tracks peaking over -6 DB to give yourself more space to work with later on in the mixing process.
Most DAWS have built-in trim plugins at the beginning of the signal chain for each channel. You can download a trim plugin for your DAW to apply to each track if you don’t have one already.
Keep your fader levels close to 0 DB to get the best signal to noise ratio
Once your trim plugin is applied to each channel, adjust the fader levels by moving the slider up or down until you have reached the desired levels over the course of your mixing process.
For a good signal to noise ratio, adjust the fader levels to reach as close to 0 DB as possible without bringing up the noise floor.
If you are working with a good quality, loud recording with a good signal to noise ratio from the start, you will be able to turn up the fader closer to 0 DB without hearing much noise at all.
The trick with faders is to get your gain stages right before needing to use them. Lowering faders too much can compromise quality.
Set up a VU meter and make sure levels stay below 0 DB
To monitor your gain properly, set up a VU meter to make sure that your volume levels stay in a healthy range to avoid distortion.
A VU meter, or FS meter in digital terms, is a meter that measures the volume of the levels in your track.
As mentioned before, the digital VU meter, or FS meter, will show red when the signal is poor and stay green when the signal is in the healthy range. A poor signal is generally between -6 DB and 0 DB, and a healthy signal is generally between around -18 DB and -10 DB.
Note that an analogue styled VU meter is measured in DBVU and is not a peak meter. This type of VU meter is an RMS meter, meaning that peaks may still go over 0 DB on this meter without clipping.
There are many VU meter plugins available on the web, try out a few to find one that you like the most. Set up the plugin and run it on each channel to check the volume levels of each one individually for the best results.
Make gain corrections as needed after EQing
Once you have finished EQing your track, you may notice that the levels on certain tracks are now too low or too high. You can easily fix this problem by applying gain corrections where needed along your tracks.
If you have applied subtractive EQing, you can turn up the gain, and if you have applied additive EQing, you can reduce gain for those tracks.
Add makeup gain after using compression
Once you have applied your compression, you may notice that some of your levels are now lower than you would like. This is because compression lowers the loudest signals of your track.
You can add makeup gain where the compressor has reduced volume in places and now require more gain.
Makeup gain is simply another gain stage in the context of needing to be applied, usually, post compression.
Make gain corrections again after using a Saturation plugin
When you use your saturation plugin for some added harmonics, soft-clipping, and soft-knee compression, once again, you will notice some signals needing gain corrections.
Distortion in audio occurs from levels surpassing the 0 DB mark. After applying saturation, essentially a form of distortion, your gain levels may need adjusting.
Set up gain staging on mix busses
Sometimes, even after you have brought down all the levels of each channel, your busses could still be clipping.
It is vital to check your mix busses, to make sure that they are not clipping, or that they have enough headroom for you to comfortably work with.
If any of your busses are still peaking between -6 DB and 0 DB, or are clipping, you can add a gain plugin directly to the mix bus and bring down the levels from there.
Using Automation When Your Track Volume Varies Significantly
If your track volume varies significantly, rather than applying gain to the overall track, you can add automation to the sections of a track that need more or less volume.
For example, if there are sections of a track that are above -6 DB, you can add an automation to bring the decibels down for just those parts of the track.
Leave some headroom on your master channel for the mastering process
One final technique for good quality drum gain staging is to make sure to leave enough headroom for the mastering process.
Headroom is the “safety net” left unused between the highest peak of your signal and 0 DB. Leaving enough headroom is crucial for a successful mastering process as it gives you more space to work with.
You want to make sure that you leave at least -6 DB below 0 DBFS of headroom.
To achieve this on your master channel, go through your individual channels, and further improve the levels there until your master channel has enough headroom. Avoid creating headroom directly in your master channel.
Gain staging is one of the trickiest steps to master in the audio production world. It will take some time and plenty of practice before you will get it right.
If you are feeling lost, you can bookmark this article for reference as you learn the ropes of correct gain staging.
Even if you are an experienced audio engineer, and still struggle to get your gain staging perfect for drums, keep in mind that even the pros are always learning!
Don’t give up anytime soon and before you can say “drum loop” you’ll finish your master channel with enough headroom to leave a smile on your mastering engineer’s face.