5 Minutes To A Better Mix: Proper Gain Staging – Part 1 of 31

| 5 Minutes To A Better Mix, Audio Example, Mixing, Pro Tools, Tips, Video

Welcome to the first of what’s soon to be 31 videos in my “5 Minutes To A Better Mix” tutorial series. We’ll be looking at 31 mixing tips in the next 31 days, so hold on tight people!

The Crucial First Step

In today’s video we cover a crucial and often overlooked step in the mixing process: gain staging. It’s not flashy and it’s not glamourous, but I promise you this one step is critical to getting clear and focused mixes. Spend 5 minutes, watch the video and apply it to your mixes. I’m sure it will help!

Share The Love

We’ve got plenty more mixing tips where that just came from so get ready for tomorrow’s post. And please, if you are enjoying this video series, share the love with another musician or engineer. Pass on the video or link to someone who might appreciate it so their mixes can benefit as well!


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64 Responses to “5 Minutes To A Better Mix: Proper Gain Staging – Part 1 of 31”

  1. Cleaus

    Just wondering why you have no sharing options for the site (Facebook ‘like’ button, tweet button etc?

  2. Lipman

    You might want to be careful when you put your ALL group on. You turned your submix and submaster up and down and didn’t say anything about it. Good post overall though!

  3. Cory @CreateMusicTips

    Great video as usual, Graham. One thing to add. The [ALL] group won’t help you if you have automation, because the automation data will override the fader pull. @RandyCoppinger shows us how to apply even volume changes across every track, even tracks with multiple automation moves: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0mujYBo72U
    It’s only a one-minute video and I highly recommend it.

    Really looking forward to the rest of the videos in this series.

  4. John

    Thanks so much for breaking up this topic into bite size, digestable portions…I must be hungry!

  5. Lipman

    The best option is to create a group that excludes the submaster and master fader. Any little bump could reek havoc on any 2 buss compression/limiting/eq you have going on, and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

    On a lighter note, I’m looking forward to the rest of the month.

  6. joe

    ok ive learned im starting out to hot and ive got a better idea of where the level should start
    and i learned about the all group feature in pro tools
    in 5 minutes this is going to be a great month that will have a lasting effect on all
    my future projects thanks graham

  7. Phillip

    Just found this on the web and am starting from #1. Awesome Stuff. An Addendum to the “@RandyCoppinger shows us how to apply even volume changes across every track” tip/video. If you want to get a more granular increment on your volume changes, after you click on the Volume Automation Line, before you move anything, hold down your CTRL key (in Windows), and keep it held down while adjusting your level.

  8. Da N.O.C.

    Graham thank you, keep doing what you’re doing this is important info we need when mixing.

  9. Mila

    Hi, I’m so happy that I found your website. Your videos are the best online. Thanks a lot

  10. CodePoet

    Great video and thanks for the series – lots of good stuff.

    I’ve seen other articles saying the same thing – to record at lower levels in the 24-bit world. Then I see other articles that state that there is a 1-bit loss of quality for every 6 dB below 0 that a signal is recorded, and they recommend using all of those bits for the best quality. Is the argument here that the benefits of lower levels during recording outweigh any loss in perceived audio quality, as the quality loss is probably not noticeable? Just trying to align the different schools of thought.

    • Graham

      CodePoet – I’m not the smartest guy in the room, but I don’t buy the “quality loss” concept just having lower recording levels in 24 bit audio. Hasn’t been my experience.

      • Jared

        I think you should always try to record (as in capture) the hottest signal you can without clipping, but in the mixing process you do not want to have your levels coming near 0dB. This messes with the mastering process and leaves less head room for compression, equalization and other essential parts of mastering. However, you want to have a hot signal in your recorded tracks because when you mix at an appropriate level the tracks will retain more clarity and sustain because the signal is higher. There is also a reduction in noise when you can get good mic placement and a hot signal when you record. So yes you lose quality when you record a low signal, but when you are mixing you gain quality in the long run if your levels are under control because you allow the mastering process to really take the mix to its full potential

  11. Brian

    Great tutorial…this series is very helpful. As a home recording musician who is just trying to get the best final product I can without sending this conservative mix to a mastering engineer, what is MY mastering step then? It seems like it is to bring the level right back up close to zero (w/o clipping) and mix everything down to an audio file. Or is there a step I’m missing between 1) achieving this -10db conservative mix and 2) ending up with a stereo wave file that is a more reasonable volume for other audio devices, mp3 players, car stereos, etc?

  12. Blake

    I can’t tell you how much these videos have helped! Thank you so much Graham and looking forward to any more tips, ticks and hacks!

  13. BT

    Nice tip. I find the best way to do this is to put a trim plug on the first and/or last insert of each track and bring the level down that way. If you do this with your faders at 0 you can then use the faders in a more conventional way adjusting levels on the fly and still have the track level working in a safe range.

  14. Kyle Shevlin

    Graham, thanks for the tip. I’ll keep it in mind that my tracks don’t need to be so “hot.” I think this will help a lot as there are times where I just run out of headroom for the dynamics of my songs. That being said, from what I understand, this isn’t gain staging at all. Gain staging is adjusting the input level knob that sits at the top of your channel strip (I’m unfamiliar with Protools so this could be elsewhere). This is the FIRST volume control in the signal chain and a gain stage mix should be roughly made here. The reason being is that your fader works on a logarithmic scale. The further away from unity you go, the more drastic the adjustments become. This means that it is harder to fine tune your mix because you have less precision with the fader. If you set a gain stage mix properly, most of your faders will be much closer to unity.

    • Carlos

      First of all thanks for all your videos. I know your time is precious so I really appreciate you sharing tips to the community.

      And to Graham and Kyle I ask:
      Which track do you gain stage first and at which RMS level do you start it at? Not enough discussions on this floating around the internet…

      I’ve been mixing in reference to my lead vocal or whichever track carries the hook since that’s the kind of music I’m working with. So without any plug-ins on the vocal track, I will:

      1.Adjust the input gain (pre-fader) of all tracks until the RMS *not the peak* level reads at -18dbFS.
      –Some folks choose the -20dbFS standard and some people like Mike Stavrou claim it’s better to push your RMS to -12dbFS or find your DAW/converters’ sweetspot.
      2.Repeat on every track in the song.
      3.Get a rough mix without EQs, etc. and I bring all the faders down (as shown in the video) if the sum of all the tracks is causing clipping.
      4.Listen in mono and carve out (lo and hi pass) frequencies in reference of the lead vocal and any other instruments playing “the hook”.
      –Compression starts happening somewhere between step four and beyond.–
      5.Further EQ in mono to notch out any annoying peaks and unwanted ringing.
      6.Adjust high frequency EQ, bring in reverbs and adjust faders to create depth in the mix.
      7. Ride levels and automate effects.
      8.Pan and add effects for interest.
      9.Repeat any steps if needed.

      And of course if you’re a musician and are holding the producer’s hat then I’ll first tweak the instrumentation and song arrangement to properly space instruments across the different voice/frequency ranges. Similar to what classical people would do with bass, tenor, alto and soprano. Basically keeping each instrument out of each other’s toes through rhythm and voicings.

      Now, what about everybody else? Please comment, add to or trash and rip apart these steps. Bring on the discussion!

      • Graham

        Carlos, glad to have you on the site. My workflow (outlined in detail in my REthink Mixing series) is pretty similar. But the dummies guide looks like this: don’t clip the mix buss, level and EQ/compression in mono, verbs/delays and panning, automation, tweak as needed.

  15. Paul Odiase

    Why didn’t i start out here before releasing my tracks public!!!
    I will have to do all my work again!
    Well,there is no turning back Graham!I shall get to it thanks to your loving tips!
    Rock on and Thanxs!

  16. Ari

    Great video! Just heard about this blog/series of videos from a friend and already from the first video I can tell I’m in for something great. Thanks for taking the time to do these!

  17. MartinSoundLabs

    This is my Achilles Heel.. i grew up in the analog world and mixing my trio’s record we tracked in 2010 the last month or so i realize the tracks are WAAAAAY too hot and i’ve been totally out of control of gain staging. Too late to retrack and the record DOES have soul and balls, it will just be a matter of getting the best i can out of it.. also wondered why my monitor mix was so f-ing loud; now i realize it is because my tracks were recorded too hot.

  18. Vinny

    Great tutorial to get people aware of gain staging. Since I started recording at lower volumes and gain staging before anything else, my mixes have seriously come to life. I found a different method that I prefer that I want to share as maybe you will also. Set all your faders to 0 and use gain/trim to make each channel peak at -6. Someone above mentioned that some DAWs have this at the top of each channel, but I just make it my first plugin on every channel (or most strip plugins have this ability as well). Then you drop all the faders and start mixing from there. If things are too quiet, just turn up your speakers. In the end you come out with a ton of headroom for plugins and mastering and better response from all your plugs. It really opened up a whole world of possibilities for me, not worrying about frying the stereo buss, and you don’t lose any detail bringing the levels up later in mastering. I learned this method here if anyone’s interested, this dude also does a great job explaining VCC: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JKxZEVwJyN0. It’s a little long winded but I found myself actually wanting to watch it twice to make sure I absorbed everything he was saying ;).

    • Vinny

      Another great tip I learned (may have been from your podcast, actually I don’t recall!) is to gain stage every plugin as well. It’s much easier to know what a compressor is doing or EQ if the volume is the same going in and coming out so you can A/B. Gain staging certainly isn’t the most glamorous trick I’ve learned from guys like you, but it has had the biggest impact of anything on the quality of my mixes. Thanks for everything you share with us :).

  19. Daniel-Gabriel Serdan

    Hey ,
    Yes , this is a great tutorial and yes again I’m totally agree with you . I have experienced this on my own . Me , I’m starting the mix by lowering all the channels at minus 10dB. After this I’m making all the settings of the channels levels . You do a great job with these tutorials . God bless you my Master !

  20. Satoh Takeshi

    Can u give me this soft? 🙂

    And this is a great tutorial 🙂

    Thank you!!! :X

  21. jay jay

    Great video! I was curious, when do you adjust your mixbus fader? Or do you mix at unity gain during the whole mix?

  22. Anthony Stahl

    Why not leave the faders at unity and use a trim plugin? Just curious

  23. Shaun

    Curious… is there a relative dB range that should be achieved for each track in your mix before it hits the master buss which should be reading out around 50-25% from 0dB?

    eg. say you adjust each tracks trim to have every track read out at about -6dB, etc.? So that ultimately the master buss still ends up with about at least 25% headroom?

    Thanks for the info 🙂

    • Graham

      Hi Shaun, some will say that ideally your tracks should be floating at around -18db RMS (average volume). But either way your mix buss just needs at least 25% headroom up the meter. No need to crowd it up.

  24. Guillermo Rivera

    I’ve watched quite a few of your videos and have enjoyed every single one. There is one thing that continues to confuse me. How is that in almost every tutorial, when engineers mixes are around -14 dBfs, its super loud already in the video? I must be doing something incredibly wrong but is it just because you limit the volume for a/v playback purposes? I’d like to see a video where the levels in the video playback where they are supposed to be haha. I’m guessing it would be quieter? Unless I’m incredibly wrong. It can just be somewhat discouraging for noobs like me watching someones mix be “loud” when their entire mix is at -14 dBfs. If you get a chance to check out my mixes I would really appreciate some feedback. Thanks Graham. You’re the man. http://www.reverbnation.com/timwilson4

    • Graham

      The volume of my mix in the video itself won’t match what it is in real life. I’m balancing the mix with my voice over for convenience.

      • Guillermo Rivera

        Ok. That’s what I figured but just wanted to make sure. I thought to myself, “maybe there is something I’m doing wrong.” I appreciate the reply and once again, I enjoy all your videos. Extremely helpful! I have another question though. To calibrate my studio setup, I played pink noise at -14 dBFS and turned up my monitor gain on my interface until my spl meter ( c weighted) read 83dB for each monitor. Should I leave my monitor gain alone from now on and just check loudness from my digital mixer that came with my profire 2626? Did I set this up correctly? I appreciate the time you take for all our questions. Thank you!

        • Graham

          Yeah, you’ll want to set your monitors levels, then adjust gain on your interface.

  25. Allen


    Thanks for the videos first off, they have been helpful in opening my mind in a different way. I do have one question.

    What is the benefit to gain staging if there is a fixed threshold compressor in the chain? I’d have to use the input gain on the compressor to turn it up for the compressor to work, and the output to bring it back down to its old level. Would I be better off doing my gain staging by offsetting each channel fader instead of a trim knob?

      • Allen

        Alright. And I’m pretty sure that is because of the no-noise aspect of digital mixing. I’d probably have to find a different way if it was all mixed through a console.

        Thanks Graham!

  26. Didier

    Hi, Graham. I just stumbled across your website while searching for mixing tips. I always struggle with that process. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I’m looking forward to listening to your series. With your help, I hope to make my music sound the way it does in my head. Cheers.



  1.  6 Common Mixing Mistakes [Part 1] » The Recording Revolution
  2.  Gain Staging Your DAW With Trim Plugins [Video] » The Recording Revolution
  3.  The Most Important Word In Mixing: Balance » The Recording Revolution
  4.  The Beginner’s Guide To Mixing [Part 1] | The Recording Revolution

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