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Where’s the Gain Staging Sweet Spot on Your Plug-ins?

I received a question about gain staging that you might be interested in:

“Hi Bjorgvin, could you just clarify something for me, please. If you want to use plugins at their sweet spot do you set the track gain to the sweet spot going into the plugin and then compensate with the output so that the previously achieved level balance”

Gain staging is a topic that comes up again and again with my coaching clients.

Some home studio musicians use a gain plug-in to tweak the input gain of the waveform before adding any processing.

Some home studio musicians use the faders to balance the volume of the track at the output.

Which Gain Staging Method is Correct?

Both approaches are fine, but the only exception I would mention is that when the recorded track is so hot that you have to pull the faders way down to get it under control. When that happens, your fader level is low inside your DAW that it’s hard (or weird at the very least) to tweak the fader because of the logarithmic scale of the decibel level.

That’s why aiming for a -11 dB level on your faders is a good starting point. Whether you get there from with the faders or with your input gain is your choice. Each path usually leads to the same goal, which is hopefully a finished mix.

Approaches for Different Processors

As for the sweet spot of plug-ins, I tend to approach this in three different ways:

  • Gain staging compression: I make sure the input level and the output level is the same after compression. That way, you level match the signal, so you can hear whether the compressed track sounds better, instead of being fooled into thinking it’s better just because it’s louder. Depending on the compressor you’re using, using the make-up gain or output gain will give you the same results.
  • Level matching EQ: I have to admit, I’m lazy when it comes to adjusting the EQ. I tend to use Fabfilter’s Pro-Q 2 as my go-to EQ, and it has a handy automatic level-matching feature that does the work for me.
  • Finding the sweet spot for saturation: I try to keep the saturation level around 0 dB on the VU levels when adding tape emulation. However, make sure there aren’t stray peaks in the tracks that cause the saturation plug-in to peak and distort when all you want is some analog warmth.

Those are the guidelines I use for those types of plug-ins, so I hope that helps.

If you’re interested in learning everything you need to know about EQ, compression, and saturation, in addition to reverb and delay, head on over here to grab your Mixing With 5 Plug-ins course.

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About me

About Björgvin Benediktsson

I’m Björgvin Benediktsson. I’m a musician, audio engineer and best-selling author. I help musicians and producers make a greater impact with their music by teaching them how to produce and engineer themselves. I’ve taught thousands of up and coming home studio producers such as yourself how to make an impact with their music through Audio Issues since 2011.

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