MAY 30, 2024

Guide to Gain Staging in Audio Production

Pro Tools Mixer UI

Proper gain staging serves as the foundation for achieving high quality sound, ensuring that from the first microphone placement to the final mastering touch, each step is built on healthy signal levels. This guide dives into gain staging techniques, best practices, and recommended levels during recording, mixing, and mastering. We’ll be using Pro Tools to demonstrate these concepts using its wide collection of meters for monitoring signal levels. Let’s get started!

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What is gain staging?

Gain staging is the process of managing the volume levels of audio signals at each stage in the audio signal path, ensuring optimal sound quality without distortion. By carefully adjusting input and output levels from one piece of equipment to the next, gain staging prevents noise and clipping, achieving a clean and balanced mix. This practice varies at each stage—recording, mixing, and mastering—tailored to ensure the integrity and clarity of the audio signal.

Gain Staging and Levels

Tools needed for proper gain staging

Before we dive into the specifics of gain staging for recording, mixing, and mastering, it's important to understand the tools at your disposal for monitoring and adjusting levels. Meters in a digital audio workstation provide visual representations of various aspects of the audio signal, such as level, loudness, and dynamic range. They are the quantifiable eyes and ears of an audio engineer, crucial for making informed decisions about level adjustments throughout the production process.

Meters in Pro Tools

Pro Tools is equipped with an extensive array of metering options used for precise gain staging across recording, mixing, and mastering phases. These meters provide real-time visual feedback on various aspects of your audio signal, enabling you to make adjustments that ensure optimal sound quality and consistency.

To access the variety of meters available in Pro Tools, right-click on any meter display and a drop-down menu will present you with the following options:

Classic Peak Meters
: Offer a traditional view of the instantaneous peak level of your signal, which is crucial for avoiding clipping during recording.

RMS Meters
: Measure the average level, giving you a better sense of how the sound will be perceived by listeners, very useful for mix balancing.

VU Meters
: Mimic the response of analog VU meters and are excellent for achieving a warm, dynamic mix that takes advantage of the full dynamic range without squashing transients.

LUFS Meters
: Essential for mastering, these meters measure the integrated loudness over time, ensuring your final product complies with broadcast standards and streaming platform requirements.

K-System Meters
: Developed by Bob Katz, these provide a standardized calibration for perceived loudness, which helps in creating a mix with a well-defined dynamic range.

Each meter type has its application and can be switched easily depending on the task at hand, whether you’re tracking, mixing, or putting the finishing touches on your master. By utilizing these metering options in Pro Tools, you can gain stage knowing that your tracks will not only sound professional but also translate well across all listening environments. 

Now, explore how to gain stage during recording, mixing, and mastering!

Gain staging during recording

The goal of gain staging during the recording process is to capture healthy, balanced audio levels. Levels that are recorded too high can clip, introducing unwanted distortion into your tracks. Conversely, recording levels that are too low may result in the introduction of noise when the signal is amplified during mixing. Keep in mind that you’re adjusting levels directly at the source—your instrument and the mic preamp on your audio interface, not your mix faders. The mixer faders should remain at their default position, typically unity (0dB), during this stage. The faders come into play during the mixing phase, where they're used to fine-tune the balance between tracks.

Set your levels

When setting input levels in Pro Tools, it is essential to find a balance that ensures a strong signal without risking clipping. Aim for maximum levels of -6 dBFS as indicated by the Sample Peak meter to prevent peaks from going into the red zone. For average signal levels, aim to keep them around -18 dBFS, as shown on the RMS meter, which corresponds approximately to 0 VU, mirroring the traditional analog metering practices.

Keep a close eye on your DAW or audio interface's metering. Look for the green-yellow-red indicators; your goal is to stay mostly in the green, occasionally touching the yellow, while avoiding the red zone which indicates clipping. This approach ensures that you're capturing audio within the optimal dynamic range of digital recordings, maintaining a robust signal without sacrificing headroom or introducing noise.

Using pad switches

If you’re tracking an instrument that is too loud, try using a pad switch. Pad switches are used to manage exceptionally loud sound sources. Sometimes, even when the gain is set to its lowest, certain instruments or microphones can produce signals that are too strong for the preamp or audio interface to handle without distortion. This is where a pad switch is useful.

A pad switch typically reduces the signal by a set amount, often ranging between -10 dB and -20 dB, allowing the audio interface or mixer to handle the signal without clipping. This reduction ensures that the integrity of the audio is maintained, capturing the true sound of the instrument or performance without distortion.

Many audio interfaces include pad switches as part of their input channels. These switches are usually clearly labeled and located near the gain control knobs or input jacks on the front or top panel of the interface. If your audio interface doesn't have a pad switch and you're dealing with a signal that's too loud for the interface to handle without clipping, running your instrument through a Direct Injection (DI) box with a pad feature is an excellent solution.

Adjusting Gain for Different Takes

Be prepared to adjust gain settings between takes, especially if you switch microphones, instruments, or if the performer's dynamics change significantly. Aim for consistent levels across different recording sessions to ensure a cohesive sound during mixing.

Gain staging during recording is about finding the right balance between too low and too high. It's about capturing the best possible sound at the source with enough headroom to manipulate during mixing. By carefully setting your levels, monitoring your inputs, and making adjustments as needed, you ensure that your recordings have the quality and flexibility needed for professional results. Remember, good gain staging during the recording stage is the foundation of a great mix and master.

Gain staging in mixing

Gain staging during the mixing stage involves setting the initial levels of each element in your mix but also carefully managing levels after processing to maintain healthy levels throughout the signal chain. For example, after applying an effect that lowers the volume of a track, you may need to increase the output level to preserve the balance established in your initial mix. Let’s see why:

Setting Initial Levels

The first step in the mixing process involves creating a static mix, where you focus on volume balancing without the influence of effects or processing. This foundational stage sets the stage for everything that follows in your mix.

Start with all faders down, ensuring you're working from a blank canvas. Then, gradually bring up the levels of each track, starting with the most critical elements you want to build your mix around. This could be the vocals in a song, the kick drum in a dance track, or the lead instrument in instrumental music. The goal is to achieve a balanced mix where every element is clearly audible and well-positioned within the mix's overall sonic landscape.

When adjusting levels, aim for your individual tracks to average around -18dBFS to -12dBFS. Once you have balanced your tracks around the -18dBFS to -12dBFS range and processed them as needed, the cumulative level on your master fader should peak around -6dBFS to -3 dBFS. This range provides a good balance between loudness and headroom, preventing clipping and allowing space for dynamic changes. Remember, this static mix is your opportunity to get the volume relationships right, laying a solid foundation for the subsequent stages of mixing.

Gain Staging in the Signal Chain: Adjusting Levels After Processing

After setting your initial levels, you’ll likely be adding compression, EQ, and other effects to polish the sound of your tracks. As you do so, it’s crucial to manage the changes in level that result from audio processing effects. Each processor can alter the volume of a track, either boosting or attenuating it, which may require further adjustments to maintain the balance you've established.

As you add processors to a track, continuously monitor the output level to ensure it matches the level you set during your static mix. If a processor lowers the volume, increase the output level to compensate, and vice versa. This step is crucial for maintaining consistency throughout your mix and ensuring that each track contributes to the overall mix as intended.

Examples of Gain Staging After Effects Processing

Let’s walk through examples of what gain staging looks like when you’re using audio effects. To illustrate this, we'll explore practical examples using compression, EQ, and distortion. Each example will demonstrate how these effects impact your track's gain structure and the necessary adjustments to maintain balance within your mix. These scenarios will give you insights into the broader principles of gain staging that are applicable across the entire signal chain.


When you apply a compressor to a vocal track, it reduces the dynamic range by attenuating louder parts and often includes a gain or make-up gain control to compensate for the overall level reduction. For instance, if the compressor is applying -3 dB of gain reduction on the peaks, you might add 3 dB of make-up gain. This way, the vocal's average level remains consistent with the uncompressed signal, preserving its place in the mix.


Equalization can also affect a track’s gain. Boosting frequencies can increase the overall level, while cutting frequencies might reduce it. After applying an EQ to brighten a guitar track by boosting the high mids, check the output level. If the track now overshoots its original level, you may need to pull back the output gain to match the pre-EQ level, ensuring the mix's balance remains intact.


Distortion or saturation adds harmonics and can change the perceived loudness of a track. When you add a distortion effect to a bass line, it can make it sound fuller and louder. After saturation, it's often necessary to decrease the output level to align with the clean bass's original position in the mix. This prevents the bass from overpowering other elements and maintains the dynamic consistency of the mix.

Gain Staging with Effects Send and Return Channels

Gain staging also applies to auxiliary sends and returns which are often used for time-based effects like reverb and delay. Proper gain staging helps to maintain the effect's balance with the direct signal.

Send Level Adjustment: The send control on your track’s channel determines how much of the signal is sent to the effect processor. Setting this level too high can result in an overly wet signal, whereas setting it too low may render the effect inaudible.

Return Channel Gain Staging: After the effect processes the signal, it returns to the mix through a return channel. This channel's fader controls the effect's overall level in the mix. It's important to adjust this fader on your aux channel so that the effect complements rather than competes with the dry signal. For instance, you might want a subtle reverb on a vocal track to add space without washing it out.

Gain staging during mastering

During mastering, gain staging ensures tracks are uniformly polished and meet the loudness standards required for various playback platforms and media, from digital streaming services to physical formats like vinyl and CDs. Follow these guidelines for proper gain staging during mastering:

Setting initial levels

One of the first steps in mastering is adjusting the initial track levels to get a consistent and optimal starting point for all tracks. It involves subtle adjustments to each track's gain to even out disparities in loudness and to ensure there's sufficient headroom for subsequent mastering processes. This step does not necessarily aim to reach the final loudness target but to create a uniform playing field across all tracks.

The initial analysis might reveal that some tracks are quieter than others, or some have a wider dynamic range, leading to inconsistencies across an album. At this stage, it's crucial to adjust the gain of each individual track to create a consistent baseline from which to work. This doesn't mean making all tracks the same loudness at this point but rather ensuring they have a uniform starting place before you apply any mastering processes.

Gain staging throughout the mastering signal chain

Once the initial loudness targets are set, the mastering process continues with the application of various effects to enhance the sound of each track. The challenge here is to apply these effects without compromising the headroom and dynamic integrity you've established. Gain staging at this point becomes a balancing act between enhancing the track and maintaining its natural dynamics and position within the album's soundscape.

Similar to mixing, each processor in the mastering chain affects the final output. Adjust the output gain of each processor as necessary, to maintain your tracks within the desired dynamic range and prevent any unintended level increases or decreases. For example, when applying EQ, subtle boosts and cuts can sculpt the tonal balance of a track. However, significant boosts, especially in the low-end, can eat into your headroom. To counteract this, you may need to attenuate the output gain to preserve the headroom for subsequent processing stages. It's important to leave enough space for the track to breathe, ensuring that the final limiting stage can be applied effectively without over-compression.

Use a limiter for target loudness

In the later stages of mastering you can use a limiter to ensure your tracks reach the appropriate loudness levels for their intended medium of distribution. After the application of EQ, compression, and other effects, the limiter is used to finely control the peaks, preventing any potential clipping, and to raise the overall loudness to match industry or medium-specific standards.

Each distribution medium—whether digital streaming platforms, vinyl, CD, or others—has its own loudness criteria that must be considered when setting your limiter. For digital streaming platforms, aim for a target of around -14 to -16 LUFS with a true peak maxing out at -1 to -2 dBTP (decibels True Peak). When mastering for CDs, it's crucial to account for intersample peaks; therefore, setting your limiter to measure and control true peak levels up to -1 dBTP can help avoid distortion on playback. The CD format allows for a slightly hotter master, so while some engineers might push the average level closer to 0 dBFS, ensuring true peaks stay at or below -1 dBTP is a safer approach to avoid potential playback issues.

Always consider the specific loudness requirements of the medium and the genre when setting these final peak levels. Set the limiter’s ceiling and threshold with these standards in mind to ensure that the track's dynamic quality is preserved while meeting the loudness levels that listeners expect.

Final Loudness Matching

Ensuring each track matches in loudness for a consistent listening experience is one of the final steps in mastering. It's about the fine-tuning of levels to achieve a smooth transition between tracks, making the album have a cohesive sound.

Cross-Track Level Balancing: Listen to the tracks in sequence, paying close attention to the transitions. Make subtle adjustments to the tracks' gain to ensure no track feels out of place in terms of volume.

Reference Tracks: Use reference tracks to ensure your album's loudness is competitive with current releases in the same genre. This helps in achieving a commercial sound.

Cohesion: The mastered tracks should not only be similar in loudness but also maintain a consistent tonal balance and dynamic feel throughout the album. Revisit EQ and compression settings if necessary to refine the sound.

The process may require several iterations, as making adjustments to one track can sometimes necessitate revisiting others to maintain balance. The final listen-through, ideally on different sound systems, ensures that the tracks are well-integrated and the album is ready for distribution.

Start gain staging like a pro

As we’ve seen, gain staging is an integral part of the recording, mixing, and mastering process. Each stage has its nuances and requires a thoughtful approach to ensure optimal signal levels. Remember, the key is in the details aim for -18 to -6 dBFS when recording, keep your mix levels around -6 to -3 dBFS, and master with the medium in mind, adhering to industry loudness standards.

Pro Tools offers an array of sophisticated tools designed for precision gain staging. Its comprehensive metering systems allow for accurate level assessments, while the included suite of dynamic processors ensures you have the tools necessary to produce projects that meet industry standard loudness.
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