First off, what is gain staging and why is it important?
Gain staging is the process of managing the levels of incoming audio signals to eliminate noise and prevent distortions or signal clipping as much as possible.
How do I address gain staging in my recordings?
Historically, in the days of analog recording, engineers would try to find a “sweet spot” at which the incoming audio signal was significantly above the ordinary analog noise floor but yet would fall just shy of clipping the audio signal during the loudest parts of the performance. This spot was often around the 0 db zone. This would result in tracks that were as hot as possible without clipping.
However, with the advent of digital recording, the recording noise floor has dropped to next to nothing – and the gain stage needed to change with it, too. Digital recording not only allows for, but basically requires, a far more conservative approach to recording levels.
This technique creates good-quality recordings with, by default, low background noise, and plenty of headroom on the meter. Often, plugins used during the mixing and mastering phases of recording will use some of that headroom, so if your initial performance was done at too high a level, the addition of plugins can easily push your performance into the dreaded “too hot” zone. The quality of your sound will suffer. Far better to record at a conservative level and make a track louder, if necessary, during the mastering stage than to have to over-compress and squash the life out of a good performance that was recorded at too high a level.
For digital recording, the “sweet spot” tends to be around -18 dB.
Proper gain staging also helps in the mixing phase of recording – in general, mixes turn out better when tracks are at low levels on the faders. If a mix is too quiet for you to adequately hear it, don’t turn up the faders on the board – turn up your monitors!
After recording, mixing, and ensuring that no signal-clipping has occurred in any track, bus all channels through a stereo master fader. This fader represents an aggregate of all signals being bussed to it from other channels, so it may very well be the case that it will have a very high signal, or may even clip. If this is the case, group all audio channels and turn them down as a collective unit until the master fader is at about -10 db. It should not be approaching the -3 db mark – don’t just turn down the master fader! This only masks the symptom of the issue without resolving the issue itself.
I hope this helps with your next mix. Good luck!