Studio Techniques: Gain Staging

pt meter

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!

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A recent Interview with Michael MacLeod

501NEG Blog: Member Snapshot, with Michael MacLeod

March 9, 2014 at 8:11am

**story written by Jodi Marmonti-Anderson**

Michael MacLeod is not only a member of the 501st Legion but is also a highly experienced and accomplished local musician.  Michael has sung lead vocals and played guitar in numerous bands, and has taught music lessons to hundreds of students.  He is the owner of Wolf’s Den Music.

As soon as Michael could stand he was dancing to any music playing in his vicinity (even TV jingles).  He states that “the bug really bit me at about age 7, when I saw a teenager down the street with an electric guitar and knew I just had to have one.”  Though his parents were struggling financially they bought him a guitar and amp and the lessons began.  Through his lessons he met his mentor New Bedford, MA musician Jim Tavares.  “Upon first sight of seeing Jim with his long hair, ripped jeans and chucks (sneakers) I knew I wanted to be a rock guitarist!”  At the time Jim was only accepting adult and advanced students, but after a lot of begging to the music store owner (Gary “Boz” Bosworth of Boz’s Music) Jim decided to take Michael on as his first child student.  Michael would continue to study music and hone his craft, later studying under the famous song writer Adam Mitchell.

As a huge Kiss fan, Michael auditioned for a tribute band when he was 15 and was thrilled to learn that he had been selected for the group.  He started touring and missed many days of high school to keep up with his gig schedule.  Performing as Ace Frehley, Michael toured the east coast for almost a decade in two different Kiss tribute acts: Rock & Roll Over and Destroyer. He was a featured performer with Destroyer on the internationally distributed “KAOL 2 Creatures of the Net” album (Kiss Army online).  All proceeds from the album were donated to cancer research in Eric Carr’s (former Kiss Drummer’s) name.  He has performed at many official Kiss conventions with past members of Kiss, including Ace Frehley.  Michael’s biggest show played was at the Bangor, ME Civic Center, where he performed to a sold-out crowd of around 3000 fans.

Michael has enjoyed his career as a musician.  “I get to share music with people, which is a chance to connect to people on a whole different level.  I love playing in front of a large crowd and the energy exchanged between myself (the performer) and the audience. It’s a feeling that is amazing because you go out there and give it your all and get ramped up then the audience gets excited and gives all that energy back to you so it’s this great synergy.”  He loves writing and creating original music, which is currently his focus as he works on his first solo album. “It’s an amazing journey from getting the germ of an idea in your mind to creating a fully realized song, [and] then sending that song out into the world and hoping people get something out of it.”

There are down sides to working as an artist, of course. Financial challenges (particularly in the age of internet piracy) can make it difficult to make a living as a musician.  There are some people who believe that musicians should give their music away for free.  Michael also notes that sometimes people don’t respect the kind of work he is doing.  “Many people don’t realize the amount of hard work it is to be a full time musician: the years of studying and practicing, the sacrifices made to excel at your craft, the thousands of dollars invested in gear and instruments and the list just goes on.”  Despite these setbacks, he enjoys being his own boss: “At the end of the day I’m completely in charge of my life and that is what Rock and Roll is all about to begin with. Freedom!”

Outside of music Michael is a big science fiction and comics fan, which lead him to join the 501st Legion, as well as becoming one of the area’s more well-known Green Arrow costumers.  One little known fact from Michael’s past is that he won a DC Comics contest as a kid and they used his design as the new version of a Parademon. “You can see the Kiss influence in the eye make-up design and bits of his costume.” The only Parademon ever to have a name in comic books was named Michael (possibly due to his redesign of said character).  Michael received a 10 speed bicycle from the contest, which he still has to this day.

After completing his solo album along with a few other musical projects on the table, Michael would like to compose a film score.  Be sure to check out his sites at https://wolfsdenmusic.wordpress.com/ and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Wolfs-Den-Music/251584701558005?ref=hl .

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