Gain Staging, Meters, and just not ruining everything…

Though, not synthesis specific, I was reminded of the importance of gain-staging the other day. I completely overhauled the office, put up some of my synth gear, and re-focused some of my space for recording. Once it was all put together, the time came to test it all out. A few minutes and a few XLR cables later, everything was hooked up and ready to go. However, after much frustration and knob twiddling everything sounded like complete trash… but why?

My recording setup is not some cheap as you please pile of budget nonsense, and there is no good reason why one couldn’t make a good recording with it. So what was the deal? Well, if you’ve been paying any attention at all, you’re going to say, “obviously, your gain-staging was all wrong.” And yes, you’d be completely right in saying that. Well deduced!

In an effort to sort out the offending piece of gear, I reduced my signal chain to just a mic and my recorder, a little Sound Devices 702. A wonderful piece of gear, with (very importantly) an excellent segmented LED meter right up front. Within moments the mic was connected, the signal given proper gain, and a lovely level and equally lovely sound was being recorded. Next up, I re-connected my external preamp and switched the recorder to take a line-level input, and set the recorder for 0dB gain. Again, the metering on the recorder helped me dial everything in, and again it all sounded just peachy. Finally, I reconnected the compressor and the whole world absolutely EXPLODED! The gain on the WA-2A was waaaaay too high. Moments later though, I was again recording good levels and a good sound, and a few tweaks later the compressor was dialed in just right and everything was ready to go.

What can we learn from this whole experience? A few things.

  1. Proper gain staging is greatly aided by good metering! Being able to check your levels at each step is important. And if you can’t always see your metering try and find a tool that will get a meter where you need it. In my case, the quality meter on my recorder let me get each stage set nicely and saved the day. (I may need to find a place for my old Dorrough meter in the new recording space.)  In the parking lot, you feed the meters, but in the studio, the meters feed you!
  2. You really want your preamp stage to be pulling most (practically all) of the weight when it comes to signal amplification. A good preamp will be quiet, and won’t do nasty things to your signal. The rest of the level manipulation (faders and compressors for example) should be relatively minimal by comparison.
  3. It’s important to understand unity gain. On many devices, like mixers, unity will be marked. Its the point at which a device, or stage on a device is neither amplifying, nor attenuating the incoming signal. It is letting it pass untouched. You want all devices/stages set for unity gain, especially when initially setting your input gain at the preamp stage. In my case, everything was off, because a certain miniature person in my house, had cranked up the gain on my compressor. The result was an under-utilized preamp stage sending a weak signal, which then was further distorted by an over-driven gain-stage on the compressor, and this resulted in really bad sound.
  4. Get to know your devices. While I like my WA-2A compressors,  the gain-stage on them is marked 0-100. Zero, represents a infinitely attenuated signal (no sound) and 100 a heavily amplified signal. As a result one is left to guess at unity. On my unit it seems to be around 10ish on the dial. Being mindful of that helps avoid wasted time. If unity isn’t marked on a device, even if you can’t know it precisely, put forth the effort to get an idea of about where it lies on the dial/fader).

Now go forth my pretties! Go forth and record. Don’t drive a gain stage too hard, so it starts to hiss. Don’t send such a wimpy signal that you have to pull a ton of gain from somewhere else along the way, and amp up a nasty, distorted signal and bring the noise-floor up to the ceiling. Go forth, with proper gain staging and record lovely sounds, or at least accurately record bad sounds, without distorting them unnecessarily in the process!