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How to Set Gain on Your Mixer

Kade Young
Kade Young
Chief Audio Guru
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Inner Circle Community + Support by Collaborate Worship

Download Gain Sheet Sheet (free)

If the knobs on your mixer could talk, gain would definitely be throwing a fit about feeling misunderstood. Gain has this great purpose, but often gets mistaken as simply volume control.

I am going to make it simple by showing you a simple strategy for setting gain that drastically improves the quality of your mix. But first, it's important to understand why gain exists.

Why Gain Exists

The purpose of gain is to normalize the amount of signal coming from the device that’s plugged in to the mixer.

Now it would be nice if all the instruments and vocals sent out the same level of signal, but they don’t… which is exactly why gain exists.

To help this sink in, imagine that the cable that connects an instrument to the mixer is a water hose. And then right where you plug that cable into your mixer is a valve, kind of like a water faucet.

When gain is turned all the way down, the valve is closed. And the more you turn up gain, the more the valve opens, letting more signal through to the mixer.

So, all your instruments and vocals are sending out a different flow of signal and you are going to use gain to regulate that flow so that everything is the same as it comes into the mixer.

In other words, gain is the front door to your mixer, which is why it is so important to get it right, because it will affect everything else down the line.

How to Set Gain

You’ll need to do this for every instrument and every vocal, but it is really easy once you know what you are looking for.

While the instrument is playing or the vocalist is singing, adjust gain until the level meter next to the gain knob is consistently hitting the first couple of orange or yellow lights.

On some mixers, like the Behringer X32, we’re talking about the -18dB mark. Other mixers may have this mark at 0dB.

Goal: Where the green lights meet the yellow lights.

Either way, you are looking to always be crawling over the point on your mixer where the green lights meet the orange or yellow lights.

And keep in mind, there will probably be times where you are hitting more than just a couple of those yellow or orange lights, especially in the louder moments. But on average, all of your channels should hang out right there where green meets yellow.

And, that’s it. It’s really that simple. Do it a few times and it will become second nature.

Fader position is irrelevant when setting gain.

Keep in mind, when setting gain it doesn’t matter where the fader is for that channel. You can even set gain while the channel is muted. Because both the fader and the mute button do not affect gain.

Set gain at the beginning of EVERY rehearsal.

Make it a habit to set gain at the beginning of every rehearsal. It’s not something you can set once and then never look at it again, because things change.

Gain is NOT volume control.

And remember, gain is not volume control. It’s the front door to your mixer.

The goal is to use gain to get everything operating at the same level before it comes into the mixer. And this may seem small, but getting gain right is a giant leap forward to creating a great mix.

Gain Cheat Sheet

To help you create the habit of setting gain correctly and to make sure your entire team does it the same way, I put together a gain cheat sheet you can print off and leave next to your mixer.

Download Gain Sheet Sheet (free)

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51 comments on “How to Set Gain on Your Mixer”

  1. You are right on! I learned so much from this (and was totally using gain as a volume knob). Thank you!

    1. So, what if the fader is not around unity gain? Sometimes, we see the gain is low, which effects our IEMs so then we want to turn up the gain but sound man says he looses control and faders are supposed to be very close to unity. Thanks

    2. If gain is set correctly, not just for each individual channel, but also on your amps (more on that here), then faders for lead instruments/vocals should be hanging close to unity. But, not all your faders should be close to unity because some things in the mix are background, texture-adding elements which hang out around -10 to -20dB.

  2. This information is invaluable and timely. I am just dealing with all of these issues and did not really have a clue. It is difficult in the Worship leaders world to get help from others. Thank you so much for all of your hard work and diligence in this. So now I am looking forward to Saturday service instead of dreading the problems. Thanks again.

    Pastor Mark

  3. When setting the gain where should the volume slider be? I've always been told to mute the channel, put the slider at U (or 0), PFL the channel, and then set your gain using the steps above. Is that right?

    1. The gain is first in the signal chain and the fader (volume slider) is last. So, the gain will affect the fader but not the other way around. In short, fader placement is irrelevant when setting the gain. I generally pull it down as a safeguard to make sure it doesn't get too loud while I am setting the gain.

  4. Does the x32 have a "pad" button? This would be helpful since my guitars and keys are always hot but when I gain them down the musicians cannot get enough volume in their ears.

    1. There is no pad button on the X32, and no comparative feature that I am aware of. I'd recommend trying do reduce the input signal at the source if possible. For example, most wireless microphones allow you to adjust the output level on the receiver.

  5. So pertaining to Christian's question, input signal is more important than fader position?? But do you still get full FX processing when faders are below unity??Along with monitoring levels??

    1. Yes, the input signal is more important that the fader position.

      When faders are below unity, you still get full FX processing. As you pull your fader up and down, your FX levels will move up and down as well, assuming they are set to post-fader.

      As far as monitor levels go, they should be set to pre-fader, which in that case, the fader position does not affect monitor levels at all.

  6. Thanks, for the info, quite insightful. Its very helpful to me as i am not a professional.

    1. Very good information, thanks a lot! I was facing similar issues in our church. In fact I totally removed the MM5 analog mixer and going with the built-in amplifier mixer of SSB120. Good insight, thank you very much. God bless you

  7. I find that I get clipping in my buses if I don't set the gain so that the max level is around -18 dB (where it starts to turn yellow). Maybe I'm doing something else wrong, but if I set the gain like you say in this article, my buses clip like crazy.

    1. Hey Charles - thanks for the comment. It sounds like you just need to bring your Bus levels down to compensate for bringing the gain up. I'd recommend bringing your bus mixes all the way down, then setting your gain, and then re-mixing your busses from a fresh starting point.

      Gain is first in the signal path on the mixer, so it is the level that should be adjusted first. Hope that helps!

    2. Thanks Kade,

      What you're saying is that the VU meter above the bus sliders is post fader? In other words, simply moving the slider down will prevent the clipping?

      I'll have to try that, thanks. I feel sheepish.

  8. Thanks for the info!! This is incredibly helpful when thinking about moving forward with worship sound.

    I was wondering what you thought about a gain situation. We're getting a signal through to our mains on every channel, but the gain is nowhere close to -12dB. Is. arely hovers around -18dB. Would it be advantageous to our overall sound quality to increase gains and lower the Main LR or speaker volume?

    Thanks!!

    1. Hey Glenn - in this case, you do want to increase the gain to get it where it needs to be (refer to blog above for clarification). Then, lower your speaker/amp volume to compensation. Don't lower the Main LR fader - it should be at 0. You want to send a strong signal to your speakers and then adjust the level on the speaker/amp to get it where you want it to be. Hope that helps!

  9. My lead singer is still sounding distorted even after I turn the gain down to -2.0. What am I doing wrong??

    1. When setting gain, the placement of the gain knob is irrelevant. What does matter is the level meter. What type of mixer are you using?

  10. Hi, the article was very insightful. Thank you.
    How to tackle when the signal is clipping even without any gain applied at the mixer.

    1. Hey Danny - If gain is all the way down and you are still having problems with clipping, first check to see if you can turn down the signal at the source (e.g. turning down a keyboard output). If that doesn't work, or it is not an option, activate the 'pad' on your mixer if it is available.

  11. please can I get a good drum mix without a compressor? especially with my kick to be punchy without compressor? and pls I hv a mixer which the meter clips but the channel peak light doesn't light up..unless the instrument on the channel is too loud..so can this still course distribution? please help guys

  12. When setting the gain, at what level should the power amps be at? I've heard to run them wide open and also about 80%. It seems that when I try to set my gain (x32) fader at unity, input level around -12,-18, it's just blasting loud.... should I turn down my amps?

    1. Yes, turn down your amps until you can run your lead vocal at about -5dB and achieve the volume you want. There is no benefit to running amps wide open or even at 80%. The level knobs on amps is to give you flexibility in how loud to run your room while still sending a nice, strong signal from your mixer. Hope that helps!

  13. My gain knob on behringer x32 is not illuminated or operational. Is there a disabled setting or is it nonfunctional?

    1. Hey Fred - I don't know of any way to disable gain on the X32, so it sounds like it is nonfunctional. One way to be sure is to connect an iPad to your X32 and see if you can adjust gain that way.

  14. Our church uses the MACKIE 1604-VLZ PRO mixer. Problem we have is one of our preachers is very loud. I can't figure out how to record him to our PC when I have to turn his wireless mic almost all the way down.

    Is there a way to capture the raw audio regardless of how loud the preacher is or how low I have to turn him down?

    Thanks,
    Chris

    1. Hey Chris - How are you recording to your PC (what cable are you using, audio interface, etc)?

  15. Kade - when adjusting the gain - what should I instruct the band to do with the in-ears running through behringer systems? Turn it all down and start over? Or should I adjust the output from the board to those monitors? I know our gains aren't perfect but I dont want to blow out someones in-ears either.

    1. Hey Joe - If you are doing a gain overhaul on all channels, I'd definitely recommend having those with in-ears bring the levels down and start over. This may seem like a daunting task to some, but it is actually good practice for them. 🙂

  16. I ran sound recently for a speaking event at our church (I am the Music Director so I don't normally spend a lot of time in the sound booth) I went to set the gains as I normally would (fader in unity gain position 0db ) and with the gain at nil i was still getting sound through the system. With the gain at 10 o'clock and channel and master faders at -20db I was at a decent volume. What are my typical sound guys doing that i'm not catching? I've run sound boards for many other venues and always work to get master and channel faders at 0db

    1. Hey Jeff - thanks for the comment. The fader position does carry any weight when it comes to setting gain. As long as you activate the PFL button on a analog mixer or just select the channel on a digital mixer, the goal is to level meter to adjust gain until it is hitting where the green lights meet the orange lights. I actually recommend having you fader all the way down while you are doing this as you do not need to hear anything - you are only using the level meter. Hope that helps!

  17. I'm assisting a church startup with media and been thrown into audio mixing during worship nights. I have a ear to hear which instruments are too hot and which singers need to be adjusted, but I don't know anything about mixing and sound boards. Any suggestions on what I should do to get more familiar with mixing and sound? Thanks!

  18. Thanks for all the information. I have ruined for a lot of years in many Christian concerts and in church, analog. But now everything is going digital, I'm starting to learn how that works and am grateful for someone like you that help others in this journey into the digital world.

  19. Kade,
    You may not be following these comments any longer but just in case; what is the difference between digital and analog gain? We're using a Midas with a DL251 and have both digital and analog gains. How would we set both?

    Thanks

    1. It's similar to the difference between optical and digital zoom on a camera. Analog gain allows you to increase gain without loss of quality. Digital gain allows you to go beyond the capabilities of analog gain, but you loose quality along the way. So, stay away from digital gain when possible.

  20. Great video. Question. What if a wireless mic receiver has gain on it - like the Shure SLXD4? I set the gain to bein the optimal range (15 DB) on the receiver, but it seems that makes the gain on the X32 for this channel way lower than any other channel. Appreciate you insights, thanks, Doug.

    1. Hey Doug - It's okay for the gain to be lower on the X32 compared to other channels. As long as you can still get it in the -18dB range on the X32, you're good. If it's still to hot on the X32 when gain is all the way down, that's when you will want to turn down gain on the wireless receiver.

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