How to Set Gain on Your Mixer

There is a knob at the very top of your mixer that often gets mistaken as volume control. But, it is so much more.

Properly setting gain is foundational to excellent sound. As a matter of fact, if you do not set it properly, you will never get the sound quality you so deeply desire.

It is much like the foundation of your house. When not done the right way, it causes a chain of reactions in which the entire house eventually suffers.

What exactly is gain?

The purpose of gain is to regulate the amount of input coming from the audio device plugged in, whether it be a microphone or instrument.

Every audio device emits a different level of sound signal. Gain enables you to normalize the signal so every input is on the same playing field before it moves through the rest of the mixer (EQ, aux sends, fader, etc.).

Think of it like a water faucet. The amount of water (signal) carried through the pipe (input cable) has an output that is regulated by the faucet (gain).

Keep in mind, gain affects everything else on your mixer, including the monitor volumes, EQ and effects.

Although you should not be scared to change gain, you should do so with caution. Otherwise, you chance blowing out the ears of your musicians if they have in-ear monitors, or creating feedback problems if your floor wedges are set too loud.

How to Set Gain on a Digital Mixer

When setting gain, the source of sound (whether it be a vocal or instrument) should be playing or singing at the level they will be during the service or performance. It is common for a singer to be shy if you ask them to sing alone, so it may be best to set the gain while they are rehearsing with the full band.

As they are singing or playing their instrument, use the level meter next to the gain knob to adjust the gain until it is averaging around where the yellow and green lights meet.

For example, on the Behringer X32, gain should average around -18dB.

It is okay for the signal goes higher during the peak moments (i.e. when a vocal is in their ‘power range’) but it should never hit the red. Red means distortion, and you do not want that. Yellow is still safe, but just letting you know that distortion is near.

Bonus: Download the Gain Cheat Sheet

How to Set Gain on an Analog Mixer

Step 1: Set Everything Back to Default

If you are setting the gain on a channel that is running to external processing, such as a compressor or EQ, you should bypass them all before setting the gain.

Then, make sure that all EQ on the sound board is level (at 12 o’clock). Finally, turn down the aux sends and the fader to ensure that feedback does not rare its ugly head.

If you try to set the gain without out first bringing everything back to default, your level will be skewed.

For example, let’s say you are setting the gain on a vocal which is running through a compressor. If you have have the compressor set for the current gain level, bringing the gain up will appear to make no change to the level of the input. But, in reality, the level is increasing but the compressor is pushing back down. So you end up with an over-compressed signal that sounds absolutely terrible.

On a side note, it is okay to make minor adjustments to the gain without completing this step. If you have to adjust the gain during a service or performance (which does happen), you obviously do not want to bypass everything, as this would make quite the distraction.

Step 2: Engage the Solo (also called ‘PFL’) Button

First, make sure the the Solo button is not engaged for any other channel. You only want it engaged on the channel you are currently working on.

In case you were wondering, if your mixer says ‘PFL’ instead of ‘Solo’, it simply means ‘Pre-Fader Listen’. Engaging this button will allow you to examine the level of input before the the fader.

Step 3: Set Gain

When setting gain, the source of sound (whether it be a vocal or instrument) should be playing or singing at the level they will be during the service or performance. It is common for a singer to be shy if you ask them to sing alone, so it may be best to set the gain while they are rehearsing with the full band.

As they are singing or playing their instrument, use the level meter to adjust the gain until it is averaging around where the yellow and green lights meet.

For example, on most analog mixers, this number is likely to be 0dB.

It is okay for the signal goes higher during the peak moments (i.e. when a vocal is in their ‘power range’) but it should never hit the red. Red means distortion, and you do not want that. Yellow is still safe, but just letting you know that distortion is near.

Step 4: Reset Other Controls

Now that your gain is set, it is time to get your monitors, EQ and other audio processing back in place.

Don’t forget to disengage the Solo (PFL) button so the level indicator lights return back to their default state of letting you monitor the overall output of the sound board.

Bonus: Download the Gain Cheat Sheet

3 Additional Things You Need to Know About Gain

  1. Gain is not a ‘set it and leave it’ type of situation. The levels coming from instruments and vocals will change from time to time. Maybe a vocalist finds their confidence and starts to sing with more volume. Or, the guitarist may change the output level on their pedal which means the gain should now be turned down to compensate for the difference. A host of things can change. So, get in the habit of using the Solo (PFL) button to keep an eye on things.
  2. You may need to use the ‘pad’ button to achieve proper gain levels. If you are setting the gain for a drum mic or some other type of ‘high output’ instrument, you may find that the level is still too high even when the gain is all the way down. Luckily, there is a fix for this. On most sound boards, there is a button near gain called ‘pad’. When engaged, it brings the input level down tremendously, enabling you to properly set the gain.
  3. Always see gain as the first step in the chain of excellent sound. The gain is what feeds everything else on the sound board. If its not right, you are not going to get the desired result from your mixing efforts. If it is too low, the weak signal will make for a subpar sound. If it is too high, the sound will distort, which is even worse. So, give the gain the respect it deserves.

Questions? Drop them in the comments below.

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24 Comments

24 Responses

  1. Valerie Bower

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

  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. Christian

    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. Kade Young

      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. Jesse Grinnell

    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. Kade Young

      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. Harlan

    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. Kade Young

      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. Charles

    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. Kade Young

      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. Charles

      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.

  7. Glenn

    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. Kade Young

      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!

  8. Ryan

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

    1. Kade Young

      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?

  9. Danny

    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. Kade Young

      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.

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