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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.