If you have recently begun recording tracks at home or in a studio, you may have spent some time fiddling with different settings in an attempt to create a good sounding mix. Certain settings such as panning and EQing are quite straightforward. However, others may be difficult to fully understand. One of these is the distinction between gain and volume.
Today we will examine the differences between gain and volume and how they should be used in different scenarios.
What is Volume?
“Volume” is generally the most recognizable term on any recording interface or playback system. After all, everyone knows turning up the volume makes the track they are hearing louder.
Volume settings are found on car stereo systems, radios, televisions, and smartphones. Increasing the volume raises the loudness of your system. This means it produces sound at a higher decibel level.
So what does this mean in terms of audio signal? Turning up the volume makes the sound louder, but it does not affect the tone or quality of the original audio signal being channelled through the system.
What is Gain?
“Gain” is a less-recognizable term that few people outside the music world are familiar with. You may have seen this setting on mixing boards, microphone preamps, and amplifiers without fully understanding what it does.
At first glance, turning up the gain appears to accomplish the same thing as turning up the volume: making sounds louder. However, it achieves this loudness in a different manner.
In technical terms, gain could be defined as the ratio between the input volume and the output volume. However, this concept gets a bit more complicated when it is viewed in terms of current and voltage.
Voltage has a direct relationship with amplitude, which is related to volume. So gain can be viewed as the input volume. It controls the loudness at the start of your signal chain.
Gain vs Volume
So what exactly is the core difference between gain and volume? The gain control on a particular piece of sound equipment functions as an amplitude control. This amplitude determines the loudness before the signal runs through the system’s circuitry.
Volume, on the other hand, controls the loudness once the signal has passed through the circuitry. As mentioned earlier, volume does not alter the tone or quality of the signal. It simply turns up the loudness in the whole system.
Adjusting the gain accomplishes loudness in a manner that alters the tone and quality of the sound. This is because it is the ratio of the output signal divided by the input signal’s amplitude.
In analog systems, there is a term known as “peak amplitude”. This refers to the maximum amplitude after which your signal can’t get any louder. The concept of “peak amplitude” exists in digital audio systems as well. However, these digital systems offer additional control options to achieve your desired loudness.
Both the above concepts refer to loudness in different contexts. There exists an upper limit of loudness after which your signal distorts when the gain is increased. On the other hand, there is no upper limit to loudness at the system’s output. The loudness in this latter context is controlled by volume.
What is Gain Staging?
Now that we have discussed the primary differences between gain and volume, you may be wondering about the term “gain staging”. Anyone who spent a fair amount of time playing or recording audio through a series of components should be familiar with this term.
Gain staging is essentially the process of making the loudness or decibel (dB) level consistent throughout your whole audio system. This means the signal exiting the system remains at the same level it was when it first entered.
So why exactly is gain staging important? After all, we could simply adjust the output level to match our desired level of loudness. Many musicians won’t have to worry about gain staging unless they are working with multiple components or plugins.
For example, if you are running your audio signal through multiple plugins on a DAW, each one could impact the signal’s loudness. However, this makes it difficult to distinguish whether the plugin is actually altering the sound in some way, or if it is just making the output louder.
This becomes an issue because our ears and brain usually perceive “loud” audio as sounding better than soft audio. Therefore, you will need to use gaining staging to get a solid idea of what exactly each plugin is doing to the sound.
Let’s say you are running your audio signal through a compressor. This component evens out the quiet and loud parts of your audio signal so that they sound more consistent. However, it also leads to a reduction in overall loudness. You will therefore need to turn up the gain to achieve the volume you had before the signal entered the compressor. This form of gain staging helps your compressor do its job as intended in the mix, and without confusing you or the person mixing the track.
What Does Gain Do in Different Scenarios?
After learning about gain, you may be interested in learning how to apply it in different places. Let’s examine different uses for this unique setting.
Creating Distortion from Gain
Most guitar amplifiers feature a gain setting that is independent of their volume control. You may already be aware that increasing the loudness past a certain point causes your signal to break up and produce “distortion”, which can be desirable in many cases. However, the signal from a guitar usually isn’t high enough to produce this distortion on its own. In addition to this, running a very high signal into your amplifier could damage its tubes or speakers.
The solution to this problem is to reach the maximum voltage using a guitar pedal. This pedal raises the gain to the point where the signal peaks. This break-up “distortion” sound signal is then fed into the amp rather than being produced at the amp itself. You can then adjust the amp volume to achieve a comfortable level of loudness for that distorted sound without damaging your amp’s components.
Using Gain in Microphone Preamps
People plugging a microphone into a sound system for the first time may wonder why the volume initially sounds so low. They may then turn up the volume using the control and notice the additional noise accompanying the louder signal. This noise exists in every audio signal and usually becomes noticeable when the overall volume is increased.
You can correct this problem using a microphone preamp. This device turns up the microphone’s signal from the input point. The end result is a louder signal without the added noise you would encounter from simply turning up the volume.
As you can see, volume and gain are two distinct concepts that must be understood by every live musician or recording artist. These settings control your sound significantly, so you should understand how to use them correctly in different situations.
Be sure to keep the above guide in mind when you sit down to play or record your instrument at home or in the studio. It could very well be the difference between a poor and a great sounding mix.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.