How to Master Gain Staging For Your Sets

You may think that the most important part of becoming a DJ is the technical skills involved in mixing one track into the next. While these skills are important there is one issue that every beginner DJ needs to be aware of. Effectively setting up your gain staging, also commonly referred to as gain structure, will give you the best results from your gear. One common pitfall of new DJs is the sound level of their sets. This can often lead to clipping or redlining as it’s called. In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about setting up your gain staging and why it’s important.

Effectively setting up your gain staging will give you the best results from your gear. One common pitfall of new DJs is the sound level of their sets. This can often lead to clipping or redlining as it’s called. In this article, I’ll cover everything you need to know about setting up your gain staging and why it’s important.

What is Gain Staging?

Sound theory is a deep subject so I’ll try to keep this as straightforward as possible. All sound coming from your equipment is converted into electronic signals. The corresponding volume of these signals is determined by the AC voltage of the signal. These signals have a limit to how loud they can go. This is what amplifiers do. They amplify the signal to make it louder. The problem is that even the best gear in the world has a limit to how much it can handle.

By setting up your gain staging you ensure that you are getting the most out of your gear. It allows you to maximize volume while not introducing distortion or clipping.

When it comes to sound signals its best to visualize it. Sound travels in a wave. In the image below you can see the lowest and highest points. This range is the capacity of your sound system. If the sound is over-amplified the sine wave exceeds these limits. Anything beyond those limits is signal that the sound system cannot handle. As a result, these frequencies are ‘clipped’ out.

Illustration of frequencies cut by clipping.

Anything beyond the red lines is sound that is “clipped”.

There is a difference worth noting between analog and digital signals. Each signal is handled differently and as a result, it impacts the sound.

Analog circuits will have a maximum rating in decibels that it can handle. This is generally set by the manufacturer. Usually, there is some extra sound space available. Once the sound is exceeding the requirements the impact on the sound will not be overly harsh to the ears. Some describe this as a warm distortion and in some cases, it can be used to add creative elements to your sets.

Digital circuits follow the same principle of having a maximum rating associated with them. The difference is there is no extra space for exceeding that rating. Any sound that exceeds the specifications becomes distorted. Unlike Analog circuits this type of distortion is very unpleasant to the ear.

This is where the gain staging comes into play. By checking and setting each component you can prevent hearing these unpleasant distortions.

Why is Audio Clipping Bad?

Now that you know how sound is handled by your sound system you may be wondering what happens when your sound does get clipped. There are many negative aspects to be aware of.

When your sound is getting clipped it is highlighting that your sound system is unable to handle the power coming to it and it results in distortion. As a DJ you want your music to sound crisp and clear. This applies to both the low and high end. If any of the sound signals are getting clipped you are losing some frequencies of the track and replacing it with a horrible noise. This noise is unpleasant and will ruin even the most skillful of transitions. It can also turn a crowd-pleasing track into an abomination. If you want to learn more about the different types of distortions you can check out the video below.

The most common type of distortion you will encounter will be a hiss or hum. All analog circuits will build up some form of natural distortion. It’s best to run the analog signal as close to the line as possible without clipping to minimize the impact of natural analog distortion. This will ensure that the natural analog hum or hiss is washed out by appropriately loud enough sound.

There is another negative to having your sound clipped. When your sound is getting clipped it is placing too much pressure on your sound system. This can cause damage to your sound system. Cheap studio monitors will quickly blow as will even the best studio monitors. The last thing you want is for your brand new speakers to be blown buy excessive redline distortion. This can also impact headphones as well and will quickly turn good DJ headphones into useless garbage.

How to Setup Your Gain Structure

It’s important to make sure all sound inputs are metered to prevent clipping and keep your mixes sounding great. It will also make sure your speakers will last you for years to come. Setting all the levels in the right way is known as Gain Structure. This process will ensure you don’t experience clipping and also leave yourself some headroom for your mixes.

There are four main Gain Stages on any DJ setup. These are the elements that you’ll use to set up your Gain Structure.

  • Each channel on your DJ gear will have a gain knob usually located above the Low/Mid/High EQ. This knob alters the sound for that particular channel.
  • Underneath the EQ there will be channel faders. These also alter the volume of that channel.
  • There is also a main gain knob for the entire mixer. Placement of these varies.
  • The last gain stage is the volume control on your actual sound system.

The most important component of setting up your Gain structure is to pay attention to the level meters. These are usually found on your DJ equipment or in your software. They go from green to orange to red. The peak of the green section usually represents the base level. The orange is usually peaked by more aggressive elements like big bass. Your main goal is to ensure you’re not hitting the red. This is the area where clipping can occur.

The first step is to set all the Gain stages to their lowest setting. Generally represented by an infinity sign.

Start playing a track and begin raising that specific channels gain knob. Do this until you’re hitting all green bars and on the bass notes going into the orange. Don’t push this too far as you don’t want to get into the red. Next, raise your channel faders to full or close to full if you want to leave yourself some space for creative volume changes mid-set. Then raise your master gain knob. Once again pay attention to the level meter to ensure you don’t hit the red. The last step is to alter the gain on your sound system. Follow the same process above aiming to hit the first or second orange light on the bass notes.

Photo of a VU meter.

Don’t let the levels hit the red!

You now have gone through all the various gain stages and set them up. This structure will ensure you don’t experience clipping. From this point onwards if you want to change the volume aim to only use your sound systems master gain. Once again always pay attention to the level meters. Keep in mind to remember the maximum level you can go before hitting the red. It can even be worthwhile to mark this on your sound system so that you never exceed that point.

Tips & Tricks

You now know what clipping or redlining is and why it’s bad. You also know the steps involved in setting up your gain stages. Now you have a solid gain structure that won’t blow up your speakers. It will also make sure the sound is getting represented accurately without distortion.

Buyer’s Guide For DJ Controllers

There are a couple of other tips I’d like to add. If you are buying a beginner DJ controller try to purchase one that shows levels on the controller. When you are mixing take a moment to keep an eye on the levels. You may have followed all the above steps but songs are recorded at different levels. You may find yourself creeping up into the red. Use the channel faders or the channels gain knob to make adjustments throughout your set to keep a consistent level.

Constantly running your setup at max volume also reduces your potential for creativity while mixing. DJs refer to having ‘headroom’ available in their sets. This ‘headroom’ is the extra amount of volume they have to play with during their set. Setting your channel level at 80 or 90% gives you flexibility. Making some tracks louder at key moments in your set can help boost energy levels. It can also add to the story of your set. Just like in life when we raise our voice to emphasize on a specific point.

Normalize Your Audio Tracks

As a DJ you may also come across tracks that have been recorded at lower levels. Some DJ software has auto gain features built-in. This is not always as accurate as you may need. Especially for songs that may have soft sections. By leaving yourself some ‘headroom’ you can fix the volume for a seamless transition between songs.

DJ mixing tracks with a laptop in the background

Keeping out of the red will result in better sound and more creative freedom when mixing.

You can overcome this issue beforehand if you don’t want to be constantly changing channel faders throughout your set. You can alter the tracks yourself in audio software like Audacity to increase or decrease volume. You can also run your music through software like Platinum Notes. Platinum Notes will automatically adjust the levels of your songs so that they have an equal-loudness rating.

Don’t Push Your Sound System

The other issue you may encounter is that you’re not satisfied with the loudness after setting up your gain structure. If this is the case avoid the temptation to push your system into the red. You’ll end up damaging your equipment and introduce distortion. Instead, invest in a better amplifier or sound system.

Sound Quality is Your Reward

As tempting as it is to plug and play when you get your gear it’s important to follow the above steps before you even start spinning your first track. Sticking to these core principles of gain structure will allow you to make sure your mixes sound great and your gear doesn’t get damaged. It will also give you the understanding you need if you ever take your gear to a friends place and plug it into their sound system.

There is nothing that sounds worse in a DJ set than distortion caused by clipping so remember to always stay out of the red!

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Robert Calabrese

Robert Calabrese

I've loved electronic music since the age of 12. From listening to tapes on my walkman, buying CD's and now in digital format. As the music evolved so has my experience and I'm passionate about sharing my journey with you.

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