Gain: What Does It Do In Music Gear?

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  May 3, 2022

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Gain is great for getting your mic level just right. Microphones use a mic level signal, which is a low-amplitude signal compared to line or instrument signals.

So, when you plug your mic into your console or interface, you need to give it a boost. That way, your mic level won’t be too close to the noise floor, and you’ll get a good signal-to-noise ratio.

What is gain

Getting the Most Out of Your ADC

Analog-to-digital converters (ADCs) convert analog signals into digital ones that your computer can read. To get the best recording, you want to give your system the loudest possible gain without heading into the red (clipping). Clipping in the digital world is bad news, as it gives your music a nasty, distorted sound.

Adding Distortion

Gain can also be used to add distortion. Guitarists often use gain on their amps to get a heavy, saturated sound. You can also use a boost pedal or overdrive pedal to raise the level and reach the distortion point. John Lennon famously ran his guitar signal into the pre-amp on the mixing console with a high input setting to get the fuzzy tone on “Revolution.”

The Final Word on Gains

The Basics

So the main takeaway from this article is that the gain control does have an effect on the volume, but it’s not a loudness control. It’s actually one of the most important adjustments you’ll find on audio gear. Its purpose is to prevent distortion and provide the strongest signal possible. Or, it can be used to create a lot of distortion with huge tone shaping, like you’d find on a guitar amp.

The Loudness War is Over

The loudness war is a thing of the past. Now, textures are just as important as dynamics. You won’t win over your audience with sheer volume. So when you’re recording, think about the sound you want to achieve and make sure to get the most out of your gain control.

Gain Control is King

Gain control is the key to getting the best performance from your equipment. So next time you’re tweaking your gear, take a closer look at the controls and understand the difference between gain and volume. Once you do, your sound will improve and your controls will make a lot more sense.

Turn it Up to 11: Exploring the Relationship Between Audio Gain and Volume

Gain: The Amplitude Adjuster

Gain is like the volume knob on steroids. It controls the amplitude of the audio signal as it passes through the device. It’s like a bouncer at a club, deciding who gets to come in and who gets to stay out.

Volume: The Loudness Controller

Volume is like the volume knob on steroids. It controls how loud the audio signal will be when it leaves the device. It’s like a DJ at a club, deciding how loud the music should be.

Breaking it Down

Gain and volume are often confused, but they’re really two different things. To understand the difference, let’s break an amplifier into two parts: preamp and power.

  • Preamp: This is the part of the amplifier that adjusts the gain. It’s like a filter, deciding how much of the signal gets through.
  • Power: This is the part of the amplifier that adjusts the volume. It’s like a volume knob, deciding how loud the signal will be.

Also read: these are the differences between gain and volume for microphones explained

Making Adjustments

Let’s say we have a guitar input signal of 1 volt. We set the gain to 25% and the volume to 25%. This limits how much signal makes its way into the other stages, but still gives us a decent output of 16 volts. The signal is still quite clean because of the lower gain setting.

Increasing Gain

Now let’s say we increase the gain to 75%. The signal from the guitar is still 1 volt, but now a majority of the signal from stage 1 makes its way to the other stages. This added audio gain hits the stages harder, driving them into distortion. Once the signal leaves the preamp, it’s distorted and is now a 40-volt output!

The volume control is still set at 25%, sending only a quarter of the preamp signal it has received. With a 10-volt signal, the power amp increases it and the listener experiences 82 decibels through the speaker. The sound from the speaker would be distorted thanks to the preamp.

Increasing Volume

Finally, let’s say we leave the preamp alone but crank up the volume to 75%. We now have a loudness level of 120 decibels and wow what a change in intensity! The gain setting is still at 75%, so the preamp output and distortion are the same. But the volume control is now letting a majority of the preamp signal work its way to the power amplifier.

So there you have it! Gain and volume are two different things, but they do interact with each other to control the loudness. With the right settings, you can get the sound you want without sacrificing quality.

Gain: What’s the Big Deal?

Gain on a Guitar Amp

  • Ever wondered why your guitar amp has a gain knob? Well, it’s all about the signal intensity!
  • The preamp stage of an instrument amplifier is needed to amplify an input signal that’s too low to be useful on its own.
  • The gain control on an amp lives in the preamp section of the circuit and dictates how much signal is allowed to proceed.
  • Most guitar amps have many active gain stages that are connected together in series. As the audio signal intensifies, it becomes too large for the following stages to handle and starts to clip.
  • The makeup gain or trim control regulates the amount of signal it receives from a device to keep the sound quality in check and prevent any distortion or clipping.

Gain in the Digital Realm

  • In the digital realm, the definition of gain has some new complexities to consider.
  • Plugins that mimic analog gear still have to consider the old properties of gain while noting how it works in the digital realm.
  • When many people think of gain, they think of the output signal level of a sound system that comes out.
  • It’s important to remember that gain is not the same as volume, as it’s more about the signal intensity.
  • Too much or too little input signal can ruin sound quality, so it’s important to get the gain setting just right!

FAQs: All Your Questions Answered!

Does Gain Increase Volume?

  • Does gain make it louder? Yup! It’s like turning up the volume on your TV – the more you turn it up, the louder it gets.
  • Does it affect sound quality? Sure does! It’s like a magical knob that can make your sound go from clean and crisp to distorted and fuzzy.

What Happens If Gain Is Too Low?

  • You’ll get a lot of noise. It’s like trying to listen to a radio station that’s too far away – all you hear is static.
  • You won’t get the voltage you need to convert your analog signal into a digital one. It’s like trying to watch a movie on a tiny screen – you won’t get the full picture.

Is Gain The Same As Distortion?

  • Nope! Gain is like the volume knob on your stereo, while distortion is like the bass knob.
  • Gain determines how your system reacts to the signal you’re feeding it, while distortion changes the sound quality.

What Happens If Gain Is Too High?

  • You’ll get distortion or clipping. It’s like trying to listen to a song that’s too loud – it’ll sound distorted and fuzzy.
  • You might get a good or bad sound depending on what you’re going for. It’s like trying to listen to a song on a really cheap speaker – it’ll sound different than if you listen to it on a good one.

How Is Audio Gain Calculated?

  • Audio gain is calculated as a ratio of output power to input power. It’s like trying to figure out how much money you’ll make after taxes – you need to know the input and output.
  • The unit of measurement we use is decibels (dB). It’s like trying to figure out how many miles you drove – you need to measure it in a unit that makes sense.

Does Gain Control Wattage?

  • Nope! Gain sets the input levels, while wattage determines the output. It’s like trying to turn up the brightness on your TV – it won’t make it louder, just brighter.

What Should I Set My Gain To?

  • Set it so that it’s right where green meets yellow. It’s like trying to find the perfect temperature for your shower – not too hot, not too cold.

Does Gain Increase Distortion?

  • Yup! It’s like trying to turn up the bass on your stereo – the more you turn it up, the more distorted it gets.

How Do You Gain Stage?

  • Make sure your audio signals are sitting at a level where they’re high above the noise floor, but not too high where they’re clipping or distorting. It’s like trying to find the perfect balance between loud and quiet – you don’t want it too loud or too quiet.

Does Higher Gain Mean More Power?

  • Nope! Power is determined by the output, not the gain. It’s like trying to turn up the volume on your phone – it won’t make it louder, just louder in your ear.

I'm Joost Nusselder, the founder of Neaera and a content marketer, dad, and love trying out new equipment with guitar at the heart of my passion, and together with my team, I've been creating in-depth blog articles since 2020 to help loyal readers with recording and guitar tips.

Check me out on Youtube where I try out all of this gear:

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