Microphone Gain vs Volume | Here’s How They Work

by Joost Nusselder | Updated on:  September 16, 2022

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Microphone gain and microphone volume are two commonly used terms in the audio world.

Both suggest some kind of rise or increase in the mic’s properties. But the two can’t be used interchangeably and are more different than you might think!

Microphone gain vs volume


Microphone gain controls how loud the input of the microphone to the channel or amp is and refers to a boost in the amplitude of the microphone signal. It can be used when the mic itself produces a weak signal; gain helps get it up to par with the input of other audio sources. With volume, you can control how loud the output of the channel or amp is in the final sound mix.

In this article, I’ll take a deeper look into each term as I go through some of its main uses and differences.

Microphone gain vs volume explained

Microphone gain and microphone volume are both important in order to get the best sound out of your microphone.

Microphone gain can help you boost the amplitude of the signal so that it is louder and more audible, while microphone volume can help you control how loud the output of the microphone is.

It is important to understand the difference between these two terms and how they can affect your recordings.

What is microphone gain?

Microphones are analog devices that convert sound waves into electronic signals. This output is referred to as a signal at the mic level.

Mic-level signals are typically between -60 dBu and -40dBu (dBu is a decibel unit used for measuring voltage). This is considered a weak audio signal.

Since professional audio equipment uses audio signals that are at “line level” (+4dBu), with gain, you can then boost the mic level signal up to par with a line level one.

For consumer gear, the “line level” is -10dBV.

Without gain, you wouldn’t be able to use the mic signals with other audio equipment, as they’d be too weak and would result in a poor signal-to-noise ratio.

However, feeding a particular audio device with signals stronger than the line level can result in distortion.

The exact amount of gain needed depends on the sensitivity of the microphone, as well as the sound level and distance of the source from the mic.

Read more about the difference between mic level and line level

How does it work?

Gain works by adding energy to a signal.

So to bring mic-level signals up to line level, a preamplifier is required to boost it.

Some microphones have a built-in preamplifier, and this should have enough gain to boost the mic signal up to line level.

If a mic doesn’t have an active preamplifier, gain can be added from a separate microphone amplifier, such as audio interfaces, standalone preamps, or mixing consoles.

The amp applies this gain to the microphone’s input signal, and this then creates a stronger output signal.

What is microphone volume and how does it work?

Microphone volume refers to how loud or quiet the output sound from the mic is.

You’d typically adjust the volume of the mic by using a fader control. If the microphone is connected to your computer, this panel is also adjustable from your device’s settings.

The louder the input of sound into the mic, the louder the output.

However, if you’ve muted the volume of the mic, no amount of input will project a sound back out.

Also wondering about the difference between omnidirectional vs. directional microphones?

Microphone gain vs. volume: Differences

So now that I’ve gone through what each of these terms means in more detail let’s compare some of the differences between them.

The main thing to remember is that microphone gain refers to an increase in the strength of the mic signal, whereas microphone volume determines the loudness of a sound.

Microphone gain requires an amplifier to boost the output signals coming from the mic so that they’re strong enough to be compatible with other audio equipment.

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Best strings for electric guitar

Microphone volume, on the other hand, is a control that every mic should have. It’s used to adjust how loud the sounds coming out of the mic are.

Here’s a great video by YouTuber ADSR Music Production Tutorials that explain the differences between the two:

Microphone gain vs. volume: What are they used for

Volume and gain are used for two very different purposes. However, both significantly impact the sound of your speakers or amps.

To elaborate on my point, let’s start with the gain.

Use of gain

So, as you may have learned by now, the gain has more to do with signal strength or quality of sound rather than its loudness.

That said, when the gain is moderate, there’s a lower chance that your signal strength will go beyond the clean limit or line level, and you have a lot of headroom.

This ensures that the sound produced is both loud and clean.

When you set the gain high, there’s a good chance that the signal will go beyond the line level. The farther it goes beyond line level, the more it gets distorted.

In other words, the gain is primarily used to control the tone and quality of the sound rather than loudness.

Use of volume

Unlike gain, the volume has nothing to do with the quality or tone of the sound. It is only concerned with controlling loudness.

Since loudness is the output of your speaker or amp, it is a signal that has already been processed. Therefore, you cannot alter it.

Changing the volume will only increase the loudness of the sound without affecting its quality.

How to set the gain level: The do’s and don’t’s

Setting the correct gain level is a technical task.

Therefore, before I go on to explain how to set a well-balanced gain level, let’s have a look at some of the basics that will affect how you set the gain.

What affects gain

Loudness of the sound source

If the loudness of the source is relatively quieter, you would like to crank up the gain a little higher than normal to make the sound perfectly audible without any part of the signal being affected by or lost in the noise floor.

However, if the sound of the source is pretty high, e.g., like a guitar, you would like to keep the gain level low.

Setting the gain high, in this case, could easily distort the sound, decreasing the quality of the whole recording.

Distance from the sound source

If the sound source is farther away from the microphone, the signal will come off as quiet, no matter how loud the instrument is.

You would need to crank up the gain a little to balance the sound.

On the other hand, if the sound source is closer to the microphone, you would like to keep the gain low, as the incoming signal would already be pretty strong.

In that scenario, setting a high gain would distort the sound.

These are the best microphones for recording in a noisy environment reviewed

Sensitivity of the microphone

The main level also highly depends on the type of microphone you are using.

If you have a quieter microphone, like a dynamic or a ribbon mic, you would like to keep the gain higher as they cannot catch the sound in its raw details.

On the other hand, keeping the gain low would help keep the sound from clipping or distortion if you use a condenser microphone.

Since these mics have the widest frequency response, they already capture the sound pretty well and offer great output. Thus, there’s very little you would like to change!

How to set the gain

Once you sort out the above-mentioned factors, it’s pretty easy to set gain. All you need is a good audio interface with a built-in pre-amp and a DAW.

The audio interface, as you may know, will convert your microphone signal into a format your computer can recognize while also letting you adjust the gain.

In the DAW, you will adjust all the vocal tracks directed to the master mix bus.

On each vocal track, there will be a fader that controls the vocal level you send to the master mix bus.

Moreover, each track you adjust will also affect its level in the master mix bus, while the fader you see in the master mix bus will control the overall volume of the blend of all the tracks you assign to it.

Now, as you feed the signal into your DAW through the interface, it’s important to ensure that the gain you set for each instrument is according to the loudest part of the track.

If you set it for the quietest part, your mix will easily distort as the loud parts will go above 0dBFs, resulting in clipping.

In other words, if you’re DAW has a green-yellow-red meter, you would most likely want to stay in the yellow zone.

This is true for both vocals and instruments.

For example, If you are a guitarist, you would ideally set the output gain at an average gain of -18dBFs to -15dBFs, with even the hardest strokes peaking at -6dBFs.

What is gain staging?

Gain staging is adjusting the signal level of an audio signal as it passes through a series of devices.

The goal of gain staging is to maintain the signal level at a consistent, desired level while preventing clipping and other signal degradation.

It plays a crucial role in maximizing the overall clarity of the mix, ensuring that the resulting sound is top-notch.

Gain staging is done with the help of analog equipment or digital workstations.

In analog equipment, we do gain staging to minimize the unwanted noise in a recording, such as hisses and hums.

In the digital world, we don’t have to deal with the extra noise, but we still need to boost the signal and keep it from clipping.

When gain staging in DAW, the main tool you will use is the output meters.

These meters are a graphical representation of different volume levels within a project file, each having a peak point of 0dBFs.

Apart from input and output gain, DAW also provides you control over other elements of a particular song, including track levels, plugins, effects, a master level, etc.

The best mix is the one that achieves the perfect balance between the levels of all these factors.

What is compression? How does it affect gain and volume?

Compression reduces a signal’s dynamic range by turning down or increasing the volume of sounds according to a set threshold.

This results in more even-sounding audio, with both loud and soft parts (peaks and dips) equally defined throughout the mix.

Compression makes the signal sound more consistent by evening out the volume of different parts of a recording.

It also helps the signal sound louder without clipping.

The main thing that comes into play here is the “compression ratio.”

A high compression ratio will make the quieter parts of the song louder and the louder parts softer.

This can help make a mix sound more polished. As a result, you won’t have to apply too much gain.

You might think, why not just decrease the general volume of a specific instrument? It will create enough room for the quieter ones to come out properly!

But the problem with that is an instrument that might be loud in one part can be quiet in others.

Hence by reducing its general volume, you are simply “quieting” it down, which means it won’t sound as good in other parts.

This will negatively affect the overall quality of the mix.

In other words, the compression effect makes your music more defined. It reduces the amount of gain you will generally be applying.

However, it can also lead to some unwanted effects in the mix, which can be a real problem.

In other words, use it wisely!

Conclusion

Though it might not seem like a big deal, gain adjustment can be the only difference between a bad and an excellent recording.

It controls the tone of your music and the final quality of music that penetrates your eardrums.

On the other hand, volume is just a simple thing that only matters when we talk about the loudness of sound.

It has nothing to do with quality whatsoever, nor does it matter much during mixing.

In this article, I tried to break down the difference between gain and volume in its most basic form while describing their roles, uses, and closely related questions and topics.

Next check out these Best portable PA systems under $200.

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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