Gain staging is an important concept in audio engineering that refers to the proper setting of levels throughout the signal chain in order to achieve the desired overall signal level. In other words, it's the process of ensuring that each stage in the signal path is contributing the appropriate amount of gain to the overall signal.

One of the main reasons why gain staging is important is that it helps to prevent distortion. When the signal level is too high at any stage in the signal chain, it can cause the signal to clip, which creates a distorted sound. Clipping can also cause other issues, such as a loss of dynamic range and a decrease in the overall quality of the audio.

To properly set the gain at each stage in the signal chain, it's important to start at the source. This means setting the level of the microphone or other input device to an appropriate level. From there, the signal passes through preamps or other gain-inducing devices before reaching the mixing board or digital audio workstation (DAW).

At each stage in the signal chain, the level of the signal should be set so that it is just below the point where it would begin to clip. This is known as the "sweet spot," and it provides the best signal-to-noise ratio and the lowest amount of distortion.

One way to ensure proper gain staging is to use a tool called a level meter. This device shows the level of the signal at different points in the signal chain and can help you to quickly and easily set the levels at each stage.

In conclusion, gain staging is an essential part of audio engineering that helps to prevent distortion and ensure that the overall signal level is at the desired level. By properly setting the levels at each stage in the signal chain and considering the overall gain structure, you can achieve the best possible sound quality.

Of course, less distortion is not always better. Saturating your sound can be a desired effect. In that case, just boost the signal before the device you want more distortion from.

Gain Staging in Ableton Live

Now let's look at how to do gain staging in Ableton Live. In a track, the signal originally comes from a clip or input source when it is audio. In MIDI tracks, the MIDI data is converted into sound by a MIDI instrument, and then sent through the device chain and through any audio effects in the track from left to right.

If the signal coming from a clip is too strong, simply lowering the volume may not be sufficient because the volume comes last in the signal flow. Many clips and presets of MIDI instruments are very loud and need to be adjusted. To do this, use the volume setting in the Live instruments or plug-ins.

When recording an external signal, it is important to set the volume to a level that avoids clipping, even when the sound suddenly becomes louder. This is especially important when recording vocals, as the volume of a voice can vary greatly. As a general rule, try to keep the average volume level at around -10 to -12 dB. Also, be sure to check the microphone positioning in relation to the computer and other equipment that may introduce noise. If you are recording something that generates noise on its own, make sure the sound level is well above the noise floor without clipping.

If you have a clip in your track in Live, you can reduce the gain level within the clip, but this may change the sound. Instead, add the Utility effect as the first device in your effects chain in each track and adjust the gain accordingly.

Behold the effects chain

After adjusting the volume of the clip or other input source, the signal will move through the various effects on each track. Not all effects will output the same volume level as they received, and some may intentionally change the volume level. Therefore, it is important to ensure that the levels are reasonable. The meters between effects can show if the volume levels are in the green or red. Most effects, including native Live effects and plug-ins, offer output level controls. Use these controls to boost or attenuate the signal as needed to achieve a good level.