Gain Staging for Podcasts

Riley Byrne, Owner, Podigy.co

17 November 2017

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Gain staging is a pretty simple concept. Basically, it’s how you set your volume levels throughout the signal chain to get a target level at the end of the chain. From the moment we hit record to the final adjustments we make on the master bus, every step is staging the gain for the next step of our processing. The better our gain staging, the less each stage has to work, making our podcast sound more natural while still hitting our target loudness levels. So let’s dive into the wild world of gain staging.

Arguably the most important stage is the first: the level we choose to record at. As we mentioned in our recording guide, when we’re setting our pre-amp for recording we want to get the best Signal-to-Noise ratio as possible right off the bat. Remember that the nature of digital recording is going to add a bit of noise itself, and we’ll have to contend with any other noise our room is making, so at this stage we want to maximize the volume of our audio with two main caveats.

The first is we do not want to clip at all in our recording. Clipping is when our audio goes over the threshold of 0 dB and the waveform gets cut off, creating a distorted sound. So as well as wanting to maximize our Signal-to-Noise ratio, we also want to ensure that we leave some headroom so our audio doesn’t clip. It’s a balancing act as old as digital recorders. When I’m recording other podcasts, I’ll have guests speak normally into their mics and then laugh as loud as they can into the mic so I can get a sense of both what the typical signal-to-noise ratio will be, and ensure that even at their loudest they will not clip.

The second consideration is that setting our pre-amps too high will start to add additional noise to our signal. A good general rule of thumb is that pushing your pre amp (either on your interface or through settings with a USB mic) past 75% of its maximum will start to introduce extra noise from it being pushed too hard. This will vary by manufacturer, but if you turn your preamp knob up all the way without anything connected to it, you can see the noise it produces in your DAW and get a sense of how far you can push it safely. I only point this out because, as an owner of an SM7b, I know how gain hungry some mics can be.

Once we have our audio recorded, we can start to reap the benefits of proper gain staging. By maximizing our signal-to-noise ratio on the way in, most of our gain staging from here on out will be to slowly bring down the overall volume of our track through gain reduction, EQ and compression to naturally bring down the noise in our track without having to use noise reduction tools that can add artifacts to our audio. This is actually a trick that Dolby cassette systems would use to reduce the amount of hiss listeners would hear. By recording our audio louder than what our final output will be, we can use gain staging to bring the overall level down and naturally attenuate noise.

Typically, I recommend using an EQ as the first effect in our signal chain, as we mostly cut frequencies with EQ, and this ensures that your compressors will be able to level out any changes in volume before going to the master bus.

If you’re following along with our guide to podcast editing, you know that we also recommend using Trileveler, which not only allows for simple setup of multiple compressors and allows you to set your target LUFS loudness level, but also includes a separate gain stage called “input trim” as it’s first effect.

At the bottom of Trilelever you can see three bars that represent how hard each compressor is working, and this is one of the reasons why I love recommending Trileveler to newcomers of podcasting. Not only is it a great product, and free to boot, but it almost gamifies gain staging. Once you set your target LUFS volume level, you simply adjust the input trim setting until you see that the three compressors, as represented by the bars at the bottom, are doing as little to the signal as possible. If you’ve recorded your signal louder than -19 LUFS (or applied preemphasis as the dolby team called it) you’ll often find that Trileveler recommends bringing down the input trim by as much as 10 dB (this is what the dolby team called deemphasis).

This is, in effect, what good gain staging looks like for things like podcasts where we’ll often be recording them in less than perfect environments. If we isolate the stages which add noise to our signal, in this case the recording, and make it the loudest part of our signal chain, every subsequent part of the chain will bring down the level and naturally attenuate the noise. When you combine smart gain staging  with some light noise removal, as detailed in our guide to free audio repair, you can get your tracks sounding level, noise free and barely compressed, which will leave your listeners very happy. And at the end of the day, that’s what all this is for, right?

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