Have you been wondering about pre fader volume and gain staging in FL Studio ? This post will answer all the questions you have. First, let us start with what gain staging really is.
What is gain staging?
Gain staging is properly setting up the volume of an audio in music production and sound engineering by avoiding too high and too low audio levels. To simply put it- gain staging is aiming for optimum audio levels when making music. Proper gainstaging should be a goal both during recording and mixing stages of music production. Gain staging during recording is mostly done outside the DAW, where you set the right volume levels on your audio interface’s preamp , while you can monitor by using meters in your DAW.
Let us view this deeply. When recording, you would not want your recorded audio to turn out too low. Rather, you want it to be loud and clear enough, so you turn the volume up. Still, while turning things up you will have to avoid getting the sound too loud to the extent they start clipping. For the greenhorns, clipping means the fuzzy , harsh and distorted sound noticeable in an audio when the volume is too high. Likewise during mixing, every sound on the mixer channels should be at their optimum level while maintaining the overall balance of the music. So, gain staging comes into play in both the recording and mixing phases of music making, but is more critical and important in the recording stage. This is because once you record an audio too hot so much it clips or distorts, it is rendered unusable. Whereas in mixing stage you can still go in to adjust things. Here, we’re focusing on gainstaging inside the DAW which sort of falls on the mixing side of things.
So what is the ideal audio gain staging level in the box?
There is no fixed universal audio level to always aim for when recording or mixing. The loudest point(peak) of various instruments on the metres of their mixer channels will vary according to their textures and timbres. Though we have to start off a mix at an average volume level that gives us enough headroom to work with come mastering time. Thus, we should be cautious of having our finished mixes too loud. So what is the average/optimum level to aim for? For every element of a song assigned to a channel, you should aim for an average lowest level of -18dbfs and above, and an average ‘highest’ level (peak) of between -6dbfs to -12dbfs or lower. Somewhere in between those level are save for a healthy mix volume, as long as the accumulation of all the instruments are not clipping the master bus. The master channel should never cross the 0dbfs under any condition, else the whole track clips. The safest level you should be aiming for on the master channel is between -6db and -3db. I won’t be going into the technical details here, but in case you would love to read more on it, check the first four of the discussion the reason most ITB mixes don’t sound as good as analog mixes on gearslutz for more theoretical insight.
The usefulness of pre-fader volume control in gain staging
Pre-fader volume, as the name implies means anywhere you can adjust the volume of an audio ‘before the mixer channel’s volume fader’. So in what cases will you need to use pre fader volume? Well, in 2 instances obviously. When an audio is too loud and you need to reduce it, and when it is too low and you need to increase it. Note that gain staging inside a DAW starts right from the production stage, even if you are making music using just samples and soft synths. For example, when working with synths and samples, you have an awesome arrangement going with everything well balanced out using individual mixer faders. But then comes a particular sound that feels too loud or too low no matter how much you turn the channel’s fader down or up. In such cases, you are facing a gain staging challenge.
There are several ways to solve this, considering pre-fader volume is anywhere you can adjust the volume before the mixer faders. So if a soft synth’s volume is what is too loud or low in a mix, you can go into the synth to locate and adjust its output volume control. Another option is to use volume gain/trim plugins as first insert on the mixer channel, while the in inbuilt solution is the pre-fader volume control.
Integrated pre-fader volume control in FL studio
Almost all DAWs have built into them a dedicated pre-fader volume control. Due to an oversight and maybe inexperience, most people don’t know where this is located in FL Studio. So where is FL Studio’s pre fader volume located? It may surprise you, they are the little knobs on the left side of each channel tabs on the channel rack or step sequencer. The other knobs to the farther left are the pre-fader pan controls. So now you know what purpose those little knobs serve, you can start using them to properly gainstage your mixes. You can even automate them for better volume balance.
That’s it about pre fader volume and gain staging in FL Studio. You should read this article to learn how using automation can help you achieve a better mix. You should also learn how to properly use routing, auxiliary sends and group buses on FL Studio’s mixer.
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