Learn all about the newest Effects, Mastering and VST

See how DJ Jorgen won the DJ.Studio remix contest

  1. Blog
  2. How To Make A DJ Mix

Mixing dB Levels for DJs - Understanding Gain Staging

Gain staging is a critical aspect of DJing, essential for maintaining optimal audio quality and clarity throughout a mix. Although it's often ignored and overlooked by new (and even professional) DJs. I'm honestly surprised by the amount of 'professional' DJs who have no idea how to gain stage properly and end up diminishing the audio quality of their mix unintentionally. 

By carefully adjusting the gain levels at each stage of the signal chain, from the input source to the output speakers, DJs can prevent distortion, ensure consistency in volume levels across tracks, and maximise the signal-to-noise ratio. 

Ultimately, proper gain staging enhances the overall listening experience for the audience, creating mixes that are smooth, dynamic, and sonically pleasing.

There is actually a fair amount of artistry involved with gain staging, as it does affect the color and tone of your mix output. For example, some artists love the sound of a distorted master output, and others enjoy experimenting with different gain types and hardware. 

This guide explains the importance of proper gain staging and shows you the methods to get it right every time. 

TL;DR - DJ Gain Structure and Volume Levels #

  • Gain structure is often overlooked by newer DJs, but it's vital for high-quality mixing. 

  • Gain structure refers to how the volume levels are set throughout the mixer, from the channel gain, to the volume fades, and master output. 

  • Using correct gain structure ensures that you avoid unwanted distortion, and maximize your headroom for the cleanest and loudest audio signal. 

  • DJ.Studio helps you to balance the gain of your mixes in a new way, with per-track volume and compression controls  

What is Gain Staging for DJs?#

Gain staging in DJing (and broader audio scenarios) refers to the management of signal levels at various points in the audio chain to ensure optimal sound quality and prevent distortion. 

This involves adjusting the gain or volume settings at each stage of the signal flow, from the input sources like turntables or CDJs, through the mixer, effects units, and finally to the output speakers. 

The goal of gain staging is to keep the audio signal within a healthy range, neither too quiet nor too loud, to achieve the best possible sound reproduction and avoid unwanted digital distortion. This creates a solid mix, with a good level of perceived loudness and clarity. 

When you listen to some DJs, you may hear a distorted, flat, impactless tone in their audio. This will be because they've not done their gain staging correctly, and now their mix is crushed. 

Understanding Signal Flow in a DJ Setup #

To understand gain staging, you need to know about the typical signal flow of a DJ setup, so you can make sure that the gain is right at each stage. 

The audio signal flows through multiple stages of equipment and control in DJ gear. There is typically a gain control at each stage, which needs to be set to the right level. 

You can't correct an issue in an early stage with control down the line. So, if you have distortion coming from an early input stage, you can't fix it by turning down the volume on a later device. This is why you need to pay close attention to the gain at every device and opportunity, and make sure that it's correct from the start of the path. 

Typically, the source of an audio signal in a DJ setup is a source device like a CDJ or vinyl turntable. (Sometimes you'll use an extra sampler or a controller). This signal is then sent into a DJ mixer, which has input gain controls, EQs, channel faders, and effects. All of these need to be set at the correct level. The audio is then sent out of the mixer via the master output fader/control, which is then connected to a set of speakers (or an amp) which usually has its own volume control. 

To get a better sense of the flow of this audio signal, here is a step-by-step list of how the audio flows, with each stage typically offering it's own gain control. 

  1. Audio Sources (CDJs, turntables, software, extra devices). Each source has a different output level, and volume can vary from track to track based on the final settings created by the mastering engineer. 

  2. Mixer input gain - The first gain control lets you set the pre-gain between each channel. 

  3. EQs - While these aren't traditional gain controls, EQ does affect the gain of a track. 

  4. Channel Fader - These are the vertical sliders which are used to set the relative volume of one track against the other, independently. 

  5. Crossfader - This mixing stage sets the levels of the two channels simultaneously. As you turn one up, the other is reduced. 

  6. Master output/Master fader - The mixer has a master volume control which sets the final output level of the devices. This affects all channels equally and simultaneously. 

  7. Amplification input/speaker controls - Depending on what sound system you're using, there will be some level of volume control. This might be volume knobs on the amplifier or maybe built directly into the speakers. 

Gain staging is crucial at each stage of this signal path. 

For most of these devices and stages, you will see some kind of visual display indicators - like a row of LEDs. This shows you if the signal is clipping (distorting) at any stage. You should pay close attention to both the visual meters, and the audio quality. You may need to train your ears to learn what to listen out for. 

Why Gain Staging is Important for DJs#

Maintaining proper gain levels throughout the signal chain is essential for several reasons. 

  • Retain High Audio Quality - It ensures the integrity of the audio signal, preserving the dynamic range and tonal balance of the music without degrading the quality and listening experience. 

  • Avoid Distortion - It prevents distortion, which can occur when the signal is pushed beyond the capabilities of the equipment. Distortion not only degrades sound quality but can also damage speakers and other hardware. 

  • Maximise Signal-to-Noise Ratio - While you want to avoid the signal being too loud and distorting, you also want to make sure it's not too quiet, which results in a worse signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). This is explained in more detail 

  • Volume Consistency - It helps to maintain consistent gain levels and allows for smoother transitions between tracks, enhancing the overall flow and coherence of the mix. 

  • Frequency Balance - Moreover, proper gain staging helps to achieve a balanced mix where the individual elements of the music, from the bassline to the vocals, can be heard clearly without being overshadowed or masked by excessive gain. For example, an excess of low frequencies can drown out other elements. 

  • Preserve Dynamic Range - When a signal is clipped due to being louder than the headroom, it limits the dynamic range of the output. This can create a flatter, compressed signal with less impact and punch. 

These are some of the main reasons why DJs need to give attention to gain staging. This principle applies to all various genres out there, so regardless of what music you are mixing, make sure your volume is in the sweet spot throughout the signal path. 

In essence, it's about finding the right volume balance. You want to maximise the volume, without distorting the signal. Next, I'll explain some of the fundamental concepts in more detail. 

Gain Staging: Deep Dive#

Now you understand the basics, it's time to look at each component of this concept in more detail, so you know exactly what is going on, and why you need to take certain actions. 

The core process of gain staging is: appropriately applying amplification to maximise signal-to-noise ratio and avoid distortion. 

Proper gain structure ensures that the signal remains loud and clear while minimizing the introduction of noise or distortion.

Let's look at these terms in more detail. 

Understanding Gain and Amplification#

Gain (aka amplification) is a process whereby the energy of an audio signal is increased by an amplification circuit. 

This happens in many different devices. For example, even your phone has multiple amplifiers for converting the tiny digital music signal into an audible tone through its speakers. 

In a DJ setup, there are multiple stages where gain control is provided (as explained above). Each of these has a different purpose

  • Input Gain/Trim

    This is the first gain stage, which is used to amplify the signal from the source device like a CD player. This stage is mainly used to balance the volume from different sources and tracks, as there can be a variance. This is typically a small knob at the top of the audio channel on a mixer. 

  • Channel Faders - 

    This is the channel fader, which is used more artistically than technically. These long faders let you play with the volume of a channel, and sit in between the input gain and master output. 

  • Master Output 

    This sets the final output level from the mixer and controls all output channels at the same time. This is used for finding the right level to play through the speakers to your audience.

  • Speaker Gain 

    Speakers/speaker amps usually have their own control. This is typically not controlled by the DJs themselves and is managed by the front-of-house staff and engineers. 

Gain essentially increases the energy of the volume signal. Signals created by source devices like CDJs and turntables are tiny - when ultimately you need a large amount of energy to move the cones of the master speakers. Gain and amplifiers are responsible for subsequently boosting these small signals to eventually have enough energy to create vibrations in the air through speakers. 

Understanding Signal-to-Noise Ratio#

Another important concept to learn about to fully understand gain staging is Signal-to-Noise Ratio (SNR). 

SNR is a measurement of the elements of an audio signal. In essence, it gives you the balance between the signal (the actual audio you want to hear) and the noise (unwanted noise and space). 

All audio gear introduces some level of noise to the signal. Whether this is hum, white noise, hiss, or other types of noise, it's mostly unavoidable. You will see the SNR spec given on most gear, which is often a good indicator of its quality. 

Gain staging is one of the key tools to make sure you are maximizing your SNR, which in turn helps to create the loudest and cleanest signal possible. 

To understand the effects of bad gain staging on SnR, here is a bit of an analogy. 

  1. Imagine a DJ has a source device, like a CD player, that has, say, a 5:0.1 SnR. This is outputting a signal with 5 'points' of the signal, and 0.1 point of noise which gets sent to the input gain of a mixer. 

  2. The input gain is set to +5 (out of a maximum of +10). So this adds 5 points of signal and 5 points of noise, or an SnR of 10:5.1. Because the max is +10, it only uses 5 points on the signal, and 5 of more noise is added.  

  3. This signal is then sent through the master output, which is an amplification of 10x, and then another 10x through the speaker amps. 

  4. The audience is then listening to a signal which is 1000 points of nice signal, to 510 points of unwanted noise. Which is far from ideal, and will have a noticeably noisy quality. The DJ tries to counteract this by cranking up the master output, but this increases the noise just as much as the signal. 

As you can see, a bad SnR early on is just exaggerated by subsequent stages of amplification. Creating a sound through the speakers that is basically 1/3 noise. 

Now, let's have a look at what would happen if the DJ used proper gain staging. 

  1. The CDJ has the same 5:0.1 SnR, getting sent to the mixer. 

  2. The DJ now puts the input gain to +9 (rather than +5), adding 9 points of signal and 1 point of noise, creating an SnR of 14:1.1

  3. This is then amplified 10x by the master output, and 10x by the speaker amps. 

  4. The audience is then listening to a sound with 1400 points of signal, to 110 points of noise, which is a far purer and noiseless signal compared to the first DJ. 

This shows the importance of getting the input gain right, to maximize the SnR. This creates a cleaner, purer, and noise-free signal, which obviously creates a better listening experience overall. 

However, you need to be careful not to crank the input gain too much, as this can distort or clip the signal...

Understanding Distortion and Clipping #

While DJs need to boost input gain to maximise SnR, at the same time they need to avoid boosting it too much, which causes distortion or clipping. 

Audio circuits and devices only have so much 'room' (capacity, headroom) for the energy of an audio signal. If this capacity is overloaded, the audio signal becomes crushed and distorted, as the internal components can't process the full signal as it passes through. This created distortion, aka clipping - because it clips off the top of the waveform. 

For a fun analogy, you can think of an audio waveform as a train, and the capacity of an amplifier or device as a tunnel. If you drive a train that is too tall into the tunnel, it's going to cut off the top of the train. The train will come out the other side of the tunnel without its roof...

Distortion/clipping for DJs works like this:

  1. The DJ has an audio source (CD player) being run through the mixer. The CD creates a signal with a level of 8. 

  2. The DJ then puts the input gain to +10, creating an output signal of 18. 

  3. In this example, the mixer only has the capacity for 15 points of the output signal peak level, meaning the top 3 points are flattened out. 

(These numbers are just for an example demonstration, they're not accurate). In reality, the point at which most mixers clip is at 0dB, and you want to aim to have your signals below this level. When setting gain levels for DJ mixes, aiming for an optimal level of around -6 dB to -3 dB is generally recommended. This level provides sufficient headroom for the audio signal, allowing for dynamic peaks without risking distortion or clipping. You should try not to exceed a true peak of -1 dB unless you want distortion. 

To understand why this creates distortion, have a look at the diagram above. 

An audio waveform is typically a smooth wavy line. When this signal gets clipped by being too loud for the output, it cuts the top of the waves off, leaving flattened peaks. This changes the waveform's shape, creating a saturated and distorted tone. 

The waveform's shape is replicated by the listener's ear drums. So really, you want them to be vibrating smoothly. But when a signal is distorted, it creates harsh movements on the eardrum, which creates the distorted noise interpreted by our psychoacoustic and physical listening systems (ears and brain). 

While DJs should avoid this distortion effect if they want a cleaner, purer audio signal, many DJs are known to use this as a creative effect. Some DJs will purposely overdrive the signal by cranking it too loud, to create a gritty, crunchy tone, for a more aggressive sound in their performance. This isn't necessarily wrong, it's just using the same principle as an artistic device - it all depends on the context and what you're trying to achieve. 

How To Gain Stage: Guide for DJs#

With all the theories and concepts learned, it's time to start putting your knowledge to practice. 

This section gives you some practical instructions to gain stage when you're DJing. Integrating this in your mixes will help you to have the correct gain structure, and maximize the audio quality of your performance. 

  1. Prepare and Setup - Before you start mixing, try to prepare the controls and gain settings on your mixer and gear. (This can be a bit tricky if you're taking over after another DJ's slot. Set the trim controls for each channel to +/- 0dB so they're not boosting or lowering the signal. Set the master to +/- 0dB, and put the channel faders at the top of their slider. Put the crossfader into the middle. Set the speakers/amp to +/- 0dB. You now have all your gear set to a neutral position, leaving you in good preparation for gain staging. (Some mixers and controllers don't have numerical indicators, in which case you should just set the knob to the middle position). 

  2. Play Track 1 and Set Gain - Play the first track you are going to mix, and have a look at the meters. Adjust the input trim until the indicators show that the track is peaking at around -6 to -3 dB on the channel level indicators. The master output meter should show a similar level, but adjust the master gain if not. You should now be at a good volume level, but adjust the master fader if you need extra volume. (Or ask the front-of-house to turn up if you're running out of headroom).  

  3. Cue Track 2, and Set Gain - When Track 1 is live, it's time to prepare Track 2. Play it in through the headphone cue, and make sure that the channel fader is down so it's not coming out the front of house speakers. Now, adjust the headphone cue so it's playing a 50/50 mix of track 1 and 2. Adjust channel 2's input gain until the volume is around a similar level to track 1 - then make your transition!

  4. Constant Monitoring and Adjustment - Tracks often change in volume throughout their progression, so you need to constantly listen out for any increase or drops in level, and keep an eye on the meters. Try to keep a relatively consistent volume throughout your mix - although leave some room to bring the volume up or down for emotional effect.

This shows you the basic process for gain staging, but you can also think of a rough protocol loop to follow to ensure that you're constantly balancing the gains and creating the right gain structure. 

The order to think about gain staging is:

  1. Are the input gains right, with the correct SnR, and leaving headroom?

  2. Is the channel fader and crossfader being used correctly?

  3. Is the master ensuring the room is loud enough, without clipping? 

Gain Staging with DJ.Studio#

 #

DJ.Studio is a unique new piece of DJ software with a revolutionary approach to DJ mixing. Rather than using a controller or decks, DJs can create full, expressive mixes from their laptop alone, with a DAW-style mix creation and editing interface. 

Among many of the benefits this provides for DJs, it also gives you a new way to manage the gain of mixes, prepare your sets, and get a visual overview of how to gain stage your mix. 

You can find out more about DJ.Studio's unique workflow in this article (Make A DJ Mix In DJ.Studio), or the video below. But, follow these steps to get the perfect gain structure for your mix in DJ.Studio!

  1. Import tracks, automix, and create an arrangement as explained in the video or article above. 

  2. Track Compressors - The first thing you want to do is use the on-track compressors to get a similar dynamic range accros all the tracks. Simply click on the track tab, and adjust the compressor knob for each track until they sound at a similar level. 

  3. Gain Automation - You can adjust the volume faders for each track to balance the level. This can be recorded in real-time using your mouse, or use the manual automation to draw in the line on the editing timeline. Use this to create a consistent volume throughout your mix, as well as progressively adding some emotion and intensity to your mix. 

  4. Mastering - Click on the Master tab to adjust the final output of your mix. You can use the limiter and compressor to adjust the overall dynamic range of the master output. I recommend pushing the compressor until it starts to gently trim the peaks. This means that the level makes the most of the available headroom, but doesn't flatten your mix. 

  5. Export and Check - You can now export your mix (to the wide range of formats available) and listen back to it. You'll now hear your perfectly gain staged mix!

As you can see, DJ.Studio offers a different workflow to the standard DJing experience. Being on an editing timeline, it gives you a quicker and easier overview of the gain levels throughout your mix, helping you to create a more consistent listening experience. 

This just scratches the surface of what DJ.Studio is capable of, so make sure you explore the rest of our website!

Finally...#

With this new knowledge of gain structure under your belt, you're set to become a much better sounding and technically proficient DJ. 

Honestly, this is one of those skills that sets the real pros apart from the regular pros. It creates a much better listening experience for your audience and makes your mixes more dynamic and consistent. 

Start integrating the skills above and you will immediately hear a noticeable improvement. 

Remember, DJ.Studio is a great tool for getting a visualisation of gain staging and helps you to prepare better mixes. Try it yourself with the free 14-day trial!

Noah Feasey-Kemp
DJ/Producer
I started DJing when I was 15. Started a record label, residency by a club in Bristol. I’ve played at all the biggest clubs in Bristol (and the small ones) and have entertained thousands of dancers! I love writing about music, DJing, and technology. I've been blogging for DJ.Studio since the start of the project, and am always happy to answer questions and help fellow DJs out!

FAQs about DJ Gain Staging

What is a good gain staging level?
Is Gain Staging Necessary?
What is the difference between volume and gain in DJ?

Excited to start mixing?