The largest community for DJ and producer techniques, tutorials, and tips. Traktor secrets, controller reviews, a massive MIDI mapping library, and more.

Gain Staging For DJs + Staying Out Of The Red

A lot of DJs use expensive sound systems regularly, but without proper knowledge of how to set the gain stages on each piece of gear, you run the risk of damaging your system. Today, guest contributor DJ Soo has written up the basic idea behind why gain staging matters, how to do it on a typical setup, and why staying out of the red is so important on a properly staged rig.

What Is A Gain Stage?

Let’s start of this article by discussing what exactly gain stages are and why they matter in a DJ setup. First up, what is gain itself? It’s the electronic process of amplifying your signal (making it louder!). You have control over the gain at gain stages – points in your audio chain where you can change the level of volume of your sound. The majority of DJ mixers have three gain stages:

  1. the input gain (gain/trim knobs)
  2. the channel output gain (your volume faders)
  3. the output gain (your master volume knob/fader).

After this, you will have your amplifier gain which is either your amplifier volume, or in the case of powered gear, the volume knobs on the speakers themselves. In a digital software setup, there is also two more gain stages within the software – individual track gains and a master volume gain.

Some setups will have your mixer/controller plugged into another mixer which will add additional gain stages to your setup.

How Does Gain Staging Affect Sound Quality?

When you run out of headroom, the signal begins clipping.(image via QSCService.com)
When you run out of headroom, the signal begins clipping.(image via QSCService.com)

Not to get into the physics of everything, but each of the gain stages have a maximum value – going beyond that will result in clipping which is something you want to avoid. The distance between your signal and the max amplitude of the stage is called headroom – run out of headroom, and it clips! Clipping leads to distortion and in the best case scenario, will make your music sound bad and in the worst case scenario, can damage your speakers.

Remember that if you clip anywhere in your stage, it can still cause distortion even if the signal after your clipping point isn’t clipping. Basically all you’re doing is amplifying a clipped signal and making still putting out a distorted sound.

The optimum level for your gear is often marked as 0 db on your equipment.

Staying Out Of The Reds

Much to the chagrin of live sound engineers, most DJ mixers' promotional images have them all in the red.
Much to the chagrin of live sound engineers, most DJ mixers’ promotional images have them with all channels in the red.

Gain structure is a big reason that sound techs absolutely hate it when DJs play into the red. Any professional system will be gain-staged during setup to have the ideal sound quality when the DJ mixer is hitting right before the reds. Because most of these systems have the DJ mixer sending to a mixing board, the sound guy will still have control over the master volume and all hitting reds will do is make everything sound worse.

How To Set Your Gain Stage

So how do you set your gain stage? It’s rather simple – you want to go down the chain of audio devices and find the maximum level for each of the stages before clipping and essentially leave them there. Ideally, you want your music to average out around the 0db mark (top green) with certain peaks hitting into the oranges.

Track gains and Master gain in Traktor
Track gains and Master gain in Traktor
  • Start with your DJ software. Either set the track gains manually one by one, or use the auto-gain setting in your software so that your tracks are generally hitting just below the reds.
  • Repeat the process for master software output, although leaving it at 12 is usually your best bet.
Mixer gains are next!
Mixer gains are next!
  • On your mixer/controller, start with the input gain – set the gains in the channel to peak just before hitting reds, while having your channel fader all the way up. This will be the highest gain you want to go on each channel.
  • Do the same with the mixer’s Master volume.  Watch master output lights, and make note of where the Master knob is.

powered-speakers-mixer

  • On the speakers’ amplifier, do the exact same thing, turning it up until you see the levels hit just before the reds. If you’re using powered gear, turn it up until you see the limit light on your speakers just start to blink and then ease it back. If you’re using tops and subs, balance out the signal between the two at high volumes until you think the highs and lows sound good – I would start with the subs, since subs tend to limit a little faster than tops. In some systems, you can see the limit light blink a bit and still be ok – just don’t get to a point where the light is constantly on.
  • Remember to either use your sub crossover if it has it (send the cables through the subs to your tops) or turn on the high-pass on your tops if it has one. Passive gear will require an external crossover.

Leave Yourself Headroom

Once the system is sounding good, turn down one of the master controls (we recommend the master on your mixer/controller) and use that to control the overall volume of your setup as needed. You should notice where the maximum point is on that knob and never go above it – some sound techs will actually put a marker at this point to indicate where it should never exceed.

Choose an easy-to-access master knob where you will leave some headroom to adjust over course of the night.
Choose an easy-to-access master knob where you will leave some headroom to adjust over the course of the night.

Remember to keep your channel faders out of the reds!

You have now found the loudest point your system can handle. Chances are it will be way louder than you need so you won’t have to worry too much about even approaching that point. If you have reached the maximum point and it’s still not loud enough, that means you need more sound or need to upgrade your sound system.

The amount of volume you need throughout the night will change! When the room fills up, people’s bodies absorb a lot of sound. Be ready to adjust your master – this is why having good amount of headroom is important.

We realize that this is the ideal way to sound check and find the limits of a DJ sound system, but in practice, some venues don’t want you blasting out sound during sound check so maybe for the last stage, you don’t have to find the absolute limits of the speakers. But having a good idea of how much sound is available is important so you don’t end up cranking up the wrong gain late in the night and distorting everything!

DJ Soo is a guest contributor to DJ Techtools – who originally shared some of this advice on Reddit and we had it fleshed out into a full piece on DJTT. Follow him on Soundcloud or Facebook

Have questions about setting gain stages? Let us know in the comments. 

  • Agungald

    You ain’t red lining if you are not headlining :p

  • Adam

    really proud of the community. nice to see no “if you’re not red lining, you’re not headlining” comments.

  • Maybe stupid but I assigned one knob as an overboost for a channel. Which is basically just a 6db hard limiter and a 0-12db replaygain control. Gives you that extra without having to worry about the front of house lowering your volume. (His level meter will stay in the green but it won’t move that much anymore) Or clipping beyond your control. (Amps ed) . but then again I also use linPhi EQ instead if the normal ones so I might be loonybin material 😉 cheers, PS depends allot on the genre that you play to, I play Hardcore / terror & Frenchcore (and PRSPCT)

  • synapticflow

    Ok I am running a P.A. alone for the first time on Halloween. I am running directly from a DJ controller to powered speakers. (it’s all I have) So I’m going into the powered sub first and then out to the powered speakers. Do I assume that 12 o clock on my DJ controller is supposed to be my maximum volume level? And if so, can I set the volume levels on the individual speakers above 12 if I need to? (not the individual gains, just their master outs)

    Any help is appreciated.

  • Pingback: Friday Roundup: What Is Deep House?()

  • You can only know for sure on a given design by testing it yourself. All mixers can clip, harshly or gradually, depending on the design. DJ software should probably allow you to choose an autogain level, as the headroom settings usually only affects the master out and is really only good for preventing that particular stage from clipping or engaging the limiter. Limiting is not necessarily a good thing, by the way. It can save some types of tweeters, but eventually just fry woofers. With EQ and effects, even if the mix bus is floating point, you don’t know how else something in the virtual path is being affected.

  • Kris Marsh

    Great article, but I would love to see a video of someone setting the gain structure from software to subs/highs. It all reads a little confusing to a beginner.

  • Joel

    What song(s) do you all use to setup your gain levels. I have read to use your loudest song or part of a song to set your gain levels. I find this frustrating at times and have come up with an idea that I am sure is not new. I am thinking about creating a “white noise” sound with Audacity with the Amplitude set to 1 to be loud but prevent clipping. Save as MP3 and play through DJ software and adjust my gains to that. That way you have a steady VU meter instead of a jumping one. What does everyone think about this approach? Of course, this would just be used to set gains in software and mixer, with my actual speakers turned off.

    • Jon Johnson

      Use Pink Noise with amplitude set to -1dB or what ever you desire just don’t exceed 0dB or you’ll be clipping the pink noise. White noise is random frequencies at random dB levels so you won’t have a steady VU meter to work with. Pink Noise is ALL frequencies played at the same time at the same amplitude and is what live sound engineers use to tune a room.

      • Joel

        Thanks Jon. Always a learning process 🙂

  • sinesthetix

    Great article, Soo!

  • Jake Bergeson

    I think it’s also probably good to note that when we talk about a DB (decibel) It’s not always in the same exact scale. (digital and analog 0 db are two separate levels) This really confused me until I learned this.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DBFS

    And as far as gain structure goes, (at least on the DJM 900 nexus which is the current go to club mixer) I’ve found it seems best to have you mixer just before red, (just under 0DBFS which then gets converted into an analog +4DB signal) as it gives you the best possible signal. Then control the overall sound volume with the sound engineer. It’s also best to have at least a -3db attenuation on the master, and have the limiter enabled just in case someone gets carried away.

    This takes the control out of the DJs hands volume wise, makes sure all recordings coming off of the mixer will sound great, and is better for the overall enjoyment of the crowd’s ears IMO. 🙂

  • Pingback: Gain Staging For DJs + Staying Out Of The Red | connectikART()

  • Irvin Cee

    Nice article and I endorse it.
    But there is one big flaw in it. It is “not stay out of the red” but stay out the yellow. 0dB is the ceiling not +9dB. A sporadic 1 blinking yellow is the max!!!!!

    Although some dj mixers have faked their scale so 0dB is not really 0dB but -4 0r -6dB. I believe Pioneer is one of those but it also depends on how their “secret” switch is set to limit the output.
    Pioneer has a hard ceiling of +18dB.
    But again, you as a dj should never go above 0dB (green) because you have no idea how the soundchain after it has been set.
    When mixing you gonna get with the master in the yellow anyway if you don’t watch it very carefully.

    • Jake Bergeson

      I thought the same. But on the Pioneer DJM 900 Nexus, I’ve found that O DBFS is actually right when you hit red. The DB indicators printed on the individual channels are not accurate.

      • The DB indicator on the meters is some type of VU or PPM, probably EBU, DIN. That’s normal for gear to have instead of a peak full scale meter. You have something like 6-20dB over zero depending on the meter used. Having a dBFS meter isn’t such a bad idea, though, and you can do interesting things with various indicators of compressor/limiters triggering thresholds and even a clipping light. I’m curious if any of these TI dedicated chips or SHARC DSPs are subject to intersample clipping, too, which would necessitate keeping it not only out of the limiter range, but even if the limiter is off keeping it below -3dBFS.

  • skotopes

    All anyone need to know is: audio systems (mixers / DSPs / etc) are designed to run at 0db, beyond that level is a reserve and then overload. Red is beyond 0db, and almost always overload.

    • Soo

      Current pioneer mixers actually made 0db with something like 9db of headroom in mind just due to Djs not understanding how to keep shit out of the red. So they just made the red lights come on earlier.

      • I’m really starting to think I’m nuts no audio is leaving my station that has an amplitude over 1.7V the way it should be. (exept for headphones) 1.7V is 0dB for signal transmission between components. exept for Vinyl Turntables wich has a lower standard max output. why they use the phono ports.

  • dj electromeister

    djm mixers dont have clipping

    • skotopes

      There is only one problem: mixer is not the only one device in the chain. Most likely next device’s input will be unable to handle such gain. Even more: usually there are limiter / compressor / crossover, and they are not configured to be used with such input levels at all.

      • That is very important. Each piece in the chain needs to be tested to know what levels are appropriate and the gear upstream needs to be set up appropriately for downstream components.

    • Soo

      Yes they do – they just have added headroom so the Reds (at least the first two) aren’t actually clipping. You can still clip on djms and make your music sound like shit.

    • Dan White

      Be sure to note that at the very end of the video he makes it clip by turning up the EQ more than 12’oclock.

      • Irvin Cee

        Clipping is a digital issue. Most Pioneer mixers are not fully digital and still mix sound analogue.
        A so called digital mixer refers from the old days to a mixer with a digital fx unit. And digital inputs but in a lot of mixers the digital input are first converted to analog before they been mixed. These don’t clip but distort.

        • Jake Bergeson

          Clipping is mostly an analog issue actually. Digital mixers have nearly infinite gain until you convert the audio back into an analog format.

          • Only floating point internally has infinite headroom on digital mixers until the DA conversion stages. Of course this also ignores the AD conversion stages that can be clipped if you’re too hot, and any filters or effects on-board that might squeal or clip. Usually the design should be built to run comfortably at pro nominal levels well short of clipping the AD or DA stages. Having 18-20dB of headroom with a 24bit out is not uncommon at the 0dB volt reference level.

        • If you apply a to high voltage to the base of a transistor (overdrive) you will have clipping to , tubes I think don’t really clip they saturate.

          • Unfortunately very few truly tube-based gear ever gets made nowadays. Most of the rare stuff you see just has a tube or two thrown in as an effect on the output stage to add euphonic even-order harmonics.

          • True, I only added the tube bit because I noticed that many people consider Tubes to be “analog” and Transistors / Mosfets to be digital, not true ofc, but the term “solid state” is something they only know from reading computer ad’s . so I get it.
            PS when i tested my tracks for mono systems, i used to just plug it in to my 100W Marshall amp. the only thing clipping often were my eardrums 🙂

          • Yes. Other than their over-driving characteristics, susceptibility to vibration-induced issues, and immunity from EMPs, you can make tubes otherwise sound exactly like ICs and discrete non-valve designs. It’s a just a matter of circuit design, power supplies, and the resulting topologies. If you’re using tubes, though, often the whole point is to use them in a way different than you would those others in order to get those juicy, gooey, glowing even-order harmonics.

            The ear is a remarkable organ, right down to its reflex to protect itself from worse damage, but at the cost of enormous increases in apparent THD. If people just turned stuff down to more comfortable levels (obviously this is frequency dependent), they’d be shocked at how much easier listening, enjoyment, and profiting from great sound systems can be.

            My other big pet peeve with this stuff (besides the Loudness War) is the ubiquitous insufficiently-treated room, like venues with cinder block walls. You could put enough low-end gear in a treated room and make it sound better than some these untreated rooms with multi-million dollar sound systems. And then to make matters worse, people often then crank the systems not only past their driver linearity limits, but producing the aforementioned dBs that distort the ear.

        • This is wrong. The few mixers that do this are some of the cheaper Denons and the super high-end Rodec progressive line, which are analog mixers with extraneous digital inputs. One of the first digital DJ mixers was the X-9 from Tascam, and it did have the quirk that Texas Instruments had not yet invented a re-clocking and digital gain stage chip, so Tascam kept SPDIF ins for the layout and put D/A, analog gains, and A/D stages after them strangely to do the gain in analog and convert it back to digital. Even on that, the mix bus is all digital, though. Numark’s strategy, in contrast, was to leave the SPDIF ins off the design until TI could invent a chip. Pioneer and Denon took the 32bit floating point DSP route when those (mostly the Analog Devices SHARC) sufficiently matured a few years later, rather than the fixed-purpose TI chips.

    • Jake Bergeson

      You mean, they don’t have clipping…. until they do? LOL

    • Yrjan Lund

      You didn’t notice the disclaimer at the start of the video that this only proves that THIS SPECIFIC MIXER doesn’t clip? Claiming that all DJM mixers don’t clip is not the conclusion to draw from this video.

    • Not very useful information. Many analog mixers have a lot of headroom, with the vastly superior-sounding Biamps being the exception. Turn all the EQs up to max and engage the FX into the path, then tell us at what point the meters are at when distortion sets in by adjusting the gain knobs on the mixer. Do it with sin, triangle, square, and saw waveforms. Does the 600 have a meter calibration knob in the back? The general rule is that nothing on an analog board should ever distort at 0dB on the meters with everything enabled. You may or may not get more headroom over that.

    • ?MU?SH?OO?SHI™ ?????

      This caught my eye as I’m a Computer Engineering major. I’d like to see a comparison of the FFT’s, they are a bit better than visual inspection of the waveform alignments for judging exact distortions.

      Not entirely sure how I’m a bit sick of doing my EE labs yet I got excited seeing an oscilloscope @.@ lol

    • Asu

      Distortion is what you should worry about more….happens alllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll the time….plus this is one frequency…music is multiple frequencies…amps have input limits…etc etc….science requires more variables bro

  • Martin Wilson

    One of my favorite DJ tricks ever is going on after a DJ that bones his gain structure, turn my shit down a bit so it actually sounds good an
    d people start actually enjoying the music.

    • Possible, but probably this is just a matter of your and the audiences’ ears distorting more than the gear.

      • Asu

        Happens all the time…many DJ’s know nothing of proper gain structure…i’ve played with a 20yr Veteran that always turns it up too loud…then i get in there and it’s loud,clear and perfect for the audience…even the owners have asked me what i do differently many times…all i can do is help educate others.

        • So you’re saying these DJs are cranking their gains so high the meters aren’t even bouncing anymore? When you turn them down you are turning the amps up to compensate and know it’s the same dB because you used a sound pressure meter to verify this? It’s certainly possible, but it’s quite hard to distort the Pioneer digital mixers that are installed most everywhere now. On the 900, you can trigger the limiter and that has its own adverse consequences, but it’s a lot easier to distort your ears by just having the sound too loud. Just turning a horrendously-loud system down anywhere in the path will have a bigger apparent effect on THD than what’s going on in these mixers. Now, DJs with their own all-in-one controller/interface and mixing internally is definitely bringing some of these problems back, and when it’s not in the form of clipping, it’s in the form of crushed dynamics from triggering limiters.

          • Asu

            No i don’t touch the amps…the problem is they have the Master at say 10-11 o’clock and try to push more sound out by turning up the channel gains up to 2 O’clock sometimes, thus distorting the sound…it’s a common problem…you’d be surprised….so i turn the DJM or Rane mixer master up to about 1-2 o’clock…turn the channel gain’s down to 11-12 O’clock and the difference is amazing…everything is loud and crystal clear…then there’s those who turn up the amps and max them out leaving no headroom for peaks…i always leave the amps at 2 O’clock…i do the same for powered speakers.

  • Well whritten article even though most DJs/wanna be DJs, don’t know/don’t want to keep out of the red and have some headroom for cranking the volume up if needed!

    • David Brown

      I’m glad to be one of those wannabes that cares. I don’t even understand the modern “wannabe” culture thing that doesn’t care about the details of this craft.