There’s something pretty amazing about loud music. That feeling of bass pumping through your bones is a feeling like nothing else in life. But making things loud isn’t just about cranking your levels. In fact, cranking up all of your levels is the last thing you want to do if you want your music to sound good. To understand how to make music sound good at loud volumes, you need to grasp the basics of gain staging for DJs.
Gain vs. Volume vs. Trim
Modern DJ setups give you several different places to control the volume of your signal. These volume controls can go by different names, but they are essentially all ways of controlling the level of your audio signal. The difference in these names refers to whether the signal is in the input or output stage.
When an audio signal enters your DJ mixer, you have the option of controlling the input level via a gain or trim knob. Gain refers to increasing the level of an audio signal, while trim refers to decreasing the level, but on many mixers, these terms can be used interchangeably to refer to the knob that controls the input level.
After the input stage, you have your internal and output volume controls. The volume on the mixer itself is controlled by the volume faders or knobs for each track, while the output volume is controlled by your master fader.
Headroom and Clipping
Most EDM lovers like to hear music played loud, but what they don’t like to hear is clipping. This is what happens when an audio signal runs out of headroom.
Headroom refers to the amount of gain space between the maximum level of your audio signal and the maximum level of the gain stage. Push your signal higher than what the gain stage allows, and you’ve got a clipped signal. Not only will this make your audio sound distorted, but in extreme situations, it can cause damage to speakers and headphones. If at any point in this signal chain, the audio level is clipping, you’ll be able to hear this clipping at the end point, even if this signal is reduced or limited later.
Playing it Safe
Proper gain staging for DJs follows a logical path—in order to ensure you have enough headroom at every gain stage, you need to find out how loud your audio can go without clipping, and then back off from there to give yourself plenty of headroom. The best way to do this is to start with the source of the audio signal, whether that’s a vinyl LP or a digital audio file, and then work your way through the gain stages from there all the way to your final output source.
Start by playing your loudest track and making sure that the track level on your turntable or within your audio software is peaking somewhere in the orange, without lighting up any of the red lights on the volume meter. Then go through your audio chain and do the same at each gain stage. For a typical DJ setup, the order of your gain stages will look something like this: source track level—software or hardware master output—mixer input gain/trim—mixer master output—amp level—speaker level.
Knobs and Faders
When setting levels on your mixer, it’s important to set the level using the gain or trim knobs with the volume faders all the way up, rather than using the volume faders to control the level. You’ll be using the volume faders during your set to control the level of each track, but for now, you want to make sure that the maximum volume level for each track (with the volume fader at 0) is a healthy one.
The End Game
Once you reach the end of the line, you’ve now set your tracks to play as loud as possible without clipping. Since modern audio devices are designed to give you super loud playback volume with plenty of headroom, you should have no need to actually play your music this loud. The next thing to do then is to back off your master fader until you reach an appropriate playback volume for the room you’re in.
Some people like to mark the maximum level on the master fader with a piece of tape (as in “do not cross this line!”), but in most cases, you won’t come anywhere near this maximum level. You will, however, need to adjust your master volume level throughout the night as people come and go; the more people there are in the room, the more the sound of the music will be absorbed by their bodies, and the more volume you’ll need to make the music heard.
All of this only covers the basics of gain staging for DJs. For a full run-down on everything you need to know about gain staging for DJs, check out our video lesson series on understanding volume and gain. You can access this lesson series, as well as tons of other lessons, when you become a member of Spin Academy for only $19.95/month.
Music technology may come and go, but when something great comes along, it tends to stick around for a while. That’s been the case with vinyl in recent years—although CD and digital sales have been plummeting recently, vinyl sales rose by almost 26 percent last year, according to BuzzAngle Music. With so much interest in LPs, are there advantages to spinning vinyl for DJs? Here’s a run-down of some of the pros and cons.
Pro: The Sound
Most vinyl proponents say that they spin records for one simple reason: because they sound better. Yes, LPs might not be as technically accurate as a good WAV file, but there’s something about that vinyl warmth that just can’t be replicated.
Con: The Sound
While vinyl might sound better to some people’s ears, the truth is that there are downsides to the vinyl sound as well. When it comes to music that was invented in the digital age, pre-digital technology simply has a hard time keeping up sometimes; a high-energy EDM genre like dubstep, for example, with its extreme highs and lows, presents a major challenge for the mechanics of vinyl playback.
For turntablists and hip-hop DJs, vinyl is essential for the art of scratching. Of course, using LPs isn’t the only way to scratch—digital vinyl systems and CDJ controllers also have scratch pads, but for turntable purists, there’s nothing like the feel of the real thing.
(Check out this free lesson from DJ Kenya on 4 essential vinyl transitions http://spin-academy.com/lesson/4-essential-transitions-cutting-fading-spinbacks-and-rewinds/)
Con: Transportation, Storage, and Organization
If you’re a DJ, you’ve probably got hundreds if not thousands of tracks in your music library. Translate all of those tracks into LPs and singles, and that’s a lot of vinyl to haul around. Then, when it comes time to find that perfect track, you can’t just type the name of the track into a search bar on your computer—you have to have a system that allows you to physically locate the thing. That’s not to mention all of the storage space you’ll need…
Digital DJ systems are full of visual elements—waveforms, meters, touchscreens, and so on. With vinyl, all you have to look at is your turntables. That means you rely less on your eyes and you’re forced to use your most valuable musical tool: your ears.
Con: Expense and Availability
Finding the tracks you want on vinyl isn’t always easy, and when you do find the tracks, you can bet they’ll cost more than a $0.99 download on iTunes.
While records take more effort to search out, that effort can lead to new discoveries. With digital downloads, you can stay within your own comfort zone all the time, but with vinyl, you have to actually go to record stores and talk to people in order to get new music. These connections can lead to plenty of valuable new discoveries that you never would have happened upon if you relied solely on digital downloads.
There’s enough evidence on either side to convince anyone that vinyl for DJs is either a good idea or a terrible one. Ultimately, choosing vinyl for DJs does come with some drawbacks, but for those purists out there, all of the problems associated with vinyl simply fade away when they put on a record and hear that sound crackle to life.
If you’re interested in learning more about vinyl for DJs, check out the video courses at SpinAcademy.com. For only $19.95/month, you’ll get unlimited access to lessons like our complete scratching course taught by Mat the Alien, as well as tons of other lessons on everything to do with DJing in both digital and analog systems.