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.