Thursday, March 24, 2016

4 Steps To Setting Input Gain

Here at LSRA and LIRS, I teach several classes, including Studio Recording. An important part of learning how to track a band is the proper way of getting your input levels. I try to make things easy for the students to remember, so I have broken it down into four steps: GAIN, RE-GAIN, FADERS, and FADERS. Following these four easy steps will ensure that you always get a good level going to your recorder (thereby lowering your noise floor, i.e. the amount of natural room noise in relation to your recording source) and that the mix engineer has a good starting point every time. In this example, the drummer is used, but the steps are the same no matter what instrument you are recording.

1. GAIN – The first thing you must do is set the initial gain for the track. This is done using the standard “soundcheck” system where the engineer instructs the drummer to hit each drum and cymbal individually. The engineer then adjusts the input gain knob (also known as the pre-amp) for the microphone that is placed on the drum he told the drummer to hit. The goal is to get the gain set as loud as it can go before overloading. The gain knob is turned up until an overload is reached and then backed down slowly until the hardest hit will not make the pre-amp overload. This is then repeated for every drum and cymbal on the kit that is individually miked.

2. Re-GAIN – After the initial gain stage is set, the engineer should ask the drummer to play the full kit for a few minutes to gauge what kind of hitter the drummer is and whether or not some microphones need repositioning. At the same time, the engineer needs to see if any gain knobs set during the first stage are overloading. Most drummers hit slightly harder when actually playing, so some gain changes being made here is natural. Just watch the overload lights on each channel and adjust the gains needing reduction.

3. FADERS - After all the gains that need readjusting are corrected, allow the drummer to keep playing for a minute or two; not only make sure your new gain settings are correct, but to get your levels in Pro Tools, or whatever recorder you may be using, correct as well. By this time you should already have your tracks routed to your recorder and the tracks should be armed for recording. When you plug a microphone in a mixer to use its pre-amp, you have to go through that channels’ fader section to get to the recorder. If the fader is turned down, you will get a lower signal to your recorder, or no signal at all. If the fader is too high, you may overload your track to the recorder, even though the pre- amp gain you set previously isn’t distorting. Therefore, the fader of the microphone input track has some control over the volume of the track going to be recorded. It is recommended that you start all the input faders at 0 db. This allows some headroom, and if a volume reduction is needed, there is a good amount to be had. If the level of each track you have armed on the recorder is not at least half-way to the top of it’s meters, go back to your board input track and increase the corresponding fader level to +5 db. This small boost will usually do the trick. Going all the way to +10 is not recommended because of the fact that a mix always needs some headroom and at +10 there’s no where to go.

4. FADERS – This is the last step in setting the gain pre amp and getting ready to record. By now, the input gains should be set as loud as possible before overloading and the recorders’ input levels should be jumping at least halfway up it’s meters. Now the engineers’ attention should turn to the board faders used for control room listening. Once these are set satisfactorily, stop the drummer from playing and ask if any volume adjustments are needed in the headphone mix. Make the necessary adjustments and you’re done!

Well, that's it for now. Don't forget that you are welcome to stop by and tour our facilities anytime. Just give us a call at 859-335-8440 (if you're local) or TOLL FREE at 877-335-8440 to set it up, so we can give you the ultimate LIRCo experience. See ya next time!!!

Steve Nall
Head Engineer, LIRS