Why gain staging is crucial in digital mixing.

Proper gain staging is crucial in achieving the best headroom levels for both analog and digital mixing.

Gain staging is important, especially in the digital world because it’s irreversible. In the analog realm; as long one doesn’t hear the distortion or clipping; you’re good as long the distortion is intentional. In the digital realm, clipping can cause serious issues down the line such as plugin processing and dithering, which end up on the final master. Depending on circumstances, distortion may or may not be desirable.

In the early days of recording, engineers would really crank the preamps to get a good sound to noise ratio because tape is very hiss-y. Technology has come a very long way. Signal to noise ratios are very good. Without getting into technical details; it basically means you can record at a much lower volume and retain sonic integrity when that volume or signal is amplified digitally.It’s a good rule of thumb to to keep your input meters fairly low on all your tracks when recording digitally. The reason why digitally recorded tracks don’t sound as good as analog is because analog is actually a lot more forgiving if you’re not an “engineer” or don’t know exactly what you’re doing when you’re recording. Likewise, if you know what you’re doing digitally, you can achieve amazing results mixing in the box (ITB).

One last thing that I would like to mention is headroom. A lot of mix engineers who are in the box often get this wrong. Thus they’re left with a mix that has very little dynamics and punch (lifeless). The difference in levels of dynamics is what gives you that effect. One mistake I’ve seen a lot is engineers turning up the DAW fader instead of turning up their monitor mains.

More info: more information on gain staging here in the great audio community of Gearslutz.