Gain Reduction Explained

“Gain reduction” has to be one of the most misunderstood phrases in pro audio and it’s easy to understand why. At face value, it seems like you’re just turning something down, right? After all, when you turn up the gain on a guitar amp, it gets louder and grittier. Wouldn’t it make sense if gain reduction were the exact opposite of that?

Truth be told – turning up the gain on the amp and the effects of gain reduction aren’t very dissimilar at all. They both add harmonic distortion and saturation to a signal. They both work to effectively even out the peaks of a signal, resulting in a smoother, more even sound. So if they’re virtually doing a lot of things the same, how does gain reduction stand out from other processes in the recording studio?

The Basics of Gain Reduction

Whether you’re using a dedicated plugin like Gain Reduction 2 or you’re simply compressing your signal with a stock plugin, gain reduction is extremely common in the studio when recording and mixing. You need to maintain control over the elements of your mix and gain reduction on your peaks is a great way to do that.

Gain reduction is the core functionality of a great compressor. A compressor should work to lower the peaks of your signal, effectively reducing their levels to be more in line with the rest of your tracks. By catching these peaks and automatically attenuating them (reducing their gain), engineers are able to create a more polished, complete sound.

Gain reduction via compression is essentially an automated method for controlling your dynamics regardless of their level, but the simplest of gain reduction comes from one of the first plugins we use – the EQ. By cutting certain problem frequencies, you’re performing band-specific gain reduction that applies to just a portion of your signal. Often, this is needed as a stage before/after your compressor for additional control over your track’s sound.

Regardless of the order you apply them, gain reduction is happening just about everywhere in your mix – you just might know it by another name.

How Gain Reduction Makes Things Louder

Gain reduction and peak reduction still only bring levels down, so why is it that so how is it that big proponents of the technique using it to make things louder? The answer is twofold.

First, gain reduction comes with inherent saturation and warmth as your signal is pressed up against the threshold of a compressor. The result can vary based on the type of compression you’re using. Tube compressors are going to have a warmer, thicker sound than a peak clipper like JST Clip. Experimenting with different compressor settings can be a great way to get a feel for its full range of sounds.

As a result of this saturation, a signal that’s been heavily compressed often sounds much louder because it’s harmonically denser than when it started. With more harmonics reinforcing the notes being played, you’re ending up with a fuller frequency spectrum.

Gain Reduction & Gain Staging

The second way that the pros are getting more out of plugins like Gain Reduction 2 are by taking advantage of proper gain staging – including the Makeup/Output Gain available on many of these plugins.

By pulling down peaks and crafting more even dynamics with compression, engineers and producers are able to bring up the overall level in their mix. Rather than simply feeding the compressor more signal to make this happen, the Makeup Gain gives a clean boost at the end of the plugin for more volume. This can be used to either feed additional signal into the next plugin in the chain (gain staging) or to bring up the overall level in the mix if your compressor is at the end of the chain.

Because these makeup gain knobs are right within the plugin, they’re often designed to work best with what the processor’s doing to your signal, and often have much more headroom that simply raising your fader after the track has been compressed. Results can get really interesting when you’re stacking compressors, as each stage of compression and gain will imprint their own tonal characteristics on the signal – finding a great compressor stack is a great way to come up with your own, unique sound.

Gain Reduction Is Just One Piece of the Puzzle

While gain reduction can do a lot to clean up the dynamics of your session, it’s truly just a small part of what makes a great mix. When building Gain Reduction 2, we knew there were a lot of related characteristics of a vocal track that deserved to be treated as one, which is why there are so many extra parameters like Clarity, Breath & Body. Compression alone won’t get you the results you’re after.

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