With many guitarists now opting for in-the-box guitar recording options, understanding the relationship between gain staging and your amp of choice is more important than ever.
If you’re new to either concept – don’t worry. Gain staging sounds intimidating and can take some time to perfect, but it’s a skill that goes well beyond guitar tracking. The same goes for virtual guitar rigs. Learn how they work and you’ll be better prepared to carry that knowledge over to many other plugins and processors.
But before we get too deep into it, let me explain why this information is so valuable.
It’s no secret that studio owners and musicians are looking to get the biggest bang for their buck when it comes to new tonal solutions and buying up dozens of amps just isn’t feasible. Instead, many are going with virtual options like the Toneforge series to get the sounds they’re after.
These virtual rigs contain a full palette of new tones and often support impulse responses to expand your tone further.
Unfortunately, many fail to see the full potential of these virtual rigs and amp sims because they’re not employing best practices. A lack of proper gain staging goes beyond a softer signal – it breaks down the functionality and tone of your amp.
What is gain staging?
Gain staging, in simple terms, is the process of matching the output of one step of your signal chain to the input of the next step. All plugins have an “optimal” range that they function at. Getting the input level as close to that range as possible is going to give you the most mileage out of that plugin.
So what does this look like in practice? How do you know what the optimal level is?
The answer isn’t as simple as the concept: it depends.
Some plugin manufacturers publish their optimal input level, but many don’t. For most of us, it seems like crossing a boundary – who are we to limit your creative process? Find the sweet spot that sounds right to your ears and don’t let anyone else tell you differently.
There are some hints with many plugins you can pay attention to though. For example, if you’re clipping the input, you’ll almost definitely be coming in too hot. The processor isn’t going to know what to do with those overages and won’t be able to adjust accordingly to the signal.
Similarly, you’ll want enough signal coming in to see healthy movement on the meter. In the case of Toneforge plugins, you’ll see a green, yellow & red section of the input meter. Aim to at least fill that green portion on the way in or you might be under-driving the amp.
How Virtual Amps React
Virtual amps react a lot like real amps do. If you’ve got low-output pickups in your guitar, you might need to boost the signal before your amp. A hotter signal is going to drive the front end of the amp harder than a softer one.
Both virtual rigs and physical ones react in a non-linear manner, so pushing them harder isn’t usually a bad thing – they’ll just start saturating and distorting. In many cases, you want the amp to react this way.
To accomplish that, you’ll want optimal levels going in (proper gain staging before the amp) so you can use the plugin’s input knob to push the amp’s gain higher. This is essential for plugins like Toneforge Jason Richardson where the Input & Gain share a single control – just check out the example in this video from Gerard Vachon:
Right around the 2-minute mark, he shows you how he’s matching the level of his DI to the input of the plugin, then dialing in the amp’s gain using the Input knob. Without proper gain staging, he wouldn’t have been able to get the same tone.
Post-Amp Gain Staging
Just because you’ve got the tone you wanted from your amp doesn’t mean you’re done. Additional headroom is often needed after the amp to allow for things like EQ and compression, even when your virtual rig or amp sim has post-processing built into it.
Many engineers will try to leave 3 – 6 dB of headroom after the amp as a starting point, but you can use more or less depending on how detailed your mix process is. The nice part is that this is all digital – so you can always adjust the output or trim the track’s level down later on if needed after you’ve committed to a sound.
More Signal Chain Secrets
Proper gain staging is just the start of your signal chain training as a producer or engineer. You’ve conquered the hurdle of avoiding clipping, but what about mix bus compression, multi-band processing, and other dynamic aspects of your mix?
Grab a copy of our eBook, Virtual Signal Chain Secrets, with over 40 pages of awesome tips and tricks for getting the right balance anywhere in your mix!