Have you ever noticed that a sound is different when you run it through effects at a high or low level? That’s one of the reasons why gain staging is so crucial. However, 80% of the time I’m mixing someone else’s work, I get a mix that’s way too hot. It’s either clipping on the master or even worse, already clipping in individual tracks. Most people simply turn down the master and call it a day, but then wonder why the mix sounds so crappy. It’s no surprise if you overload the effects whether it’s the native ones or plug-ins. Quite frankly, this probably is the source of the myth that Ableton Live doesn’t sound as good as other DAWs.
In the days of analogue mixing, you’d have to find a balance between getting the sound as high above the noise floor as possible while leaving enough headroom to avoid clipping. These days, the noise floor is generally so low, there’s rarely a need to carefully balance the signal-to-noise ratio. Yet, while analogue clipping could sound quite good, this is not the case in the digital domain. There, clipping produces anharmonic distortion which sounds sheer ugly. Think of gain staging as giving you a safety buffer to avoid clipping and an overloaded, too hot mix.
The Signal Flow
Before we talk about gain staging, we should quickly go over the signal flow in Live. I noticed that this is something a lot of users aren’t really aware of. Yet, it’s critical to understand it.