Setting Your Mic Gain

Level meters on a computer based DAW
It’s about those green and amber lights — and knowing the dangers of the red-zone.

This article on mic gain comes from The Ultimate Guide to Singing, the most comprehensive book on the market for covering on all aspects of singing.

So, you’ve got a sound system and a mic – and you have plugged one into the other. The next thing you will want to do — with your channel still muted — is to set the gain on the mixing board channel for your microphone.

There are different terms for this function: level, gain, attenuation, or trim. Basically, when you connect your mic to the system there is a little amplifier in the mixer (a pre-amp) that adds some power to your signal so that it can work in the sound system. What you need to do is to match the vocal power you are sending into the mic with the mixer. 

This is where those little green, amber and red lights come in. What you are trying to achieve at this stage is a signal which doesn’t distort on the one hand (the red lights) and which is too low on the other hand (just a few green lights).

3 level meters showing audio gain compared to green, yellow and red traffic lights

What’s the Deal with Gain and Red Lights?

If you have it set so that there are often red lights showing when you sing, you will hear distortion in the system. Engineers call this distortion “clipping”; if you study a sound wave pattern at this moment, it is as if someone has clipped off the tops of all of your sound waves so that they go up, ending in an abrupt, flat plateau rather than reaching a nice rounded peak. 

The ideal setting for you will be to set your gain knob to a place where you are going amber, but not red when you sing passages that are loud and strong (though some mixing boards show only green and red lights — or only red lights). If you are using a vocal effects processor, you run through this process twice, once with the processor and once with the mixer. 

Mic Gain and Volume

Now remember, setting the gain isn’t getting the volume right for your audience; it’s about getting the equipment working right. You are being a mechanic when you do this step — not a producer. You will set the volume after the gain. For systems that don’t have separate gain and volume controls, you just have to work out a compromise. 

We don’t want to make you too afraid of the red lights. The fact is that different manufacturers set those red lights at different audio levels. With some boards, if you see a red light, you are actually clipping or distorting while on other boards you are about to distort. So have a look at your manual. Better yet, just experiment with this so that you have a good, strong level.

—from The Ultimate Guide to Singing: All aspects of a singer’s life are covered in this ultimate companion to your singing with Top Actions for Moving Ahead with Your Singing, Sound and Career. Contributed to by Over 100 professional contributors with 94 Grammys and Grammy nominations, 193 Books, 1,772 Albums and 280 million YouTube hits!

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