Gain Vs Volume: Differences Explained

Often people get confused and wonder about the differences between gain and volume when it comes to anything sound-related. And part of the problem is that these words are often used interchangeably; however, there are definitive differences between the two. Therefore we have undertaken to divulge the ins and outs of each of these and what they truly represent.

Volume has to do with the loudness and intensity you hear emitting from speakers or such; while gain is related to the input level of the audio source that goes into the amplifier or audio interface. Thus the main difference between gain and volume is their position in the signal path.

They seem to be so similar, and with people often referring to the one as the other, there is no wonder there is confusion. However, after reading this post, you will have a far greater understanding of what gain and volume are and how they interact and affect one another. Thus, let us delve into the sound advice (pun intended) that we have in store for you.

Gain vs Volume

What Is Volume?

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In laymen’s terms, volume is the output level of any particular sound signal after the processing of the file or input has been completed. When it comes down to it, the loudness of what you can hear and perceive with your ears is what we call volume.

While mixing, for example, the level that you send from any particular channel to a stereo output is volume. A more straightforward example would be when you turn up sound on the television or adjust the volume knob on your car’s stereo or radio system.

What Is Gain?

You will find gain (usually a knob) on various devices such as audio interfaces, channel strips, and preamps. The funny thing is that when we increase the gain, you will often note that is seemingly a direct correlation between this and the volume increases, so how does it differ?

With gain, you are looking at the input stage of anything being processed, so nothing has happened yet, and gain is one of the adjustments you can make before playing with the volume controls. If you are using a microphone preamp, then gain will increase the input signal (so if someone is singing or speaking more quietly, you can increase the gain to up the input).

So although gain affects the final output, it is a different concept from volume. An excellent allegory would be if you purchase something (this represents the vocals or instrument being processed) and then decide to sell it, but at a higher price to make a profit (this would be like turning up the gain). Therefore if I have an input and increase the gain, my output can be magnified.

What Does Gain Do?

It is the “volume” that is sent into your amplifiers and speakers. Gain increases or decreases (as you can lower the gain if the input, such as a vocalist who projects loudly) the input of any audio or signal into a system. Therefore we could theoretically say that gain controls the level (loudness) before it undergoes any further processing.

Gain Vs Volume: 6 Differences

As we have seen thus far, there are particular distinctions between gain and volume, but let us now take a further look at and examine 6 fundamental differences between the two.

1 – Gain can be likened to an amplitude knob that is the gatekeeper at the input level of any piece of hardware (or software). It controls the amount (loudness) of whatever you are processing before it continues through the rest of any of the system.

While volume, on the other hand, is what controls the loudness that comes out after it has gone through the system and is what we hear emitting from our headphones or speakers.

2 – Gain will affect the tone and overall quality of the sound; if your gain is set too high and the vocalist, for example, projects too loudly, then turning down the volume is not going to help if you had clipping when adjusting your gain. Volume will not alter the quality or tone of the sound; instead, it increases the loudness of the sound emitting from the entire system.

3 – In theory, there is no limit to the output on a system when it comes to volume (bearing in mind the quality of your sound system and what sort of output it can provide). Looking at gain, though, there certainly is a limit, and if you set your gain too low, your final output may be very faint regardless of how much you turn up the volume.

4 – Likewise, following on from point 3, if the gain is set too high and you encounter clipping, that is going to carry over and will undoubtedly come through and be evident in what comes out of your sound system, even if you turn the volume down.

5 –  Your instrument or vocals will feed into your preamplifier, and gain has a direct influence and is an integral part of the preamplifier before you start looking at altering it further with the EQ and effects. Volume then comes into play in the power amplifier component of the system and then feeds the sound to your output (speakers/ headphones). 

6 – Gain has a (color) effect on your tone and can cause distortion, which you may or may not want in your final product. In contrast, volume controls the “power” of what is sent through to the speakers.

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What Is Gain Staging?

Although it does relate to the adjustment of the gain, gain staging can also relate to other aspects of the audio signal path. Meaning that at any point in the processing where you are controlling the input level, before it gets to the adjustment of the volume at the end, is part of gain-staging, and often we will make these changes to help avoid (un)wanted distortion.

What Is Gain In Audio?

Gain, regarding audio, is the intensity or amount of the input that you feed into any system, whether that be an interface, console, or amplifier. Although it can cause distortion, gain is not distortion itself; distortion is the disturbance and “noise” that you get by pushing things too far in the gain staging process.

What Is Gain On An Amp?

Gain on an amp directly influences how hard you drive the preamp phase of the amp; it is unrelated to the loudness of the final volume setting. Instead, it increases the input level and can distort the final tone of the perceived sound delivered at the end.

Gain

Does Gain Affect Sound Quality?

Gain most certainly affects the sound quality as it directly links the level of input sent into the system you are working with, whether soft or hardware. This is the determining factor in how your system will react to the signal fed into it. It will also affect the tonality and result in distortion if turned too high.

Should Gain Be High Or Low?

In most cases, you want to be setting your gain as low as possible, especially if you intend to do an excessive amount of post-production and add effects to the sound. You only want to raise the gain if the sound is too quiet when you turn the volume up.

Most systems display a color-coordinated display of the “level” of the sound you are working with; pay special attention to this when adjusting your gain. There is green, which means you are on the lower end of the spectrum; yellow tells you that you are sitting in the middle, while red indicates clipping. To avoid distortion, try to sit where the green and yellow meet.

What Happens If Gain Is Too Low?

Although we do not want to turn our gain up too high as this will result in clipping and resultantly distortion, you also do not wish to have it set too low.

If you record audio and the gain is set incredibly low, you will experience a low SNR (Sound-To-Noise) ratio that will translate as a lot of noise in your signal path. When you ultimately transfer the audio file to your computer or send it through the rest of the system, you will be left with a signal that is rendered useless.

What Happens If Gain Is Too High?

Turning up the gain too high (with regards to the input stage), you will experience clipping and distortion. This could either be desirable or unwanted, but this will depend on you and what you are looking for in your final product. Certain musicians, for instance, want distortion coming from their amps, while if you are creating a digital audio file, you probably do not.

Top Mistakes With Gain

So let us quickly recap what the purpose of gain is; before we get into the potential mistakes we might make while using it, we shall also discuss some tips and tricks to remember.

Gain is what controls the amount of signal that enters a mixer or similar device and is usually generated by an instrument that is plugged in or a microphone (for vocals or a percussion drum set). Now, not all instruments and recorded elements will feed you the same signal level, and therefore we have to adjust the gain to compensate for this.

Setting the gain at the right level is the first mistake that people make; either they put it too low as they are afraid they will have the track clip once plug-ins have been added, or they crank it up so high that it goes well into the orange/yellow and then red zone. So while the vocalist sings or an instrument plays, set the gain just above (around) where green meets yellow/orange.

Thinking the fader has any effect on the gain is the next mistake people sometimes make. Where the fader is sitting is irrelevant in terms of the gain setting. Get to adjusting the fader afterward and do not think that it will have an impact on the gain.

Mistaking the gain for the volume control is something people forget at times too. The gauge allows a certain level of input to flow through into the rest of the system and not the volume setting, which comes after you have adjusted the gain to the desired level. Have your gain set correctly on your mixer before focusing on the volume or adjusting the fader.

Not readjusting the gain for live mixing at each rehearsal or performance is a big mistake many make, and it often derives from pure laziness. The individual believes that the band or performers will maintain the same levels as the previous show and therefore does not worry about rechecking the gain. So be sure to do a soundcheck before each rehearsal and performance.

Frequently Asked Questions

Although we have covered almost everything you may need to know about gain versus volume, there may still be some nagging questions at the back of your mind. Therefore, we recommend looking through the following to garner an even deeper understanding of things.

What Is The Difference Between Gain And Volume On a Guitar Amp?

Like with your mixers and other such devices, a guitar amp (most of them) also has two stages, and the first is the preamp phase. Your guitar will send a weak signal to your amp, and you will use the gain (or sometimes known as drive, but there is also a distinction between these) to increase the strength of the signal.

Then you have your next stage, which is made up of either controls or sliders that control the master volume on your amp. You will adjust your gain before this, though, and the gain will affect how “dirty” or “clean” the sound emitted through the amp is.

At the end of it all, though, the gain and volume controls do not work in isolation; if you set your gain to a high level, for example, there will be distortion, but whether that is quiet or deafening will come down to the level at which you set the master volume.

What Is The Difference Between Gain And Overdrive?

Although they may sometimes get confused, gain is how much signal (and resultantly distortion) is allowed into the system, console/mixer. While overdrive is a form of distortion, think of it as more of an add-on. It is usually used in tube amps to overdrive the tube amp and to create a sort of “crunch”.

What Is The Difference Between Drive And Gain?

Although in some cases, these two are often used interchangeably, there are times when there is a distinction between them.

Drive typically adjusts the level at which something is introduced into an amplifier. The increase in drive will edge the signal towards overloading the amp, resulting in distortion; that is what you are aiming to achieve, hopefully. If it is not, then you may wish to consider reducing it.

Gain refers to the amp’s actual gain, which is usually managed by reducing the negative feedback. When you have lower negative feedback, the gain is increased; when this happens, you will experience an increase in other forms of distortion. You are likely to find that this will result in an effect on the frequency response. 

Does Gain Affect Wattage?

To increase the final wattage output, you do not have to increase your gain as it is the component at the input stage of the system and will not have an effect on the wattage. An amp, for example, will put out its full power despite what the voltage is set at, so you will not need to overload the input to increase the wattage.

When Should You Use High Gain On a Headphone Amp?

Ordinarily, you want to use the lowest possible amount of gain, regardless of your final output device. This is because you do not wish to introduce unnecessary noise and distortion. There are some instances where this will lean towards the contrary, but you are better off using a lower gain setting for the most part.

Does More Gain Mean More Power?

As gain is an input component in any given system, it does not correlate with increased power output. There are two stages; you have your preamp and amp stage, and gain is a part of the former, while the latter is the one that will affect your power output; however this does not mean there is not a link between gain and power.

Does Gain Increase Volume?

You might think it does, and you would not be wrong to think as such. However, we must remember that gain is the gatekeeper in any given system and is what controls the input of the signal. It works hand-in-hand with your volume, and neither can be used in isolation. Keep in mind that you want to keep your gain as low as possible so that you do not incur clipping. 

Is Gain A Distortion?

Confusingly, gain is sometimes the term people use to define distortion. This is owed to it being born out of overdriving a guitar amp so that the result is a distorted sound, regardless of the volume level, so it boils down to context.

Conclusion

Gain and volume have similarities, but they are entirely different when it comes to theoretical and practical use. Gain is directly linked with the increase or decrease in the input to a channel or amp, and it controls the overall tone and may cause distortion if pushed too high. On the other hand, volume has to do with the loudness of the output sent out via the monitors.

It is a good idea to master the use of gain before you even think about moving on to the next components on the mixer or other devices. You usually want to use it to provide the strongest possible signal without it causing distortion. We hope you have found clarity regarding gain versus volume now that you have had a read-through.

References

https://producelikeapro.com/blog/understanding-the-difference-between-gain-and-volume/#:~:text=Volume%20is%20the%20actual%20loudness,does%20not%20affect%20the%20loudness.

https://www.musicianonamission.com/gain-vs-volume/

https://www.musicianonamission.com/gain-vs-volume/

https://playbutton.co/gain-vs-volume/

https://www.fender.com/articles/tech-talk/amp-basics-gain-vs-volume

https://emastered.com/blog/what-is-gain#:~:text=In%20audio%2C%20gain%20is%20the,when%20looking%20at%20the%20difference.

https://blog.landr.com/what-is-gain/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTMH2EHZnZc

 

Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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