Differences Between Gain and Volume Explained

In the realm of audio engineering and sound systems, the terms “gain” and “volume” are often used interchangeably, but they serve different functions. Understanding the distinction between the two is crucial for achieving optimal sound quality.

This Killer Rig article aims to clarify what gain and volume are, explore their roles in audio settings, and highlight the key differences that set them apart.

Whether you’re an audio professional or simply someone who enjoys high-quality sound, knowing these differences can enhance your experience.

Gain and Volume Summary

Here are the differences between gain and volume:


  • Controls the input level of the sound source.
  • Essential in initial stages of sound processing.
  • Measured in decibels (dB).
  • Incorrect settings can introduce noise or distortion.


  • Adjusts the output level of the audio signal.
  • Controlled later in the signal path, often at the amplifier or speakers.
  • Usually adjusted through a simple knob or slider.
  • Does not affect original sound quality, but can amplify existing issues.

What Is Gain?

Gain is a parameter that controls the input level of an audio signal. In simpler terms, it’s the initial boost given to the raw sound coming from your instrument, microphone, or other sources.

Gain is measured in decibels (dB) and is crucial during the first stages of sound processing, often within an audio interface or mixer.

The primary purpose of gain is to optimize the signal-to-noise ratio. By setting the gain correctly, you ensure that the audio signal is strong enough to be processed and heard clearly, but not so strong that it introduces noise or distortion.

This balance is vital, especially in professional settings like recording studios and live concerts, where capturing a clean and clear signal is paramount.

Adjusting the gain is usually done using specialized equipment, and it often requires a good understanding of the audio signal chain.

Incorrect gain settings can introduce unwanted noise or distortion, affecting the overall sound quality and requiring further adjustments in the audio chain, such as equalization and dynamics.

Audio Mixer Controls

What is Volume?

Volume refers to the loudness or amplitude of an audio signal as it comes out of a playback device, such as speakers or headphones.

Unlike gain, which deals with the input level, volume controls the output level of the audio signal. It’s the parameter you adjust when you turn the knob on your stereo, slide the volume bar on your phone, or tweak the settings on your computer.

Volume adjustments are typically user-friendly and can be made without specialized equipment. They occur later in the signal path, often at the amplifier stage or directly on the playback device.

The primary role of volume is to make the sound audible according to the listener’s preference, whether it’s soft background music or a loud action sequence in a movie.

It’s important to note that adjusting the volume does not alter the original characteristics of the audio signal. However, if there are existing issues like noise or distortion, increasing the volume will make these problems more noticeable.

Audio Gain and Volume

Differences Between Gain and Volume

Understanding the terms “gain” and “volume” is essential, but it’s even more crucial to grasp how they differ.

These differences significantly impact your audio experience, whether you’re in a recording studio or simply enjoying music at home. Below is a table that outlines the key distinctions:

Control PointInput level of the sound sourceOutput level of the audio signal
Stage in Signal PathInitial stages, often in the audio interface or mixerLater stages, usually at the amplifier or speakers
Measurement UnitDecibels (dB)Usually no specific unit, controlled by a knob or slider
Impact on SoundCan introduce noise or distortion if set incorrectlyDoes not alter original sound but can amplify existing issues

How To Adjust Gain and Volume on a Mixing Console

Adjusting gain and volume on a mixing console is a fundamental skill for anyone involved in live sound, recording, or even podcasting. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you navigate the process.

Adjusting Gain:
  1. Start with a Clean Slate: Make sure all faders are down and all mute buttons are engaged to prevent any unexpected sound bursts.
  2. Select the Channel: Choose the channel on the mixing console that corresponds to the instrument or microphone you’re working with.
  3. Set the Level: Turn the gain knob (often labeled as “Gain” or “Trim”) counterclockwise to its lowest setting.
  4. Unmute and Play: Unmute the channel and ask the musician to play the instrument or speak into the microphone at the loudest level they will during the performance.
  5. Adjust the Gain: Slowly turn the gain knob clockwise until the level meter on the console reaches the optimal range, usually indicated by green and yellow lights. Avoid going into the red zone, as this indicates clipping and will result in distortion.
  6. Check for Clarity: Listen carefully through headphones or monitors to ensure the sound is clear and free of noise or distortion.
Adjusting Volume:
  1. Start at Unity: With the gain set, position the channel’s volume fader at “unity” or “0 dB,” which is usually the fader’s midpoint.
  2. Listen to the Mix: Play the entire mix or have all musicians play together.
  3. Adjust the Fader: Move the volume fader up or down to achieve the desired loudness for that particular channel in the context of the whole mix.
  4. Fine-Tune: As you adjust the volume, you may need to make minor tweaks to the gain to maintain optimal sound quality.
  5. Check the Master Fader: Ensure that the master fader is also set at an appropriate level. Adjusting this will change the volume of the entire mix.
  6. Review and Test: After setting the individual volumes, listen to the entire mix again to make sure everything blends well. Make any final adjustments as needed.

By following these steps, you’ll be better equipped to manage gain and volume on a mixing console, enhancing the overall sound quality of your audio projects.

Misconceptions and Common Mistakes

When it comes to audio engineering, misconceptions about gain and volume can lead to poor sound quality and even damage to your equipment. Here are some common misunderstandings and errors to avoid:

  1. Interchangeable Terms: One of the most prevalent misconceptions is that gain and volume are the same thing. While they both affect loudness, their roles in the audio signal path are different.
  2. More is Better: Some people think cranking up the gain will improve sound quality. In reality, excessive gain can introduce noise and distortion.
  3. Volume Fixes All: Another common belief is that if the sound isn’t right, adjusting the volume will fix it. However, if the gain is set improperly, no amount of volume adjustment will correct the issue.
  4. Digital is Forgiving: In the digital realm, some assume that you can fix everything in post-production. While digital tools are powerful, they can’t correct problems like clipping caused by excessive gain.
Common Mistakes:
  1. Ignoring the Signal-to-Noise Ratio: Failing to set the gain properly can result in a poor signal-to-noise ratio, where the sound you want is drowned out by background noise.
  2. Overloading the Channel: Setting the gain too high can overload the channel, leading to clipping and distortion.
  3. Inconsistent Levels: Not checking the levels of different channels can result in an unbalanced mix, where some sounds are too loud and others too soft.
  4. Forgetting the Master Volume: Some people focus so much on individual channel volumes that they neglect the master volume, which controls the overall output.

Understanding these misconceptions and common mistakes can help you make more informed decisions when adjusting gain and volume, ultimately leading to better sound quality.


So the main thing to take away from this article is that the gain control does affect the volume to a degree. But it’s not a loudness control by any means! In fact, the gain control is by far one of the most important adjustments you will come across on audio gear.

Its main goal is to prevent distortion while providing the strongest signal possible. Or, its design is to create a rather large amount of distortion with huge tone shaping. What you would find on a guitar amp.

In either scenario, the gain knob will need to be set correctly to get the best performance from your equipment. So next time you tweak your gear, I hope that you look at the controls differently.

Once you understand the difference between gain and volume, not only will your sound improve, your controls should start to make a lot more sense too!


Does gain increase volume?

Yes, any changes made to the gain control will impact the volume. This is because as the gain is turned up, the stages preceding it will be sent a stronger signal. This then increases the overall signal throughout. Providing slightly more volume at the output.

Does gain affect sound quality?

Yes, the gain will affect sound quality in a very large way! With a guitar amplifier, it has the ability to distort a signal and change it drastically. This is usually the desired sound.

On a mixer, it changes the sound quality and is normally poor if not set right. Any distortion is not desired in a preamp. Headroom is limited when the signals are large, and so a Gain control is used to find the best sound.

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Author: Don East

My name is Don East, I'm the editor for Killer Rig. I've been playing guitar for over 20 years and have designed and manufactured products like guitar amps, effects pedals, and more. Over the years I have played in many bands and have a deep love for quality gear. I am an electrical engineer and have a passion for music gear, and now want to share what I know with the community!