If you have ever used a guitar amplifier, a mixing console or even an audio interface, you have most likely come across controls called gain and volume.
These controls have been found on music gear for a very long time yet there is still great confusion around them.
Knowing what they do and how they differ can make a huge improvement to your overall sound!
Have you ever found yourself wondering what those gain controls really do exactly? Let’s dig in and find out how gain and volume differ!
What Is Gain?
The use of the term gain in audio is a derivative from the term “voltage” used in electronics. The difference in magnitude between the output and the input audio signals of an amplifier is called gain, and is normally measured in decibels (dB).
Another way to look at gain, is to consider the benefit you would receive if you bought something for cheap, and then sold it for more.
Let’s say I bought a Fender Deluxe Stratocaster for 500 dollars, but then sold it for 800. I would have made a gain of 300 bucks.
In audio this is the same type of thing, you put a signal on the input and you get a larger magnitude at the output.
But not all equipment is created equal! And so you have to ask yourself, what is it that i am putting a signal into and what am i expecting? Let’s look at a few examples.
What Is Gain on a Guitar Amp?
There are 2 main parts of an instrument amplifier:
- Power amplifier
The preamp stage is needed to amplify an input signal that is too low to be useful on its own.
A guitar puts out a very small signal that cannot be used unless it’s increased in magnitude by a preamp.
The gain control on an amplifier lives in the preamp section of the circuit. This control dictates how much of an audio signal is allowed to proceed into circuits following it.
In the preamp of most guitar amps you will find that there are many active gain stages (tube or solid state normally) all connected together or cascaded in series.
One gain stage boosts or amplifies the signal and passes it on to the next.
As the audio signal keeps growing, it tends to start becoming too large for the following stages to handle, and they begin to start clipping. The gain of each stage simply begins to become too large. This produces the guitar amp distortion we know and love today.
Introduction of the Gain Control
At some point in the early days of guitar amps, designers decided to put a gain control between the first couple of stages. This let players determine how much the amplifier could distort.
Players could then forge their own sound by limiting how much gain the preamp was allowed to produce among the stages.
Your gain knob also controls how much signal the preamp will send out to the power amplifier. The higher the gain setting, the hotter the signal, which is why it’s easy to assume it’s a volume control.
The gain control on a guitar amplifier is primarily there to adjust how much distortion and tone shaping you want in your sound.
So think of the preamp section as the area of the circuit where the tone shaping is done. This is home to the gain knob on a guitar amplifier.
The gain control is the primary knob on most tube amps for electric guitars and distorted sounds!
Gain On A Mixing Board or Audio Interface
The makeup gain control (also known as “trim”) on an analog mixer or audio interface regulates the amount of input signal it receives from the device plugged into it.
Because many devices like microphones and instruments can be used on a mixer, the audio signals from these items can be drastically different.
The gain control is used to limit how much of the signal is allowed to proceed into the channel circuit.
The main objective of the makeup gain control is to allow the strongest input signal possible for optimal sound, while preventing any distortion or clipping of the channel circuit. There is a dynamic range that you need to work within. A proper gain setting also keeps the noise floor artifacts in check.
Many people mistakenly refer to this control as a volume adjustment, which is why this confusion exists in the first place.
The volume of the channel is controlled elsewhere, while the gain keeps the sound quality in check by preventing distortion.
Too much or too little input signal will ruin sound quality in a hurry! It’s very easy to assume gain is volume because any extra input signal will increase it.
Another way to explain it, is to consider setting the gain on a microphone preamp. The vocalist sings lightly into the mic. Normally, you would set the level just before the onset of clipping. This way you get a nice strong signal.
But if the vocalist then intensifies their singing to a louder level, things change quickly! That channel is going to clip like crazy and distort the vocals for sure once they do. You can adjust your volume knob all you want, and that channel is still going to clip.
But once you turn your gain control down, the channel no longer clips. So what’s going on there?
The input signal got stronger when they began to sing louder, which then produced more gain. This extra gain then overpowered the rest of the channel circuit and clipped the audio signal.
This had nothing to do with volume. It didn’t increase a ton, but the channel sure got hit hard with a lot of audio signal gain!
What is Volume?
Volume, in audio, is the perception of loudness from a sound. In this case, it’s the intensity of sound waves produced by a speaker when powered by an amplifier or other audio system.
The more powerful the amplifier, the louder the sound, which in turn means a higher volume. A majority of instrument amplifiers and sound systems have built in power sections that drive speakers.
Most people are quite familiar with the 100 watt Marshall guitar amplifiers that were incredibly loud!
The volume on these amplifiers is produced by the power section circuit. But what is controlling these power sections making them louder or quieter?
You guessed it, a loudness control.
Volume On a Guitar Amplifier
The master volume control on an amplifier lives right after the preamp and before a power section. Your level control regulates how much of the signal coming from the preamp is allowed to go into the power section.
With more signal into the power section, the more volume that will be produced at the speakers. If you remember when we looked at gain on an amplifier, the control also had an effect on how much output signal the preamp would provide to the rest of the circuit.
When the signal from the preamp goes up, the louder the volume will get slightly. If we use the analogy of a water valve, the signal flow through the loudness control is similar. When you open the valve and water starts to flow, you will get a nice stream at a decent pressure.
If all of a sudden the intensity from the water source goes up, the pressure through the valve will increase as well, no matter where it’s set, and so the flow will get stronger.
If the intensity from the water source goes down, the pressure through the valve will decrease as well. The master volume control reacts the same way with the signal it’s provided from the preamp.
And so if the preamp signal becomes larger because of a gain control adjustment, the loudness would also increase slightly because the power section would see a small boost in intensity. And so the assumption most people make is that the gain control is also a volume adjustment.
Volume On A Mixer
On a mixer with many channels, you will see faders or slider controls.
These are the controls that deal with volume from the mixers channels because they regulate the output from each one. As you slide the fader up, the output level from the channel gets stronger.
As you increase the faders from the many channels that you might be using, this begins to mix all the signals together, where the mixed audio eventually end up at the master output.
These master output faders are the mixers main volume controls. They then send the mixed output to another device that will amplify it, normally from studio monitors or PA speakers.
Audio Gain Vs Volume
Gain controls the amplitude of the audio signal as it travels through the device. Volume controls how loud the audio signal will be as it leaves the device.
When you break an amplifier into 2 parts, preamp and power, it makes it easier to understand how gain and volume interact in their respective positions in the overall circuit.
In fact, they essentially do the same thing, which is why it’s hard to grasp how gain isn’t a volume control.
The challenge for most people is the fact that they both do change the loudness when adjusted. So somehow they must interact with each other to control the volume.
And this is true, they do interact with each other and both affect the loudness. So let’s look at how the signal flows through an amp and how it’s transferred between the 2 sections.
We will look at different settings to see how the preamp responds. And also how the volume control reacts to different gain settings.
Changing the Gain and Volume Settings
For the sake of this example, a guitar input signal of 1 volt is being used to keep things simple. An actual guitar signal is much lower, however.
If you look at the input signal in the first diagram, it’s a clean sine wave. Very similar to what the guitar signal might look like, depending on the frequency.
As it makes its way through the preamp, it comes to the gain control at 25% which limits how much signal makes its way into the other stages.
As the signal leaves the preamp, it’s still quite clean because of the lower gain setting. But we have a decent output of 16 volts thanks to the last 2 gain stages.
We then come to the volume control also set at 25% which then sends the signal into the power amp. At a much lower level than what was received from the preamp, however.
The power amplifier then increases the signal it was sent by the volume control. An output level of 75 dB is heard by the listener through the speakers.
We see that the preamp signal was clean and because of the low gain and volume settings, there is amplification but not much distortion.
Turning Up The Gain
In this diagram, we have turned the gain up to 75% from 25%.
As you can see, the signal “IN” from the guitar is still 1 volt and is just as clean as it was in the first diagram.
With the gain control higher, we have a majority of the signal from stage #1 making its way to those remaining.
This added audio gain hits the stages harder, driving them into distortion. Once the signal leaves the preamp, you can see that it’s distorted (red square lines) and is a 40 volt output!
The volume control in this diagram is still set at 25% like last time, which sends only a quarter of the preamp signal it has received.
With a 10 volt signal, the power amp then increases it and the listener experiences 82 dB of volume through the speaker. The sound from the speaker would be distortion thanks to the preamp.
So we see that an increase in audio gain on the preamp stage has created a volume boost of 7 dB. This is not a very large increase and, while noticeable from the speaker, is negligible at best. Some of the bigger changes we see, is that now the preamp output is heavily distorted!
This added signal has caused both distortion and most likely frequency changes from the added gain, but all from the preamp. Huge tone shaping going on here!
We also see that the preamp output has increased a lot from the first diagram. Yet we really only see a small volume change.
In this case, the control and power section will only increase the preamp signal without actually changing its sound.
Turning Up The Volume
In this diagram, we have left the preamp alone but cranked up the volume!
We are now at a loudness level of 75% from 25% and things just got LOUD! If you notice in this diagram, the gain setting is still at 75% and the preamp output and distortion are the same.
But now the volume control is letting a majority of the preamp signal work its way to the power amplifier. Our output is now at 120 dB and wow what a change in intensity.
38 dB difference from the volume control, just as one would probably expect to have happened when turning it up.
The sound would still be distorted just like the last diagram, but this time it’s just a lot louder. No change in tone would have happened with the increase in volume.
Now, if we were to turn the gain control back down to 25%, the signal would become lower from the preamp.
It’s a negligible difference in volume, but a huge tone change instead! The sound would become cleaner because the preamp would no longer be distorting, but would still be very LOUD!
Just a quick note: remember to have hearing protection when using anything this loud for long periods!
What About Gain Staging?
Gain staging is another term that gets thrown around more so in the mixing environment. This is a term that is used when the levels moving throughout devices like audio intefaces and plug-ins must be set in order to keep them balanced.
As devices and plug-ins are added to a signal path, they will begin to alter the level. As the signal gets processed by these added devices or plug-ins, the signal level will either be cut or boosted. This can create issues with the level and sound of the signal if they are not dealt with.
Gain staging is the term used when adjusting the levels at each device or plug-in that was added to the system. Each device or plug-in is a “stage” and the gain output from each one must be consistent in order to provide the right dB level.
For example, if you add an EQ to the system, there is a good chance that any frequencies being cut or boosted will alter the signal level. The gain will need to be adjusted in order to obtain the correct signal level prior to the addition of the plug-in.
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 objective is to either prevent distortion while providing the strongest signal possible, like on a mixer. Or its design is to create a rather large amount of distortion with huge tone shaping like that of a guitar amplifier.
In either scenario the gain knob will need to be set correctly to get the best sound performance from your equipment no matter what it is. So next time you tweak your gear, I hope that you look at the controls differently.
Because 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!
What does gain mean on a guitar amp?
The gain control is a setting used on a guitar amplifier to increase the amplitude of the input signal. While it’s not specifically designed as a volume or level control, it alters how much signal the preceding stages will receive. This is typically so that the sound becomes distorted and is popular for rock and metal.
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 amp stages preceding it will be sent a stronger signal. This then increases the over all signal throughout the amplifier, providing more volume at the output.
Does gain affect sound quality?
Yes, gain will affect sound quality and in a very large way! On a guitar amplifier, it has the ability to distort a signal and change it drastically. This is usually a desired sound.
On a mixer, it changes the sound quality and is normally poor if not set right, as any distortion is not desired in a preamp. Headroom is limited when the signals are large, and so a gain control can find the best sounding setting.