Gain vs Volume: What Is The Difference?

So many people have asked the question on the differences on gain vs volume because they seem like the same thing! They are right to ask that question. These two seem so similar. The next question I expect them to ask is, does the difference even matter at all? A clear answer to them is, understanding the difference between gain vs volume could make a dynamic change to the tone of your instruments forever. Learning the difference between the two is one-step closer to creating great mixes and having more control over the tone of your instruments.

What Is Volume?

Between the two definitions, defining volume is a straightforward affair as compared to the meaning of gain. From a simple explanation, volume means the decibel (dB) that is the output of a sound system in simpler terms. Breaking it down into an even more straightforward definition, this is how loud sound is after it is processed. Therefore, we can say that volume is the loudness you hear after you process your sounds. In cases where you are making your mixes, the volume is at whatever level it is sent from your channel to your stereo output, but it can also be to whatever bus you are sending to. However, it is essential to note that if you are used to using a guitar amp, then the volume is usually how loud you set the amp. In the case of volume, you will realize that volume does not change or improve the tone of the sound. What it does is to make it louder.

What Is Gain In Audio And On An Amp?

gain vs volume
From the definitions of the two, gain is more detailed and a little bit complicated. In the olden days referred to as analog days, gain was a very simple concept to define but with time, things are changing and gain has started to mean several things all the same. The reason why gain definition is becoming complicated with time is, digital technology has comprehensively copied the analog gear but at the same time making remarkable additional changes. The resultant effect has been a more complicated gain definition and a significant difference in the definition of gain. Sometimes, most people will take gain just as another word for volume and the denotion used is just the same (dB), meaning the output of a system. For instance, on digital plug-ins, the “makeup gain” function on a compressor is simply the output volume but bearing a different name and making it even more complicated to differentiate. These are such features we are referring to the end up complicating the definitions of gain.

Most Popular Definition Of Gain

However, the most popular definition of gain in the modern era is the decibel (dB) input of a particular system. Gain is simply the level of volume level that is sent to the connected plug-ins, amplifiers and preamps. Therefore, if you are finding it difficult to define the function of gain, make a note that gain perfectly controls how loud sound is before any processing is done. Another essential distinction that you need to have in mind is, no matter how loud the sound is after processing does not make any notable change to the tone of the sound. As I have said before, it just makes the sound louder. However, how loud a sound is before processing will definitely affect the tone of the sound.

Meaning of Gain In The Olden Days

Looking at the olden days, people made use of gain two ways. There was gain at the microphone preamp. The purpose of the gain at this particular point was to turn up the level of the mic and this would in turn make a significant change on how the analog in the recording domain would affect it. The second gain was on a guitar amp. The purpose of this gain was to turn up the level of the guitar. In the analog era, most of the guitars usually had a gain knob and at the same time, they had a volume knob. This simply means that you could send a ton of gain into the amplifier, next overload it, then go ahead, and keep the volume-controlled reasonably with the volume knob. That is the simple criteria that brought about the creation of guitar distortion. You go ahead and overload the guitar amplifier with gain so that in this case, the speaker could not cleanly process the guitar. Due to this, some people find a third definition of gain as- distortion.

Summary Of Gain In The Modern Era

Therefore, we can conclude that in the modern era, gain can be summarized to mean three things:
  • Simply another word for volume or can mean the loudness of the output
  • How loud the input is
  • Distortion
You have to be aware of the three simple definitions because you might end up experiencing all the three when you are doing your mixing. However, the meanings should not scare you as the essential thing will be to understand how you can use their effects to improve the quality of your mixes at the time you are mixing.

What Is Gain Staging?

After having an extensive understanding of what gain is and what it is all about, then we can go ahead and look at what gain staging is all about. Gain staging is simply the process where you make the dB level of your sound consistent throughout the processing process in the processing system. At all costs, to have the best quality output, you have to ensure that there is consistency in the level that is coming into the channel and the level coming out. Gain staging is an essential component of the sound output as most of the times; our ears perceive loud sound better as opposed to soft sounds. If by any chance, you do make a proper consistency of your sound loudness from one plug-in to the next, then you will not be in a position to know whether the plug-in is making the sound of the instrument better or just making a louder effect. This is a necessary practice for all the plug-ins you are using. If you are using a compressor, it is essential that you make use of the make-up gain to gain stage and that will simply mean turning up the volume to cater or compensate for the volume lost in the process. By ensuring that you do this with every plug-in, you are sure to get the best quality of mixes by making the most accurate mixing decisions. You will have improved the quality of your mixes significantly. You need to note that in each recording session you have, it is crucial to gain stage. You have to make sure that every component is consistent before you start your mixing sessions more, especially if they are all in the digital sweet spot.

The Takeaway: Gain vs Volume

The fact remains that, volume and gain are almost similar functionalities, but their difference makes a significant difference to your mix. As we have seen above, volume is simply how loud the output of your channel or amplifier is. Volume only controls the loudness and not the tone. On the other hand, the gain is how loud the input of your channel or amplifier is. Gain controls the tone and not the loudness of the sound. Hopefully, this information on gain vs volume will help you dramatically improve your mixes while understanding the benefits of gain staging will help you make mixes more excellent and consistent.
Juan Stansbury
Juan Stansbury

I'm Juan Stansbury, author and owner of Homerecordio – your ultimate destination for everything about homerecording. With hands-on experience, courses, workshops, and industry research, I offer tips on selecting the best equipment, and mixing and mastering your recordings to achieve professional-quality results at home. Join me on this journey to explore the world of homerecording and music production.

Home Recordio