So far in this series, we’ve discussed what input gain is, some of the problems associated with getting it wrong, and last time, one approach to setting gain which I’m calling the Fader Unity method. Today, we’ll discuss the other major school of thought, which I’ve labeled the Maximized Preamp Gain approach.
In Maximized Preamp Gain, we first set the gain of each channel to optimal levels then bring the fader up to the appropriate level for the house mix. Essentially, it’s the opposite approach to the Fader Unity model. In this case, we’re going to see input levels that are all pretty consistent across the board. What that level will be depends largely on the console, and that’s something you’ll have to determine on your own. On my console, I find input sound best when I’m hitting the preamps at about −12 to −8, but I’ve mixed on others that sound best between +4 and +12. It takes some experimentation to figure this out.
There are some obvious pro’s to this method:
Signal to Noise ratio is maximized and you achieve arguably better sound. When the preamps are running at their optimal levels, you get the most amount of signal and the least amount of noise, so that’s good (unless of course your mic choice and/or placement is wrong and you’re just amplifying noise on stage—but that’s another post). Some will say they can hear preamps sounding better at the right level, and that may be true. I would argue that there are few church PA’s where the sound of the preamp is a determining factor, but if that’s important to you, this is your method.
Because the input levels are even, it’s easier to mix monitors and personal mixers. With every channel consistent, the band will have an easier time getting their mixes dialed in, and you’ll do better with monitor mixes. Once you determine the best level for your personal mixer’s input module, making every channel the same makes it easy to keep things sounding good.
On the other hand, this method is not without con’s.
Your faders may end up all over the place. Some would argue that the purpose of faders is to mix—and that’s true. But when you have 32 faders that are all at different levels, remembering where they should all start a song can get tricky. It’s a lot easier with digital because you can snapshot it, however.
Fader resolution can be an issue. There is the aforementioned fader resolution issue that you still have to contend with, though arguably, the channels with low fader levels are probably ones you’re not going to touch much anyway.
When to use this method:
If you’re an audio purist who believes in maximizing the preamps, this is your approach. Also, if you’re using Avioms, this is a great way to help them sound better. In fact, almost any personal mixer that uses an input module will sound better if you’re feeding it consistent levels.
It’s also an easy way to teach volunteers how to set up proper gain levels. Once you’ve determined the best-sounding level for your preamps, you can tell them to set every channel up to that level. Again, if everything else is optimized in the system, the overall variations should be fairly minimal and easy to accommodate. If you’re finding fader levels varying by 20-30 dB, you may want to make some adjustments to mic’s, DIs or whatever inputs you’re using.
OK, so that’s the Maximized Preamp Gain method. Next time we’ll finish up this series by discussing the .5 approach—a hybrid model that I employ most weeks.