We’ve all seen those little knobs on our amplifiers, stereos, and band equipment. Every musician has been guilty of fiddling with those knobs on the equalizer before, perhaps trying to impress someone in the room or feigning understanding when discussing the mix in a recording session.
The reality is that those little knobs create huge, yet subtle, differences in your sound and how your music is perceived. While twiddling and twisting those knobs and making those adjustments might seem like fun, they serve a critical and crucial purpose in the creation of well mixed music.
So, if you’re ready for a refresher (or if you’ve never actually learned what these different factors mean for the music you listen to as well as the music you play), sit down and get ready to learn about those little knobs.
Gain – We’ll start off with the more complicated of the four. Gain is tricky to define because it holds meaning in several other occupations other than the music world. When speaking about music and mixing, Gain refers to Transmission Gain. Transmission gain is the increase of the signal, in most cases the raw signal being derived from your microphone or guitar before it reaches any amplifier.
Gain is typically the first knob you will see on a board or on an amplifier. The Gain is the first control that the raw signal (again, the mic or guitar) encounters on the board or amplifier. Gain is the conversion and creation of sound through the conduit. The key to setting the Gain is finding the sweet spot where the Gain is at its highest but not distorted or clipping. Of course, several musicians utilize Gain in order to create distortion.
Volume– Most musicians can’t have an honest conversation about volume without making reference to Spinal Tap. The concept of turning it up to eleven had us all in stitches, but the actual function and purpose of volume is rather simple: Volume is the amount of power being provided to the raw signal, thus amplifying it. In other words, the more power being provided to the signal, the louder the sound.
Level – Level gets a bad rap, mainly because it was used so arbitrarily and ambiguously for so long. Level was the quintessential knob that people fiddled with in hopes to appear knowledgeable. In reality, Level is much more than just a knob we twist to impress our bandmates. Level serves a real and truly critical component to proper mixing both in and out of the studio. Level is the quantification of Sound Pressure Level, or SPI, to measure and describe sound waves. A scale was created out of the SPI to calculate the lowest human threshold of hearing up to, well, pain. Adjusting the level creates a more even, enjoyable, and comfortable listening experience for the audience.
Loudness – Sure, it’s related to volume and level – and the definition of it is rather similar, but Loudness is a horse of a different color. Loudness involves a lot of heavy math, complicated formulas, and well vetted science. There are graphs, power point presentations, and books written on the subject. Loudness is a tricky beast. Loudness is the perception of differing volume dependent on the frequency. Since each human ear is different, calculating and adjusting for Loudness can be difficult. By shaping and contouring the Loudness in a mix, you are better able to bring out elements of the music that you want to be featured or heard, and hide or minimize aspects that you wish to remain under wraps.
Musicians and Scientists alike have been studying sound waves, frequency, and SPI for decades. At the core of all of these knobs is a real purpose and a real adjustment to the music you make or the music you listen to. If learning about these important variations and adjustments in your music is a personal undertaking of yours, consider taking a class or reading many of the highly recommended books on the subject. If you find the entire prospect overwhelming, there are professionals out there who have taken the time to become masters of these little knobs and they would be happy to help tweak your sound into a masterpiece. Regardless of how you make these adjustments happen, just keep in mind that these little knobs are so much more than just toys to fiddle with when bored – they are the barrier between you and your optimal listening experience.