I want to talk about DJ gain control today. Because it’s really out of control.
As DJ’s, we’ve spent hours, weeks and years honing the various aspects of our craft: mixing, scratching, blending, programming a set, reading a room, digging for new sounds, mastering various types of equipment, learning about different genres of music…
But truthfully, most of us fail at monitoring and maintaining optimal sound levels. It’s the one aspect of the craft that has been completely abandoned and I’m aggravated about it.
If you’re not wearing earplugs at any show or nightclub these days, you’re in for a brutal assault. A few years ago, I started leaving a set of earplugs in every bag that I use. My regular day bag, my dj bag(s), travel bags. With the type of schedule I keep, I never know when I might end up at a party, a show or a session, and I ALWAYS have to be prepared with plugs.
With most DJ’s these days, if you take a look at their mixer at peak time, the meters are slammed in the red, their gain knobs are maxed and their master volume knob might be topped out too.
Red means “Turn the volume down, you asshole!”
If there isn’t any dynamic processing in the signal chain, at best the music will sound horribly distorted. If there are compressors and limiters and they aren’t set right and/or you’re pushing them too hard, you’ll get that irksome pumping sound. At worst you’ll blow a speaker or two, or all.
Then you have people on the dance floor looking like this:
These people are not enjoying themselves.
Understandably, many sound systems are poorly set up and maintained. They make it difficult to pump the music so people feel it in their chests and asses, but aren’t being assaulted. Note that I said “difficult” not “impossible”. Our own judgement and attention to detail are the best tools for creating an optimal experience for the folks on our dance floors.
– EQ your tracks as you play them.
Cut those shrieking mids or that rumbling sub-bass. You’ll often find that perceived loudness increases with clarity as opposed to simply cranking it up.
– Start your set with optimal gain levels.
This might seem so basic but it’s so misunderstood. Unity gain is generally marked on most volume controls as the 0 (zero) level. That means that the signal coming into the channel is the same level as the signal going out. YOUR JOB IS TO MAINTAIN UNITY GAIN ALL NIGHT. You should set your master and the front end processing (if you can access those controls) to allow you some headroom over the course of the night, but you should NOT use your individual channel gains for overall volume control. I use channel gains to get an approximate pre-fader output balance before I even mix anything with the crossfader or line faders.
Gain creep is a fact of life for the DJ. Over the course of a gig, the amount of distractions grows, the energy in the room increases, the noise floor increases as more people pack into the space, and one must compensate. But rarely is this done with any sort of specificity. For far too many DJ’s, louder is always better.
– Walk the room.
I regularly leave the turntables to assess the volume levels. Some folks find this odd. (“What are you doing out of the dj booth?!?”) If it’s a room I’ve never played before, I do this a lot. Few of us have the opportunity to always play clubs with optimal DJ booth monitoring, so it’s almost a given that the sound in the booth will differ drastically from the sound on the floor. YOU MUST ALWAYS BE AWARE OF WHAT YOUR DANCE FLOOR SOUNDS LIKE.
Please, all of you. You’re killing folks out there. People going home from parties with migraines and ringing ears. Sound systems being blown. Records sounding like crap because of distortion. The DJ gain control problem ranges from the amateurs up to the pros. We all want our parties to crank, but ultimately Bob Marley knew the way things should be:
“One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” (Trenchtown Rock)
For more on DJ gain control:
- Gain Structure for DJs 101 (Serato)
- DJ Essentials – Trust The Levels (DJ Tech Tools)
- Getting The Volume Right: A Practical Guide For DJs (Digital DJ Tips)