Gain vs Volume: What is the Difference? (2023)

What is the Difference between Gain vs Volume


For instance, you are at a show or rehearsal and also you turn to your amp, or maybe your mixer, and you need to make one thing louder. You will more than possibly be confronted by a set of knobs or perhaps even a fader that may have any of the next labels: gain, trim, level, volume, master, or a similar moniker. So which one are you supposed to reach for and when?

The distinction between gain and volume, particularly, confuses many individuals. As is my traditional goal, we will hopefully assist to clear things up just a little for those of you who might not fully understand what every knob accomplishes.

With the volume knob, you control the volume knob and you need to be careful how hard you hit it. How loud the output signal, the more problems you will have with it later on. On a guitar amp, you maybe can go harder to get some color out of it, but that is for the guitar amp only.

Also, be wary of the input signal path. The signal path should be routed accordingly if you want to avoid any problems further on. So, without any further ado, let’s dig into the topic and try to demystify these two processes.

volume knob for volume gain

What is the gain?

Gain is the ratio between the volume on the input and the volume on the output of an electrical circuit. That’s what it really is, regardless of each different website telling you it is simply “the volume on the input.”

It will get extra complicated, dealing with voltage and current in electronics (every part we use to record). Amplitude is measured in voltage, which is a direct corollary to volume.

These sites simply need it to be simpler so that you can understand because that makes gain the opposite of volume. It is a better method to consider it, but it surely’s not essentially the full truth.

The issues are that some individuals do not understand gain however think they do. Some professionals get it but do not care about misusing the term since everybody else does.

An instance is on any gain-reducing plugin or hardware unit, they will typically label the output volume as “makeup gain,” which is inaccurate however a convention now.

For practical purposes, you possibly can consider gain as volume on the input till you’ve got a deeper grasp on it, that I will present as we proceed. The actual question is why do we’d like that level of control at the start of a signal chain?

gain and volume knobs

What is the volume?

Volume is strictly what you are probably considering and used to dealing with. You flip the knob in your car radio and the audio system gets louder. You push up the fader on a mixing console and that track will get louder. There is no actual, sensible mystery right here.

Volume is a measure of the output of an audio system as measured in decibels (dB). You may consider a sound system as a set of speaker monitors, headphones, an airplane, a chainsaw, or somebody whispering in your ear.

A “system” in this case could be something that produces sound. And the volume could be measured on the decibel scale. The higher the decibels, the louder the sound is. There’s more to say about sound pressure levels (SPL) and sound depth, however, let’s not overcomplicate issues for now.

The factor to know is you can regulate the volume of a sound system and it will not have an effect on the quality or tone of the audio signal. Even when your audio system starts to distort, the audio signal stays the same. Volume occurs on the output, making it incapable of affecting audio quality.

Now, let’s say that towards gain, and the distinction should come out at you based mostly on what I’ve emphasized about volume. If it does not, don’t be concerned.

various knobs

How are gain and volume different?

Merely put:

  • Gain normally controls what comes into a piece of gear.
  • Volume normally controls what comes out of a piece of gear.

Relating the two

An easy and comparatively visual method to consider these from a mixing perspective is that your gain goes to be your sensitivity. Want a mic to be extra “sensitive”? Flip the gain up. That being said, that is often a “set and forget” setting. For those who’re mixing through the gain knob, you are doing it wrong, save for making on-the-fly changes in the live setting. Your balancing and level management must be finished via the faders or knobs assigned to that function.

Another reason to not experience your gain management is that as you increase the gain, your noise floor will increase with it. That is the audible noise of a signal, often self-noise of parts within the signal chain. Ideally, this noise floor might be under the threshold of listening to, however as you bring your gain up, this floor comes with it.

When referring to amp settings, your gain or drive is going to regulate how hard that signal is hitting your preamp; that is where your “overdrive” will come from as you actually overdrive the preamp stage. This must be adjusted for tonal purposes, after which your level or volume control must be used to extend the level of the power amp to really bring your signal to the volume desired. Once more, doing this the opposite way around can bring undesirable noise into your signal.

recorded signal flow

Gain vs Volume – Simple to Understand!

For those who actually wish to go into some interesting territory, you possibly can discover how in acoustics, loudness is admittedly subjective and our sense of volume varies at differing frequencies. It has been mapped out in equal-loudness contours known as the Fletcher-Munson curve.

So far as gain and volume go, you need to know and completely understand the distinction. To recap, the volume is a control of the loudness of the output of a sound system and has no effect on quality, whereas gain permits you to increase the loudness inside of an audio system, which completely determines the quality of the sound or recording.

You could use gain right when you care about quality at all. Understanding gain vs. volume is simple, using gain accurately is a little more involved but greater than worth your time.

fletcher munson


The levels you set will decide how good or bad your recording sounds. When recording digitally, go over 0dB and the audio will clip. 0dB doesn’t imply ‘no sound’, however the highest level a digital system can deal with before it runs out of bits to store information and clips the signal.

The important thing to good recording ranges is to get as hot a signal as you’ll be able to, without going over the max that the recorder can deal with.

How hot is just too hot? It will depend on the bit depth you’re recording and your individual preferences. Recording at a barely lower level isn’t going to spoil your track, however, a clipped note will.

Typically speaking, simply attempt to keep in mind gain = input and volume = output. There’s a lot more in-depth advice online in case you’re nonetheless perplexed.

Digital is a merciless and unkind mistress; while you run out of bits to store information, the result is brutal, anharmonic clipping. Whereas analog could be more forgiving to some extent, the practice of correct gain staging is simply as important as ever.

Not enough gain earlier on within the chain, and you will have issues together with your noise floor as that noise is amplified further and further down the road. Too much, and you may quickly be living life in the red.

That is another excuse that you simply shouldn’t “ride” gains, whether or not you are recording or mixing live: as you modify gain at one half within the chain, it creates a form of butterfly effect as you go down the road. Changes in perceived volume should all the time be made by way of the fader or assigned level management.

more guitar cabinet knobs

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Nikoloski is the founder and main content writer and editor of Mixing Tips. With his experience in audio engineering, mixing, and mastering for over 15 years, will provide hands-on experience and expertise in all the matters covered on this website.

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