Gain staging – Build your perfect mastering chain

This is the first part in a series about building your own mastering chain. We will dive deeper into specifics about the different parts of a mastering chain, like EQs, compressors and peak limiters later. But the first and in our opinion most important step to building a great sounding, versatile and reusable mastering chain is to have a proper strategy for the gain staging.

This will be a very effective way to ensure that you make the best decisions in order to improve the sound of your masters.

Gain staging the right way

So, what is a good gain staging strategy? It’s actually quite simple and can be summarized in three steps!

  1. Use a gain plugin first in the chain to adjust the overall level of the mix to be approximately -18 LUFS.
  2. Use the output gain of each of the following plugins to make sure that the loudness is the same when the plugin is enabled, as it is when bypassed.
  3. Use a peak limiter plugin last in the chain where you increase the gain in one big step to reach the final loudness level.

This strategy will make it easier to decide whether a plugin actually improves the sound, without being fooled by any loudness bias. It will also make it easier to enable or disable any plugin (except for the first and last) without messing up the gain structure of the rest of the chain.

And running all plugins at -18 LUFS, regardless of the loudness of the original mix, will give you consistency. You can have default settings for thresholds, saturation and peak limiting that will at least be in the ballpark for most mixes. No need to reinvent the wheel for every mix!

But I’ve heard that…

There’s a chance that you have heard about a completely different gain staging strategy. In that strategy you would add gain in several steps throughout the chain instead of doing it all in one step at the end. Then the final limiter won’t have to work as hard. Doesn’t that make sense? Yes and no. Mostly no. Any benefits of that approach are just as easy to get when using proper gain staging, but without the huge drawbacks.

If you want to learn more about this and see some actual examples, then we recommend watching the video below:

2 thoughts on “Gain staging – Build your perfect mastering chain”

  1. I like that system. Seems like it is similar to that of Ian Shepherd. Curious about the loudness meter you show at 9:08. Is it a Cockos or JS plug-in?

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