How to Setup Any Mixer – Gain Staging without PFL or Solo Buttons

For many podcasters, mixers do not include Pre Fader Listen (PFL) or Solo buttons which are commonly used on more expensive mixers for properly setting audio levels.

 

Gain staging is the process of setting proper audio levels through your entire audio chain. On a mixer this starts with the gain knob (located at the top of each channel strip) which controls the sensitivity of your microphone or input and finishes at the output, your main mix.

If it’s not obvious, I’m not an audio engineer. I aim to learn as much as possible from those that are while sharing what I learn along the way, hopefully helping you and me understand this awesome medium a little better. Some of my explanations here will be crude interpretations of the tech as I understand it. This walkthrough is how I currently work with my own gear based on my own research, experience and understanding. Feel free to share your process and experience in the comments as it will only add to the content in this post and help others learn even more.

In order to correctly setup a mixer that lacks PFL or Solo buttons, you need to know how to work with what the mixer does have. On each mixer I’ve used, at the very least, you are supplied with a peak or overload indicator on each channel and of course you have the audio meters.

In the video above, I demonstrate how to use each of these tools to get proper microphone levels into your mixer. When I say “proper” I’m referring to levels that the mixer was built to operate best at. These levels are often referred to by manufactures as “nominal levels.” Typically this means getting your microphone level around zero on your audio meters using a typical analog mixer. Each mixer is built to work its best when you are feeding it input levels that are not too loud or too soft.

In the first method, setting up a microphone with the peak indicator located on each channel, the goal is to use the gain knob to achieve a microphone sensitivity that will not activate the peak light yet still send a strong enough level to your mix/recording while the channel fader is in its unity position (not adding or attenuating the level).

This setup is common in the user manual for mixers that do not have solo or PFL options. However, I prefer the next method which works similar to mixers that have those controls.

The second method, which uses the audio meters of your mixer, is my preferred process for setting your microphone inputs. This method is less subjective, employing the actual audio meters which allows you to see exactly where your levels are while adjusting the gain.

Method 1: using the peak indicator on a single channel.

Each channel on every mixer I’ve used has, at a very minimum, a peak, clip or overload light that indicates when you have clipped that channel’s audio. We can use this indicator to setup the proper gain for our a microphone.

  1. “Zero the mixer” – turn the channel gain, level and main mix knobs/faders all the way down. Leave all EQ and pan knobs in their “detent” position (12 o’clock, often represented by a clicking response that you can feel).
  2. Talk into your microphone at a level that you would normally record your podcast at.
  3. While talking, turn the gain knob up slowly until the loudest parts of your speech activate the peak indicator. It might be easier to use the “Check! One, two” system where “check” represents the loudest you’ll ever get and “one, two” equals your normal speaking level (see video if this makes no sense).
  4. Repeat this process for any additional channels of audio you are inputting into the mixer.
  5. Bring your channel level and main mix fader up to “unity” and you should be close to zero db on your audio meters. If not, adjust the level fader as needed or even the gain as long as you are not activating the the peak indicator with your loudest parts of speech.

Method 2 – Using the Audio Meters

  1. “Zero the mixer” – turn the channel gain, level and main mix knobs/faders all the way down.
  2. Set your microphone’s channel level to “unity” or zero (the position where you are neither adding volume or taking any away (attenuating)).
  3. Speak into your microphone using your normal recording voice or slightly above normal speech.
  4. Slowly turn up the gain knob while speaking into your mic. until the audio meters read “0” during the loudest parts of your speech.
  5. If you have additional channels of audio to setup (co-host, guest, etc), turn the level knob for any microphone not in use all the way down so that it won’t affect the level setting of any additional microphone you are setting up.
  6. When each microphone has been setup, return all level knobs to their unity position, your levels for any single person talking should be around zero db on your audio meters. Adjust your levels as necessary.
  7. If you use any EQ or compression (when available), dial in to taste then recheck your levels and adjust each channel’s level as necessary.

Caveats for Podcasters

The above setups work great on mixers with quality preamps and “studios” that are well suited for recording. However, when it comes to podcasting, it’s not always the case that we have both of these options available to us. In fact, I would guess that the majority of podcasters are working on a tight budget and in spaces that were not designed for audio recording (e.g. spare bedroom). For these reasons, here are some adjustments that you may need to make when setting up your mixer for podcasting.

For mixers that have lesser preamps (aka cheap), you may notice that when you get around 70% of max gain, things start to get a little noisy. That cheaper preamp may be the source of this noise often perceived as hiss.

To adjust to preamps that cause noise, you may need to work at a lower gain setting. Of course this is contingent upon the noise actually coming from the mixer itself and not your environment. Things like HVAC systems, computer fans and hard drives, other appliances, etc. can all contribute to hiss in your audio. Make sure your environment is not the cause before you go off and spend more money to replace a perfectly good mixer.

Once you know that the hiss is indeed being created by your preamps/mixer, adjust your gain knob as much as possible before you hear any hiss. Get closer to your microphone but be conscious of the other affect this can cause, the proximity effect, which can “muddy” up your audio. From here, try and use the level fader on your microphone channel to obtain a higher signal. This will require you going above unity gain.

If raising the level fader also increases the hiss in your audio, try boosting the signal in your recording software or if you’re using an audio recorder, increase the input setting.

If you are in a less than idea recording environment (hard floors, lots of windows, background noise, very reverberant, etc.) you will likely need to make some adjustments to this setup.

Again, getting closer to the microphone can help you remove some of the reverb and allow you to run the preamp at a lower gain. Having a good pop-filter, using good mic. technique and experimenting, will go a long way in helping to alleviate issues that these adjustments can cause.

Lowering the gain in this situation can once again help to compensate for less than ideal recording conditions. Increasing the channel’s level fader or volume to reach workable audio levels may produce a cleaner audio signal in these cases.

Audio recorders with clean preamps can be a big help in situations where your mixer is not producing as clean of a signal as you would like. There are also great products from Cloudlifter and Fethead which can provide additional clean gain. As well, there are external preamps like the DBX286s which also includes an expander/gate which can assist in removing some of the issues caused by a less than stellar mixer preamp.

In podcasting we often have to adjust to the environment we are in. You will definitely need to do plenty of testing when setting up your mixer to find the right setup for your audio. The intent here is to show you how the manufacturer intended their mixer to be setup, to learn a little more about gain staging and better inform you about the tools that the mixer gives you. After that, it’s all about personalization.

In each case, you’ll need to spend lots of time getting to know your specific piece of gear and testing it out. Don’t be afraid to bend the rules but know what the rules are first. In end if it sounds good to you then go with it and have fun.

*Gear used to make the video

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About Ray Ortega

Full-time podcast producer and host of The Podcasters' Studio and Podcasters' Roundtable, I enjoy sharing my ten years of experience making podcasts to help others improve or start their own show.

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