Getting The Volume Right: A Practical Guide For DJs

vu meters

Gain, fader, EQs, master outs, amp volumes - knowing how to set these all up correctly is essential if you want your DJ sets to sound right.

Setting all the volume and gain controls in a DJ set-up correctly is the most important step to getting a good sound out of it, and it never ceases to amaze me how so many DJs - even some of the biggest names on the planet! - are completely unaware of how to do it properly, or worse still, just don’t bother. Yet if you just take time to learn a few simple rules and techniques, every DJ set you play will sound as good as it's possible for it to. So what is this "gain structure" business anyway, and why is it so important? Let's take a look...

Put simply, "gain structure" means setting the gain level at each amplifier point in your DJ set-up to get the loudest possible signal without distortion. The reason for doing this is to ensure that the level of the signal is sufficiently higher than the noise generated by the electronic circuits in your set-up, but still lower than the maximum signal the circuits can handle.

This is known as "good signal to noise ratio", and while digital files and equipment have a much lower noise floor than their analogue counterparts, they are still subject to noise, and digital noise is even nastier than analogue hiss.

Headroom and distortion: Digital vs analogue
I’m not going to debate which is better, as both have their strong and weak points, and I don’t want to get too technical in this article. However, I am going to discuss the differences when it comes to setting gain, as there is a huge difference in the way analogue and digital signals behave when they distort, and when you understand this you will understand why good gain structure is even more important for the digital DJ.

Old school VU meters

Old school VU meters: Note the red "headroom" above the 0dB mark.

All electronic circuits have a maximum level that they can recreate a signal accurately at. With an analogue circuit the manufacturers will specify an optimum level to set the signal at (0dB) but the maximum level the circuit will be able to handle is higher than this - exactly how much higher will depend on the quality of the equipment. The difference in level between 0dB and the maximum level is known as "headroom". As the signal gets closer to the maximum level it slowly begins to distort in a somewhat "musical" way, and can be used creatively. (Think guitar distortion and drums recorded to tape at high level).

Digital circuits also have a maximum level that they can recreate, which is known as 0dBFS, and a digital circuit will accurately create the signal up to this level with no distortion. Anything over this level will distort because digital circuits have no Headroom above 0dBFS. Digital distortion is not musical and sounds horrible!

Guide to volume and gain for DJs

OK enough boring theory; let’s get on with setting the gain structure up correctly in your DJ set-up.

The four gain stages in a DJ set-up

Every DJ set-up has four gain stages that need to be set up correctly. These are:

  1. Input gain - This is the gain knob at the top of your controller’s mixer channel, or in your software’s onscreen mixer. There will be one of these for each channel in your set-up. This gain is used to compensate for the difference in recording levels between the tracks in your collection (on most DJ controllers this gain is actually after the EQ section in the signal path to allow you to also compensate for any EQ settings you had to make to the track)
  2. Channel output fader - This is the fader under the EQ section of each channel in your setup, and again there will be one of these for each channel
  3. Master output gain - This gain knob is used to set the level out the signal coming out of the mixer
  4. Amplifier gain - This is the volume level of the PA amplifier(s), your home hifi, computer speakers, or whatever you're listening to your mixes on

How to set gain structure correctly on your DJ system

To set up the gain structure of your DJ system, follow the steps below. It is important that you do them in the right order:

  1. Ensure all the levels in your system are set to infinity (turned right down) and the EQs are all set to their centre positions
  2. Use the input gain knob to set the level of the track so that the average level of the track is at 0dB (usually the last green LED on the channels input level meter) and the transients (usually the bass drum) peak between +3dB and +6 dB (the orange LEDs on most meters). Never let the levels go into the red.
  3. Set the channel's volume fader to maximum (tip: I sometimes leave it a bit lower to let me accent beats by pushing it to max briefly)
  4. Use the master output gain knob to increase the level of the output signal until the average level of the track is at 0dB (usually the last green LED on the master output level meter) and the transients (usually the bass drum) peak between +3dB and +6 dB (the orange LEDs on most meters). Never let the levels go into the red
  5. Turn up the gain knobs on the amplifier until the average level of the track is at 0dB (the last green LED on the most amplifiers' level meters) and the transients (usually the bass drum) peak between +3dB and +6 dB (the orange LEDs on most meters). Never let the levels go into the red. If the amplifier does not have input meters, turn it up until the clip LED just starts to come on with the transients, then turn it down a bit until the clip light stops flashing

Congratulations! You have now set up the correct gain structure of your DJ system, and all you need to do now is adjust the input gain for each track you play to set its level to 0dB. In other words, you do step two above for every track you play.

Frequently asked questions

How do I adjust volume overall once this is all set?
We've just set the system up to the loudest it will go, and of course you won't always want to play at this level. The ideal place to turn things down is the main amplifiers, but if you can't do it there, the output gain on your DJ controller or mixer is the next best place.

What if it's not loud enough having done this?
If you do not have enough volume after doing all this, it means you need to get bigger amplifiers and speakers, or more of them. Do not be tempted to turn up the gain at any of the stages stages as all you are doing is introducing distortion, and risking damaging your or the venue's equipment.

Limiter

See that red dot and the word "LIMITER"? That's the DJ software (in this case it's Serato ITCH) telling you you're driving it too hard and it's limiting the output to prevent distortion. This has a detrimental effect on sound quality.

In fact, most venues have compressors or limiters in place to protect their expensive PA equipment so pushing all your gain stages into distortion will not make it any louder, but will make the music sound terrible, and will quickly fatigue the ears of your audience causing them to leave the dancefloor to recover.

What about if I'm plugging my DJ controller through a house mixer?
Same principle applies - set EQs flat in the channel you're using, set input gain correctly, put the channel output fader on full, and adjust the master output gain correctly.

What about EQ?
When you boost part of the signal with EQ you are increasing the gain of the signal and using up valuable headroom. The biggest culprits of this are the bass frequencies as they require more power to recreate the long wavelengths they produce. Of course it goes without saying that these are the very frequencies DJs love to boost!

Subtractive EQ is a much better way to get a good sound, so next time you are cueing up a track which is lacking in the bottom end, try cutting the mid and high frequencies and turning up the overall gain to bring the track up to 0dB, you will find that the result sounds the same, but you are not driving the signal into distortion.

Finally...

I hope this article has helped you understand the fundamentals of gain and how it relates to DJing. I purposefully didn’t go into too much technical detail, but for those of you out there who want or need to know more just type "gain structure" into Google and enter geek heaven! For those of you who are thinking of producing your own tracks, everything I have explained above also relates to setting levels for each instrument/sound in the track. And while you can of course break all the rules for creative effect, it still helps if you know them in the first place!

• Simon Pentz started DJing in 1992 on a pirate radio station in Dublin, before moving to Melbourne, Australia to study music production in 2003. He teaches a DJ skills short course and also work for one of Melbourne's best known pro audio companies. He's a Torq who's about to switch to Serato ITCH because of the new Twitch controller.

 

Do you have any questions regarding gain structure and how to set up the volumes on your DJ equipment? Have you got any nightmare stories of DJs messing this up, to the detriment of everyone else in teh venue? Let us know in the comments!

Comments

  1. does this still apply if i use platinum notes on my mp3s?

  2. Thanks! This is a sweet article, have been wondering for a while if I have been doing it right!

  3. Thank you so much Simon , that article was just gold. So many great tips. Much appreciated !

  4. I wish they’d make sound engineers at youth centers read this. The number of kids thinking the top of the read is the maximum… I just… ARGH *punch*

    I took the controls for one gig, was a little quieter than usual (not that anyone noticed) but sounded so much better. The drummer of the last band actually thanked me in front of the crowd (only 50ish people) for making the night sound so good.

  5. Again thnx for the tip :-)

  6. Gains are so, so important. Especially when youre a digital guy and autogain takes all this thinking away for you.

    I now have a complex about gain structure. lol.

  7. I once posted on djforums about cliping in internal mode; a guy told me that the best you can do is (in traktor) turn off the software’s limiter, and turn down the software’s main gain (up to -10) so that you have enough headroom, and then just use the gain from the real mixer.

    Is this wrong?

  8. Platinum Notes is suchhhhhh a great tool to use in combination with what this article suggested and your DJ software’s autogain.

    I process every single of my mp3s with Platinum Notes with the “Festival Template”, i set my Serato’s autogain to 93dB and all of my tracks have an even volume and peak at the first “White Led” on my NS7. After that my signal goes through a 16 channel Behringer mixing board which then outputs to a DriveRack PA+ sound processor where you can set a limiter, EQ, and many other things if you have many other input sources other than yours (i realize the majority of the dj population dont care about using platinum notes or controlling gains so you have to hard limit them if you have fellow DJs playing alongside).

    Finally i set my amps as suggested to peak to the yellow Leds and i dare to say i have one of the best sounding systems in my local scene.

  9. This is super important stuff. Thanks for writing this Simon, and thanks for posting it Phil. Seriously, I obsess over sound quality, and gain structure and proper EQ is a must. I spend a whole lot of time fixing it at the venue if it’s not pro audio – the last gig I played (a house party) they nearly got annoyed with me, but I got there early enough to fix everything. The set rocked, and everyone loved it.

  10. heeey My name is Alejandra & i’m really interested in the Dj thing I really love this type of music..but i have a big problem i have no idea of how to make a track how you dj & those stuff im pretty confused and i dont understand nothing i would like to know if i could make a track by only using my laptop & nothing else ? i would like to know if theres a website were i could do the mixes and the tracks because i have no idea of what this is i never dj before if you could give me some tips to start from Zero with this cus im pretty confused o.O

  11. Great read for all DJs. SO many people ignore it, or think that they have to manipulate all the sound from their mixer (not amps, etc), and it sounds bad. No matter what the situation is, people will always blame bad sound on the DJ, so if you want to be seen as a pro, you gotta get it right!
    He says it best when he says: Never let the levels go into the red.
    Some DJs say they saw a top DJ push the red so it’s ok, but that just means that’s one area where you can easily be better than them!

  12. Excelent post!!

  13. Hi Phil,

    Love the blog – very informative!

    Everybody talks about the 0 db per channel rule and I try to follow that.. but the part that nobody seems to address is what the proper handling of two (or three) channels at the same time is.. lets say I have track 1 playing at 0 db (and my master set at 0 db). Then I bring in track 2 at around 0 db (and decrease track 1 a bit via EQ or filter), I have a hard time keeping my master under control at times. For example, when I have my crossfader in the middle of track 1/2, my master may jump to +2 db (or more depending on the tracks). Is this considered OK in your opinion? Obviously the sound is higher temporarily while track 1+2 are going at same time and when I fade out track 1, it goes down to roughly 0 db.

    Should I always try to compensate for multiple tracks? I think it was djtechtools who talked about “having a budget of 100″ and making sure to compensate for track 2’s increase by decreasing something in track 1. In other words, I interpreted this as meaning I should aim to keep my master at 0 db regardless of whether I have 1 track playing OR 2 tracks playing OR 3 tracks playing, etc.

    Thoughts?

    • Simon Pentz says:

      Hi Kev
      I purposely kept the article to just describing how to set initial gain structure per channel, but you are correct as soon as you mix in more than one track the master level will rise, there are many techniques to keep the master at 0dB during a mix, such as cutting the bass frequencies in one or more of the tracks, or riding the level of the channel faders, but these are esentially mixing techniques, and should only be used after you have set up the gain properly on each track.

      • Thanks Simon – would you say that one should always try to keep their master at 0 db (with occasional spikes) regardless of how many tracks they have going by using the techniques of their choice (EQs / filters, etc)?

        Great article on the topic by the way

  14. Nice and thorough. Thank you!

  15. This is helpful, wish you had more pics or videos cause honestly sometimes videos (audiovisual) aids are better and faster.

  16. helps me… thanks…

  17. Am I reading this wrong? I use Traktor in dvs mode and would never recommend setting the gain on a channel faded on a mixer to full. That will cause your mixers leds to go in the red and everything that brings.

    • Simon Pentz says:

      Hi Jim
      If you are using Traktor in DVS mode you need to ensure that the tracks aren’t clipping before leaving your sound card. Using your softwares auto gain or an external program like platinum notes to ensure that your tracks are at a good level will accomplish this. Then you can set the gain on your hardware mixer exactly as I describe in the article. If your mixers output goes into the red when the channel faders are at full, you either have the input gain, the output (master) gain, or both set too high. It is important to set your gain structure in the same order that the signal flows. i.e. from source to speaker. I hope this helps

      • I’m never sure about Traktor’s auto gain. For example I have lots of techno tracks which have been mastered to peak just below clipping (-0.3 dB). Yet, Traktor’s auto gain usually amplifies these tracks by about +2.3 dB. That should make the tracks peak at about +2 dB which equals clipping, doesn’t it?

      • @Patrick: you are quite right – if your Master gain is set to 0dB, auto gain can make tracks mastered just below clipping, clip.

        The best way to avoid this while still making use of Traktor’s auto gain feature is to set the Master gain to -6dB or lower (I use about -10dB). Traktor has masses of headroom internally, so as long as it isn’t clipping at the master output things should all be clip free.

        In the latest versions of Traktor you can accomplish the same thing using by setting the “headroom” preference to -6dB.

  18. Serato has a useful article called “Gain structure for DJs 101″:
    http://serato.com/articles/scratchlive/1903/gain-structure-for-djs-101

  19. Hey fellas, took part in a small industry DJ comp last night at a local bar, my first time playing at avenue rather than house parties or at home. I decided early on to try and use my SPIN-DJAY-Macbook rather than the CDJs as I was not familiar with them andin a comp situation I felt like needed to know my gear. The set was only 30mins long so no time to get used to new DJ equipment.

    When my time came to play we were running behind so I quickly connected my SPIN via RCAs from the master out to the Phono In of the (old) Behringer mixer, with an assigned channel ready for me to use for the SPIN’s output (I tried to go via Line In to the mixer but nothing was coming through the channel at all when I did so gave up and went to Phono In).

    I was on after another DJ had used the house CDJs and while his sound was pretty crisp I had a terrible low-end distortion. We messed around with the SPIN gain, EQ, master out and the mixer’s channel vol, master out, EQ… pretty much everything infact to lower the distortion levels but nothing seemed to make it happier. I ended up playing at minimal volume (still low-end distorted!) to a rapidly disappearing crowd. Was very disappointing.

    I’d done my best (under pressure with no time to sound check my gear beforehand) to follow the guide on here but may have missed something crucial I guess. On the SPIN’s main output meter it was only registering green LED volume out so I can’t believe the output from the SPIN was creating the distortion issue.

    It wasn’t a big club system, only a bar size – maybe something else wasn’t set right or the Phono In was a bad call for sound quality? If anyone’s got any thoughts or experiences doing similar with the SPIN I’d be interested to hear them. When I’ve used my SPIN going straight out to powered speakers for private parties it has always provided very good sound quality so I was really bemused and gutted last night.

    Sorry for the essay on this but I had to share my experience. I eventually cut my set short (to save peoples ears more than anything) and trudged off rather dispirited with the whole experience. Would never try this again without any time to sound check beforehand that’s for sure!

    • In short: You should never plug into a “phono” input, as that’s designed for record decks. Confusingly, line inputs and records deck inputs use the same type of sockets, which even more confusingly are often referred to as “phono” sockets. But there is always either a phono/line switch next to such an input on a mixer (set it to “line”), or a similar set of sockets close by which are line-level; they’re the ones you should have plugged into. Line-level gear plugged into phono sockets always sounds absolutely terrible.

      • Thanks for clarifying Phil, I had a feeling thats what it was – looks like I made a rookie DJ error right there.

        When I’d initially tried routing the SPIN through the line-in sockets (as I thought I should) we got no sound through the mixer channel, so not sure what was going on there.

        It was a pressurised situation to be messing around with the set up and unfortunately I was being pushed to “get on” with my set as it had got pretty late.

        Would like to have my time over again to correct my mistakes but at least I’ll know better for next time.. if there is one!

    • DJ Whitecloud aka Matt Fontaine says:

      pickup a DI Box, you will be able to go in via 1/4 or RCA then XLR out into the house mixer… you will also go in Balanced, which will give you great clearity

  20. On top of my stress induced rookie error with the Phono-in I think I know why the Line-in wasn’t picking up my SPIN output in the first place now.

    I always default the output in DJAY at launch to “SPIN” setting, however, I’m guessing (would need to test it to be sure) that with the bar’s PA set up of mixer+amp that I needed to set the SPIN output to “Built-in” instead for it to work. It’s conjecture but the only theory I can come to that was untried at the time. Another basic option I should have had top of mind when setting up!

    Anyone tried this set up in similar circumstances that could confirm my theory?

  21. Another take on the subject: http://slimag.com/dec2011jan2012/#/30

  22. Hi Phil,
    I’ve read your very interesting article.
    Digital sound is more sentitive for clipping % distortion than analogue sound.

    Im working with Virtual Dj 7 Pro Full with an Hercules Dj 4 Set controller.

    Because i’m afraid for clipping ,i set all the tracks i want play in my set to -6dB. (i check this with a software V.U meter) (Gain : auto & remember)

    I record my whole set in Wave format & after the recording i trim the ends. And check (with the V.U meter),the whole wave if its has the same amount of volume. Other wise i manually raise & lower this by + 0,66 or – 0,84 Db. So the volume is equal along the whole mix. (and NO clipping or distortion)

    But maybe i should try to switch off the internal “auto-gain” of Virtual Dj (only gain “remember”,& see what the results than are ?

  23. I pretty much have everything down but with my setup but I have 3 added gain options than ones you have in the article. I’m using a mixtrack pro with virtual dj and an added external mixing board for more channels. It goes like this. First off I have all my tracks normalized so I don’t touch their gains. I have both channel volumes on the mixtrack set to full. The 3 added gains are master output in the software, the volume control from my laptop, and the channel volume on the external mixer. I do not know where to set these. I normally leave all of these at about 75% and then set the master to meter at 0 and adjust the speaker volumes accordingly. How do I set all of these gain levels? Should eliminate the external mixing board to have less gain options?

  24. Thanks!

    this blog is really the greatest thing for a totally new (to DJ:ing) dued. And this article especially helped so much as I have been struggling with adjusting the levels of my mixes. Really I understood all the parts of gain and volume before, just now realized that I didn’t get the last part of it, what to do when (in what order to controll it). So thanks, I think this will improove my mixing skills (or perceived mixing skills that is, lol) a lot and finally make my levels about good enough to get out and do some first gigs//Nick

  25. Nice guide im glad im not the only one who was wondering, I always played under 0db to make sure even with bass, This explains to put the bass mid and Teble in the centre, set it to 0db then you can adjust the bass just a little over 0 db , correct me if im rong, Thanks Zippydj.

    • Just realised that i was rong and its +3 Db on the amplifier ! peace.
      Still play under 0 db on your mixer and the AMp should be at 0 db too.

  26. Phil / Simon,
    My issue is I have an NS6 (which on that controller, I’ll assume 0db is right before the last 3 white LEDs). I just picked up 2 Alto TS115a / 800w PAs. With the gains on the NS6 and the output volume on the speakers both set at about the 12:00 position, I can barely turn the master volume past 12:00 before I am plugging my ears. However, even with that, I barely get get past the first few LEDs to light up on controller. Someone said that is due to the better quality sound card in the NS6.

    My question is, am I loosing or missing optimal sound quality and performance, if I’m only getting the first few LEDs to bounce?

  27. awesome article, thanks for the info :D

  28. Hi mate, i ve got a traktor s4 n always there are instances where i m struggling with keeping a steady volume.

    i m a beginner and learnin on my own, can u please tell me what i need to do to make sure all volumes are right ?

    i dont understand input gain nob etc. so if u can be more specific on where those buttons are on s4 and whats the best way to record a mix without volume dropping, would be great… i also have platinum notes but i have a feeling its compressing the sound quality, whilst trying to balance it, but have a feeling its more to do with how i am meant to record it

    • Start with high quality files, then use the gain controls to get them so they’re “just below the red” on the metering, then use the volume faders and EQ as you see fit, but always remembering – use your ears! If something sounds wrong work out why. Play with those EQs, and believe what your ears are telling you.

  29. [email protected] says:

    Great article, and very useful comments. I’ve been using the recommended gain structure here, and have a question on the LED indicators on Traktor vs. those on the controller. I’m using a VCI-400 controller with Traktor Pro – the VCI-400 will show peaks hitting the red, while Traktor’s main indicator shows the signal hitting the orange at most. To be safe, I backed off on the levels to keep the VCI-400 controller’s indicators in the green and orange (Traktor’s levels stay in the blue and never reach orange at that level) – but i’m still confused about which level meter i should trust – Traktor or the controller?

    It’s easier to keep an eye on the level meters on my controller, so i’d ideally like that to match Traktor. If I play to the controller’s level meter (which seems lower than Traktor’s) what is the drawback? (presumably lower signal to noise ratio ?)

    (some side details on my setup – using the limiter in Traktor with -6dB headroom, mixing with the VCI-400 and a Kontrol F1. I mainly use auto gain, and manually trim some tracks where necessary)

  30. Luke Miles says:

    Thanks a lot for this article! I’m going mad with this gain problem and now I have some clues to do it right so that my Sets sound even better!
    Keep up the great work!

  31. oh god this is a beautiful article, golden !

  32. Every single DJ should be forced to read this before a pro gig. You be suprised how many do not have a clue.

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