Learning to properly set the volume, also called gain structure, of the DJ equipment you are using can be the difference between sounding incredible and sounding like a complete novice.
With so many different places to set your volume – your PA speakers, master output on your controller, channel gain, volume fader – it is worth taking the time to learn the right settings for each so you can sound your best.
The four gain stages
Most DJ set-ups have four different stages where you can set the volume, also known as gain. Each need to be set correctly to get the best possible sound.
1. Amplifier gain
This is the volume level of the speakers you are using. This can be the volume control on a set of computer speakers, the volume setting on the back of active PA speakers, or the volume control on a PA amplifier if you are using passive PA speakers. Almost every type of speaker you could use to play on will have some type of volume control.
2. Master output gain
This is the master volume control you will find on your DJ controller, DJ software or mixer. This sets the overall volume level of the DJ hardware you are using.
3. Channel output fader
This is usually found below the EQ section of each channel on your DJ controller, DJ software, or mixer. The channel output fader is used to adjust the volume of each channel while mixing between tracks.
4. Input gain
Each channel on a DJ controller, DJ software, or mixer has a knob called gain or trim which is usually found right above the EQ. This is used to compensate for any volume level differences between your tracks.
How to set the gain structure correctly
Follow these five steps in sequence to set the gain structure correctly on your DJ gear to get the optimal sound.
- Start with all gain stages turned all the way down. This usually means each of these knobs turned all the way to the left
- Play a track at a loud point, then set the input gain on each channel so the average volume is at 0dB, which is usually the top green LED on your channel output meters. When set like this, the transients – this means the peaks of things like bass drums and snares – will hit between +3 and +6dB which is usually the yellow LEDs on your channel meter. Make sure your channel meters do not hit the red LEDs because that means you are distorting, which sounds bad (that’s what the picture at the top of this article looks like!)
- Set the channel output faders all the way to the top
- Set the master output gain so the average is 0dB. Just like the channel output meters, this is usually the top green LED. Again you will also want to make sure the bass drums and snares hit between +3 and +6dB, which will be the yellow LEDs on your master output meters
- Turn the volume control on your amplifier to average 0dB. If your PA speakers or amplifier has LED meters this usually means the last green LED. If you do not have LED meters, slowly turn up the amplifier gain until the “clip light” turns on, then slowly turn the gain down until the clip light no longer turns on. This will give you the loudest volume possible without distorting.
That’s it! Now, if you want to adjust the overall volume throughout the night (for instance, to start with you’ll probably want to turn it down from these settings, to give you some leeway as the venue fills and you need to go louder), use the closest control to the speakers you have access to.
Even if you are playing the best set of your life, if your volume is not set correctly it will not sound good to your audience. With all the time that DJs put into practising their craft, it is worth it to learn how to set the gain structure properly to ensure the audience hears your set the way you intended.
Once you get the hang of setting your gain structure, it only takes a few moments to dial it in the right way and eventually it will become second nature. This is one of the easiest things a DJ can do to have a great set – and it has nothing at all to do with tune selection or mixing skills!
Have you come across any gain or volume-related issues in your DJing? How did you solve them? Let us know in the comments.