Going Into the Red – A Brief Sound Quality Guide for DJs

A pet hate of club Sound Engineers is a DJ who has turned everything up to 11 and is red-lining all over the mixer, causing the music to distort horribly. It’s the sure sign of an amateur, and one step away from trying to DJ off your phone with a pair of earbuds. So, just in case you need a refresher, here’s our brief guide to volume and gain for DJs.

When talking about how loud things are in a club, we often speak about turning up the volume. However, from a sound engineering perspective, we refer to ‘gain’ – which is simply the electronic process of signal amplification, expressed in dB (decibels). The crucial difference between gain and volume is that, typically, gain adjusts the level of a signal coming into a piece of gear, whilst volume typically adjusts the output level. 

OK, got that? Right. This means that where the gain is set at all stages of your kit (track levels and master levels in your software, the individual track gains and volumes and main volume on the mixer) need to be set up optimally. Getting the gain correct at each stage is called, predictably, gain staging. Each stage will have a maximum level beyond which clipping will occur. Clipping at any stage will eventually be amplified and should be avoided at all costs. Equally, if the gain is set too low then the noise floor will increase at each stage, so there should be an optimum gain setting at each stage. 

So, if you’ve got red lights on the mixer, you need to take a look at what’s going on.

We can assume that for most gigs, the main system is going to be gain-staged professionally already, so here we’re just talking about the kit in the DJ booth. If you’re using software, then check the track gains, get them to just under 0dB and do the same for the master output. Then you can set the mixer channels so that they peak below the red and do the same for the master output. Simple. This will be the maximum volume you can go to – and you may well find that this will be way too loud, especially at the start of the evening.

You should always use the master volume to leave yourself plenty of headroom, as your volume needs may well change as the number of people in room changes throughout the night. Generally, a room sounds very different when it’s full of people, compared to how it sounds when empty; bodies absorb sound and people make noise, so you’ll probably need to turn it up later on in the evening. 

Finally, it is of course up to you, but we would advise that you never give in to the red devil on your shoulder and allow a bit of red lining simply for the sake of a little-increased volume. Distorted sound tires people’s ears very quickly so it’s not really a winning strategy. Keep it clean and keep out of the red at all times.

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