I cannot possibly relay how important this subject is. This can be the difference between a dancefloor full of people & everybody who came to hear your music outside for a smoke. Why? Because failure to properly set the amplification at various levels of your signal chain will ruin the sound of your music. One caveat I will make is this: with analog gear, you can push the boundaries of optimal volume settings & produce favorable results sometimes (guitar distortion is a perfect example). With most dance music however, distortion is already provided by the producer or not intended at all in a track, so its addition is usually not an improvement to a track save a few very specific scenarios.
Before we begin the procedure, one note: you should never see a red light on a level meter. This is a clipped signal & reduces the amount of sound your audience hears. It does not add anything, it only detracts from your music & its ability to communicate with your audience.
To set gains on your mixer (or controller, as it were):
- Start with everything turned down all the way (-∞ or the gains turned as far as possible counterclockwise) & the EQs flat (at 12 o’clock).
- Raise the gain of the track until:
- The average level is 0dB (usually the last green LED on the channel’s meter).
- The transient (usually the kick drum) hits around +3dB or +4dB (usually the second or third yellow or orange LED on the channel’s meter).
- With analog gear you may be able to comfortably push this as far as +6dB without losing an unflattering amount of sound, but I’ll still try to avoid hitting that high just to ensure I don’t clip a signal anywhere in my set.
- Once the level is set for your track, you can bring the volume fader up completely in order to send the full signal to the master output (remembering that it is still turned down completely).
- Now all that is left to do is set the master output volume using almost the exact same procedure we used on the channel. Raise the volume until:
- The average level of the master output is 0dB (between transients).
- The level of the transient is around +3dB to +4dB (potentially as high as +6dB on an analog mixer).
- The signal chain then is: Input gain (the level coming from the audio source CDJ, turntable, etc) →Channel fader (not the master fader, if you have one)→Master output (sometimes this is a fader, sometimes a knob, sometimes both, depending on your make & model of mixer)
A few things to know:
- While the output & channel levels on a digital device may be labeled as +2dB, +4dB, etc they are not in fact sending anything over 0dB unless they are clipping. A digital signal cannot surpass 0dB, therefore to push it beyond that point is completely useless & only makes music sound worse (because the sound is lost completely beyond that point).
- When dealing with some sound engineers, you may have to actually explain to them that you know how to properly set your levels in order for them to properly send your signal to their amplifiers. I’ve had to do this more than once. There is a lot to being a skillful musician & some artists do not focus on the finer points, therefore when you are confident in your ability to control the volume of your output, you may have to actually convince the engineer you are able to do so. This isn’t a “sound engineers hate DJs thing” but you must understand that a club sound system is a large & very powerful device that can be easily damaged if not cared for & fed properly. Do not rush into this!!! Many DJs seem to have it in their head that being louder makes their music sound better. This is only true of really really bad music. When you amplify a signal past its clipping point you are essentially producing volume by hammering the sound out of it. Think of a wet clay sculpture being forced through a tube too small for it, the same thing is happening to your sound when you clip the signal. The tube (in this analogy) is the signal path & the sculpture (your tracks) must be made small enough to fit through the tube or it comes out the other end mangled & damaged (©;).