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What Does Gain Do on a Microphone?

Microphone

Setting up your home recording studio and are confused about what the different level knobs on the audio interface are? Or are you confused about why certain knobs increase the noise you input into your microphone? Gain has a special purpose on your microphone, allowing you to tweak the recording level more accurately.

Quick Answer

Gain on a microphone is the amount of input level from the microphone. It controls how loud or quiet the input is received on the microphone. It might sound similar to volume but differs as volume increases the output, not the input.

Audio recording and mixing is a complex topic. Despite us having the ease of hearing a song on YouTube or Spotify, much work goes into producing the sound and recording and mixing it, making sure it sounds perfect before it reaches our ears.

Read on to find out what gain does on a microphone!

Gain on a Microphone

Your voice produces minute vibrations when you talk into a microphone, which the microphone then amplifies into a very small voltage. But, unfortunately, it’s too little to be practical. This electrical “signal” must thus be “amplified” or enlarged, frequently by a factor of a thousand or more.

Sound waves are converted into electrical signals by analog microphones. The term “signal at the mic level” describes this output. Microphone signals are generally between -60 dBu and -40 dBu (dBu is a decibel unit used for measuring voltage). Therefore, this is regarded as feeble.

You can then use gain to raise the mic level signal to parity with a line-level signal as professional audio equipment utilizes audio signals at “line level” (+4dBu). Without gain, the microphone signals would be too weak and provide a low signal-to-noise ratio, making it impossible to utilize them with other audio equipment.

Gain works by adding energy to your sound waves. To achieve this, you will need a preamplifier, which in some cases, such as your normal microphone, is already built-in, but it’s better to check if your mic has it. 

Other ways exist to increase or add gain if your mic does not have a built-in preamp. For example, a microphone amplifier, such as an audio interface, a standalone preamp, or a mixing console, can enhance gain.

Gain vs. Volume

Before heading into the comparison, it is better to understand exactly what volume means regarding the microphone. In simple terms, microphone volume refers to how loud or how quiet the output of the microphone is. Usually, this is toggled by a simple volume knob on your microphone or even a software volume control setting.

With both definitions in mind, we can now compare them. The most important distinction to remember is that microphone volume affects how loud a sound is, whereas microphone gain refers to an increase in the power of the mic signal.

Microphone gain requires an amplifier to make the output signals from the microphone powerful enough to work with other audio equipment. On the other hand, microphone volume is a control every mic ought to have and is used to modify how loud the sounds emanating from the mic are.

With the difference being clarified, we should also explore the uses of each element. The basic function of microphone gain is to set the mic’s level to equal to or slightly over the normal line level. This gain enhancement applies equally to the signals originating from other instruments to microphone signals.

On the other hand, the function of volume is to regulate the volume of sound emitted by a microphone. These volume controls are used in recording studios to achieve the ideal balance between each microphone and instrument.

The important thing to remember in this situation is that by utilizing gain to boost the energy from the mic, you’ll give yourself more leeway with the energy or loudness output. More input, more significant gain or a stronger microphone signal result in a larger output volume or loudness of the audio. But keep in mind that there must be a balance.

If you’ve ever heard a guitar that sounds slightly different, it usually achieves such sound by purposefully boosting the gain settings. In most situations, matching gain and loudness is the best configuration for a microphone.

Conclusion

With the information provided above, you can use your built-in microphone, audio interface controls, software, or a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to manage gain on your microphone.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should my microphone gain be high or low?

This depends on how your setup is and how you are recording or using your microphone. A good way is to record yourself or speak in your microphone with the playback in your headphones and then adjust the gain levels. This will allow you to tweak the gain levels and adjust them according to your liking.

It is not recommended to leave the gain on default or just choose a random level before using the microphone. This will result in a bad recording and unclear or damaged audio.

How do I increase my microphone gain?

This question depends entirely on how you use your microphone and, more importantly, which microphone you use. If you use a dedicated microphone such as a condenser microphone, you can use the software or the audio interface it is connected to. On the other hand, you can increase the gain using your headphone’s mic using the headphone software or any other third-party software.

Can I damage a microphone with too much gain?

Not at all. Extreme signals produced when you increase gain will damage devices such as headphones but will not at all damage your microphone. So you can increase your gain to whichever value you like without worrying about damaging your microphone.

Can I manage gain automatically?

There are ways to manage gain automatically, depending on your software. For example, automatic gain control (AGC) enables a microphone’s signal to automatically adapt to account for differences in talker loudness or movements concerning the microphone. Technologies like Bose’s ControlSpace Enhanced AGC, which can analyze several interactive channels concurrently, offer a straightforward, flexible solution to create boosts or cuts of up to 30 dB.

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