Gain vs Volume: Definitions & Uses Demystified!

Gain vs Volume
Does music production feel like a never-ending maze of jargon or minefield of competing terms? We’ve explored Digital vs Analog and Mono vs Stereo. Today, we’ll demystify Gain vs Volume.
Learn by doing – twisting knobs to see what changes. Or, listen to other producers, using context clues to decode their vocabulary.
Some terms seem to mean the same exact thing. It’s understandable why producers would use two terms interchangeably!
There’s maybe no worse offender than Gain and Volume.
Here, we’ll explain the difference between Gain and Volume. We’ll reveal the source of the confusion between the two. We’ll also cover the main ways appropriately to use Gain and Volume.
With a grasp on how to use gain, you’ll be able to use it to intentionally shape the tone of your sound. Don’t waste the potential of analog gear. Make sure you know the difference between Gain and Volume
We’ve mixed hundreds of sessions with Gain misused. And, over our careers, we’ve been guilty of using Gain as a Volume control too.
But, this simple explanation will demystify the difference. You’ll not only understand what it is, but how to use Gain for better tone control.

Table of Contents

Gain vs Volume

Volume is a system’s output level. Gain is a signal’s level going into a component (like an amplifier, interface, or plugin). Gain can affect tone (for example, by adding distortion) as components color signals differently at higher input levels. Volume does not affect tone, only output loudness.

What is Volume?

Volume is a measure of the level of a sound at output. It is a specific, quantitative measurement of the output signal level of a sound system. A volume control adjusts the power to an output speaker. It controls the overall output volume.

Some examples, everyone is likely familiar with:

On a guitar amp, the master volume knob controls how loud the amp plays.

Amp Volume

In your car, the volume controls how loud the music plays.

Car Volume

On your computer or phone, the volume is how loud the speakers play

System Volume

In your DAW the master volume control affects how loud the track plays.

DAW Volume
Importantly, the Volume level does not change the tone of the sound, it only makes it louder.
Volume controls loudness (but perceived loudness is something different). And there are some familiar ways to measure this level.

Ways to Measure Volume

Sound Pressure Level (SPL) measures Volume physically. As the name implies, SPL measures the air pressure created by a sound.
Ever walked past the subwoofer wall at a festival and felt the air pushing out of them? That’s what SPL measures.
You’ve likely seen volume measured in decibel (dB) output, an electrical measurement. A decibel is the ratio between the level measured, and a fixed level, called the “reference level.” It’s presented on a logarithmic scale. Let’s break this down into its components:
First, because decibels are an electrical measurement, they have a corresponding voltage.
Second, the measurement is of relative values. So, you need to understand the scale to know what a measurement means. Temperature is a helpful metaphor.
You probably know what 72 degrees Fahrenheit feels like. It’s much different than 72 degrees Celsius. The relative scales come from differences in analog and digital recording.

Analog vs Digital Volume Levels

Analog audio is usually measured using the dBu scale, while digital audio uses dBFS. The difference is like the difference between Farenheint and Celsius temperatures, above.
A VU meter measures analog audio in dBu. The reference value for dBu is 0.775 volts. VU meters will read 0 VU at a voltage of 1.228, or +4 dBu.
A digital VU Meter for gain staging in Ableton
Likely, you’re using a DAW and digital components. Digital volume is measured using Decibels (relative to) Full Scale or dBFS. This is the readout on the mixer view in Ableton or other DAWs. Signals clip at 0 dBFS.
There isn’t a singular conversion table, but +4 dBu (0 VU) is often defined at -18 dBFS, and sometimes -20 dBFS. You may remember from our gain staging article that this is a good general target for average volume.
Now, knowing that Volume is a system’s output level, let’s dive into Gain.

What Is Gain?

Gain is the level of a signal going into a component (like a guitar amplifier, audio interface, or plugin).

In other words, Gain is what you adjust before entering other forms of processing. Volume is what you adjust after all other forms of processing. This is the key difference between Gain and Volume.
Because of where Gain falls in the signal path, it can affect tone, while Volume cannot.
Many producers use the two terms to mean the same thing. The confusion is understandable. When you turn up the gain knob on your amp or plugin, the signal gets louder, after all!
But they are not the same thing. Let’s explore the impact of adjusting Gain, and the historical use of Gain in analog recording.

What is Gain Used For?

Two use cases illustrate the importance of Gain: mic preamps and guitar amps.
Recorded vocals come into a system at mic level, the signal strength of a microphone. Microphones record a very quiet signal. It’s much lower than “line level” the standard for professional audio recording.
A microphone preamp will have a Gain control to boost the microphone signal up to line level.
This is especially important in the analog world. You want to exceed the noise floor by enough to achieve the appropriate signal to noise ratio.
Mic preamp
Mic Preamp Gain bringing Mic Level Signal up to Line Level

Now, think about your guitar amplifier. Usually, they have both a Gain knob and a Volume knob. They may even be right next to each other!

Gain and Volume on a Guitar Amp
Consider the signal path. Adjusting the level going into the amp (Gain) affects how the amp colors your sound. Adjusting the level going out of the amp controls how loud that signal plays (Volume).
You could crank up the Gain. Overload the amp to produce crunchy and distorted sound. You can also turn down the Volume, keeping the output level of that distorted sound quiet.
Guitar Amplifier Gain vs Volume
This same concept is creates the warmth and signature color an analog hardware unit can add to a sound. Driving the input level too hot can produce tasteful saturation and tone.
Now you understand how adjusting Gain can affect a sound’s tone. It’s not output Volume with a different name.

Gain vs Volume: Why All the Confusion?

Now you know the difference between Gain and Volume. But why is there so much confusion? Why are the two terms used interchangeably, when Gain and Volume are so different?

Low Gain and Digital Components

Producers may work in a gain range that doesn’t affect a sound’s tone. Low enough Gain at the input stage, won’t affect how a component colors a signal through to the output stage. So changing the gain setting doesn’t change the tone, making it effectively a type of Volume control.
Also, digital components have a different effect on a signal. We explained how you can use the Gain control add saturation or get a distorted signal with analog gear.
But in digital audio system, clipping is usually all bad. Try running any of your DAW tracks above 0 dBFS into the red and see how it destroys audio quality. It’d be hard to get any sort of “tasteful” amount of digital distortion. In these cases of non analog emulation, the Gain isn’t impacting tone, and becomes a sort of de facto Volume.

What about Makeup Gain?

Another reason the two terms are conflated is because of “makeup gain.”
This is a common setting to see on dynamics processing plugins like compressors. The effect of these plugins is some amount of “gain reduction.” Here, they reduce the dynamic range of a signal.
“Makeup Gain” is often an end setting. It re-boosts a now-reduced signal up again, so that the newer, less dynamic waveform is not quieter.
And yes, in this instance it’s again effectively turning up the output level.
Makeup Gain

Other Definitions

Further adding to the confusion, music production overlaps with many other academic disciplines. Producers learn about the physics of sound, and the engineering of electrical circuits. This can cause a lot of confusion.
“Gain” is a general electrical engineering term. It describes the increase in voltage when passing through electrical circuit. This term also applied to signals in audio engineering.
Here, Gain is the ratio between a signal’s volume entering a component vs. leaving it. Or, it’s input level vs. it’s output level. Gain was how much a signal “gains” while passing through a component.
Some still use this as the textbook definition of Gain. But, the definition we explored is generally accepted. It is more practical and applicable in modern recording environments.

Lazy Labels

Some guitar amplifiers use the word “Gain” to mean “Distortion.” That effect is made by turning up the Gain so the circuitry couldn’t cleanly process the sound. Distortion pedals still work this same way. While Gain is often used to make distortion, it definitely is not the same thing as distortion.

What is Gain Staging?

Knowing that Gain colors sound is fundamental to Gain Staging. This is the process of optimizing the level of an audio signal throughout an audio signal chain.
Gain staging is being aware of the level of your signal at every single stage of the processing. It is a critical part of the mixing process.

Comparison of Gain vs Volume

ControlsLevel going into a componentFinal output level from a system
Signal Path LocationBefore a component's processingAfter all processing
Can Affect ToneYesNo
Measured IndBFS / dBudBFS / dBu

Conclusion: Gain vs Volume

Both Gain and Volume are sound level measurements. The important distinction is where they play into the signal path.
Gain is the level going into a component. It’s what you alter prior to entering other forms of processing. Because of this Gain can color tone.
Volume is the final output level of a sound system, controlling power to a monitor.
Gain knobs are everywhere: mic preamp, guitar amps, audio interfaces, and consoles. While turning it up can result in a volume increase. But, Gain’s position in the signal path allows it to affect tone, making it distinct from Volume.
Scroll to Top

Slow down, turbo!

Can we send you email with offers, giveaways, tips, and news?