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What Is Compressor Makeup Gain, Input & Output Gain?

Master your understanding of compression settings:

Quick guides to compression settings for instruments:

When using a compressor, makeup gain helps you mitigate the difference in volume caused by the gain reduction (or increase) during compression. Compressor makeup gain lets us keep a healthy signal flow throughout our mixes and masters, so today we’ll learn how to use this compression setting in depth, why we need it, and how to dial in the perfect settings every time.

A Brief Overview of Compression Settings

Before we dive specifically into makeup gain, it’s worth mentioning that compressors are the most common tools engineers use to control the dynamic range of a signal, create a sense of depth and create movement throughout the song, to name a few examples.

However, people often overlook the makeup gain and just keep mercilessly adding more and more plugins to process and the result is a messy, saturated, and probably overprocessed mix that sounds like absolute crap.

This is most common with beginners and inexperienced mixers that are unaware of the importance of keeping the balance of your gain staging to optimize the use of your plugins and get clearer and better-sounding mixes.

Yeah, that’s the big secret, it isn’t the expensive gear.

For this reason, here’s a quick overview of all the compressor settings:

  • Attack & Release – Determine how long the compression is going to last. Attack time sets how long before the compressor kicks and release time tells how long it goes away.
  • Makeup Gain – Allows gain compensation to regulate after processing.
  • Ratio – Indicates how much gain reduction will occur when the signal hits the threshold
  • Threshold – Sets the level on which the compressor will engage.
  • Knee – Determines how the compressor will transition between the non-compressed and compressed states of the signal.
  • Hold – Delays the release of the compression for a specific time.
  • Range – Determines the maximum amount of decibels the compressor will reduce when a signal is fully compressed.
  • Lookahead – Allows the compressor to anticipate peaks, making the attack smoother.

What Is Compressor Makeup Gain?

Compressor makeup gain is a knob that boosts or reduces the gain of the output signal. It works as a way to compensate for gain reduction to level match the compressed signal with the original input.

Make-up gain is a setting for gain control, and some compressors have an automatic make-up gain feature to automatically compensate for the difference in amplitude after gain reduction.

However, it’s always advised to check levels before moving forward (unless the intention is, in fact, to add gain) to avoid your ears being fooled by the change in volume.

Besides A/B comparison, make-up gain plays a highly important role when mixing or mastering, because it lets you stay within comfortable levels, ultimately avoiding digital distortion and other noises that can damage your mix.

Why Is Makeup Gain Useful on A Compressor?

Because without makeup gain we would not be able to control the output levels after compression without affecting our initial gain stage, causing unwanted digital saturation, pumping, distortion from the compressor, and ducking.

To explain this in a more practical way, imagine you’re mixing drums and compressing the drum bus. Drums often have spikey transients that you typically want to control.

After you compress, suppose that 4dB was the right amount of gain reduction for your track. If you couldn’t compensate for this huge difference in gain, then you’d have to either boost it back with a fader or with another insert.

If this case happened in the box, you’d eventually end up with some very nasty digital clipping in inserts and ruining your entire mix over it.

Also, the make-up gain is inversely proportional to your threshold and ratio settings, and depending on the combination of these two parameters, the make-up gain should be addressed differently.

For example, if you have a harsher ratio, you’ll cause more gain reduction and will need more makeup gain to put up with it. If you happen to have lower settings, less compensation would be necessary

What Is The Input Gain on A Compressor?

The input gain level is the amount of signal feeding into the compressor. In some cases, it’s tied up with the threshold, like in the 1176 or the LA2A, but it’s usually only a meter that tells you how loud your input is.

In a way, it’s the reference level to which you need to take the compressed signal up or down. This is why most compressors would include an input and output gain meter so you can compare the compressed version against the original audio signal and make sure they’re coming in and out of processing at the same or at least similar levels.

Why Is Input Gain Useful?

Input gain is useful because it makes a huge difference in how the compressor reacts to the signal. If you feed too much input gain into your compressor, it’ll result in a squashed crappy sound, and will be impossible to control dynamics accurately.

Depending on your input gain levels your compressor works and reacts differently regardless of the settings you dial in later on, so it’s of utmost importance to keep a certain amount of headroom as you process the signal.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that sometimes you will have high input gain levels, so it’s good to compress with very low ratios, preferably between 1.2 and 3:1, in these situations to prevent gain reduction from being too aggressive.

Keep in mind that neither makeup gain, output gain, nor input gain is exclusive to compressors. Most plugins and processors have input and output gain controls to keep the balance of your signal and your gain stage in check.

What Is Output Gain?

Output gain is the loudness level of the signal after compression. Depending on the compressor, type, amount of gain reduction, and construction, this value can vary from being very loud or low, so you can adjust this level with the output gain knob to go back to its initial level after processing.

In some cases, like with the Pro C2, there’s an automatic gain compensation, which basically adjusts this parameter on its own. However, these automatic gain functions aren’t usually as accurate and they tend to overcompensate gain, making the output louder, and therefore is perceived as better.

We can’t stress enough the importance of manually adjusting make-up gain whenever you’re adjusting your compression for A/B comparison and then deciding whether you need the volume boost or not, instead of using this automatic feature. If you don’t it’s possible that you get digital distortion and saturation, which can easily (and quietly) ruin your sound of the mix.

Compressor Makeup Gain Tips

Ensure The Makeup Gain Is Set To 0 dB Initially

As we know, the human ear perceives frequencies differently depending on how loud they sound. We’re more sensitive to mid-range frequencies, while the lowest and highest frequencies need to be higher for us to perceive them clearly.

In simple terms, if you listen to music at a low volume you will mainly perceive mid-range frequencies, and if you turn up the volume, suddenly high and low frequencies start to show up.

Because of this perception, when we listen to music at high levels, we feel it sounds better because we’re more able to hear the most frequencies.

OIP
Graphic representation of the threshold of human hearing.

This phenomenon is called psychoacoustics and plugin developers are aware of it. Some of these, when they create plugins use it in their favour and by default, they program their compressor plugins so the makeup gain starts at+3dB to trick you into thinking it sounds better.

That being said, it’s a good practice to bypass your compressor (or any other processor whatsoever) to check that the level doesn’t change before applying any processing. Also, it’s good to keep an eye on the makeup gain of the compressor as soon as you load it for the same reasons.

By doing that, you’ll enable yourself to hear what the compression is doing, which will lead to more dynamic and better-sounding mixes.

Use The Gain Reduction Meter To See How Much Gain Is Being Reduced

gr meter 1

As we said earlier, makeup gain is inversely proportional to gain reduction, so it’s only logical to assume this, as a way to reference how much gain compensation we need for our track.

Although it’s not a rule, a good place to start dialing in your makeup gain is to check the gain reduction meter to see what’s the maximum level of reduction.

For example, if you have -6, you dial in 6dB of makeup gain and bypass. If you can’t hear the volume difference, means that’s good as it is.

If you do, then you have a good starting point to adjust and gain compensation as needed.

Use a loudness meter to level-match your input and output gain

Ear fatigue is real and there’s no way to get rid of it other than resting. That’s why you don’t want to stay too long working on just one track when mixing. We’re human, our ears can and will get used to how things sound regardless if it’s good or not.

However, meters can help you get things done on the fly and far more accurately.

In this line of thought, loudness meters are ideal to set your makeup gain, because whether or not you can perceive the difference in level, the meter will show you.

youlean loudness meter mastering plugin

My way to do this is by bypassing my compressor as soon as I’m done setting it up. Then, I go to the loudest segment of the signal and check the loudness levels. Next, I turn the compressor back on and see the results on the meter.

Finally, I calculate the offset and type it down as the makeup gain value and adjust it until it hits the same number.

Using gain for an upfront vocal

Gain can be beneficial to move things in space. For example, when you lower the gain of a clap, you make it sound farther away. If you turn it up, you make it sound closer.

fabfilter pro C2 compressor makeup gain

A cool trick when mixing vocals, solos, and anything with that level of protagonism is using FabFilter’s Pro C because first, it has a “vocal mode” that’s optimized to process vocals.

What I do is compress it and activate its auto-gain and auto-release functions with a fast attack and mild lookahead, pretty much as you see in the image.

Pro C’s auto compensation isn’t particularly accurate on this and usually ends up adding a few extra dBs of gain.

What I like to do, is to compress and level match for A/B comparison, and once I like the compression of the vocal activate the autogain, so that it comes forward more naturally.

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