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Setting Sound System Level Controls

Dennis Bohn, Rane
RaneNote 135 written 1997; last revised 4/05
  • Decibel: Audio Workhorse
  • Dynamic Range: What's Enough?
  • Headroom: Maximizing
  • Console/Mic Preamp Gain Settings
  • Outboard Gear I/O Level Controls
  • Power Amplifier Sensitivity Controls
  • Active Crossover Output Attenuators
  • Using the RaneGain Test Set
Information contained in this work has been obtained by Rane from sources believed to be reliable. However, neither Rane nor its author guarantees the accuracy or completeness of any information published herein and neither Rane nor its author shall be responsible for any errors, omissions, or damages arising out of use of this information. This work is made available with the understanding that Rane and its author are supplying information but are not attempting to render engineering or other professional services. If such services are required, the assistance of an appropriate professional should be sought.


Correctly setting a sound system's gain structure is one of the most important contributors to creating an excellent sounding system. Conversely, an improperly set gain structure is one of the leading contributors to bad sounding systems. The cost of the system is secondary to proper setup. The most expensive system set wrong never performs up to the level of a correctly set inexpensive system. Setting all the various level controls is not difficult; however, it remains a very misunderstood topic.

The key to setting level controls lies in the simple understanding of what you are trying to do. A few minutes spent in mastering this concept makes most set-ups intuitive. A little common sense goes a long way in gain setting.

A dozen possible procedures exist for correctly setting the gain structure of any system. What follows is but one of these, and is meant to demonstrate the principles involved. Once you master the fundamental principles, you will know what to do when confronted with different system configurations.

Decibels, Dynamic Range & Maximizing Headroom

Audio-speak is full of jargon, but none so pervasive as the decibel. Mastering gain, or level control settings also requires an understanding of dynamic range and headroom.

Dynamic range is the ratio of the loudest (undistorted) signal to that of the quietest (discernible) signal in a piece of equipment or a complete system, expressed in decibels (dB). For signal processing equipment, the maximum output signal is ultimately restricted by the size of the power supplies, i.e., it cannot swing more voltage than is available. While the minimum output signal is determined by the noise floor of the unit, i.e., it cannot put out a discernible signal smaller than the noise (generally speaking). Professional-grade analog signal processing equipment can output maximum levels of +26 dBu, with the best noise floors being down around -94 dBu. This gives a maximum unit dynamic range of 120 dB -- a pretty impressive number coinciding nicely with the 120 dB dynamic range of normal human hearing (from just audible to painfully loud).

For sound systems, the maximum loudness level is what is achievable before acoustic feedback, or system squeal begins. While the minimum level is determined by the overall background noise. It is significant that the audio equipment noise is usually swamped by the HVAC (heating, ventilating & air conditioning) plus audience noise. Typical minimum noise levels are 35-45 dB SPL (sound pressure level), with typical loudest sounds being in the 100-105 dB SPL area. (Sounds louder than this start being very uncomfortable, causing audience complaints.) This yields a typical useable system dynamic range on the order of only 55-70 dB -- quite different than unit dynamic ranges.

Note that the dynamic range of the system is largely out of your hands. The lower limit is set by the HVAC and audience noise, while the upper end is determined by the comfort level of the audience. As seen above, this useable dynamic range only averages about 65 dB. Anything more doesn't hurt, but it doesn't help either.

Headroom is the ratio of the largest undistorted signal possible through a unit or system, to that of the average signal level. For example, if the average level is +4 dBu and the largest level is +26 dBu, then there is 22 dB of headroom.

Since you cannot do anything about the system dynamic range, your job actually becomes easier. All you need worry about is maximizing unit headroom. Fine. But, how much is enough?

An examination of all audio signals reveals music as being the most dynamic (big surprise) with a crest factor of 4-10. Crest factor is the term used to represent the ratio of the peak (crest) value to the rms (root mean square -- think average) value of a waveform. For example, a sine wave has a crest factor of 1.4 (or 3 dB), since the peak value equals 1.414 times the rms value.

Music's wide crest factor of 4-10 translates into 12-20 dB. This means that musical peaks occur 12-20 dB higher than the "average" value. This is why headroom is so important. You need 12-20 dB of headroom in each unit to avoid clipping.

Preset All Level Controls in the System

After all equipment is hooked-up, verify system operation by sending an audio signal through it. Do this first before trying to set any gain/level controls. This is to make sure all wiring has been done correctly, that there are no bad cables, and that there is no audible hum or buzz being picked up by improperly grounded interconnections (See Sound System Interconnection). Once you are sure the system is operating quietly and correctly, then you are ready to proceed.

  • Turn down all power amplifier level/sensitivity controls.
  • Turn off all power amplifiers. (This allows you to set the maximum signal level through the system without making yourself and others stark raving mad.)
  • Position all gain/level controls to their off or minimum settings.
  • Defeat all dynamic controllers such as compressors/limiters, gate/expanders, and enhancers by setting the Ratio controls to 1:1, and/or turning the Threshold controls way up (or down for gate/expanders).
  • Leave all equalization until after correctly setting the gain structure.

Console/Mic Preamp Gain Settings

A detailed discussion of how to run a mixing console lies outside the range of this Note, but a few observations are relevant. Think about the typical mixer signal path. At its most basic, each input channel consists of a mic stage, some EQ, routing assign switches and level controls, along with a channel master fader. All of these input channels are then mixed together to form various outputs, each with its own level control or fader. To set the proper mixer gain structure, you want to maximize the overall S/N (signal-to-noise) ratio. Now think about that a little: because of the physics behind analog electronics, each stage contributes noise as the signal travels through it. (Digital is a bit different and is left to another Note and another day.) Therefore each stage works to degrade the overall signal-to-noise ratio. Here's the important part: The amount of noise contributed by each stage is (relatively) independent of the signal level passing through it. So, the bigger the input signal, the better the output S/N ratio (in general).

The rule here is to take as much gain as necessary to bring the signal up to the desired average level, say, +4 dBu, as soon as possible. If you need 60 dB of gain to bring up a mic input, you don't want to do it with 20 dB here, and 20 dB there, and 20 dB some other place. You want to do it all at once at the input mic stage. For most applications, the entire system S/N (more or less) gets fixed at the mic stage. Therefore set it for as much gain as possible without excessive clipping. Note the wording excessive clipping. A little clipping is not audible in the overall scheme of things. Test the source for its expected maximum input level. This means, one at a time, having the singers sing, and the players play, as loud as they expect to sing/play during the performance. Or, if the source is recorded, or off-the-air, turn it up as loud as ever expected. Set the input mic gain trim so the mic OL (overload) light just occasionally flickers. This is as much gain as can be taken with this stage. Any more and it will clip all the time; any less and you are hurting your best possible S/N.

(Note that a simple single mic preamp is set up in the same manner as a whole mixing console.)

Outboard Gear Input/Output Level Controls

All outboard unit level controls (except active crossovers: see below) exist primarily for two reasons:

  • They provide the flexibility to operate with all signal sizes. If the input signal is too small, a gain control brings it up to the desired average level, and if the signal is too large, an attenuator reduces it back to the desired average.
  • Level controls for equalizers: the need to provide make-up gain in the case where significant cutting of the signal makes it too small, or the opposite case, where a lot of boosting makes the overall signal too large, requiring attenuation.

Many outboard units operate at "unity gain," and do not have any level controls -- what comes in (magnitude-wise) is what comes out. For a perfect system, all outboard gear would operate in a unity gain fashion. It is the main console's (or preamp's) job to add whatever gain is required to all input signals. After that, all outboard compressors, limiters, equalizers, enhancers, effects, or what-have-you need not provide gain beyond that required to offset the amplification or attenuation the box provides.

With that said, you can now move ahead with setting whatever level controls do exist in the system.

Whether the system contains one piece of outboard gear, or a dozen, gains are all set the same way. Again, the rule is to maximize the S/N through each piece of equipment, thereby maximizing the S/N of the whole system. And that means setting things such that your maximum system signal goes straight through every box without clipping.


ProSoundWeb How Do You Set System Gain Structure?

Sound on Sound Ins and Outs of Gain Structure.

RaneGain Test Set: It's now a discontinued product, but if you have one, or find one, the following is a recommended setting procedure.

The RaneGain test set is a handy tool kit based on techniques first developed by Pat Brown of Syn-Aud-Con for use in quickly setting sound system gain controls. It consists of two pieces: a self-contained, phantom-powered 400 Hz generator and a separate audio Transducer housed in an XLR connector. The RG Generator plugs into any mic input on a mixing console (or separate mic preamp) having phantom power in the range of 12-48 VDC, providing a convenient sound source. The RG Transducer plugs into the output of each unit and sounds a warning whenever the output level is clipped.

Setting Signal Processing Level Controls

First, a sound source is connected to the mixing console (or separate mic preamp) to provide the maximum system signal output, then this signal is used to set the outboard units.

The most convenient sound source is one built into the mixer or preamp. If a built-in generator is available, use that; if not, use an external oscillator, such as the RaneGain generator or other test equipment. Connect the generator to an unused channel in the mixing console or to the input of the mic preamp. Carefully set the generator level and the channel input fader so the mic stage does not overload. Next, adjust the master output fader (or preamp output level control) for the largest level possible without clipping the output stage. Determine this maximum level using any of the four methods: RaneGain Test Set, OL Light, Oscilloscope, or AC Voltmeter described below.

  • RaneGain Test Set Plug the RG Transducer into the console?s (or preamp?s) master balanced output XLR jack. Turn up the master output fader (or preamp output level control) until the Transducer first sounds; reduce the level until the Transducer stops. This is now the maximum system signal output.
  • OL Light Adjust the sound source until the master output overload (OL) indicator just begins to light (or the output meter indicates an OL condition). This is now the maximum system signal output, although it is a conservative maximum since most OL indicators come on several dB before actual clipping.
  • Oscilloscope Using the RG transducer or OL light are fast and convenient ways to set levels. However, a better alternative is to use an oscilloscope and actually measure the output to see where excessive clipping really begins. This method gets around the many different ways that OL points are detected and displayed by manufacturers. There is no standard for OL detection. If you want the absolute largest signal possible before real clipping, you must use either the RG transducer or an oscilloscope.
  • AC Voltmeter If the RG transducer or an oscilloscope is out of the question, another alternative is to use an AC voltmeter (preferably with a "dB" scale). Here, instead of relying on the OL indicator, you choose a very large output level, say, +20 dBu (7.75 Vrms) or whatever is your maximum, e.g., max consumer level is often only -10 dBV (316 mv) and define that as your maximum level. Now set everything to not clip at this level. This is a reasonable and accurate way to do it, but is it an appropriate maximum? Well, you already know (from the above discussion) that you need 12-20 dB of headroom above your average signal. It is normal pro audio practice to set your average level at +4 dBu (which, incidentally, registers as "0 dB" on a true VU meter). And since all high quality pro audio equipment can handle +20 dBu in and out, then this value becomes a safe maximum level for setting gains, giving you 16 dB of headroom -- plenty for most systems.

Outboard gear falls into three categories regarding gain/level controls:

  • No controls
  • One control, either Input or Output
  • Both Input & Output Controls

Obviously, the first category is not a problem!

If there is only one level control, regardless of its location, set it to give you the maximum output level either by observing the OL light, or the transducer, or the oscilloscope, or by setting an output level of +20 dBu as shown on your AC voltmeter.

With two controls it is very important to set the Input control first. Do this by turning up the Output control just enough to observe the signal. Set the Input control to barely light the OL indicator, then back it down a hair, or set it just below clipping using your oscilloscope, or until the RG transducer buzzes. Now set the Output control also to just light the OL indicator, or just at clipping using the scope, or just buzzes. (Note: there is no good way to optimally set an input control on a unit with two level controls, using only an AC voltmeter.)

Setting Power Amplifiers

If your system uses active crossovers, for the moment, set all the crossover output level controls to maximum.

Much confusion surrounds power amplifier controls.

First, let's establish that power amplifier "level/volume/gain" controls are input sensitivity controls. (no matter how they are calibrated.) They are not power controls. They have absolutely nothing to do with output power. They are sensitivity controls, i.e., these controls determine exactly what input level will cause the amplifier to produce full power. Or, if you prefer, they determine just how sensitive the amplifier is. For example, they might be set such that an input level of +4 dBu causes full power, or such that an input level of +20 dBu causes full power, or whatever-input-level-your-system-may-require, causes full power.

Amplifier input sensitivity controls do not change the available output power. They only change the input level required to produce full output power. Clearly understanding the above, makes setting these controls elementary. You want the maximum system signal to cause full power at the amplifier.

Many loudspeakers are not designed to reproduce full power sine waves or pink noise test signals for extended, or sometimes even short periods of time. This is especially true of multi-way loudspeaker systems which are designed to handle extended periods of loud music or speech signals which are considerably less demanding than sine or pink noise signals. Paging systems that use 70/100 volt distribution transformers are more likely to be OK when driven with full power sine and pink noise signals for a little while.

To set the amplifier controls to achieve full power with your maximum input signal use the following procedure. If your system uses active crossovers, for the moment, set all the crossover output level controls to maximum.

  1. At the amplifier, disconnect the loudspeakers that cannot handle demanding sine and pink noise test signals, or for those confident the test signal will not harm their loudspeaker(s), warn everyone you are about to make a LOT of noise! Can you say "ear plugs?"
  2. Turn the amplifier sensitivity controls all the way down (least sensitive; fully CCW; off). Warning: even at this minimum sensitivity setting, many amplifiers still produce considerable levels. Since all upstream level controls are currently set to deliver the maximum signal, use an upstream level control that is easily and accurately reset to its current position to turn down the test signal. This is most likely the console's main output level.
  3. Turn on the first power amplifier.
  4. Return the system level to its previous setting at the console's main output to make sure the signal at the device driving the amp is again delivering max (unclipped) signal.
  5. Slowly rotate the amplifier sensitivity control until clipping just begins. Stop! This is the maximum possible power output using the maximum system input signal. In general, if there is never a bigger input signal, this setting guarantees the amplifier cannot clip. (Note: if this much power causes the loudspeaker to "bottom out," or distort in any manner, then you have a mismatch between your amp and speaker. Matching speakers and amps is another subject beyond this note.)
  6. Repeat the above process for each power amplifier.
  7. Turn the test signal off, reconnect the loads to the amplifiers if need be.

Active Crossover Output Level Controls

Setting the output attenuators on active crossovers differs from other outboard gear in that they serve a different purpose. These attenuators allow setting different output levels to each driver to correct for efficiency differences. This means that the same voltage applied to different drivers results in different loudness levels. This is the loudspeaker sensitivity specification, usually stated as so many dB SPL at a distance of one meter, when driven with one watt. Ergo, you want to set these controls for equal maximum loudness in each driver section. Try this approach:

  1. Turn down all the crossover outputs except for the lowest frequency band, typically labeled "Low-Out." (Set one channel at a time for stereo systems.)
  2. If available, use pink noise as a source for these settings; otherwise use a frequency tone that falls mid-band for each section. Turn up the source until you verify the console is putting out the maximum system signal level (somewhere around the console clipping point.) Using an SPL meter (Important: turn off all weighting filters; the SPL meter must have a flat response mode) turn down this one output level control until the maximum desired loudness level is reached, typically around 100-105 dB SPL. Very loud, but not harmful. (1-2 hours is the Permissible Noise Exposure allowed by the U.S. Dept. of Labor Noise Regulations for 100-105 dB SPL, A-weighted levels.)

Okay. You have established that with this maximum system signal this driver will not exceed your desired maximum loudness level (at the location picked for measurement). Now, do the same for the other output sections as follows:

  1. Mute this output section -- do not turn down the level control; you just set it! If a Mute button is not provided on the crossover, disconnect the cable going to the power amp.
  2. Turn up the next output section: either "High-Out" for 2-way systems, or "Mid-Out" for 3-way systems, until the same maximum loudness level is reached. Stop and mute this output.
  3. Continue this procedure until all output level controls are set.
  4. Un-mute all sections, and turn off the test source.

Congratulations! You have finished correctly setting the gain structure for your system.

Now you are ready to adjust equalization and set all dynamic controllers. Remember, after EQ-ing to always reset the EQ level controls for unity gain as required. Use the Bypass (or Engage) pushbuttons to "A/B" between equalized and un-equalized sound, adjusting the overall level controls as required for equal loudness in both positions.


Optimum performance requires correctly setting the gain structure of sound systems. It makes the difference between excellent sounding systems and mediocre ones. The proper method begins by taking all necessary gain in the console, or preamp. All outboard units operate with unity gain, and are set to pass the maximum system signal without clipping. The power amplifier sensitivity controls are set for a level appropriate to pass the maximum system signal without excessive clipping. Lastly, active crossover output controls are set to correct for loudspeaker efficiency differences.


  1. Murray, John & Pat Brown, "A Gain Structure Guide," LIVE SOUND! International, pp. 18-24, Mar/Apr 1997. Thanks to John and Pat for inspiration and some content for this RaneNote.
  2. The Syn-Aud-Con Newsletter. Various issues; you need them all -- Subscribe: 1-800-796-2831.