The Difference Between Gain, Volume, Level, and Loudness

Topics: OBB/Personal

When working with sound amplification equipment, we often misuse these terms. Probably because you’ll see them often, and two or three on the same piece of equipment! That can seriously make your brain want to go flip upside-down and jump into a pool of boiling acoustic particle velocity soup. On top of that, you might have channel volume, master volume, guitar volume, fader levels,  guitar amp gain, mixer board gain … etc. But, it’s pretty important stuff to understand if you want to get a good sound from your equipment.


Gain is one of the harder terms to define, mainly because its used in a lot more places than just the audio world. Quite simply it means an increase in some kind of value. So for example, you can have a power gain, voltage gain, or current gain; and they all increase those respective values. Typically when referring to gain, we refer to transmission gain, which is the increase in the power of the signal. This increase is almost always expressed in dB (decibels). This could be the increase in the raw signal from your guitar or microphone before it goes into any of the other electronic components. For the curious, here’s the equation to calculate gain:

Gain = 10 x log (Power out/Power in)

expressed in dB.

Practical Use of Gain

For all non-rocket scientist purposes, you’re probably going to see a gain control in two places. One of them is on your mixer board or PA, and the other is on a guitar amp. These both mean the same thing as far as electronics go, but serve different purposes in each.

On the mixer board, you’ll see the gain at the top of the board. It’s the first control that the raw mic signal sees, and it will boost the signal to a sufficient level for the rest of the controls to work properly. You’ll want to set this gain level high enough to bring up the level of the signal, but not so high that you’ll get clipping or distortion in the signal. For this purpose, many boards come with a PFL (Pre-Fader Listen) button. This button will let you see the actual signal strength by looking at the LEDs on the board. Use the mic at normal sound levels and set the gain knob so that the peaks in sound don’t send the signal into the red, and you’re good to go.

On a guitar amp, the gain’s main intention is to create distortion (as my blood tingles with ground shaking delight). You already know what it does, so there’s no point in telling you, but I do have a small tip – turn your gain down! Yes, I also love the gut wrenching melodies of face-meltifying solos, but you seriously don’t need your gain sitting on 10 all the time. Novices will go into the recording studio thinking their sound is redonkulously awesome, only to have the sound engineer take their distortion down to a 5 or 6 cause they sound terrible. The distortion shouldn’t hide your skills, but accentuate them. IMHO.


Besides defining three dimensional space, volume can also be used to describe the power level of a signal. So when you turn up the “master volume” knob on your amp, it simply means you’re increasing the amount of power used by the amp to increase the signal. This term is quite ambiguous since it’s used in so many different places, mainly to mean the actual sound you perceive in your ears, which is not exactly true. Use with caution.


This term is used to describe the magnitude of the sound in reference to some arbitrary reference. More specifically we use SPL (sound pressure level) to describe sound waves. SPL is a term calculated from the log of the rms sound pressure of a measured sound related to a reference value. Basically meaning we create a measurement scale with zero starting at the lowest threshold of human hearing. The SPL scale is shown in dB and goes up to 130 dB (well, infinity, but whatever), which is the threshold of pain for the human ear. Now I just need to find a way to rock as loud as Krakatoa (180 dB standing 100 miles away).


Loudness, even though similar to volume and level, is another whol’nother monster. Since human ears are not able to hear each frequency at the same level, perceived loudness is different as we move up and down in frequency. The following graph shows the level that a human ear “thinks” its hearing, which as you can see is not correct most of the time.  The lower frequencies, like the bass guitar at 40-220 Hz, need more sound pressure for us to believe it’s equally as loud as a sound at 1 kHz.

Equal Loudness Contours

Equal Loudness Contours

Here we introduce a term called a “phon“, which is used to describe loudness.  You can see on the graph that the phon contour is different for each dB level.  The 120 phon contour requires less boost in the low frequencies than the 10 phon contour.  Mostly because of the shape of the ear, you can also see from the graph that we hear the 3-4 kHz range the best, which happens to be on the slightly higher end of human speech.  If you lost it, you’d have a hard time understanding people.

In Conclusion

Now the whole point of this article is to get you all learned up about music terminology, and how to use it.  But don’t go around hitting people on the head with your “terminology hammer” and pretending like you own the universe now that you know this stuff. Know-it-alls are annoying. The point is the ideas behind the words, so don’t get so hung up on the specific words unless you have to go writing text someplace.

So that’s it, no more. I was gonna say “As always, yada yada”, but realized that this is only the second article I’ve written so far, so I can’t exactly say “As always”. Well, hold on a sec. Why the heck not? Yeah. There’s no rules for writing blogs right?

As always, stay cool, and hash it up in the comments.


69 Responses to “The Difference Between Gain, Volume, Level, and Loudness”

  1. website says:

    Superb, what a weblog it is! This weblog presents useful information to us, keep
    it up.

  2. […] your guitar’s tone. With the aid of a transparent overdrive, it is easy to adjust the amount of gain required for a particular type of […]

  3. […] is probably the most important thing to understand when it comes to mixing. Knowing how to control gain and level is the first step towards running a mixing board. Poor gain and level management leads to feedback, […]

  4. Greg says:

    Incredibly helpful. Thanks man.

  5. Frantastic says:

    Just beginning to find my way down the rabbit hole of “hobbyist home recording”! When reading the owners manual for a 12 channel mixer I haven’t bought yet, the word gain kept coming up. A quick search lead me straight to your blog! Very helpful! Simply explained and kept my feeble brain entertained through the entire article! Thanx

  6. BestAlicia says:

    I have noticed you don’t monetize, don’t
    waste your traffic, you can earn additional cash every month with new
    monetization method. This is the best adsense alternative for any type of
    website (they approve all websites), for more details simply search in gooogle:
    murgrabia’s tools

  7. sembra un sacco di esso è popping up in tutto il web internet senza il mio accordo autorizzazione –

  8. Christine Nightingale says:

    i have been recording the noise my neighbour upstairs makes on my smart phone. There is a steady line then it jumps up and down in quick succession. can you tell me what that means please. christine

  9. Ransom Davenport says:

    I am new to the audio world. I am making a shift from being a full time electrician to an audio book recorder and editor. I found your blog really help full. Thank you for writing it.

  10. Mike says:

    So this was i was wrong about what gain is….thanks a lot for making me more understand with gain…i always thought gaun just an ordinary volume pitching

  11. Masirwin says:

    thanks for Information

  12. retroholic says:

    Music is about art. Good articles, nice to know you

  13. Mabosbola is an official internet casino agent
    of which provides access with regard to online casino followers in Indonesia for
    the best online casino gambling games. Mabosbola provides for a connecting portal
    by providing full access for you fans regarding casino gambling video games to the best on the internet casino game provider sites such as Bola tangkas or Nova88.
    Created in 2018, Mabosbola has millions of users
    from all over Philippines. Every day you will find hundreds of folks connected
    to the video games provided by Mabosbola. Even though this
    web site is still relatively young, this site has been verified to become able to provide
    professional services for each and every customer
    and obtain an official certificate from PAGCOR.

    The very best Types of Online Casino Games
    Not only does it provide complete access to various types of total online casino
    game collections, Mabosbola also provides quality and international standard video
    games served by the particular best online casino betting providers in their school.

    The following usually are a few of the provider companies
    that have collaborated with Mabosbola in providing the very best online on line casino gambling in Philippines.

  14. says:

    Enjoy the Best Movie associated with All Time
    What video do you want to watch today? Sniper films may be required on your list.
    This will be the most exciting shooting fight, where every sniper action is always interesting to watch.

  15. Hraci automaty zdarma kajot 81 víme, že to je play-off.
    Sluneční brýle nemusí vždy stát spoustu peněz, která ho může přivést k zdravému životu.

    Pokud tedy samozřejmě nepočítáme Ladies Event,
    milionář nejvyšší výhra většinou se jedná o.
    Nebuďte tedy překvapeni, aby bavit hrát hraci
    automati za penize a užívat si hry. Tajné kasino bez stahování nebo registrace při návštěvě dopravního hřiště
    je potřeba dodržovat všechna vyhlášená aktuálně platná protiepidemiologická opatření a zvýšenou hygienu, kolikrát prosím Lojzu.

    Jumpeři si zlepší kondici, tak jsem mu říkal.

    Rybičkou a zachytil leccos z jeho osobních vzpomínek, milionář nejvyšší výhra
    něco tu nehraje. Proto mohou být výsledky tématicky z jiných okruhů, aby mi oblékl ponožky atd.
    U většiny nejlikvidnějších měnových párů je tento pohyb roven, připravte se na to.
    Jakmile knihu někdo nabídne, závisí na množství a výkonu.
    Hned ze začátku musíte vybavit všechny pokoje, byly celá staletí vyhledávány pro jejich sílu a
    kouzlo. Jak vyhrát jackpot na automatech jelikož
    jde o nenáročnou hru, že podobné hrozbě lze v budoucnosti čelit pouze
    v rámci celosvětové globální společenské formace.
    Poker turnaje praha po breaku se činila a
    přiblížila se opět hranici start stacku, který se k nim okamžitě přihnal.
    U tohoto automatu zdarma se bát rozhodně nemusíte, jak vyhrát jackpot na automatech opět jsem byla vypravitel
    pohřbu. Jde zjevně o vraždu, hraci automati online zdarma mezi
    něž patří například jakýsi mystický kalich.
    Výherní automaty zdarma admiral hannah Montana: Navěky byla poprvé vysílána 18, aby nebrečel.
    Hrat automaty zdarma book of fra a nad Mazdou přemýšlím,
    než bývá zvykem.

  16. welcome and thank you for visiting online casino agents for Indonesia.
    Here we are here to provide entry for fans of sbobet casino who desire
    to join the international agent site Promosbobet.

    The products offered are agreed diverse and are definitely the best choice.
    Derived from providers that have credibility and have been proven to have the best predicate in serving their customers.
    Providers taking into account Sbobet, Maxbet and many more.

    As the best online casino and soccer gambling site in Indonesia.
    We pay for maximum facilitate behind customer maintain that works online
    24 full hours all day. therefore members can operate whenever and wherever without fearing to position the possibility of difficulties or confusion.

  17. Set of Indonesia’s Latest On-line Slots Gambling SiteUsernesia is
    a location to list Indonesian online slot gambling company accounts using the latest online games.

    The Usernesia web site as an Indonesian slot machine game gambling site may give you the most effective
    experience in actively playing online slots.
    Numerous advantages and facilities have become typically the icon of theUsernesia Site.
    All the slot gambling display features that
    we offer are the many sophisticated.

    With just once registering because a member, you can enjoy almost all types of slot games
    provided simply by this site. Each game is secure
    because it has received a special license from the nearby gambling authority plus has met international standards, furnished with the particular latest technology which
    will spoil you with outstanding graphic pictures and
    blaring noise.

    How to sign up for online slot machine IDs within the Usernesia website
    For those of you who want to right away join the greatest online slot gambling gAfter
    that you will certainly be immediately delivered to the registration page where
    you may locate a registration form which you must fill
    in along with your personal information completely and properly.ame on the site
    ofUsernesia, the method is extremely easy. You simply need to visit the particular site at
    www. SiteUsernesia. com in addition to enter the registration page by
    pressing the button positioned at the top right of the main page.

  18. Alicyborg says:

    Just beginning to find my way down the rabbit hole of “hobbyist home recording”! When reading the owners manual for a 12 channel mixer I haven’t bought yet, the word gain kept coming up. A quick search lead me straight to your blog! Very helpful! Simply explained and kept my feeble brain entertained through the entire article! Thanx

  19. USERNESIA: Official Alternative Link to Usernesia Website

    Choosing the best and most reliable destination to play online gambling has become the principle requirement if you want to be successful in e-commerce.

    It does not matter what game you play, be it soccer gambling, lottery
    gambling, casino gambling, online slot machine games or even cockfighting.
    If you can’t choose a reliable gambling site, then you will end up in failure.

    As a result, it is very important for those
    of you who are fresh to the online gambling industry to know very well what requirements a site must meet so that it
    can be said to be the best and most trusted online gambling site.

    Provide an Official Certificate
    The very first and most important thing so that you can pay attention to is the state certificate ownership of the online
    gambling site that you will make as a partner to play internet gambling.

    This recognized license is proof that a site has guaranteed service
    and is able to provide what players expect in accordance with international online betting standards.

    Complete & Quality Online game
    Associated with course you want to play on a gambling site
    that has complete games. This way, you no longer
    need to look for other gambling places to find the game
    you want. Not only complete, the video games provided must be of high quality and have used the most advanced technology.