Gain vs. Volume – The Critical Differences

If you are new to guitar, one of the questions you may have struggled with is, what’s the difference between gain and volume, and is it even important?

I know when I first started out with my little Peavey Audition amp in my bedroom, for the longest time I just treated my gain knob as an extra volume control. It seemed to work OK and I was happy with the results – for a while anyway.

But I got to thinking that there must be a reason it’s called gain, not master volume, so I decided to investigate (and back then you couldn’t just Google the answer).

The answer actually opened up a whole new way to fine tune my tone, particularly when I moved up to more sophisticated amps with more complex circuitry.

SO, WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?

To answer this question we need to remember that a guitar amplifier – any guitar amplifier – has two stages, a preamp stage and a power amp stage.

The preamp stage takes the original signal from the guitar and processes it, giving it its tone and timbre, while the power amp stage gives it its output volume and pushes it out to the speaker.

simplified-amplifier-signal-chain

Gain is a function of the preamp stage. It governs the strength of the signal being sent through the preamp stage. You can think of it as an input volume level.

This is an important distinction, because the input volume level determines how much voltage is being sent to the tubes (or transistors in a solid-state amp), and if high enough, produces distortion.

It does not, however, govern final output volume. That is function of the volume control. With the gain control, you can induce distortion into the signal and still play at a low volume by using the volume control.

This article on the Fender guitar site, and this article on the Paul Reed Smith site give more authoritative and detailed descriptions of the two concepts.

GAIN VS. VOLUME KNOBS ON AMPLIFIERS

As described above, with the exception of the simplest and cheapest amps, most amps these days come equipped with a gain control and a volume control.

Depending upon the amp, the gain control can also be labeled as “Drive”. While gain is an electronically accurate description of the function of the control, drive is probably more descriptive.

When you turn the gain control up, it physically “drives” the tubes or transistors harder, eventually reaching the point of saturation and causing distortion.

But what happens when you want to play with distortion but don’t want to play at a volume that causes the neighbors to call the police?

With an independent volume control governing the output volume, you can simply turn the volume down. It won’t affect the distortion level as that’s being controlled by the gain (drive) control. This short video shows how gain and volume control affect an amp’s sound.

Buying a new amp? You should follow this definitive guide!

THOSE KNOBS ON EFFECT PEDALS

If you own, or have shopped, any guitar effects pedals, you will have noticed that many of them, especially those that have to do with overdrive and/or distortion, have gain or drive controls.

FAQ

Almost overdrive/distortion pedals have 3 essential knobs: Drive - Tone - Level. How do they affect your output sound?
  • The Drive knob controls how much gain/distortion you're adding to your sound. Most Tube Screamer-type pedals have most of their gain in the highest part of their range, 3 o'clock to 6 o'clock. That's where you want dirt. If you are using it for a subtle boost, keep that knob fairly low.
  • The Level knob controls how much overall volume the pedal puts out. Turning this knob up hits the front end of your amp harder and will make it louder very quickly. With overdrive and distortion pedals, you normally run the Drive high and the Level low or at least lower to get dirty sounds and do just the opposite for clean and lighter crunch sounds.
  • The Tone knob is really simple. It brings out more treble/high end in your sound when turned to the right and more bass in your sound when turned to the left. Straight up at 12 o'clock is a good place to start.

TIPS!

One of the things I teach my students to do with each piece of their gear is to take the time to sit with each one, turn each control one notch/number at a time and play and listen at each stop.

It takes some time but it's worth it. Some people can never get a good tone, even with really good gear and some can plug into almost anything and sound great.​

If you do that with each guitar, amp, and pedal you use, you will learn where the sounds you like are found. Also, I teach them to not give up on a piece of gear too quickly. If you stay with anything long enough, you'll find your sound in it.​

Like the gain control on an amplifier, these knobs control the power that is being fed into the original signal which is then passed on to the amp. With distortion control, in particular, the gain control directly impacts the amount of distortion you are feeding into the amp.

It is important to note that both the gain on the pedal and the gain on the amp both have an effect on the amount of overdrive or distortion that you are eventually going to hear.

If you have the gain cranked up on the amp and then power on an overdrive/distortion pedal that is also set at a high level, the resultant distortion may be too high and cause breakup in the signal.

It’s important to test the results to determine the optimum settings for both the effects pedal and amp to determine what levels are best for the amount of overdrive and/or distortion that you desire.

This video below demonstrates how an overdrive pedal is used, including the effect that the drive control has on the sound that ultimately comes out of the amp.

WHY IS THIS IMPORANT TO ME?

The simple answer is that it may not be … for right now. The great part of learning the electric guitar is exploring all the new knobs and dials.

How does twisting this knob or flipping that switch affect my tone? There will come point, however, where it is important to you. Knowing what’s what and how to properly operate your instrument is all part of becoming a more proficient musician.

I hope this article was able to answer your questions about the difference between gain and volume and we like to receive comments about how you like our articles and what tips or tricks you might have.

Feel free to leave those in the comments section, and as always, keep rocking!

3 thoughts on “Gain vs. Volume – The Critical Differences

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