Many people think that Gain is the same as Volume, plus that too much gain is simply Distortion. While all of this makes some sense, there is a considerable difference between these three terms.
This text will aim to explain the difference between gain, distortion, and volume, with the accent on gain effects and how to achieve them. And while all three can be found in different devices that surround us in this world, we will focus on guitars and amplifiers.
Gain and volume
Gain controls the input signal to the amplifier from the instrument. Volume controls the signal processed by the amp's preamp.
What we perceive when we operate these controls is that the volume increases and decreases in both. But there is a notable difference.
If we start to raise the gain, we will notice how as the volume increases, the level of distortion also increases. This is because more signal begins to enter than it leaves and therefore the distortion takes place.
On the contrary, if we raise the volume no matter how high we set it, at no time does the signal distort. It can distort our ears but not the signal.
This difference is extremely important in music. In fact, at first, the distortions were generated by increasing the gain levels of the amplifiers to the maximum. No distortion pedals are involved.
So if you want to get a good sound you have to use the gain to modify the desired distortion level, and when you have the desired sound, modify the volume at the end to make it higher or lower.
How to do this?
How to Adjust Guitar Gain and Distortion
We can adjust the gain or distortion of our guitar by means of some volume controls integrated into our equipment. On our electric guitar rig, we usually have three volume controls - two on the amp and one on the guitar.
Adjust Gain and Distortion on the Amp
There are two controls on the amp. The first one is the Master Volume, which can be simply called Volume on amps with Gain controls. The other one is the Volume control, which on some amps is also called Gain, and is usually found right next to the guitar connection. The latter one is in charge of adjusting the gain or distortion of the amplifier.
Adjust Gain or Distortion on the Guitar
The Guitar Volume Control would be another method used to adjust the gain or distortion of the guitar sound. It is very common to have this control almost always on top so that a good signal reaches the amplifier. It allows having a clean sound if we lower the volume or gain of the amplifier, and saturated sound if we raise these controls of the amp.
If we want a sound as clean as possible, we have to adjust the volume of the guitar as low as possible to its maximum. In this way, we will reduce the power of the signal that comes out of our guitar, and which the amplifier has to absorb. For example, set it at half volume or slightly above half.
In the amplifier, we do the same, but in an even more pronounced way. Lowering the volume below half and increasing the Master volume as desired to increase the volume of the device without adding any gain or saturation to the sound.
For a crunch or slightly distorted sound, we can raise the volume of the guitar to the maximum, to squeeze all the gain of the pickup well.
This is a very interesting area in terms of the sound of the amp. We can sound pretty clean when we play the strings one by one in a solo. If we use double pickups more powerful than the singles, the volume cap may be excessive. But that would be up to personal taste, but hey, we can say that it would be full or almost full.
The volume control of the amplifier can be left in the middle, or slightly above or below the middle.
For distorted sounds, guitar volume should be at full blast and the amp volume at full or nearly full. You should be able to adjust the gain directly from the guitar's volume control. The distortion is smoothed out when we lower this control slightly.
Adjusting Gain Using the Volume Pedal
For a Volume Pedal to behave like a Master Volume, the volume pedal would have to be placed after the gain pedals if we have them (overdrives, boosters, and distortions), and right between the amp and the drive pedals, keeping the default gain ranges.
If we want to alter the gain levels when operating the volume pedal, we would have to place it between the guitar and the distortion pedals. Acting as a gain control, or as the guitar's own volume control.