These two terms mean separate things but often have similar effects. Knowing how they can affect your sound matters because, in order to properly get the effect you’re looking for, you need to have a clear understanding of what to do.
Understanding the difference between drive and gain can be confusing because the terms are often used interchangeably. Additionally, you need a bit of tech knowledge of how guitar amplifiers work to really get them. So what is the difference then?
Gain refers to the amplitude of the signal before it has been converted into sound by the amplifier. The drive, on the other hand, describes the amount of distortion achieved in the output stage, after the signal has been increased to speaker level by the power amplifier.
Because these two concepts are filled with nuance and necessitate a bit of background knowledge, they’ll probably need more explanation. We’ll discuss how guitar amplifiers work and the difference between distortion, gain, and drive, in the context of a few helpful diagrams and images so you really get the idea of what I’m talking about.
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What’s the Difference Between Gain, Distortion, and Drive?
If I were you, I would first read the section on how a guitar amplifier works so you have a better idea of what I’m talking about next. Assuming you know how a guitar amplifier works, we can get into the major distinction between gain, distortion, and drive.
Part of what makes understanding the difference between these three terms so difficult is that they get used by guitarists as if they were the same thing. But there are some differences which we’ll unpack now.
What’s the Difference Between Drive and Gain?
What is Drive?
More drive means the pre-amplifier will literally drive the signal harder which will lead to distortion in the end. This is because the signal gets clipped when the signal wave runs out of headroom.
If you’ve ever mixed a song before you know what it looks like when a signal has been driven too hard. It literally flattens out at the top of the waveform and gets “clipped” as is shown in the image above.
Another way of understanding drive is that using more of it will push your signal past the overload region or threshold of the amp. This results in a more musical distortion effect according to one user on this site.
So, if you want tighter control on your distortion, adjust your drive accordingly. One thing I should say briefly, though, is that many tools, pedals, and plugins allow us to simulate drive in the digital domain. We’ll talk about this a bit later.
What Is Gain?
Gain and drive are very similar terms in the sense of what they mean. But the distinction between the two is the end result. Increasing the gain means we’re turning up the amplitude on the signal in the pre-amplifier stage.
The drive refers to the way the guitar sounds after it has been driven to the point of clipping, distortion, or breakage, via the gain knob. In other words, the drive is the point when you’ve turned up the gain enough for it to actually cause distortion.
Gain knobs affect the preamp gain which is again, the amplification of the weak electric guitar signal going to the amplifier. Turning up the gain will strengthen this signal, or, in other words, is another way to say that gain turns up the preamp volume.
How is Distortion Different From Gain and Drive?
Distortion, gain, and drive are inextricably linked. I’m sure you understand that by now. But they are different, because they describe different degrees of the same phenomenon, or describe a certain after-effect.
Distortion and drive are essentially the same things, however, we use the term distortion to actually describe the sound that’s achieved when we overdrive and therefore clip the signal.
So what’s the difference between distortion, gain and drive then? Gain refers to the power level of the signal in the pre-amp stage. When we increase the gain, there isn’t necessarily an overdriven or distorted sound.
But when we drive the signal to the point where it exceeds the amplifier’s output ceiling, we get a distorted sound, or, in other words, we get an overdriven sound.
Another thing that’s important to mention is that distortion is often used as a way to indicate how much we have overdriven a sound.
For example, an overdrive pedal like the Ibanez Tube Screamer (like this one on Amazon) is just light distortion like I talked about in my other guide.
However, a distortion pedal is much more powerful than an overdrive pedal in terms of its ability to literally distort the signal.
What’s The Point of a High-Gain Amplifier?
This is another tool for creating distortion. High gain helps make things easier to distort your sound, and a high-gain amplifier will help you do just that. Pedals can mimic what a high gain amp can do according to Christopher Ames in this video.
Just think about it for a second. If gain drives the signal to the point of distortion, having way more gain would make it easier to create distortion, wouldn’t it?
Consider if pedals might be a better option for you if you are looking to spend more, or are willing to work with a more elaborate setup. However, a high-gain amplifier can help you simplify things and will make it easier to focus on the notes you are playing.
Some of the earliest distortion effects were amps that had been tampered with using everyday items such as pencils to essentially break the rules of how the amp was used. Distortion is basically the sound of an overloaded amp, as we’ll discuss in a moment.
You can actually achieve a clean tone with a high-gain amp, but generally, you want to use this kind of amp for distortion. Amps like this give you more volume, gain, power, and saturation.
How a Guitar Amplifier Works (Gain Vs Drive)
Before you even get to make your first sound, you need both a preamp and a power amp. You must have both of these working properly in order to output the signal as sound through the guitar amp’s speakers. Let’s start with the pre-amplifier.
What is the Preamplifier And How Does It Affect Gain/Drive?
The basic function of the preamp is to amplify the otherwise weak signal from the electric guitar. The guitar’s strings and pickups, on their own, produce a weak signal that needs to be amplified in order for it to sound the way we’re all familiar with.
In essence, this is the role of the pre-amplifier in a regular guitar amplifier. As the image at the start of the article shows you, the signal strength has to be increased and then colored by the pre-amplifier before it’s finally jacked up by the power amplifier at the end.
Most people who are new to home recording are surprised at how the electric guitar sounds without any amplification. It sounds very dry and dull, and a lot of people don’t like it (although some do).
A direct input signal, ie, the sound of a guitar connected to a Scarlett 2i2 (on Amazon) into a DAW without a guitar amplifier simulator like my favorite, the Blue Cat Audio Axiom, is an example of what the guitar sounds like without any sauce.
In simple terms, the preamp plays a huge role in tone shaping. This can range anywhere from a clean sound for jazz gigs, a distorted sound for heavy metal, or an in-between tone for gigs that require more specificity in terms of distortion quality.
What is the Output Volume?
Essentially the output volume controls the power amp and determines how loud or quiet the signal is before it gets outputted to the amplifier’s speakers. In other words, it controls how loud the guitar sound actually is.
Have you ever noticed how when you crank the master volume on your clean tone, you don’t get distortion, overdrive, or anything like that? The reason has to do with what I’ve been talking about thus far.
When you crank the master volume, you’re controlling the power amplifier section of the amp and not the pre-amplifier. This is how you can turn up the volume on a super clean tone and not get distortion.
On the other hand, if you kept the master volume the same but cranked the gain instead, you would get a distorted or overdriven tone.
That’s because, in that case, you’re increasing the gain on the pre-amplifier, not the power amplifier. This brings me to my next point which is the input gain.
What is the Input Gain?
The input gain is the amplitude of the signal before it has been increased by the pre-amplifier. This is your signal intensity at the input. Also, there is an important idea we need to talk about called the gain factor which is talked more about in this video.
If you have the same going in as you do going out, you have unity gain, and if you have twice as much going out, you have a gain factor of 2. So if you raise your input gain, you raise what essentially comes out.
So what does this have to do with what we’re talking about? Essentially, when you increase the gain of the input signal (before the pre-amplifier), there will also be an increase in volume in the final stage after the power amplifier.
You can’t just increase the gain on the input signal and expect it to be the same volume once it has been outputted as a guitar sound through your amplifier’s speakers.
This is why you may have to account for a volume increase with your master volume after you’ve increased the gain. As I explained in my guide on the MXR 10-Band EQ, that’s what the volume is for on that pedal.
Anyway, you should have a good idea of how the guitar amplifier works now. Let’s talk a bit more about the power amplifier because we’ve only talked about it briefly thus far. The power amplifier is important to understand in the context of differentiating between gain and drive.
What is the Power Amp & How Does It Affect Gain/Drive?
Basically, the power amp raises the line level signal to speaker level and converts DC power to AC power in the process. It is the final stage in the guitar amplification process, and it’s crucial for outputting the signal as sound for you and your audience to hear.
The power amplifier increases the volume of the signal after it has been processed, EQ’d, compressed, and affected by the pre-amplifier. It boosts the signal in such a way that you don’t have to worry about it coloring the tone as much.
That said, loudness actually can affect the end result which is something the guy from Sweetwater also points out in his video. In simple terms, a guitar signal on its own, without a preamp, is not nearly enough to drive a speaker.
Even a guitar signal that has been affected by the pre-amplifier is not enough to drive or power a speaker. So this is what the power amplifier is for. The power amplifier is getting the signal to a point where it’s strong enough to actually be used by the speaker.