Gain vs Drive: What’s the Difference? [2023 Guide]

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If you’re curious about the difference between gain vs drive, check out this post to learn all about these terms and how they differ!

So what’s the difference between gain vs drive?

Gain is the signal intensity at the input and drive (or distortion) is the effect that the amp achieves after clipping the signal.  

If this is clear as mud, don’t worry.

Hopefully, it will make more sense after reading the following sections.

And if you have more amp questions, check out my post about the best amps for acoustic bass.

Understanding Guitar Amps

In order to get into this, you need to have some basic understanding of how amps work. For starters, all amps come with a preamp and a power amp section.

If you want, you can also use separate preamp and power amp devices as well. But you need both before going into any type of speaker cabinet.

The preamp has two functions. Firstly, it amplifies the otherwise weak signal of an electric guitar. Secondly, it shapes the tone. It determines whether it’s going to be clean, distorted, or anything in between. Most of the basic controls are on the amp itself like gain, channel volume, and EQ.

A power amp further amplifies the processed signal. It gives the signal enough power so that it could drive the speakers. Additionally, it can also shape the tone a little. This is especially the case with tube amps. The tubes add some distortion to the tone.

Output Volume

The output volume knob on an amp controls the power amp. It takes the signal processed through the preamp and then amplifies it before going into speakers.

This control shouldn’t change the main features of the tone that you got with the preamp. It’s just supposed to make things louder. But things are a bit more complicated with tube amps. As I mentioned, pushing the volume higher can change sonic characteristics.

Input Gain and How It’s Different from Output Volume

The gain control is a part of the preamp. It increases the signal right at the beginning when it enters the preamp. The output volume, or master volume, is at the end. It takes the signal as it is from the preamp and then makes it louder.

Understanding Distortion

But the problem is that both guitar players and gear manufacturers use gain, distortion, and drive interchangeably. Drive and distortion are pretty much the same thing. However, having more gain doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll have more distortion.

All of this seems confusing, right? And it kind of is. So let’s define distortion first.

Distortion is an effect achieved through clipping. And clipping itself is a result of the signal strength and headroom of an amp. The headroom here is how much you can turn your amp up without getting distortion.

To understand this better, I made these graphs. The first one is a clean signal, represented as a continuous sine curve:

This is what your signal looks like without any clipping. But if you increase its intensity, you increase its amplitude. Then it looks like this:

gain vs drive sine wave

However, when it passes through the limitations of an amplifier, it gets clipped. In the illustration below, the headroom is represented with dashed lines. With an increased signal intensity and its amplitude, you get these “cuts” or “clips.” They’re represented with thicker black lines in the picture below:

As a result, the output signal gets distorted. What you hear through the speakers is the well-known “harsh” tone. There are also different types of clipping that determine the type of distortion. We have:

  • Soft clipping – overdrive (like Ibanez Tube Screamer)
  • Harsh clipping – regular distortion (like Boss DS-1)
  • Extreme clipping – fuzz (like Dunlop Fuzzface)

Guitar distortion pedals achieve the effect through a deliberate clipping process. They have operational amplifiers (or “op-amps”) in them that increase the signal amplitude. Then transistors or diodes “clip” the signal, ultimately achieving distortion.

Gain vs Drive: What’s the Difference

As I said, you often hear about gain and distortion. And people use these terms interchangeably. But they’re not synonymous.

Gain refers to the signal intensity at the input. When we say gain, we are almost exclusively referring to the preamp gain. As you add more gain, the output gets louder. And adding more gain can help you get a more distorted tone. However, it all depends on an amp’s headroom.

If you increase gain enough to hit the headroom of an amp, you get clipping. And when you get clipping, you get distortion.

Distortion itself is an effect. It’s a sonic result of the actual process of signal clipping. You can achieve it by adding more gain, but only if you hit the headroom limitations.

But it doesn’t end there. If you keep increasing gain after hitting the headroom, you won’t increase the output volume anymore. Instead, the sound just gets harsher or more distorted.

If you want to get it louder, you’ll need to increase the output volume. This control is a part of the power amp section. It takes the signal as it’s processed within the preamp and makes it louder.

However, tube amplifiers add distortion in the power amp section as well. They usually come with a much smaller headroom. For instance, try and take a low wattage amp, put the clean channel on, and increase the master (output) volume. The signal will hit the headroom much quicker and you’ll get additional distortion in the power amp section.

So Do High-Gain Amps Have More Distortion?

What we refer to as high-gain amps are amps that come with less headroom. As a result, it’s much easier to achieve a distorted tone with them. The sine curve, as shown above, gets clipped much quicker as you add gain.

It’s true that high-gain amps have more distortion. However, you should know that these are two completely different things.

Gain Vs Drive: Conclusion

If this seems a bit confusing, here’s a recap of all the important things that you need to know.

Gain: Increases or decreases the signal intensity at the input.

Headroom: The limitation of an amplifier. The bigger the headroom, the harder it gets to achieve clipping. In other words, you can get louder without distorting the signal.

Clipping: A process that “clips” the original clean signal. You get clipping when you hit an amp’s (or a pedal’s) limitations or its headroom.

Distortion or drive: The effect that the amp achieves after clipping the signal.  

If you have more questions about this, feel free to let me know in the comments below!

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