Are You Recording Too Hot?

2010 Oct 25, 2010

When it comes to getting a great recording in your studio, so much of the final mix stems from the basics: proper mic placement on a good source in a decent space. But part of that is proper recording levels. Obviously we don’t want our levels to be too quiet so we don’t have enough gain to work with in the mix. Likewise we don’t want to be hitting the “red” every time either. So how hot are ARE we supposed to record? Well, if you are recording digital (i.e. with your computer) then the answer is “probably not as hot as you think.”

Via James Cridland Flickr

Noise Floor

It used to be that engineers tried to get as much signal on a track to mask the inherent noise of things like tape hiss. The goal was set your levels to be as hot as you can get without clipping. This went a long way to keeping the audio as “clean” sounding as possible. In today’s popular digital audio workstations (DAW) we aren’t recording to tape or using a ton of noisy analog gear. We have a much quieter noise floor with a lot less to “mask.” In fact one of people’s biggest complaints with digital recording is just how transparent and accurate it is. It’s quiet…a little TOO quiet!

Digital Clipping Vs Analog Clipping

Another major thing to keep in mind is that part of the “sound” of analog recording is the natural distortion or saturation that occurs when you overload the signal to tape. It smears and softens audio in a way that is actually quite pleasing to the ear. Many engineers purposefully would push their gain pretty hot when recording things like drums to tape, knowing they could get this killer sound if the meters were hanging on the edge of disaster so to speak.

This is not so with digital recording, at all. When you clip in Pro Tools or any other recording software you get nasty, ugly, harsh, brittle, digital distortion. Not pleasing and not useful to your sound. You don’t even want to dance anywhere close to clipping on any of your individual tracks or the master bus, ever.

24 Bit Is A Live Saver

So here’s the great thing about your DAW. These days we all can have access to recording at 24 bit. These extra bits basically give you a ton of headroom. If you record at 24 bit you have upwards of 144db of dynamic range. What does that mean? You can record at lower levels into your system and still have clear, noise free audio ready to rock.

So don’t record so hot. If your meters are jumping up to -6db or -3db consistently then you’re probably rocking to much gain. Dial it back a bit so you’re hitting just half way to two thirds up the meter. This is subjective of course, but the point is you have no need whatsoever to “record as hot as you can without clipping.” That old axiom is just irrelevant to us digital users.

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