While recording, there are several factors to consider and get right. But what about before recording? Getting yourself prepared to record is just as important as recording itself (if not more). This means in part proper studio soundproofing, good mic placement, clean signals, and last but not least, optimal recording levels.
Setting recording levels is an art in and of itself, and much is learned from experience. But to help you get started here are three tips for setting recording levels.
1. Give yourself room
A common practice among novice engineers when testing levels is finding where the track is clipping and slowly lowering the level until it’s no longer going above peak range. While this isn’t a bad place to start, it’s often inefficient for a few reasons. One reason is that most musicians tend to play harder than they do during level testing, meaning clipping might occur anyway.
Another reason is that with digital sound it’s not necessary to get as close to peaking as possible to get a good dynamic range. In other words, a digital recording will still capture the full sound you’re looking for, even if levels aren’t peaking. These levels can always be brought up after the instrument is tracked. Of course, increasing the gain on a track might reveal unwanted sounds and background noise. This is why it’s important to take care of those other steps mentioned earlier. So you don’t want your levels to be set too low either. Finding the happy medium is key.
2. Know why clipping occurs
It’s one thing to want to prevent your audio from clipping, but it’s another to know why it’s clipping. Clipping describes distortion that derives when the output voltage is higher than what the audio channel can handle. In other words, any event that causes this output to surpass this threshold will result in clipping. It follows, then, that clipping can occur due to several factors.
If an amplifier you’re using isn’t powerful enough to handle the signal going through it, clipping will result. Likewise, the signal going through a microphone might be too much for it. Microphones with built-in attenuation can help resolve this issue, as attenuation essentially reduces the volume of the signal. Using compression after the signal has been recorded can produce a similar outcome.
3. Mic placement change recording levels
While most of the level setting process takes place within the DAW and mixer, optimal levels are achieved by other means as well. As mentioned earlier, microphone placement matters quite a bit when preparing to record. When recording with a mic (or several mics), the levels will change significantly based on the placement, direction, and type of mic in use. You might find yourself going back and forth between the control room and mic room to get the right level and the right sound.
You’ll need to consider things like the proximity effect, overloading, polar pattern, and once again, attenuation, before setting up mics for certain instruments. Once you have the proper mics, they need to be placed in the “sweet spot” to capture the richest, purest sound. This takes some experimentation and maneuvering, but it’s well worth the time if you’re aiming for the best recording possible.
Getting those levels just right isn’t easy, and it will take some time to get the hang of it. But with enough practice, setting recording levels can be like flexing a muscle, and most of your energy can be allotted to recording itself!