VU-meterA good buddy of mine is coming down to Murfreesboro this weekend. We’re planning to spend a lot of time over at Walnut House Studios recording his next album.

I’m excited. It’ll be fun to mic up the drum kit and rock out.

There are a lot of things to focus on during a tracking session, especially when you’re recording a dozen or more inputs at once. You want to make sure you’re getting a good sound from each microphone. That’s step one. (You’ll spend the rest of your recording life perfecting step one.)

I want to focus on step two – getting good levels.

When I first started recording, I was taught that you want to get the level as close to peaking as humanly possible without going into the red. I would keep cranking up the mic pre on the snare drum mic until it was pixels away from clipping.

What happened? Everything clipped, of course. Apparently musicians play louder during the actual take than they do during sound check.

So I would turn the preamps down a little bit. Everything looked good, then BAM! More clipping. I would keep turning down the preamps little by little until the clipping stopped. By this time, the musicians are tired of me coming over the talkback and saying, “Whoops! Sorry guys, that clipped. Let’s start again.”

Not a good scenario.

The reason people tend to think that you need to really “peg” the meters is leftover from the analog days. The harder you hit tape, the better the recording would sound. If you had lower levels, the tape noise would become much too audible.

Today, however, just about everyone is recording a 24-bit digital signal. Digital signals don’t sound better when you turn them up, they simply get louder. If you record the same track REALLY close to the clip light and then again with plenty of headroom, you won’t notice a difference in the quality of the signal, only the volume.

Analog equipment tends to saturate and add color the harder you drive it. Digital systems do not.

What does this mean?

If you’re recording at 24-bit (and you should be), you’ve got a whopping 144 dB of signal to work with. What does that mean? The noise floor of your system is significantly lower than on an analog system. In fact, the noise floor of a decent digital system is virtually non-existent.

Let’s say you record a snare drum in Pro Tools, and its loudest part is 6 dB below clipping. So, you technically COULD have recorded it 6 dB louder, but even 6 dB down you still have 138 dB of signal left in your system. You’re still WAY above the noise floor.

My suggestion? Give yourself some room to breathe! Rather than trying to make the signal get as close to the top of the meter as possible, have it max out somewhere between one-half and three-fourths of the way up the meter. This way the drummer can do an awesomely loud fill without clipping every track in the session, and you won’t end up smacking your forehead every time the clip light goes off during and awesome take.

Photo by mockstar.