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.

  • Nate Reed

    Could you not just put a hard limiter or a compressor on it to stop it from clipping? Great article, but just saying

    • You could, but why? Limiters can change the tone, plus it’s a lot of extra work when you could just turn it down to begin with.
      AND a limiter plugin won’t fix it if it clipped during recording.

      • Nate Reed

        I didn’t say put a limiter on after, I’m saying use a live one. I believe there is one in adobe audition (oh wait, there is, I know because I use the program daily). And it won’t change the tone if you know how to record the input correctly.

        • I still say record at a proper level and you won’t need to use a limited. 🙂

  • Andrew

    Great informations!! I have an interesting question here, this is what ive been doing for my recordings, but I dont hear my voice enough in the headphone I have a rode k2 with m-audio 2626 soundcard and I use a yamaha promix mix table for preamps, is there a good way I could set it up to here my voice a bit more in the headphones without having to bring the input level too high ? Thanks in advance !

    • Is simply turning up the headphone knob an option?

  • Helpful description. I learned some.

  • Hanzo S.

    Hi there, very comprehensive article. I am doing beginner recording and mixing in Sonar X1. I have a question and would like some help to it.

    Basically I’ve read to set the pre levels near to 0db for faders (unity). I monitor the levels so the loudest parts will peak near 0. Then when I start, I bring the levels down afterwards, say -6 to -8db, for headroom. I get about a +2db clip on my master bus. Am I getting the concept wrong?

    Your advice will be greatly appreciated. Thanks a lot!


    • As long as you’re not clipping while you’re recording you’re fine. If it’s clipping the master, just bring all the faders down a bit.

  • Andy

    I’m not sure it was clear in your post, but the reason that old engineers pushed hotter levels to tape was not only because saturated tape sounded good (after all, that was subjective and not always desired), but because tape has a relatively high noise floor (tape hiss). Thus it was advisable to have the greatest distance between your nominal recording level and your noise floor.  Digital systems have, comparatively speaking, no noise floor whatsoever, so it’s simply not an issue anymore.  Healthy green meters with peaks in the yellow are about all you need!

    • Absolutely Andy. I probably could have been more clear, but I did write “If you had lower levels, the tape noise would become much too audible.”

  • Absolutely. That’s a question of mastering rather than recording or mixing.

  • Steve

    What do you mean when you say you have 144db of signal to work with. The science behind digital recording is completely unknown to me even though I’ve been recording with it for years.

    Also, what is a noise floor? What does that mean?

    • There are 144 possible “volume measurements” in a 24-bit digital system. That’s where 144 dB comes from.

      Noise floor simply means the volume level of your system BEFORE any audio passes through it. NO system is 100% silent, so while your 24-bit system may theoretically have 144 dB of dynamic range, the system itself may be putting out 20 dB of noise, so your noise floor would be 20 dB, leaving you 124 dB of usable dynamic range.

      Hope that helps!

  • Michael W

    I’m not gonna lie…this makes tons of sense and I don’t know why I didn’t think of it! Great read and just the important info with no filler. You da man Joe.

  • Kato

    This is a mind opener post.
    Thanks Joe!

  • Pingback: Setting Levels for Recording()

  • Jon

    Hey Joe! Great article

    The only thing I want to add/slightly disagree with you on is that your gear is designed to work at 0db VU line level. The maximum recording level when your converters start clipping can be more than 20dB above that!
    So recording low vs recording high effects the analog parts of the system differently and you can expect some change in sound.

    I think a lot of the confusion about the whole proper levels thing, is that if you look in prosumer gear manuals, they’ll tell you to turn up the preamp until the clip light comes on and then turn it down a touch. That’s WAY above line level. Anywhere between -20dB and -12dB peak on the DAW meters is a good target level, and your equipment should sound best (lowest self noise) around there.

    Theres a good chart here:
    Showing the relative levels on different meters.

  • Jeff

    Hi Joe,

    Nice description of the advantages of 24-bit audio. It’s important to point out that many inexpensive audio interfaces don’t achieve the 144 dB dynamic range that is possible with 24-bits. For example, the Behringer AD8000 only achieves about 100 dB through the converters – but this is still better than 16-bit audio, where you have a 96 dB dynamic range at best.


    • Good points, Jeff. I didn’t delve into that too much, but you’re absolutely right. However, I would imagine that any noise floor in a home studio is going to be coming from the analog components in the system. Chances are the noise floor of the digital system itself is a long way below the noise floor of the microphones, preamps, monitors, etc. being used.

  • David

    Very nice. Thanks Joe! I’m new to all this, and have been struggling to get decent guitar levels. I always thought that if it wasn’t **really** close to peaking, it wouldn’t be very audible. Now, i just scale back the level and multi-track the guitars. Much better.

  • Wayne

    Great tip for new people starting digital recording. I learned early with digital not to push it digital distortion is not quite like analog. My first system was a Tascam 38 and then a Fostex E-8 and then a E-16. What took me hours on analog I can do in minutes. Great post and keep up the good work and the easy to understand videos.

    Thanks Wayne