When you run a blog about home recording for almost eight years, it’s easy to get away from the basics. But as any football coach or guitar teacher will tell you, fundamentals are crucial.

Whether you’re new to recording and haven’t recorded a single note or you’ve recorded a thousand songs, you need the fundamentals. Today I want to expand on one of the most basic principles for recording. It’s so stinkin’ easy to forget about this one, but it truly is the unforgivable sin of recording.

But first a story…

This is a paraphrase of an awesome rant I heard Ronan Chris Murphy give at an event in California last year.

He said there’s really only one way to ruin a recording.

You could be recording Jimi Hendrix himself, and you accidentally record his solo from the mic across the room rather than the mic on the amp. You still captured a Jimi performance.

You could be recording Adele, and you didn’t notice that mic stand you’re using came loose, and the mic was pointing at her feet instead of her face…but you still captured an Adele performance.

You could be recording John Bonham, and you accidentally forgot to record-enable anything but the overhead mic…you still captured a Bonham performance.

Those are examples of less-than-ideal circumstances to be sure, but none of those recordings are necessarily ruined, UNLESS…you do this one thing.

What is it?

What is the one thing that can ruin a recording?

CLIPPING.

Clipping is the devil. Lots of things can happen during a recording session to cause problems, but clipping is the only one that will ruin the recording, and it doesn’t have to happen.

(Now I know some smarty-pants out there are going to tell me about audio restoration software out there that can “fix” clipped audio. I’m sure it can, but that’s like saying I’m gonna smash my window because I got a buddy who can fix it for free. It’s pointless.)

What is clipping? Just so we’re on the same page, clipping is any time the level of the audio goes “into the red.” The waveform is so big (i.e. so loud) that it cannot get any bigger. So the loudest bits of the wave form get “clipped.” Instead of being a nice, smooth waveform, it has jagged edges. That’s clipping. And it doesn’t sound nice.

Why Bring This Up?

“This seems like a bizarre topic to kick of 2017, Joe.”

Yes, perhaps. What brought this on was an album I listened to a while ago. Everything sounded great, but on one song at the loudest part of the song, when everything is supposed to hit nice and hard, it clips instead. And then it happened again. Every downbeat or so, instead of going “THUMP” it goes “BZZZZTTT.”

More on that in a minute, but you get the idea. There’s a difference between a poor recording and a ruined recording. A clipped recording is a ruined recording.

I heard of an engineer here in Nashville (I think maybe it was Vance Powell?) who hits record on his tape machine as soon as the band walks into the studio. While they’re setting up, getting levels and sounds, the tape is rolling the entire time. By the time they actually “record,” tape may have been rolling for an hour or two. Why do this? Because you never know when something magical might happen. The band may simply be “rehearsing” the song, and it might be amazing. If you weren’t recording, you missed it.

What does this have to do with clipping? The point is simply this: Vance is concerned with capturing great performances.

That should be our concern too, and while there are a million things on our minds in a recording session, not letting anything clip should be at the top of our priority list.

After all, none of the other stuff we focus on matters if the track clips. Once it clips, it’s a goner. We might as well not have been recording to begin with.

The solution is super easy:

Set conservative levels.

No one will give you an award for recording your tracks as close to clipping without going over into the red. The tracks sound no better at -1 dB than they do at -10 dB. True, in analog systems there was some benefit to recording things “hot,” to maximize signal-to-noise ratio and to get tape saturation. But we’re mostly on digital systems now, and a digital system will sound identical whether you record the tracks really hot or nice and quiet.

In fact, digital clipping sounds way worse than analog clipping. Sometimes you can clip a compressor or a preamp, and it sounds kinda cool. Digital clipping ain’t the same. It’s harsh and cold and anything but cool.

The good news is that every digital system I’ve used has a nice and easy way to tell you if you clipped: the red light goes off on that track.

Do you find yourself always dancing dangerously close to clipping? Give yourself a break and turn everything down. Create a big, fat buffer between the signal and clipping. Musicians are notoriously inconsistent. And oftentimes they play or sing much quieter during rehearsal than when they’re actually recording. If you’ve set your levels conservatively, you’ve got plenty of headroom to absorb the extra volume without clipping.

Otherwise, you’ll blow the first take, and the first take might have been the best take in the history of the band, but you set the levels too loud, and everything clipped.

Don’t let that be you.

Mixing Matters

Clipping matters during mixing, but not as much. If I’m mixing something and my drum bus occasionally clips, I almost never hear it. It’s clipping inside my DAW, which has way more headroom than any of my outboard equipment.

That said, it’s still a good idea to keep levels conservative. Turn your speakers up and your tracks down, and you’ll have a much more enjoyable mix. You won’t be constantly chasing down the culprit that clipped your mix bus. Everything will have plenty of headroom, and your mix will still sound great.

A Note on Mastering

Remember that album I was talking about earlier? The one that clipped on the big downbeats? If I had to guess, I’d say this was a mastering problem.

Someone got bitten by the loudness bug, and rather than using his or her ears to see if the master sounded good, he ran the mix through his Super Duper Loudness Maximizer 2000. Did he get it loud? Yep, sure did. But it clipped. At least on that one song it did.

Don’t let the robots tell you when your music is good. Use those ears God gave you. Trust them over meters and software.

A Final Thought

I know I used a lot of words to simply tell you “don’t clip your tracks,” but it’s good to hash these things out. It helps remind us of what we do and why we do it. We’re beauty capturers. And I want to save you and me both from ruining that beauty while it’s being captured. I’d rather safely capture it and share it with the world than aggressively capture it, only to realize I ruined it…and now no one gets to hear it.

Capture beauty.

Do no harm.

Share it with the world.

10 words to live by. 🙂

Joe Gilder
Home Studio Corner

  • Frederick Ampel

    The point made here is without a doubt THE MOST IMPORTANT thing in recording! Period!. In a digital world of 1’s and 0’s clipped is forever – its amputation- analog can and often did softclip for a purpose/effect – in digital there is NO + 1 – 0dBFS is the end of the road. I frankly don’t think any software can “remove”or fix a digitally clipped signal- once clipped it remains clipped- you may mask it, hide it or cover it up but like a crack in the wall it’s still there until its properly repaired, and for clipping in digital system there is only one repair– DO NOT CLIP. Frankly even the most basic techniques class will tell you how to avoid this and like death it is to be avoided at all costs. If yopu clip that once in a lifetime solo it’s ruined forever- be smart, be sensible and watch the meters and other indicators- that’s what they are there for but more importantly as the author so clearly states USE YOU EARS!

  • Well said! May I quote you on my studio door? You pretty much sum up my job (when I’m doing it correctly) in 10 words.

  • Jason Moss

    Love this — the fundamentals never change! This is something our community can never hear enough. Thanks for posting =)

  • JG

    I must confess Joe, I’ve occasionally checked in with you for about a year now, but haven’t actually subscribed to your content until now. Shame on me. In any event, I couldn’t have read this article at a better time. Having just made some good progress on my mixing chops (I feel, anyway) as a direct result to allowing myself headroom for mixing/mastering, this has really struck it home for me. Thanks for all this amazing content, you’re awesome 🙂