Welcome to Day 14 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

A lot of people ask me about setting levels for recording. It seems simple enough, but people tend to be a little nervous about it.

What if I record it too loud? What if it clips?

What if I record it too quietly, and it’s never loud enough?

These are legitimate concerns, but I would say that it doesn’t matter nearly as much as you think it does. Yes, proper gain staging is important, especially when using outboard gear, but when setting levels coming into your recording platform, it’s not as tricky as it may seem.

24 Bits to the Rescue

I wrote an article entitled 24-bit vs 16-bit that might be helpful for you. In it, I explain the differences between 16-bit and 24-bit recording, and why you should always record at 24-bit.

In summary, 24-bit recording allows for a huge amount of dynamic range.

In the past (back when we were recording to analog tape), things were a bit tricky. If you recorded the signal too quietly, it would be covered up by tape noise (tape hiss). If you recorded it too hot, there would be a lot of tape saturation (which could be either a good or a bad thing, depending on your goals for that track).

In both digital and analog systems, you certainly want to prevent clipping, but the way they each handle recording levels is important to know.

With analog tape, the actual sound of the signal would change the harder you hit the tape (i.e. the louder the signal was). There is a fine line between getting that nice tape saturation and getting distortion and clipping.

With a digital system, however, the signal stays exactly the same. It doesn’t get “warmer” if you record it at a louder level. And the noise floor of a digital system (the inherent noise of the system itself) is much lower than the hiss of analog tape. Even if you record at a low volume, there’s not much chance of the signal being very close to the noise floor.

But Joe, what does it mean?

At one point, early in my recording career, I would try to peg the meters every time I recorded. I would try to get that little dancing light to hit as close as possible to clipping without going over. I thought I was maximizing the sound. I wasn’t.

Since the signal is going to sound exactly the same at -10 dB as it will at -2 dB, don’t bother trying to get really hot recordings. Let the lights dance between 1/2 and 3/4 of the way up the meter. That’ll leave plenty of room for louder sections (like a particularly loud snare hit), and you’re not in danger of losing out to noise.

All I’m saying is don’t add more stress to a recording session by trying to get really, really high levels. It’ll sound just as good (and you’ll be much more comfortable) if you just turn everything down a little bit.

Recommended reading: Setting Levels for Recording

Day 14 Challenge

Your challenge today is to try easing up on the gain next time you have a recording session. Report back here and leave a comment. Does it sound just as good? Were there a lot less clipped signals and wasted takes?