This might sound familiar: you’re at home trying to record audio using an audio interface, a microphone and some kind of recording software. The signal input meters of the software are barely moving so you turn up the gain, only to then sing one or two loud notes and be immediately confronted with the signal clipping as if possessed by the devil himself. If that does indeed sound familiar, you’ve no doubt asked yourself (and the internet apparently): how loud should I record audio?
- The Two Possible Situations
- You Know How Loud the Signal Will Be
- You Don’t Know How Loud the Signal Will Be
- What About Compressors?
- So Why Does My Audio Recorder Feature Built-In Compression?!
- What’s Wrong with Distortion?
- The Bottom Line: Less Gain
- See Also
The Two Possible Situations
Upping the gain of your recording device is the easiest way to get louder recordings, but too much gain can easily lead to signal distortion. To handle this, you first need to figure out the situation at hand. There are two possible situations:
- You know how loud the signal is going to be beforehand.
- You don’t know how loud the signal is going to be beforehand.
You Already Know How Loud the Signal is Going to Be
If you already know how loud a signal is going to get, you should be able to dial in the right amount of gain fairly accurately beforehand so that the signal can be properly matched with the dynamic range of your recording device – in other words, the volume-based boundaries of, for example, your audio interface. Even if this is the case, it doesn’t hurt to use a -10dB margin when it comes to digital recordings. Your recording device or software usually features either a colour or number-based indicator that lets you know when you’re closing in on signal distortion, AKA ‘clipping’. Beyond the clipping threshold, anything you record will no longer sound the way it should, but more on that later. This threshold sits at zero (-0dB) and is usually indicated in red.
You Don’t Know How Loud the Signal is Going to Be
When recording something like a live performance, you generally never know how loud a signal is potentially going to get. In this case, there’s two things you can do:
- If possible, ask the band or artist to play or sing as loud as possible and adjust the gain accordingly.
- If such a sound-check is not possible, turn down the gain a little so that any occasional loud bits are recorded without distortion.
What About Compressors?
While a compressor could theoretically help out since it keeps any volume peaks in check, using compression isn’t recommended for louder recordings since this inexplicably adds that well-known ‘pumping’ effect to your recording. Even if only subtly present, this pulsing effect is practically impossible to remove or polish out. If you know what you’re doing and pack years of experience, you can definitely add compression, although generally speaking, this is only done to fatten up the recording, not to make it louder. In almost all cases, compression should only be used as a creative solution during the mixing process, not as a tool to use during recording sessions to counter peaks and get a louder signal. Basically, if the signal starts peaking, all you need to do is simply turn down the gain!
But Then Why Does My Recorder Feature Built-In Compression?
Some voice recorders and other portable recording devices feature built-in compression. Here, the compressor function is used to keep any voice recordings as consistent as possible in terms of volume, which makes the recorded speech easier to understand and perhaps transcribe when you’re in a noisy environment. When recording vocals or instruments in the studio, built-in compression is pretty much pointless as using it would only sacrifice a lot of the dynamics.
What’s Wrong with Distortion?
Digital distortion is essentially the flattening of a signal. What happens is that the sine waves in the signal start becoming square waves, which not only get you a lot of extra overtones but sound very differently – something you don’t want when you’re recording more delicate or subtle-sounding instruments. A little bit of distortion is fine, but unless it’s the more tasteful distortion of guitar amps and tube-microphones, too much distortion should be avoided at all costs. No matter how you look at it, that kind of obscene distortion in digital recordings shaped as a result of too much gain is simply not something you want. Ever.
Green: A pure sine wave. Red: A distorted (and unwanted) sine wave.
The Bottom Line: Less Gain!
It’s worth realising that the digital revolution that took place in the music industry has actually been quite beneficial. Take tapes for instance, which used to be the standard back in the day and required the use of as much dynamic range as possible to keep the noise-floor down. This is because the tape-recorders are infamous (and these days in a way famous) for what’s called tape hiss. Luckily, everything’s different in the digital age, where it’s virtually impossible to record a digital 24-bit recording too softly. As such, that -10dB margin we mentioned earlier (usually referred to as ‘headroom’), is rarely ever a problem. When it comes to digital recordings, the bottom line is that less gain is always the solution.
Write it down and stick it to the wall: “A loud track is made during the mixing and mastering phase, not during the recording process!”
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