Article: How to Set Proper Recording Levels

How to Set Proper Audio Recording Levels

Setting the Right Levels – the Basics of Gain Staging

Gain measures the amount of output signal being sent by a certain element of a given signal chain. When you adjust the gain on a certain piece in your signal chain you adjust the amount of voltage the piece sends or receives.

When you have multiple pieces of gear hooked together, you need to ensure that you’re setting the gain properly at each stage to ensure that you’re not introducing any extra noise to your signal chain – that’s what gain staging is all about.

You may have different things in a chain like the instrument itself, effects, or an amplifier. Each of these elements of the signal chain has a different output level.

Each device in a signal chain outputs a different amplitude that can be controlled. This amount describes the amount that will be taken in by the amplifier in the chain. When you adjust the gain on a certain part of the signal chain, you are basically adjusting the preamp within it and how it processes the signal that is coming into it.

What is the Difference Between Gain and Volume?

Gain is often confused with volume. This is a common mistake that can lead to some bad mixes.

Volume actually controls the output from a certain piece in a signal chain that goes to the mixer, or to the next piece in the signal chain. It is almost always controlled by a knob or a fader on the piece.

If you are running a guitar amp to your DAW mixing board, the volume will control the amount of power that goes from the amp to the mixer. Gain controls what comes into a piece of a gear in the signal chain. Volume controls the signal that is coming out of a piece of gear in a signal chain.

If you are new to mixing, a great way to think about gain is to relate it so sensitivity. Higher gain means that the piece is more sensitive to the input signal that is going into it. Usually, you won’t need to adjust gain very often during the mixing process. You should not have to adjust the gain setting on a channel bus very much once you have found the right sensitivity level for that piece.

After the gain is set, you will more often use the knobs and faders for the volume to get the final mix that you desire.

If you need a mic to pick up more signal from the instrument or voice going into it, you need more gain. If the signal from a line is a little too noisy that could mean that you need to turn down the gain. The more gain that you have the higher what is called your “noise floor” will be.

The noise floor is the amount of noise that comes through the mix on a signal path. More gain means more input and thus more of the noise gets through. This is why you don’t want to address the gain too much while you are mixing. It could add up over time and give you a less clean sounding mix.

What is Gain Staging?

Gain staging is a simply a practice in which the engineer mixing a piece of audio ensures that each point in a signal path is using the correct amount of gain. If each piece in your signal chain has too much gain this can add up and cause you to get an undesirably noisy signal.

If you have properly adjusted the gain for each piece in a signal chain, it will be much easier to mix down the road. The earlier you get your gain staging correct, the better your overall mix is going to sound down the road.

Digital vs. Analog

This is more of a concern that ever as more and more studios choose to use DAWs and digital outboard gear. Most engineers that use entirely analog set ups don’t mind having too much gain in their signal. This is because with an analog set up it can lead to a very pleasing sound that some refer to as “saturated”. When there is a little too much gain in a signal. It can be a very pleasing type of distortion to some people’s ears.

With digital, when you’re your noise floor gets too high and you run out of headroom, the DAW runs out of bytes to store the audio data. This causes an unpleasing digital form of distortion and can cause the mix to clip. This is a very unpleasing sound that can be avoided by great gain staging. Of course, the goal is to have good gain staging with both an analog or a digital set up.

It is obviously important not to have too much gain in your signal path as you build your gain structure because of the high noise floor and noisy distortion that can be caused when you run out of headroom in the mixer. It is also important not to use too little gain.

If the gain in your signal chain is too low, it can cause the noise floor to be low in the final mix. This could prevent you from being able to get an instrument loud enough when you come to the final stages of mixing. This is why you want to be as effective and accurate as possible early in the gain staging process to make mixing your audio recording much easier.

Good gain staging will give you a great signal while also giving you whatever amount of noise you desire in your mix.

Set it and Forget it

If you stage your gain properly you shouldn’t have to touch it again during the final mixing process. It is important to get your gain staging right early in the process in order to not have to go back and adjust it later. Readjusting your gain staging later in mixing can have a domino effect on the signal chain. Each time that you adjust the gain level of a piece in a signal chain you are probably going to have to adjust all of the pieces that occur after it.

A good comparison for this would be your GPA in high school. You want to get good grades early in your school career so that you don’t have to make up for it and clean up your mess later in your career to get the GPA that you desire. Basically, the earlier you get things right the better it is going to be for you in the long run.

Gain Staging Techniques

There are many different techniques that producers and engineers have developed over the years to help ensure that they have great gain staging in their mix. Here are some techniques that you can as you are first learning how to gain stage properly you get you off to a quick start.

Use the Clip/Gain Function on Your DAW

One of the best steps towards great gain staging is not mixing your source too hot in the early stages of the process. One great way to test and see if the signal will clip and be too noisy is to run the channel at zero and see if the signal stays in the green or just barely touches the yellow.

A channel’s signal is said to “clip” if the signal gets above 0db on that channel. If you do this, it will give you much more headroom as you go into the full on mixing process on that channel later in the mix. Most DAWs have a clip/gain function standard. If yours doesn’t, there are a ton of different clip/gain function plug ins available that will work with just about any DAW that is on the market.

The Master Channel

A great mix on the master channel is truly a sum of its parts. When you are mixing each individual signal chain you should be sure to keep an eye on your master channel and make sure that it is not coming close too peaking. It is okay to mix at a low volume in order to get the sound that you want.

Many engineers that are new to mixing have a tendency to turn up their master channel when they are gain staging in order to get the volume of their audio signal to the level that they want to mix at. Most of them completely forget that they can get this same effect by simply turning up the speakers in their studio. It is also easier to get much better dynamics if you mix your audio signal at a lower volume level.

Pre-recorded Tracks

If you are recording a singer or an instrumentalist and they are overdubbing over a pre-recorded track it is important to make sure that the pre-recorded material that you are using is not too loud. This will force you too have to record the new source material at a much higher volume that you need to and make it too loud/noisy later on in the in the mix when you need it.

You are probably seeing a trend developing here. That trend is to keep things as quiet as possible early in the mixing and gain staging process.

Get the Highest Gain  Level Without Clipping

When adjusting the gain for each instrument, be sure that you are giving it the highest gain level possible just before it clips. You don’t want to leave any gain that is available unused. This will help you capture as much of the dynamic range and sound qualities of that particular sound source without making it clip or have too high of a noise floor. This will help you get each instrument or vocal sounding as rich and as full as possible.

Don’t record too hot!

In the early days of digital recording engineers used to record each signal as hot as possible. This is because early DAWs and digital recording systems operated at 16-bits. They needed to record signals as hot as possible in order to get the highest signal to noise ratio.

Today’s systems operate are 32 or even 64-bit. They are all at least 24-bit. 24-bit processing gives an engineer or a producer all the room they need to capture the entire dynamic range of the instrument that they are recording.

This means that you can record your input source at a much lower level and still get the dynamic range that previous engineers wouldn’t have had to redline to get. This can help you keep the overall gain of your mix low and give you a lot more head room when it comes time to do the final mix and master on your audio project. Don’t fall for this old school tactic for recording digital audio.

dBVU vs. dBFS

Both dBVU and dBFS indicate to the engineer how well the board is working when it comes to having a great signal without getting too noisy. When an analog board is at 0 DBVU it is working optimally when it comes to signal to noise ratio. DBFS measures the same thing.

The difference being that dBFS applies to digital boards. Since most of you are using DAWs you will want to pay attention to your dBFS. If the dBFS on a digital board gets above 0 the sound will start to distort badly and will be much too noisy to get a good overall mix.

Another difference between these two types of meters is that the analog version will allow signals that appear above 0 dBVU. The digital version of these meters, dBFS, will not allow any signal that appears above 0 dBFS without it becoming noisy or even distorting. There are no positive values when it comes to the dBFS on a digital mixing board.

The highest possible value is 0 DBFS. This is a very important parameter to pay attention to when completing a mix on a digital board. Part of the reason that the analog mixers allow positive amounts in signals on the dBVU meter is because the noise and distortion on an analog board are much more pleasing to the ears.

The Big Picture

You may have seen a theme developing here when it comes to gain staging. There are a few basic things that you need to pay attention to generally in order to achieve good gain staging.

Don’t get too loud – Great gain staging is a sum of its parts. It is important to mix each individual signal as quiet as possible while still getting a great sound in order to get the full dynamic range of the sound source while limited the amount of clipping and unwanted noise that appears in the track. Gain is a great way to do this. Many try to do this with volume. This is ineffective because all adjusting the volume does is increase or decrease the amount of noise in the track. Only adjusting the gain will increase or decrease the amount of noise that actually appears in the track.

Use your master track – Pay attention to your master track and ensure that it is not clipping. As you add more and more instruments with more and more effects the amount of noise and volume will add up and build and could cause your main track to clip. Once again, great gain staging is a sum of its parts.

Noise Floor

Noise is not as pleasing with a digital workstation as compared to analog recording. This is why it is important to keep your noise floor as low as possible. This is a result of having each part of each signal chain set at the right level. It is also a result of putting different effects and amps in a signal chain in the best order. This is something that a lot of engineers overlook when they are performing gain staging initially on their mix.

As you can see, the overall goal is to mix your audio as quietly as possible when mixing on a DAW. This will ensure that you get a great dynamic range on your recording without having too much-unwanted noise and distortion on your recordings. This is why it is so important to get a great set of studio monitors for your studio as well. They will have enough headroom to play your audio cleanly and give you an honest representation of the sound quality of the audio.

Don’t’ be afraid to send signal to your speakers quietly and use the volume on your speakers to get your audio to the level that you would like to mix at.

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