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How To Properly Set Your Recording and Mixing Levels

I got a question from a MixLessons subscriber (Will McCollum) who was interested in my thoughts on setting levels in your recording and mixing process. Things have changed quite a bit since the days of tape and consequently, techniques have changed as well. How do you approach your levels? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

How To Properly Set Your Recording and Mixing Levels

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Hello again! Dezz Assante from the TechMuzeAcademy with another quick tip for you guys today. This one comes  a courtesy of a question from a MixLessons.com subscriber, come from Will MColumn and he says,

“My question is about levels, recording and mixing levels. I think I know that the goal is not to go above zero DB. But what should my input meter levels be when recording the track and what should the track levels in the mix be? Obviously, some will be higher that others. But what is too high? What should the output meter level be when I’m ready for mix down? I know that these levels can be subjective and dependent on the sound of the project as a whole but is there a sweet spot for the output level specifically with mastering in mind?”

Well, once again like many, many things in this arena there is no hard rule set in stone but there are some points to consider and the first thing that I’ll start with is to your point that you want to try to get close as high as zero without clipping or picking. And this is kinda of…a best practice that came out of the older analog days of technolgy where you did want to get your signal on input as close to that zero DB mark as possible without going over and the reason for that was to get the signal as  high above the noise floor as possible. So, the signal to noise ratio, you wanted that to be in your favor. And that’s because of the inherent noise that was a part of the analog gear and lock circuitry, tape  his and things of that nature. So, that was always the best practice. Get that signal up as high as you can with just enough headroom that you don’t risk clipping and overloading the input.

Now, in the days of high bit depth digital recording this is not near as big an issue as it once was. So, now you can set your levels very, very conservatively on input without the risk of like leaving yourself with loads of headroom so you totally avoid the risks of clipping and ofcourse in the digital world clipping must be avoided at all cost because theres absolutely nothing musical sounding about the a digital clip. In the analog domain you could get a little of that, a little of that clipping and it just sort of added a grit and aggresiveness to the tone which may or may not have been appropriate, may not have been what you intended but at least it was musically usesable. In the world of digital, its not musically usable at all. So, you want to definitely avoid clipping.

Now the other thing that is advantageous now a days is that if you’re capturing audio at 24 bit the headroom dyanmically that you have is just ridiculous its…especially if you start editing in 32 bit it exponentially increases the dyanamic range headroom that you have but I won’t go into the scientific details but in practice you can definitely set your input levels very, very conservatively. You can even be going… you know half the travel travel of you meters, aiming for minus 6 to minus 12 DB maybe even softer than that on input. You can always adjust these levels in the mix ofcourse, that is part of the job we do as mixers. We bring the balances back into the track and bring the levels where they need to be. On input nowadays, set your level very, very conservatively. So, thats point no. 1.

Point no. 2 about the levels at the master bus with mastering in mind. This is another common, common mistake that I see a lot of newer engineers are doing which is getting that mix on the stereo bus up as loud as possible. And its an easy pitfall to fall into because we’re use to listening to commercial records which have been mastered. We’re used to hearing that competitive loudness that seems to be ramphant in the industry today. And of course, when we hear our own mixes we want them to compete. We want them to seem…you know as close as we could get them to listen stuffs that we are enjoy listening to ourselves.

However, if you are going to be sending  your track to mastering which is a great idea by the way, to get that 3rd party perspective and to get somebody with great ears and great gear to put the final polish on your track then you definitely want to leave the mastering engineer with loads of headroom so that he or she can do what they do with a great deal of freedom and not have to worry about not having enough headroom to make a boost or anything like that if they determine that it is needed. Okay!

So, setting your output levels to peak, maximum minus 6 minus 10 is healthy and that leaves the mastering engineer with a bit of headroom to do the work that they do. Okay!

So, you can if your …to appease yourself for when  you can bounce out of rough so you that you can study it… you know on your Ipod while going out for a job, or going for a drive or whatever…you know you can quickly throw a limiter or a maximizer on your stereo bus bring those levels up  to sort of competitive areas and export that rough mix so that you can check it out or that you can play it for the client or what have you so that they get a better… a some sort of a quasi-mastered version to evaluate. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that but do not forget to remove that plugin and bring those levels back to… so that there’s some breath and movement and nothing is quashed and there’s loads of headroom before you send to mastering. Our mastering engineer can add compression and limiting. Our mastering engineer no matter how good they are cannot remove it if thats what you’ve sent them. Okay!

So, I hope that helps answer the question. Bottom line is be conservative with your levels. Theres loads of headroom in a 24 bit digital environment. If your editing and mixing in 32 bit flow even more headroom to speak of. I don’t think you need to worry too much
about getting close to zero at any point in the process and we’ll see you next time.

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