Tip #3: Level Up: How To Choose Good Levels For Recording
“Turn up the gain!” … “Turn up the volume!” Many people think these are the same requests, but they are very different. Let’s look at what they both mean and how to use our understanding of gain and volume to get good recording levels. First we will look at gain.
Gain is the amount of amplitude you are allowing to enter in to your audio circuit or microphone.
Picture a very nice studio microphone in your room with a large clear red ball around it. Let’s pretend that ball represents everything your microphone is actually recording. Anything outside of that ball will not be recorded. In this example, let us say that you are currently sitting outside of that ball. If you were to speak it would be heard, but very faintly.
Now, picture yourself turning up a knob that says, “gain” on it. As you do this, the red ball increases in size, while remaining centered around the microphone. Since you turned it up and the ball grew, you are now inside of the circle. Picture yourself turning that “Gain” knob back down. As you do this, that ball gets smaller and you are no longer in the circle. Lastly, picture that you turn the “gain” knob all the way up and the ball fills the entire room!
This is exactly how gain works. As you turn your gain up or down, you are choosing how much space and sound around the microphone you will record. If you turn the gain down too low, you will not be able to hear anything that is not close to the microphone. If you turn the gain too high, you will be letting too much signal in to the circuit and will begin to hear a lot of “room sound” and introducing possible noise and distortion in to your recording.
Now that we know gain lets us choose what we record around the microphone, let us look at what volume does.
Volume controls how loud your recording is. Volume does not in any way choose what is recorded, just how loud it is. For example, you could have your volume all the way down on your software, but if your gain knob is still up you are still allowing audio in to your recording circuit. You will simply not be able to hear it. As you bring this volume up, you will be able to hear what you recorded.
Again, gain chooses what you record. Volume controls how loud it sounds to the listener. Now that we have an understanding of that, let’s look at the biggest issue people seem to have with home studio recording: distortion.
Distortion happens when too much sound is going in to a recording channel. When there is too much signal it causes the gear to cut off the unusable data and thus your sound is clipped and harsh. You can tell this is happening when the clarity is gone and it sounds like your speakers are overloaded. You will also see your audio appear maxed out in your DAW software. You will need to monitor your signal so you can turn your gain up or down before you record.
One way to monitor your signal input is to buy gear with signal indicators on it. You can find audio input devices that have small meters or even just one green light that turns red when the signal is clipping and distorting. When using these indicator lights, it is best to try playing or singing at the loudest volume you intend to perform. If the lights are constantly in the red, then your signal is probably clipping a lot. You will need to turn down the gain. It is ideal to adjust your gain knob so that your indicator is consistently just below the orange and almost never in the red. This will give you maximum signal without distorting your track and allow you to have a powerful clear track to work with.
In the end, you need good gear set up in the proper position running over high quality cables. Your audio sources need to be recorded at the proper levels in to a transparent and reliable piece of software. That is how to get a good mix before you begin recording. You need well-recorded source material so you can have a quality final product.
Well, that’s it for this series from Matt. Matt’s advice for all of us: Continue improving your skills. Continue learning new audio production concepts. Most importantly, continue to love music and keep jamming!
Couldn’t have said it better. Got comments or questions? Leave them here!