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Sean Shannon
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Recording Levels

Post by Sean Shannon » Sun Sep 24, 2006 5:53 pm

I have recently gotten tracks to mix where every individual track is printed to the ceiling. I have to reduce the level of every track in order to mix or use a plugin, because they all blow the top off my analog gear and they distort on the buses and plugs.

I like to mix by sending all the individual tracks through a console and outboard gear. They say they want to use all the bits, so they record as hot as possible.

I have my opinions on this, what are your thoughts?
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Post by Mark Alan Miller » Sun Sep 24, 2006 7:36 pm

Tell them that even occasionally hitting -6dbfs is still "using all the bits" - and explain that if it comes in as hot as you're getting it now you still have to turn it down 6 db anyway to make it usable.
Honestly, levels between -6 and -12 dbfs in a 24 bit system are gonna be fine.
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Post by MASSIVE Mastering » Sun Sep 24, 2006 8:10 pm

It's a horrible, horrible idea that anyone who has the very most basic handle of the concepts of recording levels and gain-staging would never do.

But I've seen more of it ove the last couple years than I thought possible... Mind-blowing how many people don't understand the "day one of class" concepts... You *NEVER* record in relation to *digital* levels.

Preamps (along with basically everything else) are designed to run "best" around 0dBVU. The best sound, the lowest distortion, the best signal-to-noise, the most clarity, the most focus - all of the "good" things.

As most converters are calibrated around -18dBFS (= line level or 0dBVU), running a preamp up to around -0dBFS is running it *18dB* hotter than it was designed to run. 18dB into the headroom. The headroom that's designed to handle micro-transients - Not the entirity of the signal.

They're basically overdriving the input chain like it was an old Marshall, then probably wondering why they're recordings sound like crap... If they run the gear the way it's supposed to run, each individual track would level out at around -18dBFS except for extreme transient instruments which would probably tag -12dBFS or so. This is how it's done "downtown" -

Even back in "tape" days, when you wanted to "cook the tape" a little, you'd run at +4, maybe +6 for some nice fuzzy tape saturation. That's still *12dB short* of what they're destroying - I mean "recording" their signals at. And the probably think that they'll get a "louder" mix out of it (when the exact opposite is normally true).

The side effects of recording at "normal" levels is that mixes tend to fall into place almost effortlessly - Toss all the faders up at unity and tweak away. EQ actually changes the sound as you'd expect it to. The image doesn't sound pinched. The focus between instruments remains clear. Compressors work the way they're supposed to. Normally, much *LESS* compression is even neccessary.

"Using all the bits..." :roll: Those bits aren't there to be used all the time - They're there *so you don't have to* use them.

Tell them they need to read up on what a recording student would learn on the very first day of class, even before learning which end of the microphone to speak into.

I'm sorry - I don't mean to sound harsh... But I can't believe how many people don't "get it" when it comes to levels. They'll shoot themselves in the foot before they even get a chance to load the gun.

But definitely - Feel free to bi**h at them and call them names. :lol: Now that they've handed you a bunch of distorted, pinched, veiled, dynamically questionable (as the frequency response surely changes over various volume levels when being pushed, which is why EQ'ing such signals seems impossible), you're going to have to turn DOWN those tracks (including the noise and distortion and yada, yada) around -18 just to be able to have some headroom in the mix.

Then they can just imagine how clear the final mix would've been had they tracked at normal levels...
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Post by JGriffin » Sun Sep 24, 2006 9:08 pm

What John said. Totally. There's a lot of "basics" that get lost with many home recordists and proper gain-staging is one of them...of course it doesn't help that there are no #@*& numbers on ProTools' meters! (I don't know about other programs but...)

Maybe we need a "back to basics" sticky or something...
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Post by MASSIVE Mastering » Sun Sep 24, 2006 9:53 pm

Dude - I'm totally with you there. I can't believe that with all the bells and whistles that are on all of these "budget friendly" channel strips, that they couldn't find a place for a VU meter or at least a "0dBVU" light.

But that's where knowing your converters comes in handy - If you know your converters are calibrated to -18dBFS, you can just shoot for a digital signal that's dancing around -18dBFS.

Still - WE understand that. For some bizarre reason, many don't. Still trying to find that reason and take him out. :shock:

I mean - Take him out for a coffee and explain it to him over a carmel macchiato.

And the sound... Oh, that tiny, pinchy, "small" and dynamically freakish sound...

And they think their mixes will be "louder" later bacause of it... I can attest to project after project after project, that the mixes that come in here the "quietest" (what most professionals would call "normal" levels - Maybe mixed around -22 or -20dBRMS) are the ones that leave the loudest.

Not as if that should be the reason for tracking and mixing at normal levels - But it's the sound quality and headroom in those mixes that *allow* them to have so much "volume potential" at the mastering phase. Once the tracks are recorded while "trying to use all the bits" it's usually too late to do anything about the sound quality...
Last edited by MASSIVE Mastering on Sun Sep 24, 2006 10:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by JGriffin » Sun Sep 24, 2006 9:58 pm

Well, I understand it 'cause I studied this stuff in college. I understand why a dude who just got into recording 'cause he plays in a band and has no training wouldn't know it...but he needs to learn. The question is, where should he learn the basics?
"Jeweller, you've failed. Jeweller."

"Lots of people are nostalgic for analog. I suspect they're people who never had to work with it." ? Brian Eno

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Post by MASSIVE Mastering » Sun Sep 24, 2006 10:12 pm

Interesting point - As I've actually seen several manuals from major and respected manufacturers (and plenty of not-so-respected major manufacturers) that basically say the same thing. "Record at the highest level possible without clipping the input chain" without saying anything about "nominal levels" anywhere.

Sidenote / Funny point:

I'm sure we've all heard this before -

"I was listening to some of my old recordings that I did on an old POS 4-track and for some reason they sound 'bigger' and more spacious than some of the recordings I do now. I wonder why that is..."

Now you know. :lol:
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Post by Sean Shannon » Sun Sep 24, 2006 11:49 pm

I graduated from a music and recording school 20 years ago, when computers were not used for music. I have seen every format come around, and all these big software companies develop from basic crap to industry standards.

One thing has never changed, and that is proper technique, optimal gain staging, and knowing your gear, including it's proper levels. With that said, I had a hard time convincing some of these people that it used to be OK when digital sucked, was 16 bit or less (think ensoniq) and had no dynamic range and poor signal to noise ratio to print as hot as you could, but now, with these high powered, turbo-charged 24 bit converters you have the headroom to work with. You say -18dbFS on your computer is 0dbVU, and they don't get it. They don't work with VU meters or tape, so they think the top is the top, and you should go all the way up.

It's also hard to convince people that the dynamic range extension is at the bottom of the dynamic scale rather than the top. In other words, 24 bit is not louder than 16 bits, it's the QUIET that is extended, insomuch as the dynamic range has extended downward, lowering the noise floor to the point where you now have 140 db of dynamic range or something ridiculous like that. So frustrating.

One guy says that every EQ has an input trim on it, so why not just trim it down when it distorts the EQ? My answer is - why not just record at the proer level and use the eq as it was intended? Do we have input trim pots on the EQ on the console? No.

It's a losing battle in some cases. I brought one guy in here to see that I could not add any plugin, send any track out to my outboard gear, or sum any 2 tracks together without drastically reducing the volume on every track to avoid clipping all over the place. I showed him, he saw it with his own eyes, and he still wouldn't believe me. I fixed it, mixed it, and took his money. What else can I do?
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Post by Mark Alan Miller » Mon Sep 25, 2006 7:06 am

Wonderful posts, everyone.

My little "short form" above was with the assumption that one is getting clean, clear signals at the level one wishes to print, or is seening no distortion on playback due to overloading the signal path then. Obviously, distorting the signal path simply to achieve some notion of "proper level" changes everything. A no-no for sure.

I print between -18 and -6 generally, but the way my console behaves, it sounds great doing this. Do I recommend it for anyone else? Not nessesarily.
It is a rare occasion that the top 9db or so see much other than transient spikes, generally.
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Post by helmuth » Mon Sep 25, 2006 8:56 am

Great thread, people really need to get this, I didn't, and my mixes have improved since I did.

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Post by inverseroom » Mon Sep 25, 2006 10:13 am

I've been recording at 24/44.1 on a standalone DAW for years, and if I wanted enough gain on the overall mix, I have always had to basically print at 0. I never "learned" this, I just worked on it for years until i had the sound I wanted. I suspect this is the result of the gear company (Akai) trying to make their product more or less emulate a piece of analog gear.

But now I'm importing WAVs into my computer, and indeed, I have to bring each track down to like -18 when I mix. If I begin tracking directly into the computer, you're saying I should be printing lower, then?

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Post by MASSIVE Mastering » Mon Sep 25, 2006 10:36 am

You should print where your gear is designed to work.

Unless you want the added distortion and loss of clarity and focus, the weirdness in the spectral dynamics, etc. to be permanent.

If you want to recalibrate your converters to make 0dBVU hit them at -12dBFS (like a lot of old, bad, 16-bit converters used to), go for it. It's not a good idea, but at least you won't be overdriving the input chain. But then you're running out of headroom and you'll *still* have to back it off for the mix.
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k

Post by jeddypoo » Mon Sep 25, 2006 10:54 am

MASSIVE Mastering wrote:It's a horrible, horrible idea that anyone who has the very most basic handle of the concepts of recording levels and gain-staging would never do.

But I've seen more of it ove the last couple years than I thought possible... Mind-blowing how many people don't understand the "day one of class" concepts... You *NEVER* record in relation to *digital* levels.

Preamps (along with basically everything else) are designed to run "best" around 0dBVU. The best sound, the lowest distortion, the best signal-to-noise, the most clarity, the most focus - all of the "good" things.

As most converters are calibrated around -18dBFS (= line level or 0dBVU), running a preamp up to around -0dBFS is running it *18dB* hotter than it was designed to run. 18dB into the headroom. The headroom that's designed to handle micro-transients - Not the entirity of the signal.

They're basically overdriving the input chain like it was an old Marshall, then probably wondering why they're recordings sound like crap... If they run the gear the way it's supposed to run, each individual track would level out at around -18dBFS except for extreme transient instruments which would probably tag -12dBFS or so. This is how it's done "downtown" -

Even back in "tape" days, when you wanted to "cook the tape" a little, you'd run at +4, maybe +6 for some nice fuzzy tape saturation. That's still *12dB short* of what they're destroying - I mean "recording" their signals at. And the probably think that they'll get a "louder" mix out of it (when the exact opposite is normally true).

The side effects of recording at "normal" levels is that mixes tend to fall into place almost effortlessly - Toss all the faders up at unity and tweak away. EQ actually changes the sound as you'd expect it to. The image doesn't sound pinched. The focus between instruments remains clear. Compressors work the way they're supposed to. Normally, much *LESS* compression is even neccessary.

"Using all the bits..." :roll: Those bits aren't there to be used all the time - They're there *so you don't have to* use them.

Tell them they need to read up on what a recording student would learn on the very first day of class, even before learning which end of the microphone to speak into.

I'm sorry - I don't mean to sound harsh... But I can't believe how many people don't "get it" when it comes to levels. They'll shoot themselves in the foot before they even get a chance to load the gun.

But definitely - Feel free to bi**h at them and call them names. :lol: Now that they've handed you a bunch of distorted, pinched, veiled, dynamically questionable (as the frequency response surely changes over various volume levels when being pushed, which is why EQ'ing such signals seems impossible), you're going to have to turn DOWN those tracks (including the noise and distortion and yada, yada) around -18 just to be able to have some headroom in the mix.

Then they can just imagine how clear the final mix would've been had they tracked at normal levels...
I have to say, that WAS pretty pedantic sounding, sir. I mean, I had teach myself these things because I didn't go to engineering school, but there's a lot to know and sometimes it takes time for people to know as much as they should. It just does. You didn't tell me anything I don't already know but you did make a lot of valuable points that would probably benefit a lot of people- but really, the tone was pretty obnoxious and it didn't seem at all necessary. I'm not trying to bust your chops here, but really, we're not talking about curing cancer...you can be more gentle with people. :D
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Post by inverseroom » Mon Sep 25, 2006 2:15 pm

MASSIVE Mastering wrote:You should print where your gear is designed to work.

Unless you want the added distortion and loss of clarity and focus, the weirdness in the spectral dynamics, etc. to be permanent.

If you want to recalibrate your converters to make 0dBVU hit them at -12dBFS (like a lot of old, bad, 16-bit converters used to), go for it. It's not a good idea, but at least you won't be overdriving the input chain. But then you're running out of headroom and you'll *still* have to back it off for the mix.
I CAN recalibrate the converters on the Akai I think but I'm not going to do that.

Essentially, what you're saying is, if I do continue tracking on the Akai, I should go ahead and print to 0, and turn down the faders on my DAW when I import...but if I start tracking directly to DAW, I should keep it down?

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Re: k

Post by MASSIVE Mastering » Mon Sep 25, 2006 5:27 pm

jeddypoo wrote:I have to say, that WAS pretty pedantic sounding, sir. I mean, I had teach myself these things because I didn't go to engineering school, but there's a lot to know and sometimes it takes time for people to know as much as they should. It just does. You didn't tell me anything I don't already know but you did make a lot of valuable points that would probably benefit a lot of people- but really, the tone was pretty obnoxious and it didn't seem at all necessary. I'm not trying to bust your chops here, but really, we're not talking about curing cancer...you can be more gentle with people. :D
My sincere apologies for that -

Ever since this came up for the first time (with me, at least) on another board - it's been like a rash - A terrible, itchy rash that won't go away. It comes up on forum after forum, thread after thread, PM after PM after *dozens* of PM's and e-mails... And an equal number of "thank you" notes, which makes up for it to a point -

I do tend to get "short" about it - I don't mean to. I didn't go to engineering school either. All it took was my first dance with a digital recorder back in the 80's (when the calibration tones came back 12dB down on the digital meters). I understand that a lot of people never had that dance.

But (IMO) it's SO important of a thing to understand that it needs to be shouted from the mountain tops. And it MUST be learned early. VERY early. This is the capturing of the core sound - The first step in the recording process - If something goes bad there, and the person at the controls doesn't realize it's even happening, there's no fixing it.

It's a simple, basic concept that somehow got overshadowed by a terrible myth - If I had a dollar for every letter that said something like:

WHOA!!! I can't believe I've been struggling for YEARS trying to get my mixes to sound "BIG" and all I needed to do was back down on the recording levels!!!

or something relatively similar, well, I'd have a fistfull of dollars to be sure.

I really don't consider it pedantic or narrow-minded... If they (people who "record hot without clipping") want to overdrive their input chain, that's fine - But they should understand that they *are* overdriving their input chain. Most of them think (and many refuse to believe otherwise) that they're actually doing it "properly" like that. I'm all about breaking rules - But they should know the "rules of thumb" first - Especially something as important as input levels...

But again, my apologies if I offended - It was my intention to motivate, not excoriate.
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