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NAMM Sneak Peek

Levels When Tracking Audio

Q: How hot should my levels be when I am tracking into my DAW? I’ve heard I should make the tracks as loud as possible without clipping.

A: Conventional wisdom, developed in the nascent days of digital recording, recommended recording at the hottest possible levels short of clipping in order to maximize digital resolution. Few questioned this recommendation, as the results were often audibly better when it was followed.

With the advent of 24-bit and floating point digital systems, maximizing levels for the purpose of utilizing all the bits in the system became essentially a non-issue.

Today, opinions vary among engineers. Many still prefer to record hot. However, some engineers have begun recommending recording at lower levels, -18dB to -10dB, especially for signals containing large amounts of transient material, in order to allow more headroom during tracking. Some also suggest that using lower levels during tracking allows more headroom for signal processing later in the production process and is less likely to exceed the headroom of the system’s mix bus (depending on the type of system and how the mix bus is implemented). The other advantage is that, during tracking sessions, there’s less chance of an “over,” as you’ve allowed 18 or so decibels of headroom for the incoming signal – a nice safety margin. Keep in mind that, with a 24-bit system, tracking at -18dB still utilizes 21 bits of resolution, which is plenty for most signals.

Lately we’ve been tracking our own sessions at -18dB, and we’ve been enjoying the results. But you should try recording a test session with hot levels and then again with lower levels. Which is easier to manage during tracking? Which is more comfortable to use during mixdown? Which sounds better to you? You’ll likely find that one approach works better for you – and you’ll have the answer to your question.

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