If you’re not a professional engineer (yet), getting a proper level while recording at home can be tricky. Here are some basics to help you dial in that perfect level.
The term “gain staging” refers to the process of setting a proper level each step along the way of your recording chain. For example – if you are recording vocals with a chain of a microphone -> preamp -> compressor, you don’t want your preamp level set so high that you overload the compressor. You want to set incremental steps along the way to ensure you’re not overloading, and getting the smoothest possible sound. This is a good general concept to think about when getting levels, even if you’re only using a microphone and preamp. The idea is to leave varying degrees of headroom on your level for further adjustments later.
What Does a Good Level Look Like?
For starters, you don’t want a level that’s too quiet, and of course you don’t want one that is clipping/over-loading. Striking a balance between the two can be tricky, especially with more dynamic performances. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to leave about between -3 db and -7 db on your recording. You don’t want to risk clipping, and having some headroom for later is always helpful. That said, you want your waveform to look healthy, as a quiet level will induce more noise. Another way to look at it is with your meter – keeping you track in the green and touching the yellow at the most will give you a good, healthy sounding level.
To Compress Or Not?
While professionals may feel more comfortable and have the proper gear to track with compression, not everyone recording at home is as well equipped. Using compression can definitely help you achieve a more consistent level. However, too much compression and you’ll destroy your sound and it can’t be undone. That said, unless you’re experienced it’s probably best to leave it off…
Different Gear, Different Results
It’s worth noting that different microphones, preamps, instruments, and performers will all factor in to dialing in a proper level. Some mics have a louder output than others, while certain preamps will add more gain per step than others. Some preamps also have both gain and trim knobs, which is another balancing act going back to gain staging. While most people working at home may only have one choice, it’s worth considering how each piece of equipment and performer is going to change how your level comes in.
Getting comfortable with leveling and gain staging is definitely a trial and error process. Being able to anticipate dialing in a good level is definitely a skill, as different performers, microphones, and preamps all will react differently. Hopefully this helps with the basics!