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Setting Record Levels in Your DAW

One of the biggest issues in home recording is proper gain staging.

I hear it all the time – “Pro Tools didn’t clip, but it sounds distorted still.” Or maybe “there isn’t much dynamic range in my recording, should I use less compression?”

A lot of this confusion boils down to a misunderstanding of proper gain staging and level setting during recording.

Once you understand that, you’ll be ready to make the most of your digital and analog gear.

Gain staging is the process of setting the level correctly at each unit in the chain.

For example, you first will set the preamp level so that the preamp is working at the optimal level. Then, you’ll make sure that the compressor you’re sending it through is working at the correct level by adjusting the input/output gain. Then, you’ll make sure that the tape machine/DAW is tracking at the right level.

The reason this is so important is because you might clip the preamp and not even know it by looking at your Pro Tools meters. Making sure that everything is working along the way is the key to clean, accurate recordings.

Let’s talk about digital level.

In the analog world, as you push a unit just past its optimal functioning level, it gets a little crunchier. As you push it further, it gets a little tighter. Push it even further and you’ll get a nice round distortion. And completely overdrive it to get an analog distortion sound.

It works in stages like this, changing the tone a little bit for each nudge past the perfect level. In the digital world, it doesn’t work like this.

You’ll be completely fine – all the way until you clip. No change in tone or character. No warning. Just clipping.

That’s why you should play it on the safe side with your digital levels. Recording near the top of the Pro Tools FS meters is a bad idea. Set your levels a little lower – near the -14 dBFS mark. This way, you’ll have a lot more headroom to let the transients pass through and create that dynamic contrast in your recording.

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