How loud should I record?

I read a lot of crap on the internet, and people have been confused since the onset of digital about what level is best to record. On tape, it was a little complicated. You were recording high enough to stay away from the noise floor, but low enough to avoid distortion, and the side effects were kind of level and source AND machine dependent; maybe you wanted to to over-record the snare to get some tape compression, but you certainly didn't want to do that with your overheads!  Sometimes, things came back different from tape, varied with even the tape formulation, even possibly track to perhaps you’d compensate….all kinds of possibilities.

When 16 bit digital audio came in, noise was no longer the enemy and you more or less got back what you put in, but we generally recorded as loud as possible without clipping to maintain maximum resolution, and this also often required us to trim the input going back to the desk as it was a seriously hot signal. Fortunately we quickly transitioned to 20 bit, then 24 bit systems which changed the game as it meant we had higher resolution at lower level, meaning that all our analog gear played nice again as we could record lower back in the zone that the gear was actually designed for. Is this still an issue in a DAW? Some would say no, as the headroom in the internal summing mixer is super high, and you can pull the master volume down to get rid of bus clipping, but a lot of the plugins you  probably use aren’t designed this way - they are still designed to mimic the analog world. In reality when I receive files from a client I know I am going to pull the faders down a huge amount before starting the mix, so why not kill two birds with one stone?

I read people in internet-land saying things like “aim for -18dbfs" - but wtf is that? Peaks? Average? Are you seriously going to look at a digital meter and aim for a number? Here is my simple retro plan for you: use a VU meter. You’re bound to have several, and it’s often built in to a lot of plugins, for example Slate Digital’s Trimmer, or VCC. The measurement VU (volume unit) was often jokingly referred as meaning “Virtually Useless” but what do you know…if you aim to get that crappy bouncy needle hitting around 0 db you will be right in the sweet spot of all those "analog modelled" plugins. And it’s that easy, most of the time. You won’t be clipping, you won't be meter watching, and all of a sudden your much-maligned Waves modelled plugins will sound beautiful instead of crunchy! Yep, it was you all along. It will also put you signal in the juicy spot of the fader, rather than making you pull them 75% down and fiddling about at the bottom of your mixer. You can even try recording things closer to the ballpark where you want them - let’s take a hi-hat for example….what’s the first thing you will do when it coms to getting a drum balance? Pull that sucker WAY down as if you left it at zero it’d be crazy, right? Also why not record your kit closer to the relative levels they will be in the mix? I know one guy who would set things up where if you pushed up his drum faders in a straight line, then nudged up the kick and snare 5db - there would pretty much be your drum mix. THAT’s engineering!

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