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Questions about Headroom / Levels

Wasn't sure where to post this since it's digital audio. But I'm wondering if there are any industry standards with regard to levels when recording.

I'm running a Mackie 1220 with Firewire interface and using the included Tracktion software on a Windows XP machine. My microphones (don't laugh) are a couple MXL's (the $100 combo pack).

When I first started recording I set the gain on the board as high as possible without audible distortion. I’m sure everyone here knows what kind of result I got out of that. After reading a few posts and wasting a lot of time with compressors I went back and turned everything down so I no longer see nasty red stuff on my meters. Obviously the end result is fantastic in comparison. I use much less compression (often none), have much more room for harmonic enhancers and effects, the final mix doesn’t come out super hot, etc. etc.

So what I’m wondering is, where do you guys set your levels for different instruments and vocals? I’ve got a fair technique worked out for acoustic guitar and vocal, but I’ll be adding bass guitar and drums soon. Not to mention electric guitars and backup vocals.

The drums especially scare me. I’ll be using a complete set of high end condenser mics designed for the drum set (our drummer bought them last year) so I’m not worried about micing. How do I leave adequate head room without losing that gut shaking punch we all love to hear/feel? How do I keep from over compressing the track after it’s recorded?

Maybe I’m worried about the wrong thing? Perhaps the electric guitar will be the really tough one? :?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience. Thanks in advance.


Kev Tue, 12/12/2006 - 14:27
yeah ... :)
welcome to recording

learn about gain structure
learn about mixing
learn about mastering

not much help ?
but that's what recording is all about and many here have spent a lifetime researching the topics you have outlined above

practice, practice, practice

I do feel that keeping the above parts of the process separate can help to minimise issues
while track laying do keep the final result in mind but don't try to mix and master while track laying
while mixing you now don't need to concentrate or optimise for the musicians cue send
but likewise don't focus on the levels you intend for the end result
Even though you do have an idea of what you want.

Mastering is exactly that ... mastering a complete project of multiple songs

throughout the whole process you must stay under clipping for each individual track and each sub group and of course the master stereo
in digital the need to stay at 0dBVU and optimise signal to noise is not as great as it once was
so the need to chase every last dB when maximising each channel for level is also ... futile

24 bit recording gives enough headroom to get something decent

concentrate on a good sound

listen, listen, listen

come back in ten years and tell me how you are doing
and we can look to make some more improvements

Croakus Tue, 12/12/2006 - 17:56
That's exactly the kind of response I most feared. Where's the emoticon for chagrin?

I’ll do a search for specific posts related to recording drums. I’m sure there are thousands.

Then I’ll go mess up a few thousand tracks until I finally get the voodoo right. Hey, it worked for vocals!

Then on to the next step.

Yep, ten years should be about right. :D

moonbaby Wed, 12/13/2006 - 09:30
Drums are very challenging, but they can be a lot of fun, too. Certainly the most rewarding when you get them "right". And be careful about those "high end drum mics" that your drummer bought. Many so-called "drum mics" that are marketed in kits are crap. I NEVER trust a drummer, anyway...they're all out to steal the guitar player's girlfriend! :lol: Anyway, you WILL need plenty of headroom in this department, as much as 20dB. This will be determined by Ringo's ability to rein-in his dynamics-consistently. Cymbal-slashers suck (you may quote me on that).
As for the electric guitar, that's relatively easy. You just point an SM57 at the best-sounding speaker you hear in the cab/combo, then hit "Record".
Talk about an "Easy Button"...
OK, I re-read your post and will add this:
Don't bank on condensers doing all the "room-shaking punch" on the drums, and don't use EVERY mic you have to get EVERY drum. With drums, many times less is more. This is due to phase-cancellation between closely-placed mics, and that is an art in itself. Of course, explaining this to a cro-magnon who is still fretting over stick size is pointless. As for another type of mic to add to your kit, I would recommend a good, big DYNAMIC, like a Sennheiser 421, a Beyer M99, or an E-V RE-20 to capture the kick (especially). I have all 3 and they all make great BIG sounds when you need them. Peace and patience, mi amigo. Good Luck!

Croakus Wed, 12/13/2006 - 12:39
I never would have thought about phase cancellation. Sounds like we just need to experiment for a couple hours and compare tracks.

We'll try out his mic set for a take, then switch things up and do another.

I have an AKG dynamic which is very similar to the 57/58 in performance that I'll try on the kick with two large cardiod overheads.

The last thing I want to do is use a drum replacement program or something else synthetic. Ideally we can get the drums down with a very natural and organic sound. Then again, I'm sure that's everyone's goal.

Kev Wed, 12/13/2006 - 12:51
drums can be the hardest

so many things to contend with
multiple mics for a start
the room has such a dominant imprint on the sound
the drum kit itself may be crap

and then there is the player ... it's not just about hitting the things in time ... I can even do that sometimes

without a bit of experience and skill, you can end up spending time on things that just will never work

find a mentor
practice practice practice
listen listen listen

I've already said that

moonbaby Wed, 12/13/2006 - 14:06
Yeah, I should've clarified smething: WHAT KEV SAID!!!
I HATE drummers who don't play the way they expect to sound...and then they bitch ("I wanna sound like Steve Smith/Neil Peart/Bill Bruford/Ringo, whatever")...then PLAY like them! :twisted:
BTW, AKG doesn't make a dynamic mic that is = to the Shure 57, you just offended 15,651 gearheads out there! :lol:
Multiple mics, errantly placed, can screw up a drumkit's sound faster than you can say "paradiddle". There are all sorts of tricks that you can try to get the most of what you have, but if the room and/or player suck, so will the recording.

Croakus Wed, 12/13/2006 - 14:22
moonbaby wrote:
BTW, AKG doesn't make a dynamic mic that is = to the Shure 57, you just offended 15,651 gearheads out there! :lol:

I agree. But I typed, ". . . very similar . . ." Perhaps I should have ended the sentence with, ". . . but sounds like crap compared to anything with Shure written on it."

Because, in all honesty, it does.

I'm currently saving my pennies to upgrade my mic selection. I feel like that's my weakest point right now (well. . . if you don't include skill in the comparison :lol: ).