Why are my recordings so low?

Discussion in 'Microphones (live or studio)' started by Sleightofhand, Oct 18, 2007.

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  1. Sleightofhand

    Sleightofhand Active Member

    Apr 20, 2007
    I apologize for posting this twice, I'm just not sure what category this would fall under because I'm new here...

    My band and I have fiddled around with mics and things in order to get desired tones -- and we're pretty happy with what we've got in that department. However, when we compare it to other CDs (we know they use $1,000s of equipment, engineer work etc. but...), we find a major difference: volume levels, in all instruments.

    The discs we listen to are much louder and have more--how should I put this-- clarity and ability to jump out of the speakers and not just be a sound contained in a speaker.

    We don't want to boost the mics to clipping point and stuff, but I was wondering if we should be recording louder or something? What are normally viewed as appropriate levels to record at?

    I'm wondering what are some possible ways to get closer to the sound levels and punch of a normal CD. We have 4 shure sm-57 mics, 52 beta drum mic, and an oktava 318 condenser mic run through a presonus firepod into a macbook garage band program.

    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
  2. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Mar 8, 2004
    Tacoma, WA
    Welcome Dan!

    This is a topic which can spark the creation of an entire book, but I'll try to give the condensed version here.

    The short answer isn't in the gear used. VERY good recordings of bands can be made from a handful of Shure SM57s and 58s and a Mackie mixer.

    The short answer is the engineering and the mastering.

    Let me start with the latter of these first. If you're not familiar with mastering, it's the final process involved before sending a ready disc to a pressing plant. This is where a fresh, highly-trained set of ears listens to your album, adjusts EQ to make the tracks more cohesive and "correct", arranges tracks, adjusts gaps between tracks and then adds perceived volume by compressing and/or limiting your tracks. This makes the track seem louder. (But then again, so does turning your volume knob.)

    Mastering used to be necessary prior to pressing vinyl so that the limitations of the media were not exceeded. Currently, in today's market, it unfortunately (especially amongst amateur bands) has gotten the reputation that it's designed specifically to make your tracks louder (and louder and louder). This generally serves to suck the life and dynamic range out of a recording if overdone. If done well, it can really make a track pop!

    Now...onto the engineering.

    The first and most important aspect of the engineering is actually the performance itself - especially when "self-recording." If the performance isn't great, it won't ever sound that way on tape. Some of the most common problems I see with bands (even those that proclaim some level of greatness) are:
    1 - Drums playing WAY too loud or not knowing proper stick techniques to vary the sound/timbre of the drums
    2 - Drums not being tuned properly
    3 - Vocals being all over the place (both in pitch and amplitude)
    4 - guitar or bass (or both) trying to dominate instead of blend.

    All of these pitfalls can have a direct impact on what it is you're talking about.

    You are right to not want to record everything at clipping level! In the old days of analog, hitting 0 on the meters meant you still had plenty of room to work. Nowadays, hitting 0 is bad. In fact, if you have two tracks that both hit exactly at 0 (not technically clipping unless it does it for 3 or more samples in a row), you will automatically clip when these signals are summed. For this reason, when recording a band, I will often keep the levels at a much safer -10 to -6 dBFS.

    The next issue is the dynamics of the instruments and the performance itself.

    Chances are, if you're using a computer to view, edit and/or record any of this, you'll see a wave form displayed in your window that looks very big. Perhaps the waves look like they're quite dynamic (lots of tall peaks and deep valleys when zoomed in a little). This isn't bad (usually). This just means that there are dynamics.

    Generally though, during the recording, mixing or editing process, much of this dynamic range is reduced. The primary reason is rooted back in the vinyl medium again, however, today it's to make sure that a dude in his car listening to your album doesn't have to keep fiddling with the volume knob.

    However, whatever the reasons, you'll need to limit this dynamic range if you want to have a record that compares similarly to the commercial ones that you're listening to.

    Generally, this is done with compressors and/or limiters.

    I won't go into what these are or how to use them since this has been covered ad nauseum on this forum and a quick search will turn all of this up for you. However, I do want to advise you to proceed with caution in regards to compressors and limiters. While they will do what it is you're looking to accomplish, there is a learning curve. A poorly used compressor is the WORST thing that can happen to an album! Just keep that in mind. Generally "presets" on plug-ins help to make a compressor even more useless and harmful as well.

    The only way to use a compressor correctly is to understand its function and its purpose and then use it in accordance with this.

    Sorry for the excessively long post.

    Good luck!

  3. Sleightofhand

    Sleightofhand Active Member

    Apr 20, 2007
    Thanks for the response, J.

    --And never feel bad about leaving a lengthy response if you are actually writing useful information in it, as you did!

    I'm wondering if it is at all possible in this day and age to record a demo as we have been looking to do, as we have been doing it (w/o knowledge of compressing & filtering) and having the mix sound a bit low as I've mentioned, but then having those tracks mastered by an outside source to bring some life into it?

    I just wouldn't feel comfortable dabbling w/ compressors and filters because I'm not much of a sound wizard and wouldn't want to make an "o.k" recording sound worse from lack of understanding.

    We don't have much $ to record in a pro studio, and would prefer to record on our own to save some dough as well as (and equally important to us) getting some experience recording. Is it uncommon for a band to do this and then ship the raw tracks to someone in a studio who can master them? Because that would be great if possible and we'd totally be up for that!

    Thanks again!
  4. fourone3

    fourone3 Active Member

    Jan 17, 2007
    Sleightofhand, I sent you a PM - check that.
  5. Jbrax

    Jbrax Guest

    I also have sent you a PM
  6. MediaMurder

    MediaMurder Guest

    I could swear you're quoting the 'modern recording techniques' book...

    im onto you!
  7. HansAm

    HansAm Active Member

    Jun 4, 2005
    Well. If so. A trusted source :D Noting wrong with that.
    All knowledge is based on previous experience.

    And hes absolutly right. Dynamics can fill a entire library. I'm "seeing the light" many times still while working with dynamics.

    And Sleightofhand:
    There are plenty of people Recording.org that can and want to help you make the mix better. For FREE.
  8. Jbrax

    Jbrax Guest

    so true
  9. pr0gr4m

    pr0gr4m Well-Known Member

    Feb 9, 2005
    South Florida
    Home Page:
    Check your Altimeter!
  10. Cucco

    Cucco Distinguished Member

    Mar 8, 2004
    Tacoma, WA
    Too many PMs..............

    What, are you guys all offering to help the bloke?

    Do that in the open...

    If you're offering..."other" services...there's Craigslist for that.

    Yes, there are people on this board that will do it for free - mainly as a tradeoff. They'll work on your mix so that they gain some practice working on mixes. It *can* be a win-win.

    There are also people on the boards that do this for a living.

    There are also varieties of people on this board that probably live close by to you and could work with you - some for free, some for a modest charge and some for an outrageous charge.

    If you want help from an individual to mix this stuff, you need only ask and you'll have a thousand PMs.

    There's only one thing I want to "correct" you on.

    Taking these tracks to an outsider and having them worked on would not be "mastering" per se. It would be mixing. A good mix engineer will not likely offer to do both. However, a good mix engineer will also likely deliver you a final product which will stand up pretty well on its own.

    If (a big GIANT if), however, the mix engineer somehow makes your mix as LOUD as the commercial ones......oops...they've gone too far. This final stage in loudness is gained in the mastering phase ONLY. When done in the mixing phase, it only serves to make the mix muddy and unworkable in the future.

    Enjoy the knowledge that your mix may not be as loud as the commercial CD, but you can turn the volume knob a couple small clicks and you still have a loud, vibrant, dynamic and powerful recording.

    Cheers again!!!


    PS -
    Any "ALL CAPS" words are emphasis only - no shouting here... ;-)
  • AT5047

    The New AT5047 Premier Studio Microphone Purity Transformed

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