Proper audio recording levels: how loud should I record?

Proper audio recording levels: how loud should I record_

Do you feel confused by all of the contradictory information out there about how loud you should be recording? It seems that there’s a great deal of confusion about just how loud you should set your levels to record. Many resources tell you to record signals as loudly as you can without clipping. Meanwhile, others tell you that one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to record your signals too loudly. This article will explain where this confusion comes from. It will also give you a reliable method for setting proper audio recording levels.

Signal to noise ratio:

When you start to look into the subject of recording audio, you’ll quickly come across one premise in particular. This premise is that you should achieve a ‘high signal to noise ratio’.

Signal to noise ratio refers to the level of the sound that you want to capture relative to the unwanted sound. In this instance, the sound you want to capture is the instrument being recorded, and the unwanted sound is something called the ‘noise floor’.

Noise Floor:

The ‘noise floor’ refers to the internal electronic sound present in any piece of electronic equipment.

So where does the notion that we need to record as loudly as possible without clipping come from?

Well, in the days of analogue, recording with hot signals really was the best way to achieve a high signal to noise ratio. That’s because signals would be recorded through multiple pieces of analogue equipment. Each of these had a greater noise floor than the kind we experience today in digital recording. So recording with hot signals was a necessary part of maintaining a high signal to noise ratio throughout the signal chain. This remained best practice in 16-bit digital recording too, due to its relatively limited dynamic range.

When it comes to modern day 24-bit digital recording however, things are very different. You don’t need to get the signal particularly hot to overcome the noise floor. As such, you can achieve an ample signal to noise ratio at a far more conservative level. So with 24-bit digital recording, the signal doesn’t need to be anywhere near clipping to achieve proper audio recording levels.

The risk of recording too hot:

There is also a risk that comes with trying to record really loudly in the digital domain. One that didn’t exist in analogue. You see, analogue systems offered you a sort of safety net. You could comfortably allow the signal to reach 0VU. Because even at 0VU, there was still a lot of headroom left to accommodate an unexpected spike in volume at the recording source. With digital recording however, if you reach 0dBFS, there’s no headroom available. So recording just beneath the level of clipping becomes risky. Because now, without headroom to accommodate it, that unexpected spike in volume will cause the signal to clip.

There’s really no benefit to recording so hot if you want to set proper audio recording levels:

There was another benefit to recording hot signals in the analogue world which really doesn’t carry over to digital. Recording with high gain levels in analogue could sound really good. The tape would saturate and sound great if you got it just right. But with digital, there’s no desirable sound to be achieved by recording with a hot signal. The sound doesn’t change. As such, recording loud won’t make the signal sound any better. So there really is nothing to be gained from recording really loud in the digital world.

How loud should you record to achieve proper audio recording levels?

So whats the answer? Well, it’s a great idea to try and reintroduce the headroom that analogue recording used to provide. A great spot to aim for in digital recording is to have your loudest parts peaking no higher than -18dBFS. This will leave you with plenty of headroom to accommodate any unexpected spikes in volume.

This might look low on the metering in your DAW. But remember, that’s because with digital, the entire usable limit is on show on your meter. So you have to allow some of it to act as headroom. The fact of the matter is that you should still achieve an ample signal to noise ratio by aiming for this level. But now you’ll also gain the advantage of the safety net that analogue recording used to provide. Try this approach to setting proper audio recording levels on your next recording session and let me know the results!


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4 thoughts on “Proper audio recording levels: how loud should I record?

  1. You say to record with peaks no louder then -18 , but won’t this introduce noise when the mix is going to be mastered ? Does this apply to all tracks being recorded ?
    Thank you.

    1. Hey Josh, thanks for your question.

      No, there’s no reason that this should introduce any noise when you come to master your tracks.

      And yes, I aim for -18dBFS with all instruments.

      With 24-bit recording, I find that aiming to peak at around -18dBFS means that my signals will be above the noise floor, but far enough below 0dBFS that if something gets unexpectedly louder, it’s still not likely to clip.

      I hope this helps!

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