Recording 101

Introduction

In this blog, I will share my thoughts about recording properly in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and give you some simple guidelines.
You will learn to record your project so that it is mix ready.
I promise to keep it as short as possible ūüėČ

In the old days

In the 80s and earlier, recording studios were expensive. Every session was booked and planned so that studio time was used optimally. Record labels paid the bill and all went according to budget.

Musicians arrived in time, read through their sheet music, I had my microphones, seats and fold back headphones ready.

Usually one practice run through the song gave me the chance to set my recording levels, and then ‘tape is rolling guys!’, the red light was switched on and the recording started.

The analog desks in those days had a monitor section, and a recording section.
The monitor section had either rotary knobs or smaller faders, depending on the manufacturer. These were set to the zero decibel (dB) position.
The recording section was used in such a way that the faders were set to zero and the microphone pre-amp was set to get about the right volume, both for recording level and a balanced monitor mix.

The goal was to record in such a way, that you had a well-balanced music image, during the recording, while not driving the tape to its limits,
These days, tape is praised as the magic panacea, but back then it was a fight against tape noise, distortion and degradation.

So, the musical balance was achieved during the recording. Therefore, mixing became mostly a finalizing exercise with minor corrections or fine-tuning a reverb.

First set your monitor system

Use a reference track you like or know well and set your monitors at a level that you can listen to all day long without getting tired, so not too loud.
Then: Do Not Touch Your Monitor Control during the recording session.
Go back and forth between your recording and the reference track to check instrument levels.

DAW internal headroom

For almost every project file or audio tracks I receive, the audio levels are at or just below zero decibels relative to full scale (dBFS). Way to loud!!!
A DAW works on 32 bit floating internally, no matter what you choose as project setting. This gives a theoretical dynamic range of about 750 dB, more reading in this link.
That means that even if you record at -60 dB, you still have around 690 dB dynamic range, so you never have to worry about the noise floor again.

Recording levels

Experience has taught us that if you keep your maximum recording levels around -21 to -18 dBFS, you will get good results with the balance of your music.

I made a test-tone to use as a reference in your project. It is a 440 hertz tone, recorded at a sample rate of 44.1 kilohertz (kHz) in 24 bits at -18 dBFS.
This is a setting for music projects. In the video world, 48 kHz is used.
Both sample rates are equally suitable for music projects.
Download the test-tone here. Put it on track 01 so you have a constant reminder of the maximum recording level and a tone for tuning your instruments.

Conclusion

Set your monitor system level and leave it untouched.
Use the test-tone on track 01 for reference.
Do not touch your faders, all stay at zero dB.
Set recording levels with the pre-amp on your audio interface or the output fader of your instrument plug-in.
Train yourself to create the sound and commit to tape, like in the old days.
Your project will be mix-ready!

Have fun!
Sander Bos

Thanks to Rudy Maarsman for redacting.

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