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Digital recording has been a boon to music in innumerable and immeasurable ways. And the ubiquity of hi-tech devices in our daily lives today—as well as the incredible rate at which sophisticated features trickle down to the masses—has only compounded the effect. Today, it’s affordable and remarkably convenient for just about anyone to make high-quality recordings on the run, in home project studios, and at rehearsals and gigs.
But while the possibilities are nearly endless with this new technology, that doesn’t mean creating a great recording is simply a matter of having a kick-butt computer, smartphone, or dedicated recorder. Technology only gets you so far. Now, more than ever, you have to know what you’re doing to get great results—because it’s just as easy to make a bad digital recording as it is to make a bad analog recording.
To that end, we’ve compiled this list of 10 must-know tips for digital recordists to keep in mind no matter what platform or interface you’re using. Armed with this knowledge, your guitars, your platform of choice, and an impeccable set of ears, you’ll soon be cranking out digital recordings that are clean, clear, fat, full, and ready to capture the hearts and minds of listeners everywhere. Let’s dive in!
Turn it down. For the best fidelity when tracking, keep levels between −18 and −14 dB on the meters.
1. Turn it down!
In the analog tape days, the goal was generally to get the hottest signal down to tape as possible, just short of distortion. When presented with high levels, analog tape responds with soft compression and gentle saturation that sounds great, especially on drums and other percussive instruments. But digital doesn’t work that way. It’s not forgiving of peaks, and if you push it too hard you run the risk of digital distortion, which sounds awful. For this reason, and to allow plenty of headroom for later processing and mixing, it’s proven best to record signals to digital at levels in the −18 to −14 dB range on the meters. This allows plenty of headroom for peaks and for later work on the tracks. Some audio interfaces have built-in peak “over” protection, but do yourself (and your tracks) a favor: keep the signals in that −18 to −14 dB range, hard as it may be to resist the temptation to light up those meters! Your reward will be cleaner tracks, better dynamics, way reduced danger of digital distortion during recording, and easier mixdowns.
sample rates matter. or not. Unless you have a compelling reason to use a higher sample rate, 44.1 kHz is optimum for most productions.
2. Sample rates matter. 0r not.
The sample rate determines how many “snapshots” of your audio signal are taken in a second. Sample rate determines just one thing: the frequency response of the system—in other words, the highest frequency the system can record. Today’s digital gear is capable of working at 192 kHz sample rates (or even higher), which provide frequency response up to 96 kHz—nearly five times the highest frequency the human ear is generally credited with being able to perceive. There may be situations where those super-high frequencies are worth capturing. Some “golden-ear” listeners claim to hear a difference when those ultra-sonic frequencies are present, but this assumes the music is being delivered to the listener on a DVD or some other medium that supports sample rates over 44.1 kHz. Some recording engineers also feel that certain types of input filters and plug-ins work better at higher rates. But for most of us operating in lessthan- perfect bedroom and basement studios, there are few reasons to use high sample rates. A big drawback is that you have to get that high rate converted down to 44.1 kHz to deliver it on CD, which can potentially impact the audio quality. Another is that high sample rates dramatically increase the size and computer load for a project. If you have a full-on Pro Tools HD or HDX system, that’s no big deal. But if you’re running a native digital audio workstation (DAW), then that extra load can be a problem. Personally, I record at 44.1 kHz if the project will end up on CD or MP3. I rarely work at high sample rates.
(Top)Watch plug-in gain. Even if your mixer channel meters seem okay, it’s possible that you are overloading them from inside one of your plug-ins. (Bottom) Choose where the color comes from. Many plug-ins that model or emulate the sound of vintage hardware units—such as the Universal Audio Fairchild limiter plug-in shown here—can contribute nice colors to your mixes.
3. Bits matter.
The number of bits in a digital signal affects its resolution and dynamic range. Each additional bit doubles the resolution of the signal. The difference is dramatic. A 4-bit signal has 16 steps of resolution to “measure” and represent the signal—sort of like using a tape measure only marked in one-foot increments to measure something. Moving to eight bits gets us 256 steps. Sixteen bits get us 65,536 steps. And 24 bits jumps us to a whopping 16,777,216 steps! That’s like using a ruler marked off in 100,000ths of an inch—we’re talking super-fine measurements.
For this reason, it’s best to track at 24 bit, then convert to 16-bit for CD or to MP3 as the last step in the process. Having all that resolution also allows us to record at conservative levels (see number 1, above) while still having plenty of resolution and dynamic range to make a great recording. If you have a 24-bit system and you record at −18 dB, you’re still getting 21 bits worth of dynamic range (each bit adds 6 dB of dynamic range) and 2,097,152 steps of resolution. That’s plenty for excellent quality.
4. Watch plug-in
It’s so easy to drop plug-ins onto a track to EQ, compress, or otherwise process a signal. But be careful—many of those addictive little software processors can change the gain or level of the signal, which often leads to clipping (distortion) that’s easy to miss in the heat of mixdown. Be sure to double-check the meters and clip indicators inside each plug-in to ensure that no overloads are slipping past you. Boosting the gain in the plug-ins too much can also force you to have to pull down the channel and master faders later, which isn’t good gain staging and can impair the audio quality.
5. Choose where the color comes from.
Analog tape and processors color your recording signal in a slightly different way—that’s part of their beauty. Today, we can emulate a lot of those colors with modeling software that recreates the sound of the original gear, including the coloration it provides. By selectively choosing the modeled processing you use, you can carefully add analog-style coloration exactly where you want it and where it can be most useful. Drums, for example, often benefit from analog-tape-style or analog-compressor-style coloration. Delicate acoustic guitar, on the other hand, may not fare so well if you hit it with a highly colored processor.
6. Get it right at the source.
Just because we can do so many things with digital audio, doesn’t mean we should—it doesn’t relieve us of the responsibility to capture great sounds at the source. Life is so much easier, projects come together so much faster, the process is far less painful, and the final product is so much better when the original tracks are in tune, are tonally solid, are recorded well, and aren’t plagued by background noise. “Fix it in the mix” is just as much of a negative with digital as it was with analog.