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Recording levels, probably a stupid question


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  • Recording levels, probably a stupid question

    I'm a musician, not a recording engineer, but I ran into something in the studio the other day that had me going "Huh?" and I'd like to be corrected if my understanding is wrong.

    We laid down a bunch of tracks at the same time: drums, bass, guitar, and several synth tracks.  These filled the available 16 input channels into the studio's Pro Tools setup, mostly limited by the number of preamps I believe.  We spent some time before each song where the recording engineer would set the levels based on the loudest passages for each track -- that was particularly necessary for the synth, since different patches and even different synths were used on those channels for different songs.  During the recording we each had our own separate headphone mix; click track and vocals were in the headphones but not recorded.

    After we had what we thought was a decent take, before doing any punch-ins or retakes of a track, we reviewed the recording over the studio monitors.  This was a playback of the raw recording straight from the DAW with no mixing or eq-ing.  The volume of each track should then reflect the approximate input level of the track, right?

    I would have expected the tracks to be around the same volume each.  Instead, wildly different sound levels were evident for different tracks, to the point of almost inaudibility for some of them.  My (quite possibly wrong) understanding of gain staging is that once the signal chain ends at the DAW, the tracks are then optimized at the appropriate dB level for the DAW, which would be approximately the same for each track.  I would not expect two synth tracks with similar output levels at the synth to have one dominant and the other virtually inaudible.  Is there a reason to record with such widely varying levels, or is this a case of the musician (me) not understanding recording techniques?

    This did not seem consistent with certain channels being louder or quieter in the output: The channels for "synth 2" for example were loud in one song and inaudible in another.  The engineer was very clear that this was raw and not mixed in any way.  I didn't think to ask about it at the time, but the next day when reviewing "raw" mp3s at home it brought the questions back into my mind.

    Martyn Wheeler (playing synthesizers/organ like it's 1973 in England)

    now: Fredfin Wallaby
    was: The Gonzo Symphonic

  • #2
    Ehh, the engineer could have plans of using lots of compression to even out the final mix. That wouldn't be the way I'd do things, but let's assume that isn't the case. This could also be a case of the engineer having things tracked for levels, and not volume. Or, to minimize/neutralize clipping before going into a final mix.

    Regardless, if you're not happy with it, you should approach him/her about it. If your group is paying for recording, you should have it done how you want from the get-go, and if the way you want is having to do less mastering, that should be acceptable. If nothing else, you should be able to get an explanation from the engineer as to what he or she is doing.

    If the engineer can't deal with that, find a new one.

    FWIW, I'm just an amateur studio troll, but like you, I've been a musican for a long, long, time, and I've spent lots of time in studios with people who *are* professional recording engineer types.

    Hopefully a pro can come in and shed some light on the subject.



    • Iamthesky
      Iamthesky commented
      Editing a comment
      This is just recording. We haven't decided on who will do the final mix, so that shouldn't be (much of) a factor in the recording levels.

  • #3
    Yeah with 24-bit audio you'd have to run super low levels before they were too low. And he's the phase button can be a life-saver.
    ∆∆∆∆∆∆∆∆∆ Antelope Zen Tour, Dell Precision 7510 (w/i7-6920HQ, 16GB, 512GB NVMe SSD, 960GB SSD recording drive) Harrison Mixbus 3, StudioOne Pro, Pro Tools 12, and Reaper. Belmont Bigsby, Godin LGSP-90 (NAMM ed.), Godin LGX-SA into an 11 Rack controlled by a FCB1010 with an Eureka Prom. A bunch of other stuff lying around.

    Did I mention that Harrison Mixbus 3 is out? If not check it out. It Is AWESOME!!!


    • Phil O'Keefe
      Phil O'Keefe commented
      Editing a comment

      Fortunately lots of plugins incluse a polarity switch, so fixing the problem is fairly easy to do once you realize what's going on.

      It never hurts to check the phase of all the stereo tracks / recordings in your production. That mono button is there for a reason, and it's not just for checking how it will sound on an AM radio...