In this Recording for Beginners Series, I’m going to go over some basic recording tips, tricks and give some simple guidance in getting started in the world of audio recording.
How do you get the best signal path into your DAW?
Often I meet musicians who are just starting out, they have a computer system, they have purchased an audio interface, possibly even downloaded a DAW and now they want to start recording.
But now with all this great virtual studio gear at their fingertips, they struggle to get a good signal path and it is often the result of them not understanding how the equipment works and what it is expecting.
Line vs Mic vs Instrument
A lot of home studio users tend to be confused by Input Levels on their audio interfaces and how to properly set them. Potentially, all three of these input levels are passed over the same type of cable, so should you be using Line, Mic or Instrument?
What we are really talking about here is what does your audio interface expect to ‘hear’ at a particular input.
So a good example would be your common dynamic microphone, as your audio interface is expecting to hear something really, very quiet. Therefore your audio interface is really having to ‘listen hard’ and bring up this tiny audio signal to something acceptable to record. Often by using the audio interface’s own internal mic preamp to do so.
Your everyday dynamic microphone has no power source of its own and so your audio interface is doing all the work to bring that gain level up.
If your audio interface is set to mic level and you plug in a synth, then it is going to overload that input and sound awful. Plus, there is no headroom left and this means you have no space left to add louder passages that you might get by playing more dynamically (harder) or pushing a synth filter into oscillation, which would peak the input level even further.
So with keyboards, samplers and the like we tend to use Line level, as your audio interface is then expecting a strong signal.
As a guitar player I often use Instrument level as it is typically used for passive instruments like an electric guitar. It is still a low signal compared to the synthesiser, but it is quite a lot stronger than the dynamic microphone from my first example.
If you are going straight into your audio interface with a guitar or bass, you’ll want to use this one. However, if you are using a microphone to capture the sound of a real guitar amp, then you will be using that Mic input instead. Whereas, with my bass guitar I often use a DI box first, and then plug this into a Line Level input, as my DI box outputs at Line level. Not all DI boxes output quite so high, and many output at much lower levels, so you need to check with the manufacturer or refer to the DI box manual.
Gain vs Volume
Gain Level, Trim and Volume are all choices you commonly see on the front of your audio interface and sometimes, you will actually see all three of them. Knowing how to set them for a good signal path will get you a great sounding recording.
Normally we associate the Gain control with some type of internal preamp, and when we adjust the Gain control we are saying how much we want to have our signal amplified by that preamp.
The idea is this, we have a really quiet signal like our dynamic microphone and we need to make it stronger, and so we amplify it using our audio interface Gain control, so that our DAW can then get a good strong signal to record.
Trim is normally associated with those Line Level instruments, like the keyboard. So what we are doing here is attenuating the signal. As Line Level is so robust already, we sometimes need to adjust it by either boosting or attenuating our signal either above or below line level.
Now inside our DAW we also have the ability to adjust the Volume of an individual channel, usually by a fader on a virtual mixing desk and we may be combining our recorded signal with soft synths and loops, so our recorded tracks need to stack well up against these.
Also take into account that a lot of loops included with DAWs are heavily compressed and will sound huge.
Ideally we want a good strong signal into our audio interface first, so we use either a Gain or Trim to achieve a strong signal. What we are looking for is a good healthy audio level that doesn’t ‘clip’ into the red here.
We can add compression and effects within the DAW to make our own recorded sounds huge. And this will be a lot easier if we have a good clean recording with no clipping, or hiss.
If we have set our Gain control too low, it means we will have to raise the volume of the channel in side the DAW, and this brings with it all sort of hiss and extra noise that we really don’t want into our recordings.
Therefore, set your Gain or Trim controls first and remember, you are looking for a good consistent signal which does not clip into the red on your interface. Ideally, play some louder passages and whether its a keyboard, your voice or a guitar, you are looking to make sure your loudest volume, doesn’t push anything into the red on your input metering.
Once you have this, then use your channel volume in your DAW to get a more appropriate level for mixing and listening back with.
Getting a great signal isn’t hard, but it is worth doing every time when you are recording anything into your DAW and with a little practise it becomes second nature.
Recording for Beginners Series
I’ll be covering more recording tips for beginners over the coming months. If you have any questions or suggestions for new topics, or if you would just like some advice feel free to contact me via the site.