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Old 11-07-2010, 07:50 PM   #21
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Originally Posted by kelp View Post
OK, I'm losing my grasp here (again)...There's a subtext there that no matter what the input, having lower track levels will make the final mix "better."...
No, sorry for the confusion.

The subtext is that keeping lower levels throughout MIGHT make the final mix better, IF one or more things in your signal chain are either not being metered correctly by the digital meters, OR if they are not really capable of being accurately-metered by digital peak meters.

Just to clarify, there is nothing wrong with REAPER's metering (or if there is something wrong with it, it's not what we're talking about here). And REAPER has, for all sane purposes, infinite clean gain, up and down. Same applies to all major DAWs in current use, slightly excepting ProTools HD.

So we're not talking about some kind of across-the-board improvement or degradation that happens as a result of some magic digital gain level.

What we are talking about is a host of potential opportunities that occur for distortion/clipping that never shows up on digital meters, due to the nature of digital peak meters and the sorts of things that they can and cannot detect/measure.

The most obvious example (what Lawrence is talking about) comes from the fact that there is no such thing as a true "all digital" signal path. Even if your record consists entirely of digital synthesizers, something has to happen before you can hear it through the speakers or headphones. There is a stage between the computer and your speakers where that digital is converted to analog. If you are recording some "real" instruments or voices as well, then there is a corresponding stage on the input between your mic/preamp/whatever, where the still-analog signal is "prepped" for conversion to digital. This stage is NOT just a straight wire, and most people have no metering at all to tell them what is happening.

REAPER will accurately tell you what is happening AFTER the signal has been converted to numbers, but it cannot tell what happens on the way in, or the way out. If your input or output converters are overloaded, distorting, triggering overload protection, experiencing inter-sample clipping on conversion, or distorting the cutoff filters, you have no way of knowing it (other than by careful listening comparisons at various gain levels, not something most people do when they are trying to record a second rhythm guitar track with drums, bass, other guitars, and synthesizers all playing back).

The second type of ugliness, the type than can occur INSIDE the digital system, happens once you've realized that, man, this guitar track (or whatever) sounds brittle and ugly and "digital". So you start running it through all your tube-ifiers and tape-ifiers and magical analog emulation plugins that are supposed to deliver smooth, "saturated" harmonic distortion, just like a real magic box. Problem is, they all sound like cheap digital distortion, and you're sitting there thinking you need new mics or preamps or better magic plugins...

Well hold up there, cowboy. What average signal level is the original "magic box" supposed to run at? 1 volt? Now, what is the equivalent input level of your guitar track (or whatever) that you're trying to "smooth out" by running through it? 9.5 volts? So the processor is doing exactly what it's supposed to do: it's distorting. And you're now trying to fix distortion with more distortion.

At this point, somebody's probably raising their hand and saying, "but I use a POD set to British Funk, which is the same preset Chris Lord-Alge uses, and it's all run through hand-made, solid-gold converters made by a guy so esoteric that NASA has deleted his name from Google. Also I have a book that says you should record to digital as high as possible before clipping. Surely my recordings can't sound bad...?"

Well, yeah. Whatever. good luck with that. This advice is for people who are NOT already happy with the quality of their digital sound, or who think there might be room for it to sound better. If you have the ability, time, and sufficient documentation to read through and suss out the analog and digital topology of your entire signal path, then you probably should. That's how the old analog guys did it. Maybe everything is perfect and recording at lower levels is pointless.

But if you'd prefer to hedge your bets, my advice is to track at lower levels (say, maybe -20 average, -10 peak, or thereabouts), and then KEEP your levels there throughout the digital and analog signal chain. And based solely on the complexity of most multitrack DAW projects, I'll bet that you start getting better overall mixes, since it's probable that at least something, somewhere in your signal path doesn't like being pushed to max at all times.

If nothing else, it at least makes it easier to mix, since you can just throw up all the faders to zero and still have headroom to work with, as opposed to constantly having to crank down the master fader and/or re-mix every time you add new processing.

Last edited by yep; 11-07-2010 at 08:04 PM.
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