Without a doubt the biggest problem I see with tracks that people send me is volume. I’m constantly turning things down. In rock n roll it’s been said time and again that louder is better. That may (or may not in my opinion) be true on stage, but it’s certainly not true in the studio. If your input signal is too loud you run the risk of clipping. That’s never good. If it’s too low, you run the risk of introducing too much DC offset noise or too much noise from the A/D converters while trying to get the volume back up where it needs to be.
We can avoid this issue by remembering our gain staging. Gain staging is the concept that your signal is going to pass through more that one volume boost before it hits the output and planning for this fact. Therefore leaving enough headroom becomes very important. Take a second to think about how many times the volume can be boosted in typical channel strip. This is before you even get to your inserts. As soon as the signal hits the preamp there’s a boost. Then (at least in my typical signal chain) in goes to an EQ. As soon as you turn the first knob above unity you have another boost. Then it’s off to the compressor. The one I usually use has automatic makeup gain. Boom, another boost. From here it can go to an insert that will more than likely add volume somewhere within the frequency spectrum just by applying it’s intended effect. Another boost. Often time the signal is also sent to an FX bus as well. Yet another boost. You’ll probably have an EQ, a compressor and some sort of saturation plugin on the stereo bus. Potentially three more boosts. Then there’s the limiter. I think you get the picture.
Let’s say that we just described a guitar channel. That’s three stages of gain just in the channel strip. Now I might insert an amp emulator and a compressor emulator. That’s two more stages. I’m also going to probably send it to the delay bus. Then both signals with hit the stereo bus with its stages. If we don’t control our original input signal, we’ll end up a guitar that sounds like garbage.
So where do we need to be? As a rule of thumb, I like to track my instruments and vocals at about -12 dB. This may sound like a ridiculously low volume to some but we just saw how many times the signal is going to be amplified from this point. -12 dB seems to be the magic number for me. At that volume, I can do just about whatever I want to the signal and not have to worry about the pitfalls of ignoring my gain staging.
Try it out. I’ll bet that you find that you tracks are much easier to control and unwanted noise is minimized.