Hot Signals and Clipping can be a common recording issue people face. It’s likely that you’re recording levels are too loud, and may not be aware. If you’ve got your levels too high during tracking, you’re going to run into a lot of problems during mixing and mastering. I’m going to explain first why this is an issue, and then how you can make sure you’re doing it properly.
Why am I having Hot Signals and Clipping issues
Keep in mind that tracking too loud isn’t something that can be fixed simply by turning down the fader later. If your trim level (input volume) is too high while you’re tracking, your signal is being distorted as it happens. That means that you’re introducing a buzzy rattling sound into your track, which usually can’t be fixed by simply mixing or EQing. In recording, we refer to this effect as clipping. Unlike with toenails or hedges, clipping isn’t a good thing when we’re talking about audio.
But I Want It LOUD
I know. I know you want it loud. It’s important to keep in mind that the overall volume of a mix won’t be finalized until the mastering stage; the last stage of production. Your priority during tracking should be clarity. Make sure that your instrument sounds as clear as possible while you’re recording it. This is usually achieved by keeping your input levels (on the instrument itself, and on the board or pre-amp, and again on the onscreen mixer, if you’re using a digital audio workstation) nice and low. Then later, you can turn the recorded track up to where you want it in your mix. If you need to hear it louder, turn only your speakers up.
Watch Your Levels
While you’re tracking an instrument (or voice), keep an eye on your VU meter. Sometimes, these are little needles that move when you increase the volume, like the gas gauge on your car. Other times, it’s a digital bar that grows with volume, sometimes turning from green to yellow to red, as your volume gets louder. You don’t want to max this out while you’re tracking. If you’re using a DAW, you’ll notice that if your sound ‘peaks’ by hitting the red, a little red light will stay on. This is letting you know that your sound has distorted. Go back and do it again, with your input levels turned down. You don’t want clipped tracks.
Go back and listen to your favorite Nirvana song. It was tracked quieter than you think it was. The level boost came in the mastering stage. I promise.
PS: Your Drummer is a Liar
Look, I’m sure your drummer’s a pretty nice guy (or girl). But when you ask him to play the song you’re about to track, he’s going to play it a lot quieter than he will during the real take. This is a 100% guarantee. Anticipate this, and turn the drum mic levels down quieter than you think you need to. Otherwise, your drum track is going to sound like it’s tearing a speaker, even at low volumes. This is going to frustrate you during the mixing stage. Don’t let your drummer trick you. He’s going to pound those skins once you’re rolling. In the words of President George W. Bush: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me… you can’t get fooled again.” He was talking about your drummer.
You’re not alone. Everyone has these issues when they start recording, and if no one points it out to them, they’ll keep doing things the same way, while growing frustrated and disillusioned with recording. Don’t sweat! Every time you realize you’ve been making a mistake, you get better! Look at how far you’ve come!