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I'm trying to create a simple recording of my electronic keyboard. It has a 1/4" stereo output, and I've connected that into my computer's microphone/line-in jack. I only have a few questions:

  • Should I worry about the possibility of the signal "overpowering" my computer's input? How do I protect it against that?
  • What should I do to prevent digital distortion?
  • Where should I set volume highest - on my keyboard, or in my DAW/recording software? How should I balance the two to prevent noise and "overpowering"?
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The signal levels generated by most keyboards should not be enough to damage the microphone/line-in jack when plugged in directly. However, I do recommend you not turn the keyboard up past the point where it begins to distort just to make sure.

To get the best recording level, First set the volume on the keyboard as high as possible without causing distortion or excess noise. On my keyboard, the levels are low enough that I can turn the volume up all the way without distortion, but at about half volume, I start to get a lot of noise. Because of this, I usually leave the volume at about 5 or 6.

From there adjust the level in your DAW. See this answer for a good explanation of digital distortion and how to avoid it. To get the level, I usually just hit a few keys here and there to get the initial levels, then play a bit of a song that tends to be fairly loud to do the fine tuning.

If you find that the noise levels in your recordings is still unacceptable, you may need to invest in a recording interface, as the built in sound card on most computers are very noisy.

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I'm just going to answer the levels part of this question, as you computer should be able to handle a LINE level signal to the LINE IN plug, but I can't be certain without knowing the hardware.

Best practice in setting levels is to turn every right down, then plug it in.

Set you instrument to 75% (rule of thumb) and your input gain to 75% (or unity gain).

[note: depending on you instrument it may have a different tone at different volumes, as such you may want to use a volume quieter or louder than 75%, if you do you need to accomodate it with more or less gain.]

Play as loud as you will when you will record and set the level to be hitting around -12db. I say around, as the number in not entirely important, but its a good point to aim for.

You will play louder when you record than when you soundcheck. If you first take clips (distorts) at any point either adjust your performance or adjust the gain (input level).

You ultimate goal with gain is to get as hot (loud) a signal as possible before distortion. This helps increase the signal to noise ratio. All gear inherently has a noise floor, which is where the electronic noise sits. Generally it is low enough that when properly recorded over it is inaudible.

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