Hey guys,

I guess I'm a little confused about the use of Normalization in Field and FX recordings. I just read Rick Viers book "The Sound FX Bible" and he briefly mentions the use of Normalization when editing your new recordings.

This makes sense because as you're searching through your library, if all your sounds are around the same level you don't have super quiet sounds that you turn up the volume for, then a really loud sound that blast you away right after.

My question is what is Normalization really? Is it simply a gain adjustment that sets your peaks at a predetermined level?

And when I do normalize a recording i generally get 1,000 times more noise and hiss in the recording. Am I doing something horribly wrong?? Am I misunderstanding the process?


6 Answers 6


Wiki explains normalization here.

I'm not a big fan of normalizing while mastering sfx. I find a lot of commercial sfx libraries are mastered way too hot, especially when I am previewing them in a room calibrated at 79db or 85 db reference level (standard listening levels for TV and Film mixing). There's this belief amongst some that louder sfx are more professional sounding. I'd prefer to hear sounds closer to the level you'd hear them in the real world.

It makes sense for a huge explosion to be peaking out around 0dBfs, but not a floor creak or rustling leaves. If a subtle sfx is mastered too hot, you usually end up pushing it down in the mix anyway. And yes, normalizing quieter sounds will bring up the ambient noise floor, preamp hiss, and mic noise in a recording.

I prefer to master my sfx in a calibrated room. Loud sounds, bangs, explosions, large impacts etc. often will hit a little limiting and peak out a little under 0dBfs, but other subtle sounds I will master at half that level or less. Think about how your sounds will play in a mix, and what level they are in the real world. There's no need to bring up quiet sounds to the level of louder ones, especially when you'll end up pushing them down again anyway. When was the last time you heard rustling leaves as loud as a jet engine? I recommend building some natural dynamics into your library if you can.

  • I was going to ask "what is half of 0 dBFS?" - thinking I was being cheeky.... But... maybe it's a legitimate question. Are you considering half of 0 dBFS to be -6 dBFS?
    – MtL
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 23:45
  • @Justin Rocking the -45 dB gain adjustment on commercial FX spotted into the session eh? ;) Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 0:21
  • To clarify, I am not being technical and referring to digital metering when I say "half" here... I am referring to perceived loudness in a calibrated room. I do most of my work in a nearfield room at -20dBFS = 79dB SPL and, like most mixers, use my ears to get mastered sfx levels in the rough ballpark (erring on the louder side) of where they'd play in a mix.
    – Justin P
    Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 0:37
  • @Justin Hey Justin, I'd like to ask you an unrelated question about room calibrations. I still couldn't be more confused about it. For instance, I attempted to calibrate my soundproof room to 85db but it was BLARING LOUD. So I'm doing sound design for a short now, and it's being mixed by a pro mixer. I had to drop my room to 78db so what do I need to do to hand it over to the mixer @ 85db ? I guess I don't understand what to do if you can't calibrate your room to 85... Thanks!!
    – Jake
    Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 16:39
  • 1
    I recommend reading the sticky called "New Updated Room Calibration for TV and Post" here: duc.avid.com/forumdisplay.php?f=8 Long story short, it depends on the space you are mixing in. A large, theater sized dub stage has a lot more air between the speakers and the mix position, so they are calibrated at 85db. A smaller, nearfield cutting room, is more likely to be set at somewhere between 79-82db SPL. It's all a matter of learning your room and how it translates. 85 in a small room is really loud, hence my complaints about overly loud sfx that sound smashed through a limiter.
    – Justin P
    Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 17:28

Sounds like your problem is the signal to noise ratio in your field recordings.

Normalization is the process of scanning your file for the highest value (peak or RMS, depending on your selection) and assigning it to the new value that you have determined. In turn, the same increase is applied to the rest of your file. So for example, if you have a door slam that peaks at -10dB, and you normalize that file to -2.0dB, every sound in that file will increase by 8dB, including your noise floor. Not such a massive deal breaker if your peak is at -10dB and your noise floor lies down in the -60's, -50's. But if your peak is hovering around -30, -20? That's a big jump in perceivable difference, both in signal and noise.

As a concept, I understand Ric's position. I have suffered from being blasted by gunshots after auditioning quiet countryside winds. But in practice, I disagree with his stance. I don't want my gunshots to be as quiet as a countryside wind, nor do I want my wind as loud as a gunshot.

It's been a while since I read my "Bible" but in re-reading your post and thinking about the logic behind it, perhaps his intent was to normalize similar sounds from an individual recording session. So, for example, if I do 3 sessions of a blender, a toaster, and handling flatware, I could see the wisdom in normalizing all my blender recordings similarly, all my toaster recordings similarly, all my flatware recordings similarly... but I digress.

The main concept (one that we're all constantly chasing) is to have sufficient enough recording levels and mic placement so that you don't need to normalize your recordings after the fact.

  • +1 I fully agree with you. I like to master FX to somewhere between the -12 to -18 range, maybe a little hotter if it's Foley and quiet FX. Hardly ever to I hit near to the top unless it's an extreme percussive. Ambience mastered about the same, only so that I can see a robust enough visual waveform in Soundminer, as I've found mastering way too low results in such a near-flatline waveform that it's hard to find what I need in the file before spotting it. Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 0:18
  • Good point about the ambience waveform. I've been living in a maxed-out vertical zoom world lately. Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 8:06
  • @Steve that makes a tone of sense. And I agree, I'm sure he meant similar recordings. He also mentions normalizing around -18 like Stravrosound does. You're 100% correct about my problem too. I'm recording on a Zoom H4n, and the noise floor above 40 is ridiculous. I'm saving for a Fostex FR2-LE. And I currently use a Sen 416 or Oktava 012 for a mic.
    – Jake
    Commented Jul 11, 2012 at 16:30
  • @Steve Sort of funny, I've been on Soundminer's case for a while no about adding preferences to the HD version to allow the user to set a default zoom modifier (so instead of 1.0 we can set something like 2.0+ so we never have 'empty' waveforms). Alas, it hasn't been added yet. Hopefully soon - I'd prefer running a higher zoom as default. Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 8:15

I'm not a fan of normalization at all. In theory, it could be a useful tool, but I've yet to find a situation where it was truly useful. When you normalize files, you merely take the loudest sound and adjust the overall amplitude of the file to make that loudest sound match the dB level (or percentage) you specified. The result is a ton of files that have levels all over the map. All your soft sounds are now very, very loud, and all the loud sounds are very, very soft.

You're better off performing a batch gain change across a bin of files, engaging a brick wall limiter for anything that is going to exceed -0.1 dBFS.

  • I agree, although disagree about batch gaining against a brickwall - I personally feel part of proper sound effects mastering is to evaluate all material and tweak accordingly to fully maximize what you can from the source. For me I manually print each and every effect and determine manually what the output gain is going to be. Commented Jul 13, 2012 at 8:11
  • I tend to agree, but deadlines and quantity of files determines otherwise. When I'm mastering a set of dialogue, we are talking thousands of files, many of which are already hitting around -3dBFS. If I need to bring the entire set up +9 dB, I don't have time to do it any other way. Is it ideal? No. But production deadlines mean that shortcuts are sometimes the reality.
    – Jory
    Commented Jul 18, 2012 at 16:08

If you are going to use normalization, only use it for searching/indexing and locating a particular sound. Do not normalize the original or raw material. The main reason for this is that once you normalize the audio, you burn in all the sampling artifacts, noise and harmonic distortion that goes on at the low end of the bit-resolution spectrum. Adding digital gain to this stuff simply makes all the noise louder - along with your desired signal.

If you are recording very quiet effects, simply ride the analogue input gain to get as much signal to noise ratio as possible during the initial recording phase. That way, you can make the effect quieter when you use it in post and you don't have to deal with all the nasty sampling artifacts.

Recording with more gain and attenuating in post is fine, but not the other way around.


Most of the time i´m "normalizing" my sound fx somewhere around -6dB and ambiences and stuff around -12, -18dB.But it depends on the stuff i recorded. If it is tooo quiet, like, let´s say....an empty room, normalizing will really increase the noise too much.


If you record at a proper level and take measures to minimize ambient noise, then you'll have no problem pumping up the volume later. When I'm in the field, I make sure the sounds I record have a healthy readout and adjust the input gain on my recorder until I can sustain a healthy level, but also while keeping it very low - it also depends on the depth of your device, whether its 16 or 24 bit. Then, implied sounds come in...say you want to record something but don't have an example in real life, well, it's better to take a bunch of sounds from around your house and combine them to realize the vision, rather than walk into a crowded, noisy supermarket and record that sliding door. I use the LUFS scale for mastering. And when I'm done EQing, reducing noise, messing with the pitch (Be careful when combining sounds that have had pitch changes - try and change them evenly in relation to each other; 1 semitone to 2 semitones, 2 to 4, etc.) then I slap it in the game. It's better to have to turn a sound down in the game editor than have to crank it up!

Some tips:

Try and record a sound at the lowest level possible while not dipping below the noise floor so that when you pump it up later, it will still have headroom and it won't "Smash" into your limiter - preserve transients. Sometimes, certain sounds sound alright with a teeny bit of smahing, like explosions, some gunshots and the like.

Go to Youtube, find a blockbuster film or gameplay footage from a AAA, turn the volume slider all the way up, then adjust your speakers to a comfortable volume. Then, go back into your game editor and you'll have a more accurate personal way to monitor your sounds when they all come together in a game world.

When recording firearms, stay as close to the gun as safely possible while keeping your gain way down until the firing of the weapon no longer clips the device and you get to at least -18dBFS peak per shot. this will ensure the most realistic "First-Person" weapon sound. Hold the device in the same direction the barrel of the gun is facing. If you're recording an AK, keep on the left side of the shooter to avoid being hit with the casings.

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