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Hello,

I am new to field recording and had some questions pertaining to gain staging for recording sound effects and ambience.

What is the recommended desired input level for both sound effects and ambience? In other words, what level should I be aiming for when recording. Right now I aim for around -6 to -3dB on the peaks, I've been told this is rather hot however I feel that anything much below this is surely too quiet and would require a lot of undesirable processing in a DAW to get to a good hearing level.

I imagine the desired input can vary depending on the nature of the sound, but if anyone could provide some appropriate guidelines or 'rules of thumb' it would be greatly appreciated.

Thanks and kind regards, Ty

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Everyone has a different approach, and you'll probably hear a few of them from other folks on this site. The one common thing you'll hear, is that there is no rule that applies in every situation. What gear are you using? What's your sound source? Where is the mic positioned? How will the sound be used once you get it back into the studio? What type of sound is it (transient, drone, etc.)? The answers to all of these questions (plus a few others) will dictate how you set your levels.

Personally, I frequently record sounds at the level I expect to use them in my projects and mixes. I use the tone generator in my recorder (1 kHZ at -20dBFS) to give myself a reference over my headphones prior to adjusting gain levels. It's a basic method for calibrating your gear out in the field...and you should always work under the tightest calibration you can (in the field or studio). There's no point in recording foley sounds or ambiences with peaks of -3 or -6 dBFS. That's not how I'm going to use them in my mixes. For sources that are really loud, I may want to let some distortion into the recording. It can give the sound a unique character (provided it's not overbearing), or the distortion could be of such a short duration that it is virtually undetectable (this can happen with transient sounds, giving you a better recorded signal for the tail out). I don't do it all the time. I make that judgement in the moment.

I know you're looking for a few simple guidelines, but the kind you're looking for don't really exist. There are no magic numbers that will work in a majority of situations. You have to think when you're recording. So, the rule is to ask yourself questions:

  1. How am I (or someone else) going to use this sound?
  2. Does it have the right sonic character for that use?
  3. Does it sound good?
  4. Is the signal as clean as I can get it in this situation?

Use your ears, answer those questions, and you'll be making great recordings in no time.

  • @Shaun Thanks for the fast and detailed response. Would you say that there is any rough guide for how high the average amplitude should be in the final result (after processing) for sound effects and foley? I imagine this varies based upon the nature of the sound, but if you could give any examples it would help give me an idea what is appropriate. Thanks and kind regards! – user5573 Dec 23 '12 at 12:01
  • @Ty - I tend to apply similar rules when I'm mastering sound effects. The biggest thing I try to do is preserve the dynamic range that was recorded. Unless I'm designing a specific sound, I'd prefer to have the flexibility that the sound's natural dynamics provide. As you guessed, it really depends on the nature of the sound. – Shaun Farley Dec 27 '12 at 22:48
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IMO:

rule 1 is to leave enough headroom, and err on the side of leaving too much rather than too little. 24 bit recording allows us to add back 20 or 30 db of gain in post with little to no damage done. This means that look at your peaks and make sure that you have enough room to record something unexpected and louder than your current setting.

rule 2 is to record something as close to the level that it will be used in a final product as possible. this means ambiances are recorded pretty quietly, and most other things are recorded at a moderate to loud level. Rule 1 overrides rule 2.

stick to those in the field and you can master your sfx after the fact using limiters or edits to put them into closer adherence to rule 2 alone.

  • @Rene Thanks for the response. Looking at what you've written, am I correct in saying that it is typical to aim for a strong input signal with the good S/N ratio, perhaps around -12dB for a medium to loud sound effect and if further gain is required, this is then added in a DAW? – user5573 Dec 23 '12 at 12:01

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