What level should you record to? Well the answer is in the meters of your DAW. For instance, Pro Tools has green lights up to around -13 dBFS or so, canary yellow up to -3 dBFS, golden-yellow over that. And right at the top there is a single red.
Clearly the inference is that you should aim to be in the golden zone, in other words peaking above -3 dBFS. This would accord with the philosophy of digital recording that best performance is achieved when the signal level is as high as possible, without clipping of course.
In reality however, as long as your signal is bobbing up and down in the canary yellow zone in a 24-bit recording, then it is perfectly OK for all practical purposes. It will save you time being over-finicky in level setting, and it will also allow headroom for any unexpected peaks.
However at Audio Masterclass and Audio Masterclass we often get sent material that doesn't even hit -20 dBFS, ever. Plainly, that is far too low. An original recording needs at least touching the yellow.
While recording in the yellow zone is fine and has certain benefits, when you create a piece of finished work for a client, they will expect its level to be of what I could call the 'normally expected level'.
In other words it should be comparable in level to other commonly-found audio produced by professionals.
If you are recording music in a genre that is normally put through the volume-maximizing mastering process, then you need to peak right at the top... 0 dBFS.
For any other kind of audio, if it peaks somewhere around -2 dBFS, then it will be fine. Any lower than -6 dBFS and it's starting to sound a little on the quiet side in comparison with everything else.
As we can see therefore, there can be a difference between the levels that are good for recording, and the levels that are good for finished work. Finished work must fulfill the client's expectations. And a client that doesn't have their expectations fulfilled will go somewhere else to have the work done.
If you are recording for a radio or TV broadcaster, they may have formal standards. Find out what they are and stick to them.
There is another point to bear in mind if you are an audio perfectionist...
It is possible for levels above 0 dBFS to be created in a digital-to-analog converter, at the listener's end of the chain. This is fine, except for those converters that can't handle these so-called intersample peaks.
In this case you would regard around -3 dBFS as your peak level for final output. Or equip yourself with an intersample peak meter.
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