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Clip with care!

Why clipping is a useful part of the recording process, but why it should be done with care. After all, it is one of the 'voodoo arts' of recording.

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One of the great taboos of recording is that red lights are BAD. If your recording goes into the red, then it is bound to be distorted and sound terrible.

Some people of course see a red light as a challenge. It probably comes from their earlier experiences with cassette decks where the red lights are often too sensitive, to protect amateur recordists from 'danger'.

In reality, when you see a red light on your pro equipment, it means that your recording is clipped - the very top of the waveform is sheared off producing some distortion. The usual advice is that red lights are to be avoided, particularly with digital equipment. This is good advice, especially for those who have not yet acquired the skill of hearing technical faults instinctively, before it is too late to correct them.

But a little bit of clipping doesn't necessarily sound all that bad. Clipping can be a useful means of gaining a little extra subjective loudness when the level is already maxed out. Top mastering engineers use clipping as a means of getting a loud sound on vinyl or CD, in conjunction with a number of other 'voodoo' arts. If you compare a commercially released CD with a recording that is as yet unmastered, the CD will sound very much louder, even if both recordings peak right to the top of the scale.

But you have to listen carefully to what you are doing. A little bit of clipping can give you a louder sound with little penalty in terms of quality. Take it too far and no-one else will want to listen to your recording. And the 'too far' point can come very quickly. Don't expect to gain more than a dB or two.

The moral of the story is that if clipping is good enough for the great mastering engineers, then it is good enough for anyone. But don't forget to clip with care - and remember to make a clean version of your mix. Clipping cannot be undone.

By David Mellor Monday January 9, 2006
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