Keep The Faders At Zero

Daily Blog - June 9th 2021

What does your song sound like if you bypass the plugins and put all the faders at zero? Hopefully like a well balanced rough mix! Here's how.

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Treat your preamp gain (the mic input on your interface) like a volume knob

There's absolutely no need to record super hot levels. As long as you're recording in 24 bit, the noise floor will be so low, that you could record crazy quiet, like -50 dB, turn it up digitally after the fact and you wouldn't have a problem. 

In fact, the noise floor will be higher, and potentially audible, if you turn the mic preamp gain up a lot on a cheap interface. Those budget preamps tend to get pretty noisy at a certain point.

Why am I telling you this?

Because for some reason many people still seem to be trying to get as close to zero as possible on every track when they record, instead of focussing on a great balance from the beginning.

It's very rare that I can just throw the faders up and be like "this sounds awesome!" I typically have to create a rough balance first, making pretty drastic moves, before I can even listen to the song.

This is the norm, but there is a much better approach that solves so many problems, prevents issues down the road and lets you focus on what's really important. Not on noise floor and levels.

Record your source tones at the correct level. It's as simple as that. Your ears and taste will tell you what "correct" is. You simply balance your rough mix, as you record it.

What to do step by step:

  1. You start with setting the level for the first element of the song you're recording, for example a kick drum. Set the fader to zero and turn up the mic pre (interface input) until you hear it clearly at a reasonable monitoring volume. Leave plenty of headroom, so that you can add more tracks later without overloading the master output/fader of your DAW. Peaks as low as -15dB or -20dB are perfectly fine.
  2. Then set levels on the next input, for example a snare drum mic. Again, set the fader in your DAW to zero and adjust the input gain, so that the relationship between the kick and snare sounds right to you. It doesn't matter what the meter says and if you started low enough with the kick, you shouldn't have any clipping problems.
  3. Then set the levels for the other drums, the bass, the guitars, keys, vocals, etc. accordingly. Leave all the faders at zero and simply adjust each track's volume with the mic gain knob as you keep adding things. Use the pan knob in your DAW to find the right spot in the stereo image and if something is being masked, solve the issue at the source (mic choice, mic position, strings, drum heads, etc.), instead of just turning it up super loud and throwing the balance off.

You will find that at some point you'll want to adjust something and reach for the fader. Don't do that! Insert a simple gain plugin instead or use clip gain to bring the track's volume up or down.

When you're done recording, commit and consolidate the best takes and any clip gain moves you made, keep the faders at zero, check the panning, hit play and... there you have your rough mix!

Some tracks will need to be recorded super quietly, others pretty loud and that's totally fine! It's just important to start low enough with the first track to not overload and clip the master output.

These are only some of the advantages of this approach:

  • You can very quickly recall and play your rough mix if you screw up along the way. Faders at zero, and let's go again!
  • You can easily export all your tracks and send them to someone else without having to worry about levels and clipping.
  • Collaborators can easily listen to your rough mix and have a great starting point for additional recordings, mixing, etc. Import, faders at zero, there you go!
  • Fader resolution is best around zero. So when it comes time to mix, you can make subtle moves and fader rides. You can go in 0.1 dB increments if you need to. Further down on the fader you might be turning up or down 1-2 dB at a time making the exact same move.
  • It makes it very unlikely to cause unintentional clipping during recording. Again, no need to record super hot.
  • You'll have healthy levels and an easier time gain staging properly in your DAW. So your plugins won't distort unintentionally. You can always turn the level up or down from one plugin to another, as long as the last plugin in the chain brings the level back to where it was without plugins.
  • You'll have to listen carefully and make tone decisions carefully, as you record. You'll notice issues quickly and whenever you're having a hard time finding the right level for something, maybe the source tone isn't right. Or it's being masked by something else and you need to fix that. If your levels are all over the place during recording, you can easily miss problems like that.
  • You'll hear your song come together as you go and always have a reference point. If you're not changing levels a lot, but are listening to a consistent level, adding one thing after the other, you'll get a great feel for the overall balance and vibe very quickly.

Try this next time you record and let me know how it went!


PS: I often post videos to these daily blog posts in my Instagram Stories: @benedikthain

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