I have worked on mixing average sounding source material and found getting a good mix requires a lot of work when compared to working on well recorded material.
Getting it right at the source is paramount and should always be your first priority before hitting the record button!
When material is well recorded there are two things that stand out:
- Signal to noise ratio’s tend to be better meaning less noise on the individual tracks.
- Clipping is not an issues as the preamp balance has been properly setup before recording.
Let me explain the two points above in more detail.
Signal to noise ratio (SNR) is how much noise there is in a recording in relation to actual signal level. If you record too quietly by not having the preamp level turned up enough you will capture almost as much floor noise as actual signal, not good. You want to have a strong enough signal that noise isn’t very noticeable. All devices like microphones, preamp and anything that outputs a signal with have some noise it’s just the nature of recording. Balancing out the signal and noise makes for a much cleaner signal to work with.
Now clipping is another issue. Record too hot and although your signal will outweigh overall noise you can risk clipping on louder parts. For instance a singer who is very dynamic (with a lot of quiet then loud parts) could sound great until they really belt out a note and then clip the waveform introducing distortion into the sound.
My general rule of thumb to balance preamp signal is to monitor the signal in my DAW with the track meters. I try and make sure that at maximum loudness it never peaks over roughly about 50% on the meter. This way I get a good strong signal, decent SNR and plenty of headroom for the louder parts without the signal hitting 0dbfs and clipping.
Look at this illustration on a clipped signal vs a signal with no clipping, note the headroom available on the unclipped signal:
If you stick to the above rule you will find audio much easier to handle when processing with say a compressor and easier to mix in the long run.
Take as much time as you can initially monitoring and adjusting recording levels before starting. Record a clip with quieter and louder passages and check for 1, noise and 2, clipping. If you have little noise and no clipping you are good to go.
I hope this helps with your next recording session.