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How to set gain for field recording

How to Set Gain Levels For Field Recording

One question I’ve been asked a lot recently is what the best gain levels are for field recording, especially for capturing nature sounds. When I first started out with field recording back in 2017, I had the same doubts and questions as you so let’s dive into the world of gain settings.

Theory vs Practice: Learning the Best Gain Levels for Field Recording

After doing lots of research, I found that the theory is one thing, but the practice is another. Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours recording sounds in various environments, and one thing I can tell you is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to gain levels. Every day and every situation is different, so it’s a fun learning process to figure out what works best for you.

In general, when I’m in a quiet forest or other natural settings, I monitor the gain levels on my recorder and aim to keep them between -50 dB and -20 dB. I don’t “force” the audio into the recorder by cranking up the gain to -10 dB because that can generate unwanted noise and ruin the recording. Instead, I listen carefully to my surroundings and adjust the gain until I hear the natural sounds I want to capture without any added noise or distortion.

how to set gain for field recording

Finding the Right Gain Levels for Noisy Environments

When it comes to recording loud sounds like sound effects or ambience in noisy environments like a busy city, I try to stay below -6dB or -3dB at the top during the recording. This gives me enough headroom to work with in post-production, without risking distortion or other issues.

Of course, there are always exceptions and unpredictable elements to contend with, like a motorcycle suddenly roaring by during an otherwise quiet recording. In those cases, I try to be flexible and start a new recording or make a note to process the file later, depending on the situation.

Pig Oink Sound Effects

Understanding Gain and its Effects on Recordings

Gain is like turning up the volume on your recorder when you want to make something louder. Just like turning up the volume on your TV or radio makes the sound louder, turning up the gain for your microphone makes the sound louder too.

But if you turn up the gain too much, it can create some problems. It can make the sound too loud and distorted, like when someone screams into a microphone. So it’s important to find the right balance and not turn up the gain too much. Overall, gain helps us make recordings sound just right so that we can hear everything clearly and without any unwanted noise.

I always try to keep the gain level as low as possible without compromising the quality of the recording. This helps to minimize unwanted noise or unexpected distortion when using a 24-bit recorder.

I remember this one time when a sound engineer told me that my recordings weren’t “hot” enough. But you know what? I’m cool with that. Besides, who wants to be scorching hot all the time anyway? Keep it cool, folks!

Sony PCM D100

Experimenting with Gain Levels

Having a theoretical understanding of gain levels is crucial, especially for beginners. However, it’s also important to use the best indicator to set your gain and to trust your ears to determine what sounds good to you. Ultimately, finding the right gain levels for your specific recording situation requires some experimentation. Listening carefully to your surroundings, being mindful of the gain levels, and making adjustments until you find the optimal level are all important steps in creating high-quality recordings.

It’s worth noting that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to gain levels in field recording. Every recording situation is different, so it’s important to be patient and enjoy the learning process. With some practice and experimentation, you’ll be able to find the gain levels that work best for you and create amazing field recordings.

how to set gain for field recording 32 bit

I have a 32-bit recorder. Does this mean I don't need to care about gain settings anymore?

Don’t be deceived by the idea that a 32-bit recorder is a cure-all. While it’s true that a 32-bit recorder has a much wider dynamic range than a 24-bit recorder, it doesn’t mean those gain settings are no longer a concern. It’s still crucial to set appropriate gain levels for your specific recording situation.

Even with a 32-bit recorder, you can still introduce unwanted noise if the gain levels are set too high. Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind the Sound Pressure Level (SPL) of your microphone, which can cause distortion if the signal is higher than what the microphone can handle. In such cases, you may end up with a clipped 32-bit recording.

how to set gain for field recording zoom f3

I have a Zoom F3 and can't set the gain. Is this good?

If you’re the owner of a Zoom F3, you’ve got a great piece of equipment in your hands. But if you don’t know how to set the gain, you might not be understanding what the levels on the display actually mean.

Proper gain settings are crucial to achieving high-quality audio, and if you don’t know how to set them, you’re limiting yourself and the gear you’re using.

It’s like driving a sports car only in automatic. And if you encounter any issues during field recording with your F3, you might not be able to troubleshoot effectively, especially if you have to switch to another device with only manual gain settings.

Gear I mentioned

Is there a way to avoid noise

If you’re struggling with self-noise on your recording device or microphones, don’t worry, there are solutions that won’t break the bank. While high-end setups like Sound Devices and Schoeps microphones can cost almost $10,000, there are other options available. One way to reduce self-noise without purchasing new gear is to use a preamplifier, which can boost the gain without introducing additional noise.

Companies like Triton FetHead offer affordable preamplifiers that can be a great option for those on a budget. With this simple addition to your recording setup, you can achieve the desired gain levels without compromising the quality of your recordings.

When we were in Japan, we picked up the FetHead and decided to make a video about it. But be careful when choosing which version to buy because there are different options available! If you’re using a microphone that needs phantom power, make sure to get the FetHead version with phantom power. But if you’re using something like the Geofon or a contact microphone that doesn’t require phantom power, then you’ll want to choose the version without phantom power. Don’t get them mixed up!


Don’t let a lack of understanding of gain settings hold you back from achieving greatness as a field recordist. Take the time to learn how to set the gain on your device, and you’ll be able to master every audio recorder out there. You might even impress your fellow field recordists with your newfound knowledge.

It’s important to note that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to gain levels in field recording. Each recording situation is unique, so it’s crucial to be patient and enjoy the learning process. With some practice and experimentation, you’ll be able to find the gain levels that work best for you and create amazing field recordings. Just remember to stay away at least -1db from 0. ☺️

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About Us

Who would have thought a handy sound recorder in Cambodia would lead us here?

Hi there we’re Marcel and Libby and every sound on this site has been recorded by us. For nearly 7 years, we’ve been traveling around the world recording unique sounds for others to use! 

If you’re curious and want to learn more about our journey traveling full-time as sound recordists you can read on here or on CNN Travel.

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