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How To Set Gain Levels For Field Recording

One question I’ve been getting asked more and more lately is how and what are the best gain levels for field recording.

This is a question, I don’t have a clear answer but I’m happy to explain it in this blog post and video.

If you’re interested in recording sounds and field recordings in general, please follow us on Instagram. We show more behind the scenes, short tutorials, and talk more about field recording while traveling around the world!

I hope after reading this blog post or watching the video it helps you get started with field recording and not be intimidated. Always remember in the beginning with field recording there is no right or wrong. It’s all situational and a fun learning process.

Doubts As A Field Recording Beginner

When I started with field recording in 2017, I initially had the same doubts as you and after more and more research I came to the conclusion that there is a big difference between theory and practice.

Doubts starting as a field recordist

Yes, there are clear rules for podcasts, voice-over recordings, instruments or exporting a final mix for film production. In this case, too loud is too loud, or too quiet is too quiet.

So, it’s great if you learn these basics as it can help you understand more about audio recording in general which will help you while you’re out capturing sounds.

How I Record Audio (& Field Recording Examples)

I’ve spent thousands of hours recording sounds and one thing I can tell you, no day is the same.

When I go into a quiet forest and want to start recording, I monitor levels. If I see these levels anywhere between -50db and -30db, I’ll record that. I don’t “force” the audio into the recorder by increasing the gain to -10db.

If I increase the gain to this value, we created an unwanted new noise. Instead of listening to the birds in the distance or the wind in the trees, we hear a newly generated noise. We really don’t want that hissing and unpleasant sound in such recordings.

I use the same method to record room tone or when I’m in a town or small village and find myself in a quiet, creepy alley.

What I always do is listen very carefully to my surroundings and then use my headphones. When I want to adjust the levels, I play around with the gain control until I hear noise from the microphone or the recorder. Then I reduce the levels until this noise disappears again. After that, I hit the record button.

What About Loud Sounds?

When it comes to loud sounds, we should differentiate between sound effects and loud ambience.

When I record my own sound effects like impact sounds effects or squeaky sound effects on a rusty pier, I try to stay below -6 dB or maximum -3 dB at the top during the recording. If I use a 24-bit recorder, I always keep an eye on it.

That still gives me enough headroom to play around with in the post-production workflow later. I can always turn the gain down, but as soon as I hit 0 or go beyond, that audio file gets distorted with a 24-bit recorder.

If this occurs during a recording, you can adjust the levels and later remove them as you edit. This is not a problem if you are recording sounds that occur multiple times. If it’s a sound effect that occurs only once, for example in the event of cannon fire, you probably need to repair this file, throw it away, or use it for sound design.

Remember that a distorted audio file is never lost as you can use it for any other type of creative work.

Loud Ambience

Whenever I’m in a “noisy” city and want to record traffic, construction, or an overall crowded soundscape, I keep an eye on the levels and make sure I’m always around -12dB on the top.

Adjusting gain in Field recording

Why I do this is because I never know if a fast motorcycle will come out of nowhere or maybe a fast ambulance will pass by.

When a sound engineer creates a soundscape with hundreds of recordings, it’s like an ocean of sounds, and it’s always great to have a motorcycle sound effect that stands out. You really don’t want such audio to be distorted.

My Don'ts

What I don’t do while recording is adjusting the levels without starting a new recording. Or I’ll make a note and process this file later.

When I already know that a fast motorcycle is coming my way and I don’t want to start a new recording, I reduce the gain, but then that motorcycle sound will be my main target for this recording. Later I cut out this part and create a unique sound file just for this motorcycle.

Then I would stay on the same street and record it again for 3 minutes.

Later at home, I could decide whether to mix the sound with the motorcycle or keep it unique. You see, I have more options.

If you’re still wondering why I don’t adjust the levels during a recording, that’s because I believe that an ambience recording with natural highs and lows created by the environment sounds better than a sound roller coaster that is caused by changing the gain up and downs.

Also, sound engineers working with such files have difficulties and probably won’t consider using such recordings or spending the time repairing them.

Conclusion

As you can see choosing levels for field recording isn’t black and white. It’s situational and depends on the microphone, recorder, environment, and what the sound file will be used for.

Audio gain for field recording

It’s about gaining experience and learning every time you press record. The sooner you start recording the more knowledge you’ll acquire over time. Most importantly, don’t underestimate your most important tools… your ears. To me, sound recording can be a feeling, and using my ears to gauge the levels has been something I’ve developed through hours and hours of recording.

I hope this blog post was helpful for you. If so, please like or share it so I know it was beneficial. Also, subscribe to our YouTube channel because we talk a lot about field recording and sound in general.
Thanks for reading.

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