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I everyone. I'd love to hear some thoughts/suggestions/etc. on using dynamic mics for recording. Now, before you say it, I know what you're thinking -- "Get a condenser mic! There are good ones out there that aren't that expensive!" This is what I primarily hear when trying to search for tips on recording with dynamic mics. The fact of the matter is, I do not have a condenser mic, nor do I have plans to pick one up any time soon. So, I'm left with two dynamic mics; an SM57 and an SM58 (not to mention the fact that Bon Iver apparently recording his entire first album with only a single SM57, so I know it can be done!) My DAW is an iMac with Garageband and Audacity (I'm still experimenting with which software I like best). My audio interface is actually my acoustic amplifier. Basically, I plug everything into my amp and run the balanced xlr out to a usb input on my iMac. So far so good.

Now, some specific questions are as follows:

1) Should I fiddle at all with the EQ on my amp or leave everything flat? My sense is to keep everything flat, but I didn't know if tweaking them a bit would be worthwhile considering the fact that I'm using dynamic mics.

2) Gain staging. I've got three gains to deal with here, the first being the individual input levels into the amp, the second from the amp's balanced out, and the third being in the software itself. For now, I've got the first levels set similar to how I'd have them set for performance -- just to where clipping starts on my amp then I back them down a tad. It's the second and third gains that I'm unsure of. Should I max out the amp's output gain and tweak the software's gain levels? Or, would this introduce too much noise due to the fact that my amp is essentially a 60 watt DI box?

3) Any other thoughts/tips to share? I know I'll need to just experiment to see what works best, but any tips to get a jump start would be great!

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Replies to This Discussion

As a general rule, set the software to "unity gain," and adjust the amp to get the gain you need. When using a separate preamp (kinda the same as using your amp), I use this approach successfully. On my interface, unity gain is the 12:00 position (no added or reduced gain --- basically just letting the signal through). In my software, unity gain is the default. It may different on your gear. Of course, if your amp doesn't provide enough gain without getting really noisy or distorted, you can add gain in the software (though this will sometimes bring the noise up as well) or somewhere else in the chain. As for EQ, experiment. Since you're sending everything through the amp, it probably wouldn't make much difference whether you use EQ on the amp or in software, though oftentimes hardware EQ sounds better than software. If you can do any EQ before it gets to the amp on an individual instrument or voice, that would be best, as it would affect only the voice/instrument and not everything, allowing you to balance the various inputs.

Thanks, Tom! This is extremely helpful! Can't wait to try it out. I'm not looking for pro quality recordings, but I do want something that is half-way decent and showcases my music. My thought is I needed to prove myself first using the equipment I already own so that I can make the case for better equipment down the road. Thanks again!

To answer the gain staging question, once your software turns down the levels you could already be clipping the USB converter. The dynamic range at that point is probably your limiting point.

Turning up the first stage is a good idea if it doesn't introduce noticeable noise. Adding max gain at the first stage reduces the percentage of noise from the succeeding stages, with the proviso that the first stage isn't clipping or hissing. I might pull the level down a bit more than a "tad" from clipping, though, because the sweetest spot is probably a bit lower, and clipping indicators often miss a few of the briefest overs.

If the "third gain" you're referring to is the software setting in the computer, it should be wide open. It can only attenuate, not add gain, so you want to accept all the level you added in your amp.

So that leaves only the second gain (if it's the amp master volume) to adjust. Set this one so your average level in Garage Band is around -18 dBFS, with peaks below -8 dBFS.

It's tempting to try to get to 0 dB, but this is a recipe for unpleasant recordings. The lower level I describe is the digital equivalent of the 0 dBVU of a tape recorder, and it's the sweet spot for most digital recording chains as well. And learning to set levels is one of the trickiest details in recording, especially because so many people have suggested maxing out the levels in tracking.

Then after recording and mixing/sweetening, you can raise the level in a "mastering" stage.

It's very very common to compare our home recorded tracks to commercial recordings and find them too quiet, but the commercial recording was equally quiet at the tracking stage, it only achieved its final loudness after mastering.

Hope this helps.


Thanks, Fran! Although, I'm not sure I'm clear on some of your suggestions. Tom suggested unity gain in Garage Band (i.e. 12:00), but you're suggesting turning that sucker all the way up (via your suggestion to turn it "wide open"). Unless I missed something here, which is entirely possible. :)

Also, I'm unclear on how to ascertain my "average level" in Garage Band? Where do I look for this?

Just to clarify, my staging is as follows:

Stage 1: Input levels on my amp where I plug in my mics.

Stage 2: Output level from the balanced out on the back of my amp. This controls the amount of signal coming from the amp, such as when running into a house PA system. In my case, I'm running into my computer.

Stage 3: Garage Band gain settings.

Thanks again!


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