Distortion can sound great, we all love distorted guitar sounds, however there is a big audible difference between overdriving valves in a guitar amp and overdriving semi pro recording equipment.The following explains how to get less audio distortion to reduce harsh unpleasant audio distortion during recording and mixing.
All current digital audio workstations can operate at 24 bit resolution so what does this actually mean and how will it help your music sound better? One of the most important factors of improvement by using 24 resolution in recording and mixing is being able to set your recording and mix gain structure up for lower distortion.
A few easy figures firstly, when you peak an input signal at -18dBFS (on a digital meter) you are still theoretically in excess of the audio resolution of cd quality audio by 30dB. Initially -18dBFS sounds low doesn't it ? Well in actual fact it is electrically equivalent to +0Vu. A Vu meter is an old school needle type meter on a large format SSL or NEVE mixing console. 0Vu to +4Vu was the nominal suggested channel operating level on these desks, so you see -18dBFS is not as low as you might have first thought.
With this in mind when you make recordings at 24 bit resolution you can now afford to leave much more headroom than you previously did. This has significant advantages related to distortion on your recorded music. When you peak at -18dBFS the electronics in your audio equipment (mic preamps and outboard compressors for example) will be operating more cleanly because the small integrated circuit (IC) opamps which reside in your equipment will not be working as close to their operational limits. As such cleaner less distorted recording will be made. This is just the first advantage at the recording stage of operating with lots of digital headroom.
In addition when you next start mixing a track try this different technique of creating a reference instrument to mix against. I suggest peaking your kick or snare drum at -18dBFS on your master stereo output bus and balancing the instrumentation against this as a reference instrument. There may be temptation to adjust the level but try not to change it by more than a dB or 2 and balance all other mix elements against it. By doing so, you will have built in significant mix bus headroom from the outset. This is great because you have just upgraded your monitoring courtesy of not running the small opamp IC's in your soundcards outputs (post digital to analogue conversaion) at such hot levels. i.e. less distortion and cleaner monitoring. The icing on the cake is that your 24 bit mix will be perfectly levelled for either self finalizing or professional online mastering.
Guest post: Barry Gardner operates SafeandSound online mastering a low cost high quality online mastering studio.