I started my recording career in the days of tape, when there was something above 0 on the old-style VU meters and you worried about things like “the noise floor” and your signal-to-noise ratio. Your aim when recording was to get the meter peaking as close as you could to just left of 0VU and going as little as possible, (preferably not at all!), to the right. Switching to DAW metering, where there is nothing above 0dB and getting too close can be undesirable, involved a major mind-set adjustment – once I realised that my analogue ways of working were incompatible with digital. I’ve cheerfully recorded songs in my DAW with the aim of getting the maximum level recorded, so fearful was I of a poor signal-to-noise ratio, that I never stopped to consider that there is very little noise with digital – the technology that introduced the noise, those long bits of magnetic tape on spinning reels, isn’t there anymore.
It’s only as I’ve followed the blogs of Graham Cochrane and, particularly, Ian Shepherd that I’ve come to realise that what I was doing was confusing apples and oranges – 0 on the [real world] VU meter and 0dB on the digital meter in my DAW are not only different levels, but they aren’t measuring the same thing. 0VU is an expression of the AVERAGE level of the signal, whereas 0dB on the meter is measuring the PEAK level of the signal. When all comes to all and you look through the technical definitions, 0VU on the old tape machine is broadly equivalent to -18dBFS on the meters in my DAW.
Rather than peaking just shy of 0dBFS, what I should be aiming for these days is a peak on individual channels of around -12dB. This leave me headroom for effects and summing, retaining a healthy gain structure as my signal chain runs through the individual channels and group busses, to avoid slamming the master fader rather than leaving headroom for mastering. With the recommended levels for a final mix these days anywhere between -12dB to -18dB, depending on who you read and what genre of music you’re working with, proper gain-staging is something to be conscious of all the way through the recording and mixing process.