Recording levels issue

I’m a newbie trying to get started dubbing classical music cassette tapes. First try, the volume was way too low after setting rec level at -6db and normalizing the result. What to do?

It seems like you’ve done everything correctly.

Do you normally listen to classical? Classical music is usually quieter overall than popular music. But if you have enough analog gain, you can usually turn it up as loud as you want.

The -6db recommendation is just a guideline to avoid “trying” to go over 0dB and clipping (distorting). If you remember analog recording, tape is somewhat forgiving and it soft-clips if you go too loud, but digital hard-clips at exactly 0dB.

Other than avoiding clipping, digital recording levels are not critical at all and you can amplify losslessly after recording.

Normalizing adjusts the level so the peaks are at a defined level. Traditionally, you normalize for 0dB peaks (the “digital maximum”) but Audacity’s Normalize effect defaults to -1dB (very-slightly quieter). You can change it to 0dB but it won’t make that much difference. (It doesn’t hurt to run it again with a different setting). Or, by default the Amplify effect defaults to 0dB normalization.

Classical music (or acoustic guitar or piano, etc.) is very dynamic. It has loud parts and quiet parts, and the highest peaks are short in duration so they don’t sound as loud as sustained/repeated peaks. An acoustic guitar with “maximized” 0dB peaks won’t sound nearly as loud as a distorted electric guitar with 0dB peaks.

Modern recordings have tons of dynamic compression to make everything constantly loud and “win” Loudness War.

Some compression might be used with classical recordings but it’s not as over-done.

If these are original amateur recordings they won’t have any compression unless the tape was saturated (the meters going “into the red” during recording).

Limiting is a kind of fast dynamic compression and Audacity’s Limiter uses look-ahead so it’s very good and it doesn’t distort the waveform. Limiting “pushes down” the peaks (or loud parts) and then make-up gain is used (or you can run Normalize or Amplify again) to bring-up the overall loudness. But of course, it reduces “dynamic contrast” and it can make music boring. Try starting with 6dB of limiting and if that’s not loud enough try again with 6dB (with make-up gain in-between).

Audacity also has Compressor effect, but the limiter has fewer settings and you are likely to get better results.

Note that since compression and limiting (either with make-up gain) boosts the quiet parts, they will boost any tape hiss.

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