Arpangel wrote:You're right, I try to set the levels as low as possible, but I'm obviously not setting them low enough. I really need high headroom preamps with low self noise, not too fussy, as long as they're clean.
The problem with a lot of budget preamps is that they start to sound increasingly tight and congested once you push levels above, say, +12dBu (or lower in some cases). A really good high-end preamp will still sound clean all the way up to +24dBu (and higher in some cases).
So, if using a budget preamp you may well find you need to leave much more headroom than you might initially think appropriate. When I'm recording with my little Mackie 1402VLZ I set the A-D converter to max out with an input level of just +12dBu, and I still leave 6-10dB headroom.
That configuration keeps transients sounding clean and nice... but it obviously reduces the specified signal-noise ratio by 24dB or so. So if the mixer/preamp says it clips at +24dBu and has a noise floor at -86dBu, it should have a nominal dynamic range of 110dB... but by setting it up as I do the dynamic range available is reduced to 88-92dB... which is a lot less, obviously! (but still 25dB or more than your're average analogue quarter-inch tape recorder.)
However, I tend to only work with that equipment in that configuration in situations where I know the instrumentation and/or ambient noise floor are such that the higher electronic noise floor won't be an issue. In practice, there aren't that many situations where you really do need a 90dB plus dynamic range, though!
So, in your case, I'd suggest making some test recordings with much more generous headroom margins, and then see if (a) that removes the congestion you're complaining of, and (b) whether the equipment noise really is a problem when working at those much increased margins.
If it doesn't remove the congestion or the electronic noise really is a problem, then you might need to consider buying or hiring better equipment...
But personally, given the significant acoustic constraints of the domestic space you're working in, combined with the unwanted distraction of engineering over playing... I'd save the money earmarked for new equipment and instead use it for a train ticket to The Byre* once you and your friend have worked up a suitable set list for recording in a decent space!
*Other studios are available... but not in such surroundings or with Andrew at the helm! :-)