Basics of Home Recording: How It Works

Once upon a time, music recording was very simple. You played the instruments, sang the song, and recorded the entire performance. Nowadays, technology has both complicated and enhanced all that. Here is a guide to how to use your computer to record your music in ways that once challenged even professional studios.

First, a review of the fundamentals. The most significant innovation in music recording was the invention of the multitrack recorder. A track is simply a recording of one series of sounds, whether it be a solo instrument or ensemble. With multitrack recording, it is possible to record many tracks separately, at different times and even in different places, and have them play back together in one performance. Thus, one musician can record many different instruments on separate tracks and have them all become one recording.

After all of the separate tracks are ready, it becomes necessary to mix them. In a mono mix, all of the tracks are played together and recorded onto one new track. The technician can adjust the relative volumes of each track, so that the final mixed track will be properly balanced. He can also add some special effects, such as echoes and reverberations to the track to create a sense of space.

In a stereo mix, most common nowadays, the individual tracks are mixed down to two tracks. One of these will play out of the right speaker of a system (or ear of a stereo headphone) and the other out of the left. In stereo, the technician adds the magic of panning. That means that he determines where the sound on each track will go- either to the left or to the right. You can pan tracks completely to one side, so that that track will not be heard in the other side at all, or you can do it to varying degrees. In this way, he can literally " place" the instruments. Surround sound, which is beyond the scope of this article, involves mixing down to four tracks -- 2 in front and 2 in back.

In all cases, there are two types of destinations for the mixed tracks. They may be within the multitrack recording program itself, or they may be outside of it. " Outside of it" could be in a different software program, or it could be to a hardware device outside of your computer. Let's briefly look at both.

Using your multitrack recording program, you would create two new tracks (one for mono) to be the mix down tracks. You would then set up all of the recorded tracks, called the " source tracks," in the fashion that you desire. Some will be louder, some softer, some panned left, some hard right, some towards the middle. You'll add appropriate reverberations to give a sense of space, and any other effects, such as compression and equalization, that you want. Then, when it sounds just right, you would play the whole thing back and simultaneously recorded onto your mix down tracks.

The advantage of doing it all within the multitrack program is because of what we call " punching." Punching is the ability to rerecord a small section of a track or tracks without changing what comes before or after. To punch in means to start recording at a certain spot on the track, and to punch out means to stop recording. In this way you can fix small sections. When you are using tracks within your program, all of the music is perfectly aligned and synchronized. Therefore, you will be able to punch as necessary.

If you are using a different program, or a hardware recorder to record your mix, the ability to punch depends upon whether you can synchronize your mix down program with your multitrack program or not. If you can't, then you will have to do your mix correctly from start to finish in one take. If you make a mistake, you'll have to start again from the beginning. Thankfully, most programs are able to synchronize with each other. For example, your mix down program may be able to transmit " time code." Time code tells the other program when to start playing and when to stop, and where in the song to locate itself. If you wish to punch the second refrain, for example, you would cue the mix down recorder to slightly before where you want to fix and press play. That will start the multitrack program playing at the appropriate location. Then, you would punch in where you want to fix, and punch out when that section is finished.

In this regard there are two more terms to note. They are " master" and " slave." The master program is the one that sends the time code to control the playback of the slave program.

It is also possible to synchronize a hardware recording device with a software multitrack program. This depends on the hardware, as some have the ability to receive time code directly, while others require a second hardware device called a " sync box."

That is the basic theory and practice of modern-day multitrack recording. Needless to say, within that framework there is a whole world of detail to become familiar with. This article is intended to bring the fundamental process into focus.

 

 

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