TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 4 SYSTEM SETUP AND MULTITRACKING

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 4 System Setup & Multitracking

The setups and procedures I’m about to describe are common to a lot of Digital Audio Workstations or DAWs. So I’ll use Pro Tools as the DAW example, as it is one of a few digital systems that are used widely by professionals, semi-pros and amateurs alike.

Incidentally, TCM Mastering (both here in the UK and our studio in Nashville), is not affiliated with Pro Tools in any shape or form. We just happen to think it’s a great digital system.

Refer to your DAWs manual for specific information relating to your system.

In Pro Tools (and many of the other popular DAWs) you can configure the System Settings which affect the system’s capacity for processing, recording and playback of tracks. For most sessions the default settings will be fine. But if you need to there is the option, for example, to change settings for particularly large sessions with lots of signal processing.

You can also alter Hardware Buffer Size which affects monitoring latency, audio processing and effects. In addition the number of voices affects Digital Signal Processing usage and overall performance.

Before you start a session you should decide on the desired bit rate and sample rate.

Bit rate – the size of the audio sample in binary digits eg. 16-bit or 24-bit.

Sample rate – the number of times incoming audio is sampled per second during the conversion from analogue to digital eg. 44.1 kHz-192 kHz.

Creating a session template (similar in some respects to a MS Word template) will save you having to set up several parameters from scratch every time you start a session. You can include the number of tracks, mixer setups, signal routings, insert and send configurations, plug-ins and any MIDI instruments you might want to have as a starting point for most of your music sessions.

As you can see, there are several settings to personalise your system. So the setup of a system only needs to be done once followed by minor adjustments for each new session.

If there are any terms that seem unfamiliar to you, your DAWs manual should explain them and the steps you need to go through to achieve the result you’re after. Alternatively, here at TCM Mastering, we’re always happy to answer questions you may have about recording, mixing or mastering.

What is Multitracking?

When a certain band called The Beatles recorded their first songs, the whole band would rehearse then record the song in one complete take. In those days it was essentially a live recording. By 1963 the first 4 track recorders were being introduced to the recording industry. This allowed musicians to experiment and build up songs a layer at a time. Overdubbing as it became known changed the art of recording completely. Five years later 8 track multitrack recording became available. Recording would never be the same again.

Todays top DAWs can offer over a hundred tracks for audio and more for MIDI. Each instrument or group of instruments can be assigned its own track or tracks. The whole band or orchestra can record simultaneously or separately and then be assembled later. Sections of a song can be copied and pasted or deleted and replaced. Tracks can be recorded in your home studio and mixed in a professional studio or vice versa. Pro Tools certainly allows this versatility and compatibility as well as many other top software packages. So when buying your digital system, consider which facilities are important to you.

Let’s say you’re a one man band. You might choose to record a simple click track first as a guide on track 24. Whilst listening back to the click track, you then record a stereo piano on tracks 1 and 2. A bass line on track 3. Rhythm acoustic guitar on track 4. An electric guitar on 5. Lead vocal on tracks 6 and 7, backing vocals on 8, 9, 10 and 11. You then decide to record drums and assign a track each for kick, snare and hi-hat. A stereo pair for cymbals and another stereo pair for toms. That would take the track count up to 18. Any effects you might want to use on the instruments (eg. reverb, chorus, delay) can be assigned to a separate track so that those effects can be mixed separately to the instrument level.

Make sure when you record anything that you adjust your input levels to optimise the dynamic range of whatever you’re recording. If you were to record ‘hot’ onto an analogue tape deck the resulting clipping might be perceived as a warm sound due to the tape compression. Unfortunately, digital is not as forgiving and any clipping of the sound would result in undesirable distortion which is to be avoided at all cost. So remember to peak your recording level no higher than about minus 6 to 8db.

The technique of overdubbing doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Playing along to yourself is something that may need a little practice. It’s made even more difficult if the tempo of the original track varies. So recording a basic click track first may be useful.

Also, when you overdub, hearing certain instruments you recorded previously may throw you off tempo…..it could be a strident keyboard or a syncopated percussion track. If this appears to be the problem try turning the volume down of those parts in your headphones or even removing them from the headphones completely. Just listen back to the parts which help you perform the overdub.

Whilst The Beatles produced some of their best music on 4 and 8 track recorders, one cannot turn back time. Multi-tracking with the availability of 100s of tracks is here to stay.

One thing that is probably worth mentioning is the subject of track or multitrack abuse. It’s very tempting if you have 100 audio tracks, to use them…..all! The same goes for all the signal processing that’s available eg. delays, reverb, flanging, pitch shifting and eq.

Having a 100 tracks of instrumentation with heavy signal processing on lots of them will not only slow your computer down (it may even bring it to a grinding halt!) but could result in your track sounding so full and muddy that it becomes difficult to listen to. In other words don’t assume that ”more” is better. If the track is produced and arranged carefully…..thought given to choice of instruments, how many instruments should be playing at any given time, microphone technique and the use of effects…..there’s no reason you shouldn’t end up with a tight and colourful recording. The beauty in a song is not just down to the lyrics, melody and harmonies but also dependant on how the various components are all put together.

Next Monday I will continue by discussing microphone types.

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If you already have a working Home Studio and have some music tracks that need that final polish. Check out the TCM Mastering site. Or contact us with your questions by clicking here.

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