TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 29 Multitrack Recording, The Process

We covered the basics of multitracking in TCM Mastering’s Home Music Studio Part 4. Over the next few weeks we’ll go into more detail about the process, covering everything from initial setup to final mastering.

As late as the early 1960s if you wanted to record a song, you’d assemble your band, make sure you were rehearsed, play the song live and then hope it sounded good on playback. If it didn’t, you’d have to go back into the recording booth and do it again.

In December 1966 The Beatles started working on an album that would revolutionise recording. That album – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – has become one of the most critically acclaimed rock albums of all time. Produced by George Martin, it employed many new recording techniques that many musicians take for granted these days. One of those techniques – multitracking – has now become standard practice in the production of most popular genres of music.

2 Inch 24 Track Multitrack & Pro Tools On Laptop.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re recording to a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) or an analog multitrack tape deck, the basic process is roughly the same.

Many musicians and engineers still prefer to record to analog tape, because it produces a warm sound. However, as much as I love analog multitracks I have to say the extra speed and convenience that DAWs provide far outweigh the positives of analog for me, especially in a home studio setting.

As I mentioned in my earlier blog, the cost of a 24 track analog tape deck is likely to be too much for most home studio setups, plus they need aligning before each session and regular maintenance.

Working in the digital domain means you can access your recording or parts of it almost instantly because information is retrieved or played back non-linearly from a disk or hard drive as opposed to linearly from a tape deck.

In other words, you don’t have to wait for your tape to rewind in a DAW. Press a location point and the computer cursor will jump there immediately. So if a ‘take’ isn’t quite right you can go back to the start of your recording instantly, meaning the musicians don’t lose their ‘flow’. And over the course of a long recording session that will save you hours, literally.

Set Up A Loop Record Segment (Highlighted Red), Each Record Pass Is Archived, Allowing You To Choose The Best One Later.

You can also set up a loop in most DAWs so that a specific section of the song is played over and over again. This allows you to play and record a guitar part, for example, until you get it right.

Another advantage of the digital domain is the ability to treat your recordings in much the same way that a writer would treat the written page. You can easily (with a little practice) copy a music phrase and paste it somewhere else in the recording. This goes for audio as well as MIDI information.

Let’s say a guitar or keyboard arrangement was the same for all verses. The recording of the guitar/keyboard part was perfect in verse 1, but had mistakes or lacked rhythm by the time you got to verse 2. One solution would be to simply copy the guitar or keyboard part from verse 1 and paste it over verse 2 at the right position. No need to re-record the part… fact in the early 60s scenario, the whole band would have to re-record.

Or maybe whilst mixing you hear a crackle on a kick drum or snare…..find a drum hit that sounds clean and good. Copy it and paste it over the bad hit. Problem fixed. No need to re-record the drummer.

The Copy Paste Function Can Be Used On MIDI And Audio Files. Above, Using MIDI To Produce A Basic Drum Pattern.

A typical multitrack/DAW recording session has six stages – Setup, Recording, Overdubbing, Editing, Mixing and Mastering.

Setup: Before you start a recording session, record yourself at practice sessions or at a gig to see what needs improving. Then at the session, put new strings on guitars and have available new drum heads, drum key and spares, tuners, batteries, some WD40, duct tape, spare strings, song lyrics and chord sheets.

Practice so all the band members know their parts. Work out each song’s arrangement ahead of time. If you’re recording in your own home studio, you won’t need to worry about time or cost. However, being prepared as much as possible before starting a session prevents many arguments (if there are several band members) and headaches if you’re working solo.

By the time you’re ready to record, if you’re working solo in your own studio, this initial process will likely be quite familiar to you. However, if you are recording a band for the first time at your home studio, there are a whole bunch of things to consider and get ready, before the band descends on you.

You will want to plan out as much as possible ahead of the session, where the band members will set themselves up. If space is an issue, you may have to split the band up, so that the drums are in a separate room with appropriate mic cables and headphone cables run to and from your mixer and recorder. Set up the instruments and microphones ahead of the session if possible, so that you can test mics are being recorded and working properly, headphones are getting foldback etc.

Basic Home Music Studio Setup Incorporating MIDI.

Recording: Seasoned players have been known to get twitchy when the red record light goes on. No matter how well you know your part or parts, once that record button is hit the mind can often go blank, chord progressions get fumbled and lyrics forgotten.

The solution I’ve found, is to record as much as possible so that you’re not phased by the record light. Record all your practice sessions. Be rehearsed and have lyrics and chords available for everyone who needs them. Of course mistakes will be made, but the beauty of digital recording is that most times, mistakes are easily fixed or rectified in the overdub stage.

Drums Setup In TCM Studios Nashville, USA.

And remember, the feeling of a song is more important than technical perfection. So if you do make a mistake while recording, don’t stop, keep going. Mistakes can be fixed later.

Bear in mind, in most home music studio situations recording conditions are often less than ideal. You will have to compromise sometimes, where professional setups do not. That doesn’t mean you cannot produce a professional sounding track. It just means it might take a little longer to produce the result you and/or the band will be happy with.

An Example Of A Full Band Setup Using The Presonus Firepod Interface.

If you’re recording a whole band together in one room, you may want to record some players separately from others. You can sometimes supply a click track in headphones for the band minus drummer to record and play along to.

It’s always a good idea to record a guide vocal on the initial pass. First, it may end up being so good you want to keep it. And second, it will help to keep everyone else together, whilst letting you know if the tempo, key and arrangement is right for the song. Then add the drums on a separate pass.

Overdubbing: Once all the song’s basic tracks are recorded, go ahead and record additional instruments and backing vocals as overdubs. And finally the lead vocals. Any fixes that a player wants to record again can be ‘dropped in’ or ‘punched in’ to the relevant track.

Editing: So you have all the band, or yourself playing several parts recorded. Solos, special instruments, percussion and lead vocals are all sounding good. But, when you solo some instruments you hear things you hadn’t heard before. The lead vocal might have ‘popped’ on the beginning of a word, or the bass player might have played a wrong note.

Pro Tools LE Edit Window.

If the player or vocalist is unavailable at this stage, it’s up to you to fix it. The solution could be to steal a consonant from another word and edit it onto the offending word that ‘popped’. Or copy the correct note from somewhere else in the performance and paste it over the mistake. Fine surgery on audio is relatively easy in the digital domain…..and if you don’t like your fix, just hit ‘undo’ and try again.

Mixing: Once you’re happy that all the tracks are as good as they can be, then you can begin the mix process. At this stage, each instrument and vocal is adjusted for EQ (treble, mid and bass), stereo position or panning, dynamics (compression, gating) and effects (reverb, delay, chorus etc) added. You may still come across a few mistakes or errors (eg. pitch correction) which can be fixed in the mix.

The beauty of the digital domain and programmes like Pro Tools, is that you can switch between stages very quickly and easily.

Pro Tools Showing Automation Level.

Pro Tools along with other good DAWs will have automated mixing facilities. Which means that every fader movement, EQ adjustment and reverb setting will be remembered by the computer. Every move you make is ‘recorded’ on the hard drive, so that you can come back at a later date and revise it if necessary.

At the very end of the session, you can record the final stereo mixes for all the songs on the computer hard drive as stereo tracks and burn the tracks off to a CD so that you can review them later. It’s always wise to take some time off at the end of a session to rest the ears and the brain. Then come back after a few days or so and listen to the mixes again. With rested ears you will often have a fresher perspective on your work.

TCM Mastering Studios Kent, UK.

Mastering: This is where the final polish is put on the track(s). This last stage of the record production process is crucial in determining the final end result of sometimes months or even years of hard work.

Mastering simply enhances the production in many ways. Any unwanted noises are removed.  EQ, additional compression and limiting are applied. All the tracks are edited and then finally assembled. By inserting gaps of varying length between songs, good mastering engineers ensure the transition from song to song sounds as natural as possible.

Song levels are matched so that you don’t have to adjust the volume when listening to the album and the order of songs is determined to give the best ‘flow’ throughout the listening experience.

Many people do not realise the amount of work and excellence that is put into the final mastering process to ensure that for years to come, music of all kinds will be enjoyed by future generations.

Next week we will look at studio setup options in detail and consider signal paths.

Explore posts in the same categories: Music, Recording Artists, Recording Studios, Sound Recording

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  1. […] started outlining the multitrack process in TCM Mastering’s Home Music Studio Part 29. Then last week we discussed basic setups (MIDI or Live band) and signal […]

  2. […] took an overview of the multitrack process in TCM Mastering’s Home Music Studio Part 29 and over the last three weeks we have looked at Setup and the Recording Stage in more […]

  3. […] started looking at the multitrack process in detail in TCM’s Home Music Studio Part 29. Over the last few weeks we’ve considered multitrack setups, signal paths, recording and last […]

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