TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO PART 30 – MULTITRACK RECORDING, SETUP & SIGNAL PATHS

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 30 Multitrack Recording, Setup & Signal Paths

Last week we outlined the multitrack process from – Setup, Recording, Overdubbing, Editing, Mixing to Mastering. Over the next few weeks we’ll look at each stage in detail. Starting this week with Setup and an explanation of what to look out for with signal paths.

 A Compact MIDI Based Home Music Studio.

A home studio that is based primarily around MIDI (short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) and keyboards is going to have quite a different setup to a studio that will be working with acoustic instruments or a band. For the latter, you will need a much larger collection of mics (obviously!), and enough space to accommodate all the players.

MIDI is a widely used industry standard protocol that allows various electronic instruments (and computers) to talk to, and synchronise with, each other. MIDI doesn’t contain sound as such, but describes the performance information…..which notes are played, when and for how long…..how hard or soft a note is played…..after-touch pressure…..pitch wheel information etc.

MIDI Setup: If you’re primarily working solo in your home studio and are a keyboard player, chances are you will want to base your setup around MIDI. If you’re not a keyboard player, there are other instruments eg. guitar, saxophone or drums that can be used as MIDI controllers.

The beauty of MIDI is that each instrument part can be programmed perfectly. Pitch, velocity, timing are just a few of the parameters that can be edited. The downside is that MIDI can make a track sound too perfect and stiff, if not enough care and attention is given to producing a ‘human’ feel.

With MIDI, different instruments can be programmed to play the same performance. For example, if you performed a section of a music track with a piano sample, you could replace it or add another track quite easily with a string ensemble sample. This allows you to try out different sounds before committing to one.

Note: In order for different music samples to sound authentic, they do need to be played and phrased like the real instruments, within the appropriate tonal ranges. But with practice you can get very close to the feeling of the real thing.

Logic Pro Is A Top Quality DAW And Sequencer.

A MIDI based studio will have at its heart a sequencer. This device records and plays back the MIDI data. A computer based sequencer, allows both your audio tracks and MIDI tracks to be handled in one place and usually gives you more detailed editing capability than a stand alone sequencer box which might only have a small LCD screen.

A decent sound source or sound generator eg. MIDI keyboard, synthesiser or drum machine is essential for producing authentic sounding, quality instruments.

Drum And Keyboard MIDI Controllers.

You’ll need a MIDI controller, this generates and transmits MIDI data, allowing all your various components to work together. This could be part of your computer software or your main keyboard. A MIDI interface will also be required to connect your keyboards and other sound sources to your computer if that’s where your sequencer exists.

Apart from all of your MIDI components you’ll need a recorder. This is often part of the software programme in your DAW. And for those occasions when you want to add vocals over your instruments, a good quality mic or two will come in useful.

There are so many variations with a MIDI setup depending on the number of keyboards and other pieces of equipment, that there is no one ‘normal’ signal path. Having said that it’s not rocket science. We will delve into the ‘mysteries’ of MIDI in detail in a later blog.

A Four Piece Band Comprising – Guitar, Vocals, Bass And Drums.

Live Setup: This approach is favoured more by bands or groups of musicians – although many bands will use MIDI as part of their setup – and it assumes your studio space is big enough to record several musicians at the same time.

The advantage of recording a band ‘live’ is that there’s a better chance of capturing the magic of a complete performance. But if you don’t get the best mic for the job or the position is not right, or the band is under rehearsed, you could spend more time doing re-takes to fix mistakes or bad mic placement.

For acoustic instruments and vocalists, you will need a good selection of quality microphones, mic stands and cables. See this blog for more information on mics.

The electric and bass guitars may need DI boxes to interface with a mixer, but you can also mic up their amps.

Any keyboards or synths can usually be connected directly into a mixer if you’re recording audio only. If you want to capture MIDI information, you will need a MIDI interface.

A point worth mentioning is that it’s often worth recording MIDI as well as audio. With the MIDI data you can then try out different samples for the same performance without having to re-record.

Again, assuming most of you with home studios are using a DAW or software programme to record your performances, make sure your interface or mixer has enough inputs to record all instruments simultaneously, if that’s the approach you want to use.

If you’re a multi-instrumentalist working on your own you won’t need as many inputs for your setup, as you’ll be recording each instrument individually and overdubbing. But you may still want the flexibility, so make sure you don’t limit yourself by getting too basic a system, with too few facilities.

Being Organised Is Essential With Multiple Audio And MIDI Track Session. Colour Coding Tracks Allows You To Quickly Find Groups eg. Drums In Red.

Not having enough tracks is rarely an issue with most good programmes. Even Pro Tools LE (the basic option) supports 32 instrument tracks and over 200 MIDI tracks!

Ultimately, in a home studio you may need to compromise in one way or another, either by sub-mixing some instruments together eg. the drums or by recording the band in two passes. There’s always a solution to the problem, you just have to be creative and not too rigid in your approach.

You can of course borrow tips from both the MIDI and the Live setups. Tailor your session to what is needed. Don’t get stuck in a rut.

Signal Path: Whether you use a mixer and analog multitrack, a studio-in-the-box, Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase or any other make of software you will still have to get your signal into the recorder at the optimum level without unwanted distortion.

How A Full Band Setup Could Look.

For the purposes of this blog we will assume most home music studio setups are using some kind of digital software, but the principles are much the same whichever setup you own.

Note: Not all software is best suited for all jobs. Some is designed for bands others for MIDI setups. Each has its pros and its cons. Some can only be used on Macs, some on PCs and some on both. So do some research before you buy.

How good your finished recordings sound, depends on the quality of the instruments and players, and how good you are at getting those signals into your recorder (recording stage)…..and out again (mix stage).

Let’s consider an acoustic guitar which is being recorded into a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)…..something like Pro Tools or Logic. The guitar has new strings, it’s tuned and ready to go.

Using the best quality mic you have for recording guitar, connect the mic to a quality preamp. The mic converts acoustical energy into electrical energy. The preamp boosts the weak mic signal up to ‘line-level’.

If you’re signal is going into a stand alone mixer, you have more options for monitoring the audio…..pre- and post-fader input level, pre- and post fader track level, master bus level. We will cover this in more detail next week in Part 31 Recording.

The signal then continues into a soundcard, where it gets converted from analog to digital, before being sent to the computer and your recording software or DAW.

 It’s worth mentioning that most computers have their own built-in sound card. But they are usually quite basic. To achieve good recording results it’s worth investing in a separate soundcard that is specifically designed for the recording task. Make sure you select the external soundcard in your computer settings.

Digidesign (now Avid) make a great selection of interfaces, from the now classic Mbox to M Audio’s Fast Track audio and MIDI interfaces.

If Everything Is Connected And Setup Correctly, You Should See Signal Level On The Metering. Hit Record And You’re In Business.

Once the signal is in your DAW you will need to create a track and setup the correct input in your programme, for the signal to be recorded.

At each of the different stages, you will need to pay attention to the signal level. Levels should be high enough to get a good signal-to-noise ratio, but not so hot that they distort.

If you adjust level too low at one stage, you will end up having to raise it at another. Alternatively, if it’s too hot at the preamp stage, for example, you will need to lower it at a later stage in the signal path.

The optimum level at each stage will produce the best recording results.

Assuming you have everything setup correctly, if you play the instrument you should be able to see signal level on the metering for the track you’re recording onto. All that’s left is to hit the record button and you should be in business.

Small But Powerful Mixer Which Can Be Interfaced With Pro Tools Software.

If you’re using something like Pro Tools, there is a mix page in the programme where you can monitor incoming signals and make adjustments to your final mix. Or you could hook up an external mixer (like the ProjectMix I/O above), if you prefer to use real faders as opposed to moving faders on a page with a mouse.

It’s worth mentioning that audio recording and playing back uses up a lot of computer processing power, especially when you use lots of plug-ins. So it’s wise to go for the fastest computer, with the most RAM that you can afford.

Also, invest in a couple of hard drives. Use one drive for all your software and operating system (OS) and another for all the audio session files and data. This setup increases stability and helps to prevent crashes.

Glyph Hard Drive – Firewire 400/800 & USB 2.0

The drive in the computer is usually sufficient to handle the software and OS, but for the other make sure you get a fast (7200 rpm) drive with a fast seek time (less than 10 m/s), with at least an 8MB buffer and fast connection…..firewire works well. Check out this link for more information.

Don’t forget, if you have any questions about the blog series so far, or any queries about the whole recording/mixing process – get in touch, by clicking here.

Or if you have a project that needs a session musician, producing, mixing or mastering – TCM Music Group are offering some really incredible recording and online mastering packages.

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One Comment on “TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO PART 30 – MULTITRACK RECORDING, SETUP & SIGNAL PATHS”


  1. […] our Monday blogs (TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Series) we’re currently discussing the multitrack process. So we thought it might be useful to […]


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