Posted tagged ‘Digital Audio Workstation’


November 21, 2011

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 38 Mixing

Last week we embarked on the mix stage of the multitrack process, by briefly looking at mixer and monitoring considerations, automation and the importance of resting your ears prior to a mix as well as saving and backing up your work.

This week we’ll look at a few different types of mixing consoles and mention a few more mixing tips. Then get into setting levels, adding signal processing and consider where to place the various instruments in the stereo field, next week.

Allen & Heath GS-R24 Analog Mixer.

For most Home Music Studios, space is often limited. So the favourite options for mixers are compact analog or digital consoles; a Studio-In-A-Box (SIAB) type system, sometimes called a Portastudio; or software mixers which are controlled by your computer mouse and keyboard.

Tascam DP-03 8 Track Digital Portastudio And Boss BR800.

The facilities provided by SIABs can vary considerably, from basic to reasonably sophisticated. Most provide the facility to record, overdub, edit and mix. There are a few manufacturers who provide various models on the market…..Tascam and Boss are popular makes.

Remember, you only get what you pay for. It’s an awful lot to ask for in a small portable unit, so if you are aiming for the best possible recordings and mixes, you need to consider consoles, DAWs and programmes that can handle the highest quality and complexity.

Software mixers can be extremely sophisticated, but controlling that degree of sophistication with a mouse and keyboard is challenging when you have a complicated mix.

3 Control Surfaces By Mackie, Behringer & Digidesign (Avid).

A good alternative is to connect a ‘control surface’, which interfaces with your software and allows you to mix with real faders and control knobs for adjusting various parameters of your mix. Mackie, Behringer and Digidesign (Avid) produce popular units.

Some include an audio interface too, which allows I/O options. Certain control surfaces work better with Pro Tools others work better with Logic or other software programmes. Use the  hyperlinks above but also do your own research! 🙂

Analog Behringer SX3282 – 32 Channel Mixer For Approximately $1000.

The stand alone mixing consoles often provide the most comprehensive facilities. Digital mixers have the advantage of being able to perform the same tasks as analog mixers, but often take up much less space. For example, the fader sliders can often be switched to handle tracks 1-8, 9-16 or 17-24 etc, very quickly. Therefore, you don’t need a dedicated fader for each of your tracks.

Digital PreSonus StudioLive 16.4.2 – 16 Channel Mixer For Approximately $2000.

Combining automation with a quality digital mixer or control surface gives you immense power when mixing…..from providing a huge number of I/O options, send and bus configurations to remembering the smallest fader or EQ adjustment. Mixing your music is under your total control.

Before we get into discussing an actual mix, considering specific EQs for instruments and looking at the uses of other signal processing, I’d like to suggest a few more generic tips in addition to the ones I offered at the end of the last Home Music Studio blog. But remember, these are just suggestions based on many years of mixing. They’re not rules.

  • Set your mixer to neutral…..trim pots to unity, faders at 0dB, EQ flat, aux sends down, routing to left/right etc. Mute any tracks/channels that are not in use.
  • Initially, listen through to your mix without looking at or being influenced by the meters for each track, so that you can concentrate on the overall balance between the instruments. Get a rough level setting for all the tracks, then pull levels down if tracks are peaking too much.


Labelled Tracks In Pro Tools.

  • Before you start mixing, label your tracks…..this can be done directly on the track in a software programme. Or if you are using an analog console, place a strip of artist’s tape across the base of all the channels in use and label them with a felt tip pen.

Label Your Music Tracks On An Analog Console.

  • Subgroup tracks that naturally work together e.g. the drums. Get relative levels and EQ sorted on the kick, snare, hi-hat and overheads then subgroup them to a single or a stereo pair of faders. Make sure any effects (e.g. reverb) are routed to the same subgroup.
  • Use commercially released recordings as a reference. Pick a song that you like, are familiar with or that inspires you. It’s arrangement or production values may help steer you towards your goal or it may simply sound the way you want your song to end up. Your ears don’t always tell you the truth. So a reference CD can help to bring you back towards the sound you’re aiming for.

An Array Of Effects Plug-Ins.

  • It’s hard to resist all those effects processors, but don’t overuse them, especially reverb. Too much reverb will just confuse and muddy the mix. Instruments and vocals will lack clarity. In general, reverb or echo will distance an instrument, whilst a drier sound will place the instrument more upfront. Except for those ‘special effect’ moments, most effects you add should only be noticed when they’re removed. You can test the validity of an effect and how much of it should be used, by muting and unmuting the effect.
  • Try to EQ instruments while the full mix is playing. If you apply EQ to an instrument in isolation, it may lead you to make an adjustment to that instrument, which does not work when it’s played in the whole mix. This suggestion also holds true for applying other types of signal processing e.g. chorus, flange or reverb.
  • And remember compressors are for controlling dynamics, not for increasing volume.

Cutting Frequencies Can Often Produce Better Results Than Boosting.

  •  If you hear a problem that is frequency related, try to fix it by cutting EQ rather than boosting it. The ear is less sensitive to cuts. Plus, cuts are less noticeable if you are having to use cheaper EQ units.
  • Panning and EQ… most cases the kick drum and bass guitar will sound best, placed in the centre of the stereo image, where they will reinforce each other giving plenty of punch. Natural dynamics in the performance are good, but don’t alter the levels of drums or bass.
  • Certain instruments can find it difficult to establish their presence in a mix, if there’s a lot going on in the same frequency range and/or stereo position. For example, acoustic guitars can often get lost or confuse the low-mid in a big rock mix. Reducing the emphasis on the low-end will usually produce more definition and remove any muddiness.

Command 8 Close Up – Showing Control Room Monitoring Section.

  • At various times during the mix process, monitor your mix in mono. Most mixers will have a mono switch which if depressed will sum all the channels together, placing the sounds in the centre. You may find that instruments which sounded clear and loud enough in stereo, become lost in mono. The reason could be a phasing problem or simply a level issue.
  • Check your mix on headphones. You will hear things that just don’t register when monitoring on speakers. I’m not suggesting actually mixing with headphones, they are unpredictable at low frequencies. Just use them to focus on a problem or catch a mistake e.g. an out of tune vocal. Another useful trick is to listen to your mix from outside your room. Putting distance between you and the speakers will sometimes show up level imbalances, that you don’t hear when you are right in front of your monitors.
  • You may find the best mix is produced in the first hour or so of mixing, so save regularly. As you spend more time on the mix, making finer and more subtle adjustments, you and your ears get tired, often producing no discernible improvement in the mix. Leaving the mix and coming back to it later, gives you more objectivity towards your own work. But always, always, always save everything and back up your mix sessions, including all effects settings. You may want to do a remix in a week, a month or a year.

Next, we’ll look at vocals and specific instruments and how to best treat them in the mix. We’ll also consider the use of automation.

TCM Music Group and TCM Mastering provide full recording, mixing, mastering and production services from their facilities in the UK and Nashville, USA. For more information, click here.



October 24, 2011

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 34 Music Editing

We 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 week – overdubbing.

This week and next we will continue looking at the multitrack process by discussing Editing.

When I started in this fantastic business, my first job was as a runner/teaboy. But within weeks I was promoted to Chief Editor (the only music editor as it turned out).  The company I worked for was very small, so somebody had to do it!

Cutting Tape Was The Method Of Editing Until Digital Came Along.

I had no idea how to edit music but I learnt very quickly. Analog reel to reel tape was the format. You edited the tape with a razor blade and stuck the edited sections back together with adhesive tape. If you made a mistake or the edit didn’t work, you had to retrieve the edited out section from the floor, stick it back in and try again.

Of course as I became more skilled, I made fewer mistakes and took on more complex projects. However, there were always going to be downsides to editing tape. The more you handled the tape, the more likely it could get damaged. Also handling tape with your fingers left behind oils which could lead to sound degradation.

24 Track 2 Inch Wide Tape Moving At High Speed. Editing Multitrack Tape Required Great Skill And Sometimes A Large Dose Of Luck!

If you only wanted to edit a single track of a multitrack tape – it got worse. You had to cut a hole or scrape the oxide off the back of the tape in the area of the track that needed editing.

Frank Zappa…..An Early User Of Digital Technology, With His Synclavier. It Was Not The Most User Friendly System, But Extremely Powerful (And Very Expensive).

Flash forward to the present day…..we now have digital editing. Some systems offer quite basic editing functions. Whilst the likes of Pro Tools, Logic Studio and other top systems offer facilities to manipulate your tracks in many ways.

Powerful Apple Logic Studio 9, Running On A Laptop.

As we have mentioned in earlier blogs, sound can now be edited much like the written word in an MS Word document. It can be copied, pasted, cut, deleted, moved, erased and inserted. If you include effects processing, you can also stretch or reverse it as well as a whole bunch of other things too. And any changes you make to the audio can be undone, because the original recording is not altered.

This is termed non-destructive editing. The various different audio parts (or regions as they’re known in Pro Tools) are accessed rapidly on the hard drive to produce the sequence of audio that is required. So this approach allows you to try out multiple edits without harming the original audio.

Pro Tools’ Smart Tool Combines Three Separate Tools.

In Pro Tools you select and edit audio using the ‘smart tool’. This combination tool allows you to grab audio and move it, trim the fronts and ends of regions (making the regions shorter or longer) or simply select a point in the audio to play from or highlight a region.

When you record sound into a digital system like Pro Tools, it gets stored as an audio file on the hard drive…..there are various file formats (.Wav, .Aiff, .SD2). It also gets drawn as a waveform in the edit page.

Audio Waveform & MIDI Displayed In Edit Page.

When you trim or edit the audio file in the edit page, you are basically telling Pro Tools to only look at and playback the part of the audio file that is on the page. The unedited version of the file still exists in its entirety on the hard drive.

Below, I describe the various common editing functions, first in summary then below the diagram, in more detail.

The 9 bars to the left represent a track of audio, that has been edited in different ways.

#1 Is the track before editing. The grey shaded area is the section to be edited.

#2 This shows the track after using Cut, leaving a blank hole (some systems).

#3 Cut on some other systems.

#4 Track after Delete.

#5 Track after Erase.

#6 Shows the audio track before editing, showing Insert point.

#7 Track after Insert.

#8 Track with edit point prior to using Paste.

#9 The Paste function places the Copied audio from your clipboard over existing audio.

Now the various editing functions in more detail…..

Cut, Delete and Erase – these three functions all do the same thing to a selected piece of audio. They make it disappear…..but, they differ in how they treat the audio once it’s gone.

Cut removes the audio section and places it in your clipboard for further use. Some systems leave behind a hole where the audio resided. Others, may close the gap by moving forward, everything that’s later in the timeline, so that the hole is filled. Some systems allow you to choose one or the other.

Delete gets rid of the selected audio on the edit page and does not allow the placement of it anywhere else. The audio still exists on the hard drive, just not on the page. The later audio material is usually moved earlier to fill the hole. Again, some systems may give you options.

Erase is similar to Delete, except that the audio after the removed segment, stays put.

MIDI Editing – Many Of The Functions Used For Audio Editing Can Be Applied To MIDI Data Too.

Insert – effectively allows you to squeeze a section of audio between edit points. Let’s say you’ve finished recording a song. It’s got an intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, a middle 8 or bridge, and end chorus. But you feel it would sound better with a longer bridge or another verse. You could copy the backing tracks for the bridge or verse and insert them into the appropriate point in the song. Then play an extended guitar solo over the longer bridge or sing the newly written vocals over the added verse.

This technique can be used for single tracks or multiple tracks, as long as care is taken to make sure the tempos are the same, you are copying the correct number of bars and placing them at exactly the right point in the song…..and again, this saves you having to set up mics and instruments to make a new recording.

Copy and Paste – these two functions are often used together, just like in a Word document. Copy does what it says, it makes a copy of whatever you select and (usually) puts it in your clipboard. It leaves the original where it is. But then allows you to paste the copy somewhere else.

Shaded Area Shows Section or Region To Be Edited.

So let’s say the above picture represents a region of a guitar track. Later in the song the same guitar chords are played but there’s a mistake. Editing could allow you to copy the good section of guitar chords and paste them over the bad section. Providing you placed them in the correct position (sync), nobody would know you’d done an edit. It saves getting the guitarist back, besides he may be on tour in Japan by now!

Next week we’ll get into editing aurally and visually, fixing bad notes or phrases and discuss some effects which are used in editing eg. pitch change, stretching and reversing.

If you have any questions so far, our contact details are here. We love to hear from you.

And don’t forget, TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group provide a professional, fast and affordable service to musicians of all genres.

So if you have some songs that need producing, recording, mixing or mastering contact us for details on our rates and some incredible recording packages.


October 16, 2011

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 33 Overdubbing

We 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 detail.

Depending on whether you’re recording a full band, yourself as a one-man-band with various instruments or a MIDI setup will determine the approach you use to recording and the rest of the multitrack process.

Recording A Band In A Home Studio. Carefully Placed Acoustic Screens Can Really Help To Separate Instruments As Well As Improve The Sound Of Your Recording Space.

A band is likely to be the most challenging setup in a Home Studio setting. There could be several personalities and egos all fighting for their opinions to be heard.

Acoustics in a home could be less than perfect. Physical space could pose problems with the lack of good instrument separation (although you could always use more than one room if available, or well placed screens – see picture above).

And if you record the band as a whole, there’s a good chance that one person will not play exactly as planned which could compromise the band recording….. because no matter how good the separation is, there’s bound to be some spill from one mic to another.

Let’s say you have an electric guitar going through an amp. Other mics that are setup for the drums, for example, will undoubtedly pick up some of the guitar sound. If the guitarist makes a mistake whilst the whole band are recording, you can’t fix that mistake by overdubbing. The drum microphones will have picked up the mistake too, which means any fix that is done on the guitar track will still conflict with the original mistake in the drum tracks.

 Recording An Acoustic Trio & Vocalist In A Home Studio.

There are good arguments for recording a band as a whole…..the performance will have more of a ‘live’ feel. Band members will take cues from each other whilst playing. One player could take inspiration from another and deliver a great solo. And perhaps the best reason is that, most bands prefer playing as a band! Not as individuals.

However, once that first good track (or tracks in the case of a band) has been recorded, we then move into the Overdubbing Stage. With the technology that is now available to the home musician, it’s a very rare session that does not involve some overdubbing.

In fact musicians can even add tracks to a session if they are in totally different locations. You could start a session in your home studio in the UK and someone else could finish it off in Nashville or Los Angeles.

Les Paul – Recording In His Home Studio.

The overdub technique is pretty straight forward in principle. Whilst listening back (usually on headphones) to the track or tracks that have been recorded, you record another track in sync with the original tracks.

Let’s return to our example used in last week’s blog…’re a one man band singing and playing several different instruments. We’ll use Pro Tools again as our system of choice – as it’s a very popular system, it tends to be the choice of many pro studios and space prevents us explaining how every system works.

#1 Suggestion: Unless you’re recording a purely instrumental track, it’s always a good idea to record a ‘guide’ vocal on the initial pass with an instrument if you’re capable of doing the two things simultaneously. First, it may end up being so good you want to keep it. And second, it will help to keep you (or everyone else in a band) together, whilst letting you know if the tempo, key and arrangement is right for the song.

#2 Suggestion: A click track is very useful for keeping the tempo consistent throughout a song – especially if you choose to later overdub drums or edit sections of your song. But many musicians do not like to use them and some songs are written without a regular tempo. So you need to decide if it will help or hinder.

Recording Vocal & Acoustic Guitar In Home Studio.

So you’ve recorded a vocal and/or acoustic guitar with or without a click track. You’re happy with the result, now you want to add more tracks.

Of course, you may eventually decide to replace your original vocal and/or guitar once more tracks have been added. You may feel by the time your song is sounding more full and produced that you could do a better vocal or guitar. This is the beauty of overdubbing at home, you can tweak and perfect your song until you think you have the best possible performance.

Note: Overdubbing, is probably the stage that is abused more than any other. If you have a hundred audio tracks and more MIDI tracks at your disposal, there is great temptation to use too many of them. Use only what the song needs.

Pro Tools Showing The Record Enable Button & Level Registering On The Track Meter.

Connect your instrument or mic and route it to your track, so that you can see level registering in Pro Tools (or in your DAW). Setup and signal paths were discussed in this blog, but always refer to your DAW manual for specific instructions.

Depending on your setup (see Part 29 for examples), connect a pair of headphones to your mixer or preamp headphone out. Make sure the tracks already recorded are made safe. Cue the session to the start of the song.

Hit play and adjust the already recorded track level(s) coming out of Pro Tools or the DAW, so that you can hear the track(s) you want to add to in the headphones. You will also want to hear yourself…..that is, the instrument or vocal you’re adding as the overdub.

If the levels seem okay, cue back to the beginning and go for it. Hit record. If you make a mistake, no problem, stop and try again.

Overdubbing Horns & Drums.

Some musicians take to overdubbing like a ‘duck to water’ and have no problems. Others need a little practice playing, whilst listening to previously recorded tracks. Setting up a good mix in your headphones is very important and makes overdubbing a lot easier (see this article for more details on setting up a headphone mix).

Take time setting the levels of various tracks. You will need the click track or an instrument track which provides a good tempo and rhythm in order to overdub in sync and with proper timing.

Often turning down the level of certain tracks can help with the recording of the overdub. For example, if an electric guitar is too loud, strident or very syncopated it can make it very difficult to play the new part, so try turning the level of the guitar down or removing it completely from the headphone mix.

Overdubbing Electric Guitar.

Take a look at the 24 tracks to the left. It shows how quick you can fill up tracks with just a few instrument overdubs. Some effects (eg. guitar reverb, piano flange) may be recorded to tracks. This can ease the strain on your computer’s processor. Other effects eg. reverb on vocals, may be just added in the monitor mix fed back into the headphones. Remember, running too many plug-ins on too many tracks can often slow your processor down or even choke it completely.

Once you’re happy with the first overdub, the process is basically the same for subsequent ones. You don’t need to listen to all the tracks that have been recorded to do your overdubs, but you should check what they all sound like together, after you have successfully added another overdub track.

What you want to try to avoid is too many instruments playing the same phrase or recording an instrument out of tune or out of tempo with the rest of the tracks. So keep a watchful ‘ear’ on the progress of your song as the number of tracks increases.

The track layout above illustrates an important point…..planning. It’s useful to consider the number and types of instruments that will be used in a song. And when recording them in your DAW, group similar instruments next to each other. For example, by placing all the backing vocals together or the drums, you will find it easier to visually monitor their levels. And by setting multiple channel outputs to a common bus, the signals can be controlled by one aux fader.

Tuning The Piano & Other Instruments To Concert Pitch Before A Session Will Save Problems Later.

#3 Suggestion: You always want to ensure that all instruments are in tune with each other. Normally in today’s Western music, everything is tuned to concert pitch, A (above middle C) 440Hz. For an interesting look at how concert pitch has changed over the centuries, click here.

The overdub process is similar for MIDI instruments. And you need to make the same considerations with regards to phrasing, tuning and tempo. We will cover all aspects of MIDI in later blogs…..coming soon.

Next week we’ll look at Editing your music tracks. Followed by Mixing and Mastering.

If you have any questions regarding the recording or overdub process, drop us a line. Our contact details are here. We love to hear from you.

And don’t forget, TCM Mastering and TCM Music Group provide a professional, fast and affordable service to musicians of all genres.

So if you have some songs that need producing, recording, mixing or mastering contact us for details on our rates and some incredible recording packages.


October 10, 2011

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 32 Multitrack Recording

Most Home Music Studios today, are built around a computer system of some sort…..whether that system be a software programme, a Studio-In-The-Box or a Digital Audio Workstation. They all provide the facility of being able to record and playback multiple tracks.

Fostex MR-8 MkII 8 Track Digital Recorder, Basic Multitrack But Very Portable.

A basic system might only provide a handful of tracks, whilst a full-blown professional system like Logic or Pro Tools, could provide 100’s of audio and MIDI tracks allowing the most complex projects to be recorded and mixed.

Over the last few weeks we have discussed multitrack system setups and the various points in a signal’s path… using session templates can save you time…..setting and monitoring levels through the signal path.

This week we’ll look at the use of EQ, dynamic and effects processing at the record stage, recording that first take, using punch-ins and the importance of saving your work.

There are two schools of thought with regards to using EQ and other processes at the record stage…..we discussed some of the pros and cons in this blog which considered Signal Processing.

For those of you who are just joining us in this series of blogs, the important thing to remember (as I’ve said before), is that if you choose to add any processing to the recorded signal on the same recorded track, it cannot be removed, which could limit your options later on.

Pro Tools – Extremely Versatile, Professional System…Multiple Audio And MIDI Tracks, Routing Options, Plug-Ins. It’s Hard To Beat.

That may be okay if you’re simply using a bit of light compression (dynamic processing) on an instrument, but unacceptable if you’re adding heavy distortion (effect processing) to a guitar, which you then regret at the mix stage. So, if at all possible, record your clean instrument and effect on separate tracks of your recorder. Keep your options open for as long as possible.

We’ll assume you have spent time getting the best mic position and taken care plugging your instruments into your mixer or preamp to get the best sound without extraneous noises, buzzes or hums. It is often wise (at the record stage), to reserve the use of EQ to fix unwanted frequencies you might be picking up. Your aim is to get a good, clean sound from your instrument or vocalist.

Digirack De-Esser.

Maybe, despite having tried several mic positions, your vocalist still sounds very sibilant…..some voices are just more sibilant than others. The use of a De-esser (which is a frequency specific compressor) can be used to target the harsh ”s” sounds in the 6-8kHz frequency range, although you can get sibilance outside this range too. If you were to use just EQ on a track, you need to be aware that the whole vocal sound would be affected.

Or possibly, the bass guitar or kick drum might benefit from cutting some low mid-range frequencies to give a bit more punch and reduce muddiness. They normally work ‘as a team’ in a mix, so you don’t want them to clash or mask one another. You should be able to hear them both whilst enhancing the overall final mix. EQ can help separate the two instruments and let them both shine.

Just remember to check levels going to your recorder if you have made some EQ adjustments, because the levels may have changed.

Once you’re satisfied that you have set up your system for recording and that you have a good signal-to-noise ratio, it’s time to record.

Fourteen Instruments In One – Multitracking Makes It A Lot Easier For Today’s One Man Bands.

Let’s use Pro Tools as our system example again. To keep things simple, we’ll assume you’re a one man band who is going to record yourself singing, playing acoustic guitar and adding various other instruments. The use of a click track is favoured by some. But ultimately, it’s down to personal preference.

Most systems allow you to enter a start or cue point. This will allow you to jump back quickly to the beginning of your track. You will likely record several ‘takes’ of an instrument and/or vocal before you’re happy with a performance. Then you will move into the overdubbing stage, adding more instruments. So having a start point will save you time.

Session With Cue Points.

As you proceed through the track, you will find it useful to add several cue points. For example, first verse, second verse, chorus, middle 8 or solo. This enables you to quickly locate a specific point in your song that needs working on.

Now, arm the track your instrument or voice is routed to, by pressing the track’s record enable button. If you’re using a separate recorder there will be a record button for that too either on the machine itself or on a remote panel. Then, on Pro Tools, hit record on the transport window……on analog multitrack machines, you may need to hold down the record button whilst hitting play.

At this point the track should be recording. If you now sing or play your instrument, you should see level registering on the track meter. In Pro Tools and other similar systems you will see a waveform being produced in the edit page, as you play. If you’re using an analog machine you should see the meter registering level.

When you’re finished playing, hit the stop button and cue back to the start. Disarm the track to make it safe for playback. Make sure the track fader is up so that you can hear your performance. If you don’t like what you hear, you can do another ‘take’ and another….. (you get the idea) …..until you get something you do like.

Pro Tools – You Can Name Your Tracks. Also, Track Types Are Denoted By Different Icons…A Waveform Denotes Audio, A Down Arrow Denotes An Auxiliary Track.

It’s worth naming your tracks prior to recording, so that each audio file recorded on the track gets named something useful eg. El. Guitar 1, Fretless Bass etc, as opposed to simply Audio 01, 02 etc.

In many programmes including Pro Tools, each ‘take’ is saved in your audio files folder and numbered. So if you accidentally record over your first take with a second, that first take would still be accessible on your hard drive.

However, it’s always worthwhile hitting ‘Save’ every few minutes, this will save all the information and settings in your session, not just the audio files. You can also set up an autosave which will save your session every 5, 10,15 minutes…..whatever you set.

Punching in and out is a technique that can be used on analog multitracks as well as digital systems. For example, if a specific guitar phrase is proving problematic, you can ‘punch’ into record just before the phrase and ‘punch’ out after it. It’s also sometimes referred to as dropping in and out of record.

Whilst the track is in play mode you hit the record button at the appropriate point and hit play or stop to punch out.

Pro Tools – Punch In & Out Recording.

With a digital system you can also programme the track to go into record and out at specified points. This can be repeated or looped as many times as you want until you get the performance you’re happy with. Once you’re done just hit stop.

One of the biggest advantages of programming the in and out is that you can concentrate on just the playing. It also allows you to punch in and out over very small passages. From replacing a single bum note, to  a single bad snare hit.

Editing can also help you out in these situations, but we’ll get to that in a week or so.

Be aware, if you use this technique on an analog machine you will destroy the part of the ‘take’ you record over. Pro Tools (and other good systems) is non destructive and will keep all your attempts, so if you decide that punch in 5 was better than final take 8 you can retrieve it and put it back in your track.

So, in our example you now have a guitar or guitar and vocal recorded. This initial recording could end up being a guide for the other tracks to work with, or if the quality is good enough, could be part of the final mix.

Next week we’ll continue by looking at Overdubbing to continue the process.

TCM Music Group & Mastering.

And if you need some music advice, help with production, recording, mixing or mastering, TCM are here to help….. drop them a line or call them to discover some of the great deals on offer at the moment.


September 25, 2011

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… 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.


September 19, 2011

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.


May 30, 2011

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 13 Recording Acoustic Stringed Instruments

Thanks to those of you who are following the Home Music Studio series, we at TCM Mastering and Music Group really appreciate your interest. Don’t forget, if you have any questions on the recording process please get in touch…click here for contact details.

Today’s blog will complete our look at the challenges of recording stringed instruments by considering the Harp and String Ensembles. These two instrument groups may be a rarity in the Home Studio setting, but one or both will crop up at some time during your recording career. And they do add a definite touch of class to a recording.

Harpo Marx – An Accomplished Harp Player.

Recording Harp

The Harp presents several problems when recording. First, it is notoriously difficult to tune and then keep in tune. If it is a Harp with pedals you will have the added problem of noise from the pedal movements. Plus there will be resonances in the lower strings which aren’t always pleasant and the smaller Celtic Harp poses challenges of its own.

So where do you place a mic or mics?

In some respects, you can treat the Harp like a Grand Piano on its end. It has the same basic string shape to a Grand, so you could try using some of the techniques mentioned for Piano in this earlier blog.

Dynamic mics do not have a flat enough response and tend to be used close up (accentuating the bass-proximity effect). Which means specific strings will be favoured over others. So the recording would be coloured and unbalanced to say the least.

Single Mic On Harp In A Large Live Room.

Condensers or Ribbons are your best choice. Try placing a condenser a few feet from the striking point. Angle the mic slightly so that it’s not pointing directly at the hands to reduce the percussive sounds produced. The picture above shows one mic in this position. You can achieve a good stereo recording by placing another mic in the same position on the other side of the Harp.

Harp With Multiple Stereo Mic Setups.

The picture above shows several mics in different positions. If you have a good selection of mics, this is a great time saver. Set up different pairs, feed each mic to a separate track on your DAW or recorder and monitor each pair separately. This way you can quickly compare each pair’s sound to see which you like best for recording…..consider this same technique when recording any acoustic instrument.

A favoured method of recording a Harp is to use a Blumlein pair of mics. It’s like the X-Y technique (see Part 6 Mic Technique Blog) but with two figure-8 mics set at 90 degrees to each other in a column arrangement. See the diagram below, which also shows the two overlapping polarity patterns.

Place the two mics so that the capsules are at the same level as the hands about 2 feet from the Harp. This method really requires a quiet, good sounding room to produce the best results.

If you have to record the Harp alongside other instruments at the same time, try this method. Wrap a KM 84/184 or something similar in some foam rubber (except for the capsule part, obviously) and wedge it into the upper sound hole. Secure it in position with some surgical type tape. This will hopefully keep the mic fixed (preventing rattles and knocks) without damaging the instrument. The resultant sound might not be perfect but will give you good isolation from other instruments.

You could also try a stereo pair with one mic registering the lower end and another aimed toward the upper strings. Careful placement should result in a good balanced spectrum of sound.

And remember, always check for phasing problems whenever you use more than one mic.

If you need further ideas for recording the Harp, check out this article.

Recording a String Ensemble

For most Home Studio setups, it would be extremely difficult to record a String Ensemble at home. But the members of the Ensemble probably practice in a Hall, Church or School so you could always take your DAW and mics to them.

When having to deal with a ‘foreign’ recording location it’s always wise to arrive well before the musicians so that you can get set up and test mic cables, headphones and all the other sundry items that need checking.

Will you be providing a click track or backing track for the musicians to play along to? Will you provide music for them to read from? Have they had time to rehearse?

Royer SF-24 Stereo Ribbon Mic Placed Above Conductor, With All String Sections Spot Miked.

How do you group and position the various players? The same instruments should be grouped together, obviously. That is, all Double Basses in one group, Cellos in another group etc. You may need to set up a separate solo mic for a Violin.

You will also want to check out the room. If it’s long and thin, which way do you position the players? Use your ears to determine the best position and direction the players need to face. If there is time you can do a test, positioning the players one way and then another.

Sound Engineer James Stone, Recording String Quartet for UK band fiN

Using distant miking techniques means that you’re going to need to choose sensitive, quiet mics and quiet mic preamps. Either high output Condenser mics or Ribbons (eg. AEA R84) will work well. Both types have a good, wide frequency range and respond quickly to transients.

However, it’s probably wise to avoid capacitor mics as they tend to emphasise the presence peaks which can sound unpleasant on Violins especially. The smooth, resonance free top end of a Ribbon mic works very well.

The easiest and possibly best way of recording an Ensemble is to employ a stereo pair of mics placed between 10 and 20 feet away. Some engineers like to use omnidirectional and small diaphragm mics for strings.

X-Y or Coincident Pair Technique.

There are several stereo techniques. One which has been mentioned already is the X-Y or Coincident pair technique (see diagram above). This employs two identical directional mics angled apart with their capsules almost touching. The resultant stereo image can be narrow, but it provides good mono compatibility.

Spaced Pair Technique. 

The above diagram shows a Spaced pair setup (not to scale). This method uses two mics spaced apart and pointing straight ahead. Phase problems are inherent with this approach, but can be reduced to a minimum by using the 3:1 rule. Place the mics three times farther from each other than they are from the source. However, use your ears to determine the optimum mic positions. It’s also possible to introduce a third mic in the middle to help fill out the stereo spread.

Near-Coincident Pair Technique.

The Near-Coincident pair technique, above, uses two directional mics spaced and angled with their capsules apart horizontally. The greater the angle or spacing the bigger the stereo effect. Again this tends not to be very mono compatible, but play around with positions until you get the best possible compromise.

There are many stereo methods you could try. See Home Music Studio Part 6 Mic Techniques for more ideas.

Next week we will move onto the Horn section.

If you have any questions or comments you’d like to raise, get in touch with us through the TCM Music Group Contact Page.