Most music today is recorded on a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), the heart of which is a computer and recording software. A few of the major players in recording software today are Cubase by Steinberg Media Technology, Protools by Digidesign, Logic by Apple, and Sonar by Cakewalk. There are basically three things you can do with your DAW: record, edit, and mix. This article is focused on the first process, recording or ‘laying down tracks.’
Since it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the myriad features, options, and settings in today’s recording software, I’ll stick to the basics. My examples will use Cubase, since that’s the recording software I use. However, the basic process will be similar with other recording programs.
Begin by installing your audio digital interface and recording software and setting them up to work together. For example: if you are using Cubase, go to the Devices menu, select the Device Setup window, and choose the software driver which came with your interface.
Now hook-up your instrument or microphone(s). Most instruments with audio outputs should plug into the -10 db input on your interface; the interface will then amplify the signal by ten decibels. Microphones will require amplification by a preamp (often abbreviated to pre), a feature built-into many digital audio interfaces. Most microphones will plug into the +4 db input, and the interface will pad or reduce the signal by four decibels.
Next, you’ll setup your first recording project. In Cubase, choose New Project from the File menu. You’ll be asked to specify a location to store your files. Be sure to create a new folder for each new project. Your recording software will then create subfolders as needed. Save your new project. Then set the recording quality for your project, that is the sampling frequency and bit depth. Select Project Setup on the Project menu in Cubase. Keep in mind that CDs use 44.1 kHz and 16 bit. Higher settings improve quality, but also dramatically increase the demand on your computer processor and the size of audio files generated and stored on your hard drive.
If you are familiar with mixing live sound and understand signal flow, you’ve got a great start on this next step. Create a new input bus (use VST Connections in Cubase’s Devices menu). Choose mono configuration for an individual microphone and many instruments or stereo configuration if you’re using two microphones or an instrument with Right and Left outputs. Set this bus to use the appropriate input from your audio digital interface. Now create a new audio track to record on (Add Track on the Cubase Project menu), and assign the input bus you just created to this track.
At this point you may elect to record your track dry, use an external digital signal processor (DSP) to enhance the signal (perhaps with compression, EQ, or reverb) prior to recording, or employ an insert to apply effects within Cubase. Plug-ins are either DSPs or virtual instruments designed to work together with your recording software. VST (Virtual Studio Technology) plug-ins work best with Cubase. Before purchasing plug-ins, check to see what plug-ins come pre-installed with your DAW software and what type(s) are compatible with your software. Cubase, for example, provides plug-ins for compression, EQ, reverb, and a variety of other commonly used effects. While major studios commonly apply compression and EQ to tracks before recording, it’s quite acceptable and often preferable to record your tracks dry, then edit them later taking time to experiment and find just the right effects to enhance your recording. Consult your manual to learn how to insert plug-ins into the signal flow while recording.
As you begin recording, another important concept to understand is signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Along with the voice or instrument you intend to record, you will virtually always also be recording a certain amount of ambient noise, including both noise from inside the room (such as a computer fan, fluorescent light ballast, or toe-tapping) and outside (such as wind or road noise). Your goal is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio and thereby minimize unwanted noise to the point where it is undetectable. You do this both by sound isolation and by making your signal as loud and clear as possible without distortion.
Now it’s time to record. Choose the track to which you will be recording, and make sure the correct input is assigned. Enable record or ‘arm the track’ by pushing the red button. Take a look at the meter on the transport panel (or click the monitor button) to make sure the signal is coming through. Use the fader to set the level for maximum SNR without distortion. Finally, press the record button to begin and the stop button to end recording.
That’s not all! Play back your track and listen carefully to how it sounds. Don’t be afraid to record multiple takes until you’re completely satisfied. Even professionals record multiple takes. If fact, before you even record onto your first track, you may want to copy it and create several duplicate tracks to save steps in setting up tracks for multiple takes. You may also want to overdub, recording different sections separately to edit and mix later. For those who use Cubase, I’ve discovered some cool video tutorials on the web at www.maketunes.com/articles/cubase-tutorial-videos.
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