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Setting Up The Ultimate Digital Home Studio, Part V

Welcome to the Fifth installment of the Virtual Studio!

In this issue we're going to walk through the process of tracking a song with attention to the various options available in the digital audio and MIDI environment.

In the old days of tape the first consideration was usually how many tracks were available and then deciding how many tracks could be used for the drums and the various instruments and vocals. If you had 24 tracks or more you had the luxury of tracking the drums with as much separation as possible and leaving them on individual tracks so that the entire mix of the kit was variable at all times. If you had less tracks you more than likely had to submix the drums in some logical fashion as they were recorded or as a "bounce" down after they were tracked first. In this case certain relationships of the levels of individual drums would inevitably be permanently fixed and would only be changeable later on in the most minor degree with the use of EQ. The compromise here is that if you later discovered that something in this submix was either too loud or too soft you pretty much had to live with it.

Now we have many options and the idea of a fixed amount of tracks is no longer an issue. This is especially true if you are starting with the basic tracks recorded as MIDI information. Whether your basic tracks are live musicians or sequenced via MIDI we now have the option of keeping everything as separated as we want. We no longer have to live with anything that isn't exactly right in the levels of the instruments. In the case of basic tracks played via MIDI, we can even go back and completely replace the instrument sounds themselves as well as the level or EQ.

I will be describing the tracking of a song in Cakewalk Audio and talking in terms of basic tracks derived from MIDI sequences and those played by live musicians and the various distinctions between the two. This is especially true of drums and since the drums are normally the most logical starting point it makes a big difference in the way you approach the recording if you are working from MIDI as opposed to live drums. Obviously the type of music you do has a lot to do with it. Techno and Dance musicians almost always use sampled drum sounds played as MIDI events or pre-recorded loops while most rock bands will use live drums when it comes to a serious album project.

In both cases the first thing to happen will be the recording of the basic tracks on which the overdubs will go. If you are using real drums you have the option of playing the drum tracks to a click or not. If you use a click the drums will then be in sync with anything you may want to record as a MIDI track and will relate correctly to the various time markers. The tricky bit about using real drums as it applies to the case of digital recording is the issue of the amount of individual inputs available and the computer's ability to record many simultaneous audio tracks. The other big issue is getting a good drum sound to begin with and miking them properly but that is too big a subject to cover here. If you do not have the quality and quantity of microphones needed, the mic preamps to run them, the compressors, gates and misc other outboard gear not to mention the room to do all this and the expertise to do it properly, then you will have to go to a commercial studio to track the drums.

So, to provide an overview of a few options when using live drums and still be able to track the rest of the project and mix on your computer, consider the following; 1. Tracking in a studio on tape using as many individual tracks as possible. Then once the drums are recorded, you mix them as close to what you think will be a correct balance as a stereo mix to DAT or CD and take those home to load into the computer. The variations to this theme could be the creation of several stereo mixes to anticipate changes, such as one with a louder kick and snare relative to the cymbals and toms etc. The other variation could be creating a separate kick and snare mix and then another for toms and cymbals etc. The tricky thing about that idea is that you will have to sync the two together in the computer by ear, which is entirely possible but takes some shifting of tracks until it's right and then if you had to change it later it would be another hassle.

Option 2 is to track to tape on a format you either own yourself or which you could get access to easily if you have to go back to the raw tracks later on (such as an ADAT for example). In this scenario you would track the drums on separate tracks and then mix down to two tracks as you go into the computer. (you'll want to keep the original tape with individual drum tracks in case you find it has to be changed later.)

The third option is to use MIDI drum pads to play most of the drums into a sequencer as MIDI events. The big advantage of doing this is that the sounds you actually use will be changeable at any time later on (as well as having total control over any timing mistakes or missed notes etc.) The drawback is the lack of subtle expression that a real drum kit can get. One variation is a hybrid of real drums and samples played as MIDI. For example, you could use MIDI triggered kick, toms and cymbals and a real snare and hihat. This way you only need two mics and inputs to track the audio and everything else is a MIDI event.

The great thing about anything that can be played using samples and recorded as MIDI is the ability to completely change anything about it. There is a way to do this to some degree with live drum tracks or drum loops and that is by using one of a couple programs which will break up the drum mix into individual hits. The limitation here is that anything that overlaps another sound, such as a crash cymbal, will still be permanently mixed with whatever sound it overlaps and this could make things sound very weird if part of it is subject to a large level change.

The bottom line about all this is that there are many ways to track drums where you still have the flexibility you need later on if something has to be changed. You have to decide what method suits you as a player and your musical style but hopefully some of these ideas will start a few brain cells firing.

What is most practical when recording on the PC is to record in several stages. The first being the printing of some type of arrangement of basic tracks which will be suitable as a guide for the vocals. Next will be the lead vocal and possibly the backing vocals, especially if there's going to be big harmonies. The idea is that you want to get a vocal on there fairly early in the process to set the pace for the other overdubs. If you start recording a loud guitar part, for example, directly over the basic tracks with no vocal as a reference, you may find that when the vocal is added the guitar is sometimes in the way. Sure, you can always mix the guitar around the vocal after the fact but it's good to know how much room you have from the beginning.

Like many people, I record most of my basic tracks (drums, bass, possibly a keyboard pad or two) in the form of MIDI tracks first. While it is true that you could allow those tracks to stay as MIDI only and simply play back the MIDI modules each time, you'd find that it becomes very tedious setting all the modules each time you open the song to work on it and it is also sometimes annoying waiting for the various modules to begin playing at a given point in the song (if you start after a MIDI note "on" command, you won't hear anything until the next note "on" is played, causing pads to disappear until the next downbeat). So, to make things easiest I always track my basic tracks as a stereo mix. This is the mix I use strictly to track the rest of the song with and then I can go back and re-track those parts either as individual tracks or as a final mix when everything else is present.

Lately I have recorded a series of very straight-ahead rock songs and for these I have started with a stereo drum mix. Then I track the bass, keys and guitar separately on individual tracks. I always track guitar leads on a separate track in case I want to use different effects etc. later on. This way I have somewhere between 4 and 7 tracks (depending on how many keyboard parts I use) before I start tracking vocals. In this case there is no need to go back to the MIDI tracks ever again because everything but the drums is on it's own track. (I have arrived at a balance for the drum kit that is usually completely correct for most songs, so I rarely have to change it)

One of the coolest things about having a large amount of tracks is that you can have anything that might require it's own processing or panning etc. on a separate track. In the old days, many times different parts had to share a track which then required mix moves to apply the correct level or processing. Now we can literally have a separate track for every little sound effect and overdub no matter how small. The beauty of this is that each dedicated track can simply be set to the correct level and pan position and left alone -- the song almost mixes itself as it is recorded. When I think back on the countless hours of my life spent doing manual mixes over and over until it was right (and even then having to live with little mistakes) I have to pinch myself now and then to remind me how amazing it is to be able to automate a mix to the degree you can these days. If I ever invent a time machine I'm going to take a computer back with me and . . . OK, I'm getting a little carried away here. Anyway, this is a brief look at how I work and I think it applies to a lot of people who write and record pop and rock songs. For some types of music the process may need to be completely different but for rock there are some basic truths that apply; The most important elements are the vocals and whatever instrument is providing the chord structure under the vocal melodies. That's why I sort-of do everything in a manner that is subservient to the vocals.

Keep in mind as you record parts that although it may be tempting sometimes to add an effect that sounds good at the moment, it may not be appropriate at all in the context of the entire song. Only when you have all the parts tracked can you really judge whether a reverb is correct or the EQ etc. This is where the realtime effects in Cakewalk really come into play. When all the tracks are down and you're ready to mix you can use the console view mode and start adding a few effects that you know you might want. I usually put reverbs on the aux buses so they can be used by any amount of tracks where reverb is needed, usually one big-room or hall and possibly one smaller room for drums will cover most of reverb requirements. Obviously there is a limit to the amount of effects your CPU can handle at once so you just have to find out where the limit is and work within that framework. If you find that you need more effects for certain tracks you can always add the effect by editing the track (and keep the original first by exporting it to it's own file in case you need to go back and do it again).

Obviously the process of recording even simple things brings with it many, many potential details that we don't have the time to get into here and some of that also falls into the category of basic recording technique which is common for all types of media and not just digital. What I think I will cover in some detail next time is the effect of the digital medium on common use of EQ and compression and some ideas for keeping vocals out front where they should be and still having a punchy mix as well. Until next time, Take Care.

Go to Part IV of this article

Go to Part VI of this article

Digital recording column author Stewart Meredith has worked on the road and in the studio with the likes of Leon Russell and played on sessions in Nashville, Houston and Los Angeles. He was a content developer and beta tester for inovative software company Hotz Interactive in Los Angeles and has worked as assistant engineer in studios as well as session singer and keyboard player/programmer. He is available on a limited basis for freelance consulting in the London area.