How to become literate in home recording
March 22, 2006 2:48 AM   Subscribe

Editing my home multitrack recordings - looking for advice and resources.

So I've just picked up my shiny new digital multitrack recorder and am happily making recordings which I then transfer to my computer. That's when things start to get a lot more complicated; I open the tracks up in Audacity or Ardour and suddenly there are dozens of effects with hundreds of parameters to play with. Stunned by the abundance of options, I click around aimlessly playing with plugins who's names mean nothing to me.

I've seen some great answers to home recording questions before in AskMe, so I'm looking for advice and recommendations on internet resources. Where should I go to learn about this stuff? Is there a standard set of "things" I should "do" to each track to make it sound good? Should I endevour to have an idea of what I want the track to sound like before I start playing? Should I just stick with it for a couple of months and wait for it to start making sense? I know I could google for web resources but I'd also like some personal recommendations.

In case it's relevent, I'm recording acoustic guitar and vocals simultaneously, through a pair of cheapo Gatt condenser mics, through a pair of ART Tube MP preamps, into a Fostex MR-8 digital multitracker. Any other questions, just ask.

Thanks in advance for any advice.
posted by primer_dimer to Technology (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I'm at work, so can only give you the super-brief answer right now - will elaborate later if necessary.

I'm a studio manager at a university in the UK. The lecturers here (and at other places I've worked) have a very useful mantra for students :

Source Is Everything.

i.e. if you record something that sounds crappy, then it'll sound crappy no matter how much turd-polishing you do in post. Think about how you are recording the sound - should you use a mic, or take it direct? If it's a mic, where should you place it? How about room treatment - something as simple as hanging a duvet behind a singer, for example. All these will improve the quality of your final results infinitely more than any plugin could manage.

With Audacity and Ardour in particular, it's best to keep everything as simple as possible. The plugins on Audacity are mostly offline processors, so can't be used "live" on audio tracks. They also have somewhat "quirky" interfaces. Ardour is extremely immature (although looking very interesting). My advice : maybe think about a simple, semi-pro and established DAW package. I'm a Cubase user through and through, so my suggestion would be Cubase SE, which can be had for under £100 (here in the UK), and would do more than you will probably ever need. If you're a mac user, there's always the Logic Express option - although I don't know about prices. Friends tell me Sonar is also worth considering, as it offers excellent value for money.

But seriously - there are no rules, or "standard" things you should do, except making sure that the source recording is as good as you can get it. And the advice I always give to students is to keep it simple, and don't over stretch.

Have fun!
posted by coach_mcguirk at 2:57 AM on March 22, 2006

If you want another music program, check out Tracktion. It's super simple to use and costs about £120.

For a fantastic appraisal of all the important recording concepts, go to Tweakheadz. It'll explain what all those filters and plugins you're hearing mentioned are, and has lots about how to get the best sound. The guy's prose style is a little irritating, but apart from that, it's a top-notch site.
posted by pollystark at 3:42 AM on March 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the quick & helpful answer, coach_mcguirk. I plan to experiment with different mic placements, etc (I'm particularly keen to find placements that keep the guitar and vocal reasonably separate). I'm on a linux box at home, so I think Cubase isn't an option at the moment, but I found this article which reckons that Rosegarden version 4 is "probably the closest native equivalent to Cubase for Linux" so I'll give it a look.

Another question that occurred to me; is there a place (probably a forum) where one can post tracks for others to critique? By analogy; I've used digital photography forums (fora?) in the past where you can post a RAW file (analogous to an unprocessed track) and helpful folk would process it as they thought best (analogous to applying eq, effects etc. to a track), then post the results and say what they'd done. Does anyone know of anything similar for audio?
posted by primer_dimer at 3:49 AM on March 22, 2006

There are forums like that, but mostly they are genre specific. ( I know most artists say -- but this are transends genre ) But the best general forums are either sound on sound or harmony central.

As far as general advice for recording goes, first things first, read the manual that came with your recorder. That way if you have questions about something specific you can google those terms.

The back articles for Sound on Sound are a great resource. You can learn tons by going thru them. Also Tape Op is a great mag, you can get it free here.
posted by bigmusic at 6:22 AM on March 22, 2006

Just a suggestion, but why not record the guitar first and then on playback with headphones, record the vocal track on a separate track? With a program like Audacity or it's equivalent, that is a piece of cake. Then you don't have to worry about overlap of the guitar on the voice track and vice versa.
posted by JJ86 at 7:14 AM on March 22, 2006

Response by poster: JJ86, I plan to try overdubbing as well - I mostly play acoustic fingerstyle stuff with varied numbers of beats between verses, etc, so it's hard to remember exactly when to come in. Maybe I should just learn a bit more discipline. (I was going to say something about compromising the spontaneity of the performance here, but that sounds a little too pretentious :-)
posted by primer_dimer at 10:12 AM on March 22, 2006

Best answer: If you're recording each with a separate microphone, it's not unusual to record the guitar and vocals at the same time. It's more comfortable for some people to do it that way. I prefer to do both separately, though, and only have one mic anyway. But yeah, you're going to get some bleed, but it should be manageable.

I was going to recommend Kristal Audio Engine, but it's Windows only. It has a very nice ProTools-y interface, can do realtime effects, and is generally nicer to use than Audacity. I found out about it from the Audacity wiki, though, which recommends these Linux apps, so you might want to check them out.

Now, for some of your questions.
Where should I go to learn about this stuff?

I found Tweak's Guide to be an excellent resource. Looking at it now, I feel like I should read over some of it. It's the sort of thing you read and understand more as you gain experience.

And you also learn by careful listening to other recordings you like. Invest in some good headphones if you don't have some. Eventually you'll get better at honing in on the production techniques used on your favorite records.

Is there a standard set of "things" I should "do" to each track to make it sound good?

Not exactly. It really depends on what the track is, how your raw track sounds, what else is in the mix, etc. It also depends on how much time you want to spend, what your software is like, and what you want the end result to be like.

However, some general guidelines are that your mix should sound clear and unmuddied, tracks shouldn't pop or click, the important parts at any given time should be audible and distinct, it should be uniformly loud enough so that the listener doesn't need to keep adjusting the volume, individual tracks shouldn't have unwanted volume spikes that makes them jump out, your overall track doesn't clip, and the different parts properly blend so that they sound like they were played together and not recorded one at a time in many different bits.

Now, some of the most common operations performed on things like guitar and vocal tracks are EQing, compression, and reverb. You can read about these things in detail on Tweak's Guide.

EQing allows you to emphasize or de-emphasize certain frequencies in an audio clip. Oftentimes one will need to cut certain frequencies from certain parts which may make them sound worse on their own, but make them sound better overall in the mix. You don't want too many tracks to be really strong in the same frequencies or the mix starts to sound bad.

Generally when you EQ you want to have a specific goal in mind - a specific part of the sound that you want to cut or bring out. So you start with the gain in the opposite direction of your desired result - i.e., if you want to cut out a low rumble in the guitar, start out by sweeping a +18 dB boost along the low frequencies until all you hear is the sound you're trying to get rid of. Then narrow the bandwidth, again trying to isolate the bad sound. When you've nailed the frequency, change it from +18 to -3 or whatever clears it up. Alternately, to add highs to a vocal, start out by cutting them until it has none of the sound you want, then boost it back up a couple of dBs.

Compression is something that you learn over time, and should read about in detail. It's important to making something sound smooth and relatively professional, but you don't want to go over the top. I generally compress my acoustic guitars and vocals, then I compress the final track some more.

Should I endevour to have an idea of what I want the track to sound like before I start playing?

You'll probably have an easier time of it if you do. But like anything artistic, sometimes you go in with a plan and end up changing it in the process, or sometimes you don't figure out where you're going to end up until you're knee-deep in the middle of it.

Should I just stick with it for a couple of months and wait for it to start making sense?

Yes. And save your early recordings so that you can feel really good about yourself down the line when they sound 10 times better.

Another tip: I find that recording at least 2 acoustic guitar tracks and panning them somewhat generally sounds a lot better than just recording one. Even if they're playing almost the same thing. Then you might want to add some other parts playing something else. This also gives you room to strip things away if you want to do a breakdown section or something.

And lately I've noticed a lot of people making some of their first recordings end up with the vocals really loud and the guitars really quiet. I'm not sure why, but it makes it sound like someone is playing the guitar in the next room and they're holding the mic too close. So don't do that! They should blend with each other. You need to be able to understand the words, but it's ok to be able to hear the guitar. Panning helps with this a lot, too.

If you have any other specific questions, let me know (or e-mail me) and I'll try to help.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:20 AM on March 22, 2006

I should also add that you shouldn't feel like you have to EQ something unless there's something you want to change about the sound. I've made some nice-sounding demos without EQing anything at all (although I almost always use reverb and compression).

And yeah, remember that mic placement makes a big difference, especially with guitars. Pointing more towards the sound hole give you more bass, and more towards the fingerboard gives you more string noise and highs.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:22 AM on March 22, 2006

Realize the inevitable tendancy to abuse reverb. You should probably indulge yourself for a while (because it's so much fun to do and everybody has to get it out of their system), but then come to the point where you realize it shouldn't be used enough to draw attention to itself (unless it's an ambient effects piece and/or something else where reverb is actually the point).
posted by weston at 10:58 AM on March 22, 2006

Response by poster: Many thanks for all your answers, especially ludwig_van. I'm sure I'll be referring back to this thread for a while.
posted by primer_dimer at 1:43 AM on March 23, 2006

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