plugged-in

Multitrack Recording At Home: Part I

My first home recording setup was based on an 8-track reel-to-reel tape deck. At the time, it was pretty hot stuff – and not cheap – but by today’s standards it was strictly Stone Age. Today, an off-the-shelf computer can do about a hundred times better job of multitrack recording. Plus, you never have to demagnetize the record and playback heads or swab them with Q-Tips!

But with power comes complexity. If you’ve never used DAW (digital audio workstation) software, getting started can be a little intimidating. What do you need? What can it do for you? In the next few pages I’ll lay out the key concepts that you need to know in order to record your music on a computer. Not every detail – that would take a book – but we’ll hit the essential high spots.

To create a computer-based recording setup in your bedroom or garage, you’ll need the following:

  1. A reasonably new computer
  2. A good-quality audio interface
  3. Decent monitor speakers
  4. DAW software

Let’s look at each of these items quickly, and focus on how you’ll use a DAW for recording and mixing. Most DAWs handle both audio and MIDI recording and editing. The two technologies are rather different, so we’ll look at them separately.

Computer Choices

Most of the new computers will do the job just fine. It really doesn’t matter whether you get a Macintosh or a Windows PC, but Macs ship with a very capable novice-oriented program called GarageBand (Fig. 1). GarageBand is free, and you can use it to learn the basics.

Fig. 1. Apple GarageBand running on a new MacBook Pro. The MIDI tracks show little horizontal bars indicating notes; the audio tracks show miniature waveforms. The control panel for the built-in Woodwind softsynth is floating at right. The bottom area is the loop browser.

Don’t buy a bargain-basement computer. Plan to spend a little extra. For starters, get as much RAM as you can afford: 2GB (two gigabytes) seems to be a reasonable minimum these days. If you’re planning to do orchestral simulations using large sample libraries, 8GB of RAM would not be excessive.

Get the fastest processor you can afford. With a faster processor, you’ll be able to run more effects. And don’t skimp on hard drive space. A new MacBook Pro comes with a 200GB hard drive, which would once have been considered massive storage capacity. But after you add just a few sampled instrument libraries, that drive will be full.

A big screen is also highly useful for music. With many music programs, you’ll need to open five or six windows at once. If you can afford a dual-screen setup, go for it. Both Mac and Windows laptops can recognize and use a second screen – all you have to do is plug it in before you turn on the computer.

Audio Interface

When you start shopping for audio interfaces, you’ll find that the market offers a head-spinning array of choices. Among the factors that probably don’t matter: whether the connection with the computer is FireWire or USB (both work fine) and what the published audio specs are (most units offer 24-bit, 96kHz operation, which is totally sufficient).

If you’re going to record a band, an interface with multiple microphone inputs would be a good choice. In that case you’ll also need a bunch of mikes, of course, and quite likely a mixer. Some digital mixers do double duty as audio interfaces – worth looking into. For more basic setups, in which you’re recording only one instrument at a time, you may not need an external mixer.

Interfaces from M-Audio have an edge, because they allow you to use Digidesign Pro Tools as your DAW. (Digidesign and M-Audio are owned by the same parent company, Avid.) If you’re not planning to use Pro Tools, that’s a non-issue. But many interfaces are bundled with entry-level versions of popular DAW software. If you don’t have a DAW program, shop around for an interface that comes with one.

Monitor Speakers

Powered nearfields are available at various price points. They’re a good investment. If possible, arrange to listen to the speakers before you buy them, or make sure you can ship them back if you’re not satisfied. All speakers do not sound alike! If you bought a consumer-type computer that came with “multimedia” speakers, do not plan on using them for critical mixing decisions.

Recording rooms add their own coloration to the sound. Unless your room is acoustically treated (and that’s a whole other topic), no speakers will give you a completely accurate representation of your music.

If you’re doing dance music, you may want a subwoofer. But beware: A hefty subwoofer can convince you your tracks have more bass than they really have. Checking your rough mixes on a variety of systems (including inside clubs, if that’s your intended market) is still the best idea.

DAW Software

You have close to a dozen good choices here. Some are cross-platform (meaning that nearly identical versions are available for Windows and the Mac OS), while others are platform-specific. Some are available both in entry-level and “pro” versions. By scrutinizing the feature comparison chart on the manufacturer’s web site, you should be able to figure out whether you need to spend extra for the pro version.

If you’re doing dance mixes and loop-based music, and especially if you plan to use loops in live performance, Ableton Live may be your best choice. If you’re planning to record tracks at home and then take your files to a professional studio for mixing and mastering, you could hardly go wrong with Pro Tools, because it’s still the standard in high-end studios. Both of these programs are cross-platform, as are Steinberg Cubase and Mackie Tracktion.

On the Mac, Apple Logic and Mark Of The Unicorn Digital Performer are powerful and well respected. On Windows, Cakewalk Sonar and Image-Line FL Studio are excellent choices.

Steinberg Sequel is an entry-level DAW for Windows, comparable to GarageBand (but not free).

When shopping for a DAW, take a close look at the included plug-in synthesizers – most programs have a couple. Also check out the size and contents of the included sound library. Live, FL Studio, GarageBand, and Sequel all have large libraries of loops and other sounds, which you may need to download separately.

Audio Recording

A DAW is a multitrack recorder, which means a number of different tracks can be recorded (one at a time, or all at the same time), and they’ll all play back together. How many tracks? That depends on the speed of your computer and hard drive. Probably more than you’ll need.

The tracks run from left to right across the main window (Fig. 2), which may be called the arrangement window, the track window, the project window, or something similar. When you click the Play button in the Transport panel, you’ll see a vertical line scroll from left to right across the tracks. This line shows where “now” is.

Fig. 2. The main track window in Mackie Tracktion 3. Track data runs from left to right. Above the tracks are narrow lanes for markers and global changes in tempo or time signature. The vertical blue line in bar nine shows where “now” is in the playback. Unusually, Tracktion puts the track controls in a column down the right side. In most DAWs, some of these would be on the left, while others would be in a dedicated mixer window.

Recording to a DAW is not much different from any other type of recording. You’ll need to set a good signal level and be careful not to overload the input by playing too loud. You’ll be able to monitor the already recorded tracks (using headphones) while overdubbing new ones. You’ll be able to listen to a metronome click while recording in order to play at a steady tempo. If your song has tempo and time signature changes, you’ll be able to program the metronome to follow them.

By putting the DAW in loop record mode you’ll be able to lay down a number of takes – of the whole song or a shorter section – without pausing. This is a terrific feature: After recording several takes (I usually do five or six at a time), you can listen to them all and decide which one is the keeper.

If none of the takes is perfect, but you like bits and pieces of each, you’ll be able to use the DAW’s scissors tool to cut and paste the good bits and assemble them into a composite track. These two features – loop recording and cut-and-paste editing – would make a DAW a must-have piece of gear even if it did nothing else.

MIDI Tracks

MIDI is a special type of control language designed specifically for playing synthesizers and samplers. Until a few years ago, most MIDI synths and samplers were hardware. Hardware instruments are still common, but today software synths are widely used. These instruments operate as plug-ins within the host DAW.

MIDI recording and editing will operate exactly the same way, whether you’re using a hardware or software instrument. The main difference is that if you’re using software instruments exclusively, you’ll also need some type of MIDI keyboard or pad controller so as to play the MIDI parts. Technically, it’s possible to create MIDI parts using the mouse, but the process is extremely tedious: You really don’t want to go that route.

When you record a MIDI track, the data in the track is transmitted to the synthesizer, which responds by playing notes. MIDI offers some advantages compared to recording real instruments, but it also has some limitations. You can easily edit the notes of MIDI tracks in a piano-roll display (Fig. 3) – snipping out a flubbed note, for instance, while leaving nearby notes untouched. Alternatively, you can keep the notes and have them play an entirely different sound. After recording a MIDI bass line that works well with your drum track, for example, you could try out different bass sounds until you find one that fits the song.

Fig 3. A MIDI piano-roll edit window in Ableton Live 7. MIDI notes appear as horizontal bars. Their pitch is indicated by the keyboard graphic on the left. The ruler across the top shows the bar/bear positions of the notes. Note velocities are displayed in the strip along the bottom. The notes colored black are being selected for editing by dragging across them with the mouse.

The main weakness of MIDI tracks is that making them sound like real instruments can be quite difficult. A MIDI-based drum track probably won’t have the same level of expression and energy that you could get by playing the part with sticks. There are ways to add expression to MIDI tracks, but the editing process tends to be somewhat finicky.

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