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Multitrack Recording is Easier than Ever!
When asked to describe the best day of their life, most people will mention their wedding, or the birth of their children.
Mine was the day I got my first multitrack recording interface.
It was then, for the first time, that I realized the enormous capabilities multitrack recording offers. Multitrack recording would allow me to take my music to the next level.
Multitrack recording is the way to go!
For any band or musician serious about their music, multitrack recording is the way to go. Fortunately, the equipment required for multitrack recording isn't very expensive these days, and most of the recording software available today is easy to use. This means that anyone can get setup for multitrack recording.
In this article I'll be providing an overview of multitrack recording. I'll explain the process, from the recording of instruments and vocals, to the final mixing and mastering. I'll be covering topics like equalizing (EQ-ing), stereo panning, and compression, to name a few.
By the time you're done reading, you'll have a very clear understanding of the multitrack recording process, and feel confident about doing it yourself.
First a little history. Multitrack recording has been practiced since 1922, so it's definitely not a new technology. But in the last few decades multitrack recording has changed significantly, do particularly to the advent of computers and software that greatly simplifies the process.
Before the computer age, multitrack recording was done primarily with the use of magnetic tape, quite often with 4-track and 8-track recorders. Many "old school" musicians still prefer these setups to the more modern ones using computers.
A common myth...
Before I begin I want to debunk a common myth about multitrack recording. A lot of people unfamiliar with the process believe that different parts in a song are "recorded over" or "dubbed over" one another. In multi-track recording, however, different parts (vocals, instruments, etc.) are actually recorded on individual "tracks", and then blended together.
The Recording Interface
Modern multitrack recording requires the use of a recording interface, which is connected to a computer. A recording interface has inputs for microphones and instruments. During the recording process, the recording interface sends the data (sound) it records to the computer, allowing it to be stored on a hard drive.
Recording interfaces can have anywhere from one to 16 or more inputs, allowing that many mics or instruments to be recorded from at the same time. As you'll see later, multiple tracks can be recorded individually, allowing one person to perform the duty of multiple band members.
Remember that in multitrack recording, different parts (instruments, vocals, etc) are recorded on their own tracks. First, tracks are created within the recording software. Then, tracks are assigned inputs to record from on the recording interface. Finally, tracks are "armed" for recording, and recorded to.
Mixing is the process of manipulating each individual track in a song to make it work as part of the song. Because different instruments, and vocals, are very different in the way they sound, different tracks are often treated very differently in the mixing process.
Remember, again, that each instrument or vocal part is recorded to its own track in multitrack recording. This allows the volume of each instrument or vocal part to be individually set and adjusted. Volume levels can be adjusted after the initial recording has occurred.
Have you ever noticed, while listening to music on headphones, that different parts of a song sound louder on the left or right side? This is the result of "stereo panning", which makes instruments and vocals louder on one side than the other. This is done to make different parts stand apart from one another and create a more realistic listening experience.
In multitrack recording, tracks can be centered (meaning they have the same volume on their left and right sides), partially panned (meaning they sound louder on one side than the other), or completely panned to either side (meaning they can only be heard on that side).
Equalizing is the process of manipulating the tone of tracks in a song by increasing, or decreasing certain frequencies. There's a great deal of science in equalizing. However, a lot of the recording software available comes with "presets", which can be matched to different tracks. Below is an example of a preset for male vocals, which came with my recording software.
A multitude of effects can be applied to tracks in multitrack recording. Many of these effects can be created by the software itself. For example, I can add reverb to the vocals in the song I'm working using my recording software. I can also add compression, or a de-esser.
Mastering is the final phase in the production of a song. In the mastering process, the volume level of the entire song is brought up to a (somewhat) standard level. Loud portions of the song are decreased in volume, preventing distortion. Distortion occurs when a portion of a song (or track) exceeds its maximum level and is effectively cut off, the way a lawnmower might cut a blade of grass.
Mastering also addresses the tones in a song, and is usually done with the use of specialized software.
To summarize, in modern multitrack recording, a recording interface is connected to a computer. Microphones and instruments are connected to the recording interface, allowing the sound they generate to be recorded by a computer.
Once recorded, the various tracks in a song are adjusted in volume, stereo panned left or right, equalized, and given effects (all of this being known as "mixing"). The final stage, "mastering", brings the volume of the song up to a standard level while preventing "distortion", which is generally considered undesirable.
Though I've concluded my overview of multitrack recording, there's one more thing I want to share with you. That's the concept of "tracking".
"Tracking" is a slang term describing the process of creating tracks in a song one at a time. When you hear a song you typically picture a band, or a group of people, each playing a different instrument, singing, etc. However, in modern multitrack recording, it's possible for one person to play each of those tracks one at a time (provided they have the musical skills to do that).
I produce my songs this way. I play each part in the song separately, by playing (or singing) along to what I've already recorded. Remembering, again, that we're not "recording over" in multitrack recording--we're creating new tracks. Feel free to listen to a few seconds of a song I produced this way in the video below.
In my opinion, the ability to produce a song this way is one of the greatest advantages to modern multitrack recording. One of the biggest challenges in being part of a band is getting everyone together. If you're the only member of your band, that's not an issue.
With that, I wish you all the best in your musical endeavors!