Introduction tutorial

This is where we will cover the foundations of creating great audio recordings. If you are just starting out or simply need a quick refresher on the basics, this section is just for you!

Part 1. Recording

Whether you are capturing real audio or audio from virtual instruments, recording is the single most important step and should not be underestimated. If you get it wrong at the recording stage, it will be wrong forever, as most problems can never be completely fixed afterwards. You can mix the recording as often as you need to, but the recording itself happens just once, that's it.
The ideal way to achieve great results, is to enlist the services of a recording engineer, It's their job is to set up all the equipment correctly, and to get you the best possible recording. This is not an easy task and typically takes years to master. If hiring a professional is not possible, you should carefully prepare the set-up. Don't rush this stage, take your time. Some advice:

  • Record in 48kHz or 96 kHz and 24 bits. Because of advances in technology, the majority of audio interfaces can now provide this level of quality at relatively low cost. If yours does not, get one that does. Any recordings made at a lower resolution can be easily distorted, and will lack the full frequency range, especially at the higher end, that is needed for quality results. There's no need to use higher sampling rates than 96 kHz, some engineers don't agree though. Personally I'd recommend using 48 kHz anyway. That will save you a lot of CPU, memory and storage, just be careful when using dynamics & distortion plugins then and check whether upsampling produces better results (but do NOT use it like a magic pill for everything!).
  • Select reasonable microphones and preamps. Microphones and pre amps make a huge difference to the resulting sound. Never use ultra-cheap technology when recording an album. You don't need to spend a fortune, but don't take the cheapest options either. There's a huge difference between the low-end mikes for gamers costing 100 US$ and the semi-professional stuff costing say 400 US$, but there's not much of an improvement for the super-high-end gear costing say 4000 US$. So don't be afraid if that's out of your price range.
  • Find the best position for the microphones. It's absolutely necessary to experiment with the location of the microphone. Even the smallest change can make a difference. Your goal is to let the microphone capture as much of the sound as it can.
    For example, a recording of a bass drum will never sound correct without some equalization applied afterwards. But if you are positioning the microphone simply to sound better in the live mix, you may not be capturing all the information required. There must be bass frequencies, middle frequencies and high frequencies present in the recording so that you can remove what is not needed at a later stage using an equalizer. However, you cannot equalize what is not recorded! If the mike is too close to the drum head, there won't be enough boom, if it is too far, there won't be any snap. You get the point...
  • Preparation is more important than the recording itself! Spend as long as is needed, hours if necessary, placing microphones, setting up pre amps etc. Remember that if this is not done well, you will destroy the recording no matter how good the musicians are. Once you are happy with your set-up, do not change it for the duration of the whole recording session. A common mistake is to reposition microphones further away from amps for different tracks. A mixing engineer expects a similar sound in all of the songs in a session. Such changes in the recording, will give them much more work to do, and time is money! Anyway, don't be too frightened either. There's a lot that can be done with current technology during mixing. But still, don't be lazy. Mixing cannot fix everything.
  • Record in a good room. You would be surprised how much this actually matters. Guitar amps are least affected since the microphones are usually placed in close proximity to the cabinets. However, when recording drums or vocals, for example, it can make a huge difference. You may not hear it at first, but when the sound passes through all those compressors and equalizers, the effect of the room that you used for recording will be clearly audible, and at that stage, it cannot be undone. And trust me, the bathroom is not a good recording space even if you do like singing in the shower :).
    That said, you can have a great sounding big room, or just a well-insulated smaller room, but never record in a completely untreated small room. The reverberation in such places can be so dominant, that you just won't be able to get rid of it. It's pretty easy to create artificial reverberation using plugins later, but it's impossible to get rid of it. There are some tools trying to accomplish that, but none are good enough yet.

Part 2. Mixing

Mixing should ideally be done by someone who didn't actually participate on the recording. Why? Because the people present at the recording, usually have an interest in their part of the mix. Musicians want their instruments to be loud, because to them, their parts are the most important. The recording engineer spent a lot of time setting up the troublesome bass drum, so he wants all that work to be worth something, hence the bass drum should be loud, right? Collectively, there will also be some preconceived ideas about the mix, as a result of playing the material over and over again.

The purpose of mixing is to take all the recorded tracks and put them together, so that listeners hear exactly what you want them to hear. Read this again and note that before you even think about mixing, you should decide what elements are most important. Most beginners think they can just adjust the volumes, so that all tracks have a similar loudness. Actually, it is an extremely complex and time-consuming task, which, as you might expect, doesn't just involve setting volumes and panoramas.

The resulting mix should be a stereo track. At this stage, it may not sound perfect, be bright enough, loud enough, but all instruments should be clear and have a distinct tone. It must also help you decide what to pay attention to. For example, during a guitar solo the mix must allow a listener to focus on the guitar. It should be easy to hear the rhythm and the harmony too, but the guitar solo must be the primary focus of the mix. This is how modern mixes work, listeners have become 'lazy', so it is down to the mix to do the work for them.

Mixing typically involves listening to the same part of the song again and again. Unfortunately, this repetition allows your ears to become more and more accustomed to the sound, until suddenly you are no longer capable of judging it objectively. This is commonly referred to as 'ear fatigue' and is another reason why mixing is such a long and difficult task. To overcome this, the golden rule is to always take breaks and to accept that your ears cannot be trusted after a certain period of work. Don't try to mix your song in a single day, allow a week for the process, and improve it a little every day. With experience you will become more resistant to fatigue, but this can take years to achieve. In the beginning, do not spend more than 15 minutes on the mix without taking a break.

We look at mixing in far greater detail in a separate tutorial.

Part 3. Mastering

Mastering is the essential last step in music production that defines the overall sound, yet many people don't even know what it is or what it involves.

As with mixing, mastering should be done by someone not previously involved with the project to ensure a fresh perspective. If possible, this should be a professional, because mastering also takes many years to learn well.

A mastering engineer takes a mix and makes it sound right for a particular purpose.
Typically, the mix is equalized, so it has all the necessary frequencies. Dynamics are then adjusted, to minimize the differences between softer and stronger parts of the recording, and finally compression is added and a limiter is employed to make the overall sound louder, a method that is now very popular. See our mastering tutorial for more information.

Why not mix and master at once?

  • Firstly, because CPU power is limited, and the mastering process can take a lot of the available resources. It's not such a big deal these days.
  • Secondly, because each stage should be completed by different people, so that they can judge the sound independently.
  • Finally, and most importantly, because it would be seriously inefficient. For example, mastering usually involves using multiple dynamic processors and equalizers. Imagine you place a compressor and a limiter on the master track and continue mixing. Let's say you want the bass higher in the mix so you increase the volume. That increases the whole mix level, which causes the master compressor to over work so you lose more dynamics. As a result you need to increase the threshold of the compressor. However, that in turn increases the level after the compressor, and into the limiter. This can easily lead to a pumping or distorting of the mix. Add in equalization and the problems quickly increase. Of course, this is just a basic scenario, the reality is much more complex.

The mastering process results in a set of audio files with specified parameters. For example, all the tracks of your new CD. In this case you would have requested a sampling rate of 44.1 KHz, with 16 bits resolution and maximal level say -0.2dB. Also all the songs should have similar spectral character and volume (this is actually not that simple).

And that's all. Just 3 steps. Take your time to learn and master each stage, and you may just create a professional sounding CD. If you rush it, it will probably end in your own recycle bin!