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Recording Your First Song Part 2 – Basic Techniques (Basix)

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This post is part of a series called Recording Your First Song .
Recording Your First Song Part 1 - Overview (Basix)
Recording Your First Song - Add Some Interest

Welcome to the second part of my series covering all you need to know to start recording your first song.

Last time around, we spent some time thinking about the reasons and methods behind home recording and looked at some bare rudiments or writing and arrangement. This month, we’re going to dive right in and run through some of the core techniques and methods that you’ll rely on in your productions.


Track Types and Routings

In every project, you’re going to have to deal with two basic types of track: “real” audio and software instruments. For example, if you’re a guitar player like me, you might program software percussion and bass tracks, then record live guitar tracks over them.

In addition, you may want to route audio signals through auxiliary or buss tracks. With this technique, you can send multiple tracks to a single channel strip and, if you want to, vary the amount of each individual track that is sent.

So, for example, you might group all of your percussion tracks onto a single fader so that you can control their master level and apply EQ and effects to the whole group while still being able to work with the individual tracks. Another common example is that you might place a commonly used effect like reverb on an auxiliary track and send varying amounts of each instrument to it, thus applying a varying amount of the same reverb to every instrument in your track.

In the image above, you can see the “Sends” dials on each instrument track sending varying amounts of their signals to the master “Reverb” track.

This can get complicated and is a subject you will naturally become more familiar with as your skills and experience develop, but for now the above is sufficient for a working grasp.


Templates

Anyone that’s written more than a few letters, essays or reports knows that a basic, formatted template loaded with key information and perhaps even a few stock phrases is an indispensable time saver. Music production is much the same: if you routinely write and record three-piece rock songs, you’re certainly going to save yourself a lot of time and work by setting out a template with all of the basic tracks, routings and effects you tend to use.

Most DAWs have the facility to save a template, and for any that don’t, you can simply save a normal project file and remember to use the Save As… function every time you start a project with it.


Writing MIDI

Software instrument parts are played by MIDI, and MIDI is quite rightly the stuff of nightmares for many musicians – certainly for any guitarists who’ve ever been down the 1980s style “refrigerator rack” road – but in this case, there’s little to worry about.

Each software instrument will need to be programmed with what notes to play and when to play them, and this is achieved by what amounts to a digital version of the those punched cards that make a pianola work.

This information can be entered via any number of methods, but the simplest and commonest ways are:

  • Enter the notes one at a time using your mouse
  • Play the notes, either all at once or in multiple “passes”, using a MIDI enabled keyboard

Alternatively, if your DAW supports musical notation, or you use notation software which will output MIDI files, you can program your instrument via a normal musical score.


Loops

Loops were briefly mentioned last time, and shouldn’t need much introduction. Basically, this is just a means of repeating a section of recorded audio, and can be a very useful technique for building out and arranging your songs quickly, allowing you to focus on creative ideas and decisions rather than performance.

Often, it’s necessary to tidy your audio up before it can be looped – if you’re rushing to get your ideas down, chances are your timing and accuracy aren’t perfect – and most modern DAWs have a range of tools to help you do this. In Logic and GarageBand, for example, the basic trimming tools along with Flex, which allows you to move notes and chords around in time, can make something useable out of the sloppiest of performances.


Putting It Together

So these are the basic techniques and ideas we use to put together a basic recording. Below, you can see a simple mix using some audio loops along with a simple software drum pattern, which is also looped.

Though there’s not much to it, just a couple of very simple chord changes really, we already have a decent sounding track to serve as the basis for generating more ideas and moving things around to find a perfect arrangement, and all using the simple techniques outlined above. It’s that easy!


Next Time

So why not fire up your DAW, program some tracks, record some loops and play around with routing your instruments to auxiliary tracks? Next time, we’ll look at some of these steps in more detail, consider some methods of producing and testing ideas, and look at some of the processes involved in a typical recording workflow.

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