Music production

Basics of Music Production, Lesson 2: Audio Recording

You can have a lot of fun making music, but getting a good recording and arrangement of your song takes work and knowledge. Last week we set up a home recording studio. This week we will start recording.

Note: This is primarily a video lesson and you will get much more information by watching the video above. That said, the instructions below will suffice and you should keep them for reference.

What you will need in this lesson

If you attended last week’s lesson, you should have all the equipment you need to get started. Otherwise, read last week’s lesson first before preceding. We’re not going to make equipment recommendations here, but you should know what equipment you’ll need to participate in this lesson:

  • Your computer with the DAW software of your choice installed (we will be using Cubase)
  • A digital audio interface (with 48v phantom power) connected to your computer
  • A microphone connected to your digital audio interface, most likely via an XLR cable
  • An instrument (e.g. a guitar, your voice, etc.)
  • About 20 to 30 minutes of your time

Once everything is ready, fire up your DAW software and let’s get started!

Get to know your DAW’s interface.

Interface elements vary between different DAWs, but they embody the same ideas. We’ll be using Cubase to demonstrate here, but if you’re using something else, you should find things are quite similar. Let’s take a look at the common parts you need to know.

The main project window is where you will do much of your work. This window allows you to interact with your instruments and sounds as well as view the parameters of each channel as needed. You can also do a lot more, but those are the basics.

The mixer (in Cubase it is the first of three mixers) resembles a hardware mixer in many ways. You can adjust individual track levels, open their channel settings, monitor the master output, and keep an overall eye on what’s going on with your mix as it plays.

The carrier does what you probably expect: it transports you around your project. This is where you hit record, stop, and play, but also where you can toggle the metronome, set time signatures, loop your project, and get information about where you are currently in your project.

The VST Instrument Panel isn’t something you really need to know until the next lesson, but it’s simply where you add virtual instruments to your project.

When you click on the little “e” button next to an audio track, you get its channel parameters. Here you can add input (track specific) and send (multitrack) effects, use the built-in EQ and adjust the gain.

These are the main interface elements you need to know. Read on to learn how to set up your first project!

Configure your first project

You already know how to record audio if you know how to press a button, but digital audio workstation (DAW) software requires some setup before that big red circle actually captures an audio signal. Although we will be using Cubase to set up our project, most DAW software works similarly. If you’re not using Cubase, you should be able to follow just fine, but you’ll have to look in slightly different places for menu items and some buttons. Here’s what to do:

  1. To begin, create a new project by selecting New Project from the File menu. Select “Void” as the project type. Cubase will ask you where to save it, so choose one and wait for everything to load.
  2. Before you start recording, you need to make sure Cubase (or whatever DAW you’re using) can find your interface and the mics (or whatever else) you’ve connected to it. Go to the Device menu and choose VST Connections.
  3. From there, click on the Inputs tab and set the first mono input to your first microphone. Repeat this process for any additional microphones or inputs (eg electric guitars).
  4. Click on the Outputs tab and you should see a pair of stereo outputs. Set the first to your left speaker and the second to your right speaker.
  5. Now that your inputs and outputs are correctly routed, close VST Connections and go to the Project menu. Choose Add Track -> Audio.
  6. When the new track window appears, create a track and set its configuration to mono. Since we’re only recording from one microphone in this lesson, you don’t need a stereo track. In fact, you’ll rarely choose stereo, even when recording from two microphones, because you’d probably prefer the channels to be separate. This gives you more control over where they are placed in the recording (i.e. where it sounds like the voice or recorded instrument) and the character of the sound. When you’re done, click Add Track.
  7. By default, the new track should have its record enable button lit red. You will see it under the track name. If it is not lit, click it to enable recording on that track.
  8. Also by default, your track should be set to your first microphone. Alternatively, take a look at the panel on the left side of the main project window and you will see the input and output parameters. Output should be set to Stereo (which is Cubase’s default stereo output name), then Input should be set to whatever name you gave your first microphone (usually Mono In by default, but this may vary). If you see No Bus, it means nothing is connected to this audio track, so click on No Bus and replace it with the name of your first microphone.
  9. Using the transporter, which is the thin horizontal window strip with many tools and buttons, press the record button. You will see the recording start. Speak, sing or play an instrument into the microphone and the waveform of your audio will appear in real time.
  10. When finished recording, press the carrier’s stop button.

That’s all we can say about it! You have just recorded your first piece of audio. It probably sounds bad, but it’s probably due to a need for EQ, higher gain (increasing the amplitude of the frequency so the sound is louder), or some other issue. We won’t worry about that for now, because you’re still getting used to how your DAW works. We’ll cover mixing individual audio tracks and the full mix in a later lesson, though you can get an overview if you watch the video above.

You want to know more ? Join us next Tuesday at 5:00 PM PT for our next lesson: playing and recording virtual instruments. Don’t forget to bring your MIDI keyboard!

Artwork by David Broderick.

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