Home Studio Essentials - Basic Terminology - part i

Basic Terminology

Have you ever spent time around a particular occupation and noticed that a particular lingo is used? It’s as if each job comes with its own dialect. I have got news for you. The same is true of producing audio.

No worries, though, it is all simple enough to learn and will really help you out as you continue reading these tutorials in the future. To start with, there is one term you need to know before all others:

DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation and refers to any software used to record, edit, arrange, and mix audio on your computer. Everything involved with producing audio can be done entirely in the digital realm and is only limited by your computer’s hard drive, RAM, and the capabilities of your DAW.

DAWs come in every shape and size imaginable, ranging in price from free to several hundred pounds and capabilities from the bare essentials (recording just one track of audio) to incredibly robust powerhouses capable of 5.1 surround sound and more. Getting your hands on a DAW suitable to your work will be one of your first tasks in setting up your home studio. We will discuss which DAW may be right for you in a future blog. For now, all you need to know is that a DAW is where the magic, I mean “work”, happens.

Every DAW on the market operates on the same basic principles. Understand these principles, and you’ll be able to use any piece of recording software you come across. These principles generally fall in one of two domains: the Sequencer and the Mixer. We will cover everything you need to know about the Sequencer in this blog, and the Mixer in the next. Let’s get started.

Every DAW will, in some shape and form, have a sequencer. A sequencer is a UI (user interface) that displays the various audio, instrument and MIDI tracks and clips on a timeline.
“Woah! What’s a track or clip? What’s MIDI? What’s a timeline?” you ask. Good questions. Let me answer those and we’ll get back to describing the Sequencer.

Sequencers are comprised of tracks. A track is generally a lane that contains the audio or MIDI data related to a single input or instrument. For example, if I recorded one vocal take, the audio would be recorded to a track. Make sense?

A clip refers to a snippet of audio or MIDI data. This piece of data can range in length from a fraction of a second to hours long. It all depends upon hard drive space and what you’ve recorded and/or are editing.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. If you only plan on recording audio, then you will never need to know what this is, but if you plan on composing music or backing tracks using virtual instruments, then listen up. MIDI is a protocol, established in 1983, which standardised the way that instruments and computers can interact digitally. MIDI transmits information such as note on, note off, velocity, volume, vibrato, panning, and a number of other parameters which in turn are interpreted by your computer or device and translated into recognisable sounds. Pretty cool, huh?

This is the part of the sequencer which displays the clips, in their respective tracks, in such a way as to indicate a progression of time, from start to finish (and beyond). The timeline might be displayed in minutes and seconds or beats and bars depending upon your particular DAW.

Back to the Sequencer
Combining all these elements, the Sequencer allows you to record, edit, compose and arrange all of your clips in order to produce your finished product. It’s similar to a conductor’s score, except instead of notes on a sheet of paper, it’s data on a timeline.

There’s one more thing you need to know about your Sequencer:

The Transport Section
No, this doesn’t mean your DAW will take you from your home to the market. Transport refers to the buttons used to navigate your sequencer. Play, stop, rewind, fast forward, loop and record are all typical transport functions found in virtually every DAW. Most of these operate exactly the same, but each DAW may have its own transport nuances. For example, Propellerhead’s Reason comes with a dedicated “LOOP” button whereas ProTools loop feature is set by Ctrl + clicking (Mac) or right clicking (PC) the Play button. It doesn’t hurt to crack open the user manual for your DAW to learn all the tips and tricks of your transport section.

So there it is! You now know a decent amount of terminology and are well on your way to becoming a pro with your DAW. Spend some time playing around with these features and getting to know your software. 

Be sure to check out Pt. 2 regarding the Mixer.


Home Studio Essentials - Welcome

We live during a very special time in human history. Never before has it been easier for one voice to reach millions of people. The democratisation of knowledge and technology has given more people than ever the opportunity to create something that everyone can hear, see, and otherwise experience. Now is the time to make some noise and let others hear it.

If you are reading this, then you probably want to make some noise and share it with the world. You just need some help in making it sound great. That’s where we can help. From making your first recording to editing takes to final mixdown, we will take you step by step through the process of taking an idea and creating something tangible and memorable from it. Sound good? 

Now, in order to take that amorphous blob of an idea you have stashed in your brain and turn it into a concrete piece of media you are going to need to learn a few terms, get your hands on a few pieces of hardware and software, and devote a little time and energy towards learning how to use the tools of the trade. The good news is that all of this can be done from your home. No joke. You can make quality recordings, ones that you can be proud of, from your flat. No need to pay a studio for time in the booth. With a little knowledge and pluck, you’ll be making great recordings in no time. But you are going to need a few things first. 

There are a few essentials that everyone needs in order to do recording. I call them “The Three Must Haves”. Check them out:

A Computer
Long gone are the days when you needed a room filled with magnetic tape reels to save a recording. Now, all you need is a computer, a laptop, a tablet or smartphone (Our phones are as powerful as our computers were just a few years ago!). Basically, you need something that is capable of storing data, retrieving data, and outputting that data in a useful format. At the end of the day, recording in the digital age is as simple as making files, editing files and sharing files. We will save the specifics for another blog (both hardware and software), but for now, if you are able to read this, then you probably have a device that is more than powerful enough to produce quality audio. 

An I/O (Input/Output) Device
I/O is the first audio terminology I am going to throw at you (there will be plenty more in an upcoming post). It stands for input/output and does exactly that. It allows you, the user, to capture sound going into your computer, translating it from analog sound waves to a digital signal, and then reverses that process on the way out. 

Now, most of your computers have dedicated input and output devices. Don’t believe me? Do you have a headphone jack? A microphone jack? These are rudimentary I/Os, and while they work great for talking to Grandma on Skype, they will not be sufficient for our needs in the long run. Best to get yourself a outboard I/O that plugs into your computer via USB. There are a lot of them out there to choose from, so we’ll discuss some of them in a future blog. 

A Microphone (and a cable)
I hope I don’t have to explain that one! A microphone is a piece of equipment that translates sound waves into an electrical signal to then be used and processed further on down the signal change. What you might not know is that not all mics are made the same. There are dynamic mics. Condenser mics. Ribbon mics. Mics with large diaphragms. Mics with small diaphragms. Mics that have a cardiod response pattern. Figure-8 pattern. Omni-directional. Mics with different frequency responses. A boost in the mid-range. High-pass roll off. And they come in a wide range of prices, ranging from £7 to several thousand pounds. Don’t fret. We’ll explain the differences and what you need to be aware of when considering a mic purchase. 

That’s it! That is all you need to get started. 

Be sure to read the next post to learn some of the important terminology you’ll need to know going forward.