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Learning to Speak the Language

The doors to NAMM won't open for another couple of weeks, but I can let you in on a (not-too) secret: Gear for audio creation will continue to become

The doors to NAMM won’t open for another couple of weeks, but I can let you in on a (not-too) secret: Gear for audio creation will continue to become more affordable and easier-to-use, expanding the market for people who want to express themselves and make cool sounds. By nature, musicians are creative types, as are audio engineers, and today both deal in separate — yet occasionally overlapping — disciplines.

It’s often said that the best engineers in the industry started out as musicians, and that their experience in the fishbowl — on the other side of the glass — helped them become fluent in the language of music. At the same time, many talented musicians learn to dabble with recording, picking up some basic skills and even becoming excellent engineers in their own right. While they continue to play, they learn the language of recording to better inform their creative process. The cross-pollination makes sense: Music and engineering are both art and science, although technology has blurred the lines between the two. Today, with serious recording tools available to nearly anyone, musicians need to understand that learning some audio fundamentals is an essential step in taking their projects from demo quality to master quality.

Musicians, here are a few suggestions to record your masterpiece. Know your limitations — it is possible to get a great drum sound in a living room, but it’s not easy, requiring the right mics and special attention to mic placement. If that’s not possible, a trip to the local studio is one alternative, as is using samples and/or loop libraries — many of which are excellent. If you want top results, watching your gain structure is critical, both for avoiding overload distortion (which, once done, is uncorrectable) and optimizing levels to create a punchy, dynamic sound. With digital recording, it’s a fine line between “not” and too hot, and one trick is routing a signal to two inputs set at different levels (one conservative, one on the edge) to provide a backup that can be edited later in case one track overloads. It’s a technique often used for capturing sound effects, especially when you’re not sure exactly how loud that rocket launch or huge explosion will be and you only get one take.

Speaking of takes, tracks are cheap, so when overdubbing, experiment and try variations using different mics and different mic placements, which provide more options to select from in the mix. Everyone wants a louder, richer-sounding mix, and a simple highpass (bass roll-off) filter can remove the un-reproducible low-end crud from your mix, leaving more room for the musical bass you can perceive. The overall mix appears louder and more dynamic — without anything being squashed. A little bit of the right knowledge can be a powerful thing.

But perhaps most important, realize when you should seek professional help. After spending so much time writing, creating and tracking your project, cutting corners on critical elements such as vocal recording, mixing or mastering doesn’t make much sense — and here, a relatively small investment can yield big dividends in your final production.

Isn’t your music worth it?