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  Multi-tracking with a Computer, the NEW way

With computer recording you create and play tracks just like you do with a tape deck. Create as many tracks as you need for the song, play them back together... balance, adjust, reinforce the sounds to create the desired final mix... then dump it to CD or cassette which becomes your final song. Though this may sound like conventional recording, there are numerous difference, most of which you will never need to know. For example, there's obviously no spinning tape... but there is a spinning disk which serves the same purpose for you, that is to record the tracks you create. The similarities in storage totally end there. There are, indeed, many significant differences you do need to know. In classic recording, you never create anything but analog tracks. In computer recording, you create at least three basic types of tracks. They are analog tracks, Musical Information tracks and Song control tracks. I use these names sort of generically because your software is going to use some other name for the tracks.

Analog tracks

This is the classic track, a sound (something you can probably hear) is fed into the computer and written to disk in sync with other tracks. Analog tracks take up a lot of room on the drive. An analog track is a "waveform". In other words it's a direct representation of a sound wave (the things that make your eardrums vibrate so you can perceive sound). These can be represented visually as shown below.

You will find you need to understand enough about this representation to work with it. For example, the above is my guitar strumming blues with a sort of a motown back-beat, i.e., whack all strings quickly and solidly on beats 2 and 4. See how beats 2 and 4 are bigger as a result. Below is a representation of the same sound after I told my software to make the the strum on beat 2, measure 4 louder... see the difference.

The method most software uses to let you change sounds forces you to "look" at analog sounds like this... as a wave. As you can see, since I gave you a description of the strum on 2 and 4 and you know it's measure 4 and 5, finding the "quiet note" was child's play. This is not quite so easy if you look at a wave that has many sounds mixed together. Here is another look at the same section in the final stereo mix. It has string section, drums and bass included. Finding that same note is not as easy. You can still see where the guitar is hitting on beats 2 and 4 but now, so is the bass and snare drum plus the strings are droning on through that passage.

An important sidestep here... remember "Isolation", I talked about in the "The old way" article. It's still crucial to have isolated tracks of instruments in computer recording. It's easy to see why here. If I want to make the measure 4 beat 2 louder with this analog track, I'm going to make the strings, bass and drums louder too.

A note on the term "analog" as opposed to "digital". A friend asked me "Wait, it all going in the computer, it's all stored as one's and zero's... it's a digital track isn't it?". Well, when I played my guitar, the sound was a waveform, it was converted to a digital representation that captured as much of my guitars sound as was necessary to reproduce it accurately later, it was indeed stored as one's and zero's (this is a reference to the fact that computers use the binary system (ones and zeros, on and off, two-state etc) to represent data). But it's still an analog track to you and I. When you manipulate it and play it back, the end result, as is useful to you, is represented and heard as sound waves thus no matter how it's coded and stored, to you it's an analog sound. Guess what, you can't listen to anything digital unless you have "digital ears" and no one does. Now to make myself a liar, there is no true analog recording on the computer in the processes we are discussing, but you can think of all your audio tracks in analog terms (just like the old tape deck). Regardless of the magic behind the scenes, they will be analog when you hear, "see" and fiddle with them.

Musical Information tracks

These are tracks that make no sounds by themselves but tell other software or devices to make sounds. They "tell" devices such as a synthesizer that can generate sounds out of thin air, or a sampler hybrid that takes a basic snippet of sound from an instrument and plays it back in some modified way... these DO make sound but the track doesn't. These tracks actually contain programming information coded and stored as MIDI information. If you are keyboard player, you may program them by playing your keyboard or if you, like me, are a lousy keyboard player, you use an editor to put the notes in one at a time at just the right place. When you run the track, it tells Keyboards, Software synthesizers, Samplers and Drum Machines to makes noises. It's important to realize that the Information Track itself makes no noise but just contains information about what instrument is used, what note to play, how long it should be played and a bunch of other lessor stuff like how loud, how much force should be used etc. In your software, these may be called MIDI, Software Instrument, WAVE Table, Sequencer tracks or other names depending on the software manufacturer. You might notice that some of those names describe the sound output rather than the track being an information track as I described it. This is because, with some software implementation, you use them integrally, which is actually more intuitive. For example, you can create an instrument track to drive your drum machine... when you put in the instruction to hit the snare drum, you may hear the snare drum because in practice, every information or sequence track is eventually tied to some sound output device or it's useless.

To work with this type of track, you will find the need to learn a few things. The most important is that since the track generates no sounds by itself, you have to learn how to point it to the device that will. If you have a keyboard or drum machine, you will probably have it hooked up to your computer with a MIDI cable. You will set your information track up so that it points to some specific sound on that device. Fortunately there are standard naming conventions such that if you tell the track it's a "Grand Piano", miracles occur and it points to the "Grand Piano" sound on your Keyboard... that said, you have make sure your keyboard is listening when your information track sends it's instructions. See the MIDI section to learn about that.

You may also need to learn to use some sort of editor to program the notes. This is just like word processing except you are clicking in notes instead of typing letters to form words. Some packages may let you use a classic music staff to program the note or a simple point and click to create little bars on a line. A couple of software packages call this latter method a matrix editor.

Song Control tracks

These let you control how other tracks are played back. Like the Musical Information track, they make no sound by themselves and contain only information. The difference is, the information on a control track can apply to all or some other tracks. An example would be to globally lower the volume at one point and raise it at another or completely fade all the instruments out at the end. It's not making sounds but manipulating how the sound tracks are played back. The tempo of the song would be another example of a something that instructs all tracks to do something simultaneously.

Bring them all together

Most likely, everything you record will involve creating one or more of the first two types of tracks. Record some analog audio tracks of your voice, acoustic piano, guitar, then add a drum track from your drum machine as a MIDI information track and then maybe use a control track to handle crescendo and fade outs. You may or may not use control tracks depending on whether you are adept at mixing on the fly. For example, you might do your own fade out manually using the mouse to gradually turn down a master volume. You might even create only audio tracks if, for example, you sing, play guitar, bass and drums and that is all the song needs. I often use Information tracks for my drums because I'm not a drummer, I use organ and piano information tracks because I'm not fast enough at keyboards to perform the parts of the song.

One way or another, you will have all your tracks recorded in such a way that you can start playing them back. As you create and play back these tracks, your music recording software is keeping track of the meter (the speed at which the tracks are played) such that everything stays in sync. Then, your software will have effects that you can apply to each track individually (such as adding a little echo to a vocal audio track) or the mixed sound output (such as using a reverb to make the song sound as if it were live in a large room). After everything is mixed perfectly, you generate a single composite track, usually in stereo that is the result of recording and mixing all these other tracks.

Components of Recording Software

When you use a computer to multi-track record you still find all the same components that you would have used in a recording studio. Things such as:
  • Audio Track Recorder (like the tape machine)
  • Mixers
  • Effects (Echo, reverb, compression)
  • Equalization (kinda analogous to treble and bass knobs)
  • Start, Stop, Record buttons (again like the tape deck)
Beyond this, you find additional components such as:
  • A scroll window
  • MIDI Sequencer (Information Track)
  • Software Instruments
  • Samples
  • Audio Conversion Utilities
Often, for simplicity, all these components will be built into one software package. On the other hand, you may find you need to purchase several individual software packages to have all these components.

Other Components

Before we go inside the virtual world of your recording software, let's look at the other stuff, that is not part of your software... you either have to have these or may just want to have. A sound card is a "have to have" and I have separate page on that. You may also want to have outboard (physically separate} sound sources such as a real keyboard or drum machine. You may also want a physical external mixer too, I like to use two, one for the output of my sound card and one for the input. These latter two aren't absolutely critical to hooking up your microphone, guitars or analog keyboard sounds but can make life easier depending on your set-up. Of course you need Microphones and Instruments (or perhaps not... If your creativity is totally electronic, you may not sing or play anything to be creative with music on the computer). There are some other basics that you need if your target audience is not merely the web. For example, you would need a CD or DVD drive for burning CD and DVDs of your final songs. You would probably need a printer so you can print out either musical scores or at least lyric sheets.

Audio Track Recorder

Probably the most basic part of the computer recording software is this tool. This is what allows you to generate analog or audio tracks of real world sounds. In the most simplistic setup, you have a microphone that picks up sounds, it's plugged into the input of your sound card and the audio track recorder captures whatever the microphone picks up. In your software, you probably have a record button that lets you start this capture. There will also be some small button to "arm" the track that will need to be pressed first. You may also have to make some selection as to where the input is coming from for the track. On more complex sound cards there may be 4 or more input channels that you can choose from. If it's a stereo recording, you may select something "Input 1 and 2" as the source. You will know by what jack you've plugged into. Usually as the capture occurs, you have some visual representation running by on the screen that looks like how we think of sound waves as "looking" (see Analog track at the top). When you press the record button, the computer is hurriedly sampling as much of the sound as it can (it doesn't actually get it all but it gets enough that you won't know the difference later, see Sampling), converting it into something you don't care about and writing to the disk. This is a fairly intense process for the computer and if you are going to have difficulties with inadequate computer power, this is the first place it may pop up.

If we presume that the sound you are capturing is musical, say a guitar rhythm track, there is probably meter associated with it. You will notice your recording software will have a meter associated with it in the form "so many beats per minute". You need to make sure you adjust the meter of your software to the speed of your song before you start recording. Usually, you can select to turn on a metronome that clicks while you play and thus know for sure you are recording at the right meter (and you are on the beat). This is crucial if the first tracks you create are audio. If you are doing information tracks, do them first so you can hear them while you play. This will make sure the audio track is in sync. You will be hard pressed to fix it later if it's not right... well... it's possible but lets just say it's a pain.

Let's say we do have a drum and bass track that we play while we are recording the audio guitar track. You have to make sure that the sound you hear in the headphones doesn't work it's way back into the audio track recording the guitar. This can be challenging depending on your setup. This can happen internally in your sound card drivers depending on how it's configured at the moment or it could happen from an outboard device such as a mixer. It can be very confusing because not all the routing of sound (in and out) is done with cables in this environment. I personally don't like being at the mercy of the sound card driver and recording software development people. I keep it fairly simple by using an input and an output mixer. The input mixer has all my analog inputs BEFORE they get to my sound card. The output mix has nothing but the outputs from my sound card. I can using an extra cable to let me mix my input mixers sounds into the output mixer and simply mute any output from the analog tracks I'm recording. This way I KNOW what sound is going where and no sound ever bleeds back into the track I'm recording. The only drawback of this is that no effects from my computer can be applied to what I hear as I play. I prefer it that way anyway due to problems I had with performance of earlier setups I used. The CPU just couldn't handle applying effects on the fly and sometimes I'd lose a performance to a crash. I record and hear the instrument dry (without effects) when playing it and apply the effects later during mixdown.


Multi-track recording (like performance) requires that you have some way of modifying the composite of all your tracks. On the computer, you will have a program or perhaps just a window within your recording software that allows you to do this. It will most likely look just like a real physical mixer, for each channel, (that is each track) a volume control, tone or EQ controls, stereo panning (left and right channels), effect control, buttons to mute the sound and similar controls to manipulate the overall sound of all channels. The non-real virtual mixer has some advantages over the real physical mixer... the most important be there is no physical limitation to the number of channels it can mix (aside from the speed of your computer). In the real world, we've always been force to buy the best mixer we can afford... usually limited to 8 or 16 channels. You computer mixer can have 128 channels if you like (if you feel like mixing tracks from an entire orchestra?).

Your virtual computer mixer will likely have one channel shown for every track you've set up plus one for every effect you apply to those channels, and lastly one or more for you output channels. You will see differences in the controls for the tracks depending on the type of track it controls. For example, an audio track has no need for the many MIDI parameters required to mix an MIDI Track. Likewise, a MIDI track can't have the same effects and EQ applied to it since it's pointing to some external keyboard, drum machine or program thus it won't have those controls.

The mixer is crucial to your final sound. It's your tool to balance all the tracks to one another and apply all the effects and EQ to what otherwise would be a mess of separate tracks. If you listen to the pre-mixed individual tracks you will usually think, "this sounds horrible" yet after playing with the mix and listening to what emerges, you think "I did that? Wow".


Effect is a noun in recording and refers to something that will change the sound. EQ is an effect conceptually, but so basic and all encompassing, we'll discuss it separately. Effects do so much to produce a professional sound in recording and make up for flaws in performance. Echo, Delay, and Reverb are the most basic examples of Effects but there are numerous other effects available to improve or reinforce sound. Chances are, if you have a recording package that is worth what you paid, a few basic effects will be provided. In computer recording, the raw recording is magically channeled to a sub-program to produce the effect. You control this in your Mixer. Usually you will find a place on the mixer channel where you can select the effect you want and how much you want to apply to the sound. Additionally, your mixer will probably let you even alter the characteristics of the effect. For example, if the effect you are using is an Echo, it may let you set how many times the sound will be echoed and how quickly. Think of the possibilities, things such as making the echo occur right on subsequent beats.

While you choose how much of each sound to "send" to the effect, there is even more control than that over the effect. You will most likely have a completely separate channel on your mixer to modify the sound of that effect. For example, you could EQ the portion of sound having reverb applied to it. It's easy to get totally lost with that much control and the endless possibilities of mixing effects.

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