The old way
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Real Recording the Old Way
If you suffered through the Real Basics topic, you will understand why I say Real Recording. Making a single track of audio can be useful at times and making it stereo (two seemingly identical tracks) is even more useful for copying music etc. To compose a song with several instruments and vocal lines really takes more separate tracks to be convenient. This is where multi-track recording comes into play. Back when cassette decks were the rage, poor musicians would work around not being able to use multiple tracks by "bouncing" or "ping ponging". This was done by recording your first track on one cassette deck, then rewinding and playing back while playing or singing along with it as second cassette deck recorded the results. No matter how careful you were, you added mass noise to the recording as you bounced it back and forth plus you couldn't change anything about the first few tracks without completely redoing everything from that point forward.
Multi-Track Recording the old way
Thankfully someone decided that when songs were being created, musicians and technicians needed a way to have all the sounds recorded seperately but with the ability to play them back in perfect syncronicity (I wonder that's a real word?). Somewhere along the line they decided to split up the tape to hold 4, 8, 16 and even 32 channels (tracks) and let each channel have it's own independant read and write head. You could think of the 4 track tape deck like a 4-lane freeway, the musical tracks are like cars driving side by side at precisely the same speed, starting and stopping all at the same time. Sounds a bit hard with a freeway and cars but with tape, it's pretty easy. because it's like the cars are all connected so they have to start, stop, and drive together. Well... actually for the analogy to work, you'd glue the cars to the pavement and move the freeway along because that's what the tape does. Better forget the analogy!
Assuming we have a 4 track tape deck, there are many things one can look at in seeing how it helps us to make our songs. Since each track has it's own write head, we can record one seperate instrument at a time. If we are doing a blues tune, this 4 track tape deck is probably all we need to complete an entire song. Let's put the bass guitar on track 1, the guitar on track 2, the drums on 3 and the vocal line on 4. The bass, guitar and vocal are easy because we can plug the amps and microphone directly into their associated track. The drums present a problem because you need a bunch of mics and even different types to record all the seperate "instruments" of a drum set... and we don't have any more tracks. The drummer is going to need a seperate mixer to hook up his bass drum mic, hi-hat mike, snare mic etc etc so he can then put them all on the 4th track. I see other problems forming, all those drum mics are going to pick up other parts of the music, for sure the vocal and maybe the two guitars if their amp speakers are turned on an blaring. Then the vocal mic is going to pick up the drums and maybe the others too. Why would you care? These instruments are all going to be in same song when this all done? Here's an example. When we're done recording our basic tracks, we're going to do special things for each track. We will probably want to boost the bassy sounds of the bass, add some nice reverb and echo to the voice, and maybe try to cut back the mid-range sounds on the guitar. If, for example, the vocal mic picked up the drums, bass and guitar just because the sounds were bouncing around the room, it's going to sound really weird when we put echo on that track... everything will get some echo and we've totally lost control of our isolated tracks.`
I'd say the most basic problem to look at in multi-tracking is isolation. You have to think about this before you even start recording or setting up. Planning your setup so that every track is totally isolated can be a challenge if you want performers to be able to record together, all at the same time. The drums may have to go in one room, the bass guitar in another, guitarist in another and the vocal is just going to have to wait for another pass presuming one of the musicians is going to sing the song. The easiest way (from a recording standpoint but not for musicians) to achieve isolation is to record only one track at a time. When we get to computer recording it's a lot easier and chances are that's exactly how you'll do it since you may be doing the whole song by yourself. For this example, we also might be able to turn off the bass and guitar speakers and at least record tracks 1, 2, and 3 with pretty good isolation.
If we got around the problem of isolating our tracks, we should have been able to record our tracks and get ready to produce our final song. To make that song, we need to mix it! Mixing is the process of bringing the tracks together to be a final song. Mixing also lets us do some very nice things with each track we as we create the final output (maybe a tape or CD). Mixing is done with a mixing board AKA a mixer. A mixer is a device that can bring several tracks together to produce one or two tracks of output (mono or stereo). It does a lot more than this because it lets you add your effects (reverb, delay or echo, chorus etc) and adjust volumes (often called gain) and tone (often called EQ or equalization).
You could say Mixing is taking those tracks, presumably independant but syncronized, and playing them back together fixing and adding all the things that are difficult to fix and add during the performance. Often the only difference between a really professional sound and an amateur sound is the process of all the fixes and embellishments that are done when mixing.
The basic fix that has to be done is to adjust the volumes. It would be impossible to perfectly have all the instruments and vocal come out with perfect balance to one another during the recording. At live performances, someone is paid to sit out in the audience with a mixing board and make sure that all those noises stay in balance and it isn't like you can set the volumes and leave them there throughout. The guitar player may hit the strings harder at one point than another in such a way that isn't related to the dynamics of the song. The vocalist may move a bit while singing, changing the amount of sound the mic pics up. All these things are corrected when you play back and bring the tracks back into the mixer.
The next fix or addition (depending on how you look at it) done while mixing the tracks is to EQ the sound. It's the process of boosting or cutting different frequencies of the sounds. For example, boosting the bass frequencies of the bass guitar may make up for the fact that the bass used to record had a sort of tinny sound. Most of the microphones we can afford seem to make a sound that needs to have some fixing done to make the vocal sound right (well.. to be honest, my voice never sounds right until I "fix" it a bunch). You might drop the mid-range frequencies a bit to tone down the nasally sound of the singer. EQ'ing lets you do that type of thing. On less expensive mixers, the EQ is probably built right in while on a more expensive set-up you may have a completely seperate equalizer unit that you send the sound to from the mixer. This is where you start dealing with "Sends" and "Returns". The mixer will have send jacks to let you send one or more tracks to other devices and return jacks to bring the sound back in after the other devices has done it's thing.
Usually the mixing board doesn't have the effects built in but just like with the external EQ device, the send and returns let you put the sound through other devices that do things like add reverb, delay or echo, chorus and many other effects. An "effect" is just a way of changing the sound in a more complex way than boosting or cutting EQ or volume. A good example of a basic effect is delay. Delay will echo the sound back in your mix a split-second later than the original sounds. The longer you make the delay the more it sounds like an echo in the mountains. The shorter the time the more you just "thicken" up the sound and make it a bit richer. The vocal usually needs a bit of this effect and you probably will "send" it to the effect unit that does delay such that the final sound your ear picks up is the original sound as coming from the tape mixed with the echoed sound "returning" from the delay unit.
There is another process that people used to do that always blew me away. Let's say, after listening over and over during mixing, you decided that the fourth verse made the song too long. You don't want to start over since after all, we are at the final mix point. Technicians used to actually just cut the tape physically and splice (tape it) it back together minus the section or verse they wanted to delete. This was called editing and was often beyond the capability of amateurs.
The Finished Product
After you've played back the tracks over and over, getting all your EQ, volume and effects just right with your mixer, you "dump" it. This is the This is the process of taking the sound as you have it mixed and transferring it to some other media like a cassette tape or CD. By this time, everything is cast in concrete and you won't do anything to change what's on the cassette or CD. This is your final mix. Most people do many "final" mixes before they are satisfied that what got on the tape was what they want. I used to do a "final" mix and run out to my truck, pop it in the cassette deck and see how it sounded in the real world. I might find one instrument was too loud or there was too much bass etc. Thus I'd run back in and do another final mix. As with reality, very few things are really final!
Why'd we look at how people used to do things? Well all these processes are still valid when recording on the computer. They happen to be easier in most cases and you probably won't have so many extra boxes and power chords plugged in but you still do most of the same things.
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