Cheat Sheet

PC Recording Studios For Dummies

Computers have become the standard tools for recording, editing, and mixing audio. Whether your computer-based recording studio uses a Mac or PC, you'll need to know how to get the best sound either way. Discover three ways to get optimal sound recordings, know how to place your microphone to capture the sound you want, and know the elements of a fully featured mixer.

PC Recording Studios: 3 Tips for Improving Performance

Computer-based recording systems can be finicky, whether Mac- or Windows-based. Be diligent about taking basic precautions in your studio so your PC recording system doesn't become sluggish and, eventually, unstable. This gradual slow-down doesn't have to happen, however. With three simple housekeeping tasks, you can keep your computer running smoother.

Keep your hard drive free of unnecessary applications

Using your computer for tasks other than recording and adjusting audio can clutter up your hard drives and slow down your system. This saps resources that could go toward an extra plug-in or audio track. Some particularly sneaky software programs, such as appointment calendars, run in the background and drain power even when they're not launched.

If you do use a computer with other programs on it, put all the data from the other programs on a separate hard drive from your audio files and try to avoid installing programs such as calendars, Internet programs (both browsers and e-mail — getting a virus is as easy as clicking a Download button), or any program that constantly runs in the background.

You basically have two solutions for this dilemma:

  • Get a computer and use it only for audio.

  • Get a super powerful computer and accept the hit you'll take by having these applications on your system.

Keep an eye on buffer settings

Low buffer settings put a huge burden on your computer — especially if you use a lot of plug-ins. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • When you record, use as few plug-ins as possible so that you can keep your buffer settings as low as you can. Using a low buffer setting minimizes your latency when tracking, making it easier to play along with previously recorded tracks and have everything line up within your single file.

  • When you mix, raise the buffer setting so that your processor doesn't have to work as hard. Changing your buffer setting from 128 samples (common for recording) to 512 or 1,024 samples when you mix might even allow you to add a couple extra plug-ins when mixing.

Adjusting your buffer settings depending on your needs can make your recording process go much smoother.

Clean up your tracks

As you cut up your takes and assemble them together, your computer plays your assembled data from the original files. This means that it often reads from various parts of the hard drive at the same time (well, not exactly the same time — it can't multitask). This puts extra stress on your hard drive and, if you have tracks with lots of chopped-up parts, it can slow your system down or limit the number of tracks you can play back before causing drop-outs, clicks, or pops.

Consolidate your parts into one continuous audio file after you finish making your edits to the individual tracks. This way your hard drive has all the data for your track in one place, making it easier to play back.

5 Ways to Place Microphones for Great Sound Recording

Part of running a great computer-based recording studio is making sure you get great sound from a microphone (or mic, for short). To do this, you need to use the best mic for the application and place it where it can sound its best. This requires not only knowledge of the different types of mics that are available, but also how these mics are used for a variety of instruments.

Regardless of the style of microphone you use — or the type of instrument you record — you can use one or more of the following mic-placement techniques to capture the sound you want:

  • Spot (or close) miking: Spot miking (also called close miking) involves placing your microphone within a couple feet of the sound source. People with a home-recording setup use this technique most often because it adds little of the sound of the room (the reverb and delay) to the recorded sound.

  • Distant miking: When you use distant miking, you place mics about 3 or 4 feet away from the sound source. Distant miking enables you to capture some of the sound of the room along with the instrument. An example of a distant-miking technique is the overhead drum mic. With it, you can pick up the whole drum set to some extent. Coupled with a few select spot mics, you can record a natural sound.

  • Ambient miking: Ambient miking is simply placing the mic far enough away from the sound source so you capture more of the room sound (the reverb and delay) than the sound of the actual instrument. You might place the mic a couple feet away from the source but pointed in the opposite direction, or you might place the mic across the room. You can even put the mic in an adjacent room, although this is an unorthodox technique. The distance that you choose varies from instrument to instrument.

    Ambient mic placement works well in those places where the room adds to the sound of the instrument. (Home recordists sometimes use stairwells, bathrooms, or rooms with wood paneling to liven up the sound.) The sound that you record is ambient — steeped in the sonic qualities of the surroundings (hence the name ambient miking). If you mix this in with a spot mic, you can end up with a natural reverb. If your room doesn't add to the sound of the instrument, you're better off not using any ambient mics. You can always add a room sound by using effects in the mixing process.

  • Stereo miking: Stereo miking involves using two mics to capture the stereo field of the instrument. A variety of stereo miking techniques exist, and things can get pretty complicated when using two mics to record. You can also find stereo mics that — on their own — do a good job of capturing the stereo field of an instrument.

    Stereo miking has the advantage of capturing a natural stereo image. When you listen to performances that were recorded with well-placed stereo miking, you can hear exactly where on the stage each instrument performed.

  • Combined miking strategies: Many times you'll want to use more than one mic. The possible combinations are almost limitless: You can use several spot mics on one instrument, you can use a spot mic and an ambient mic, you can have a distant mic and a spot mic, or . . . Well, you get the point.

PC Recording Studios: Elements of a Full-Featured Mixer

Mixing is one of the essential elements of all audio recording programs. Mixing is the ability to blend your individual tracks together into a single pair of stereo tracks. Simple mixers let you control the volume and panning information (left to right positioning in the stereo field), whereas full-featured mixers give you nearly complete flexibility over numerous elements of your tracks.

Full-featured mixers include the following:

  • Automation: Being able to automate your mix — changing volumes, panning, effects send levels, and others — is important because when you mix with your mouse you can adjust only one thing at a time. To have a complex mix where each of your tracks has changes throughout the song requires decent automation capabilities. Powerful programs let you adjust everything: volume, panning, muting, soloing, send levels, effects parameters, and so on.

  • Send effects: Sends are signal routing functions that let you send part of your audio signal to a different place in the mixer. Basic programs limit the number of Sends available to you for each track to as few as five, whereas more sophisticated programs raise this limit to 64 or more. This feature is important if you do complex mixes that use numerous effects. (For this, you also need a very powerful computer or a host-based effects processor.)

  • Inserts: Inserts are signal routing functions that let to place an effect inline with the audio signal as it works its way through the mixer. Like Send limitations (see preceding bullet) many basic programs have low limits on the number of insert effects that you can plug in to each track. Full-featured programs raise this limit to where you have much more flexibility in what you can do.

  • Surround mixing: Being able to mix beyond a two-channel stereo format can be helpful if you mix for video or DVD audio. Basic programs don't offer this option, so if this important to you, you need to look for a full-featured (read: more expensive) solution.

  • Offline bouncing: Offline bouncing lets you mix your song as quickly as your computer's processor can process the data rather than in real time. This is a handy feature if you have a lot of songs to mix or if your songs are long. The alternative is real-time bouncing, where your song plays at regular speed (and you hear it all through your speakers). With long songs, the wait can be agonizing, so this might be a necessity for you.

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