Welcome to The AGF Beginner’s Guide to Audio Production.
It's a nice place, huh? Fortunately, it's possible to get great results without shelling out the kind of scratch it takes to build or even rent this place.
An organizational note before we begin: Feel free to contribute to the topics being discussed, but please keep this thread limited to tutorials and instructional articles only. Please refrain from posting any questions or comments in this thread. Each time this guide is updated, there will be a companion thread (dated and described in the title of that thread) which is intended for all questions, answers, and comments. I appreciate your cooperation in keeping this thread uncluttered, so as to keep the guide easy to follow for all who read it afterwards. This will also keep the discussion fresh and up to date, and sorted by the topics covered in each entry. All questions and comments posted in this thread will be brutally ignored and removed if possible. Then we’ll all send PMs around to laugh at the guy who can’t follow instructions. All kidding aside, thanks for your cooperation.
This guide is intended to give you a foundation to demystify the process of obtaining, setting up, and using a DAW to record your own music. We’ll start from square one and cover all the basics: outlining the gear, processes, theories, methods, and techniques used in home audio production. Soon enough, you will be able to write, arrange, track, record, automate, eq, mix, and master music. My contributions to this guide will focus solely on home production, since that is what I have experience with, and that’s what almost all of us will be doing.
Let’s get started.
First, let’s talk about you. There are some things I think you’ll want to read about before you run on down to your favorite music store to repeatedly swipe plastic and spend yourself spiralling into debt. Keeping these things in mind really helped me buckle down and learn how to get better. I know you really want to get down to the nuts and bolts of what to get and how to do, but there are some helpful hints I’ve picked up that will help along the way.
What kind of music are you going to produce? If you’re looking to mostly make music of a specific genre, it’s a good idea to research what is being used by the pros you dig. Find production articles about your favorite artists or genre and discover their tracking techniques and what gear they use. That will give you a great place to start finding out what you’ll need. In order to save time and money, prioritize what you need and develop a focus to concentrate on.
Make a budget. It’s very easy to go nuts and really put a twisting hurt on your bank account in a big hurry, so decide what you can afford first - because if you’re like me at all you’ll want to use every spare penny once you start. Luckily, this hobby doesn’t have to be terribly expensive. There are inexpensive and even free alternatives at every stage of the process. There are also places you want to go as big as possible. Remember the difference between want and need. Do not neglect purchasing a higher quality interface to get the next shiny guitar instead (even though you really need a ninth Tele).
Learn to love research. Most of us here are guitar players, so marketing hyperbole is nothing new to us. I’m sorry to say that it gets worse in the recording realm. Brands routinely use the reputation of “recording as dark art” to their advantage in an attempt to scare consumers into buying the “best” there is. As with guitars, there are places to spend big and places you can get away with a good sounding, but less expensive alternative. Research your gear in forums and reviews, being wary of people being overly critical or overly ecstatic. It’s incredibly easy to get burned, so arm yourself with knowledge. Take the time to learn the differences in different types of gear. Microphones have many different designs for a plethora of purposes, for example.
Become resourceful. This guide will cover many aspects of recording, primarily sticking to the tried and true methods of production. However, there are many ways to skin a cat. Very few “rules” you read here will be absolute. I have more fun in experimentation than anywhere else in production. A decent field recorder and a willingness to get one’s hands dirty doing a little sound design can be incredibly fun and lead you off into different creative directions. With a little elbow grease, the percussive sound of pots and pans can make the basis of a full alternative drum kit. The famous sound of a blaster in the Star Wars saga was made by hitting a non-insulated high tension electrical cable with a monkey wrench and recording the sound wave traveling up the wire. Anything can be made useful.
Less is more. It’s easy to get caught up in desiring piles of new recording gear. GAS does not hold any less influence in the world of audio production. Temptations abound. If anything, it’s worse than with guitar gear - and far easier to make a “mistake purchase.” Get what you need, and no more. It’s very easy to overwhelm yourself with choices, especially with VSTs. Learn the gear you have inside and out before moving on. Chances are you really don’t need that shiny new distraction, whatever it may be. Make the most of what you’ve got to find out what you really need.
Practice. Writing, producing, and recording music are skills which take practice. I spent years just playing around aimlessly with synths, drum machines, guitars, and everything else under the sun until I set myself a few goals and wrote out a schedule to get there. My favorite organizational and motivational strategy is the “Seinfeld method.” I have learned more in this past year than I knew all the years previous due to this one simple plan:
Develop good habits for audio production. Patience is key. Many of the techniques you will learn take time to develop. Don’t get discouraged when something doesn’t work the way it should. Ask questions in the discussion thread, someone will know - or know where to lead you.
Learn about your computer, get comfortable tinkering around with the inner workings - if you’re not already. Sooner or later, you’re going to have a problem, compatibility issue, or you’re gonna want to kill some background tasks to free up some CPU cycles to squeeze in just one more track before latency strikes. Oh, and get used to hating that word: latency.
You may suck for a little while. Don’t allow yourself to become discouraged, this is supposed to be fun, remember? Learn from mistakes and keep developing.
Protect your hearing. If you wish to do this well for any length of time, you must safeguard your hearing. Avoid loud venues, and/or wear ear protection. Don’t subject yourself to marathon recording/mixing/mastering sessions - your eardrums and/or your perception (depending on whose research you believe) can fatigue and need rest as well. You will need to retain your ability to hear very minute differences in frequency.
This one was a biggie for me: Always finish the projects you start - always - even if you think they suck. You will always be your worst critic, but there is still the practice you get and the knowledge to be gained by finishing your tracks.
“Yes, well that’s all well and good oh, wise and knowing sage, but when will we get to the gear!?!?
Very well, these are what I consider the necessities. Depending on what you’re going for, your mileage may vary. If all you want is to sing and play acoustic guitar, you’ll need far less than this. All of the following will have sections devoted to them later, this is just to whet the appetite.
- A computer: Whether it’s PC or iOS truly matters less these days, so go with your personal preference. Some audio programs are still PC or Mac only, but that’s becoming more and more rare. You’ll want to go big on this one, as much memory as you can afford - preferably with room for expansion. Another consideration is deciding between a laptop or tower. If we’re making lame cooking analogies, the computer acts as the kitchen. An alternative to the computer is a hard disk multi-track recorder, but since few of us are likely to have one around, we’ll stick with what we’ve got.
Whichever side you're on, there are now more choices than ever.
- A sequencer or DAW (digital audio workstation): This is the software that hosts all of the analog tracks you record plus any internal audio programs you may be using. Most of them will have onboard eq, mixing, automation, and editing capabilities. If we’re cooking, the sequencer is the big pot we’re cooking in.
- An audio interface (a.k.a. DI Box, digital interface): This is a physical box to connect your real world instruments to your computer. Guitars, basses, and microphones all plug into this box which routes external sound into your sequencer and turns analog signals into digital. It hosts all manner of jacks and inputs, and serves as the translator between analog hardware and instuments and the sequencer - regulating the signal in the process. These normally come with installed sound cards of higher quality than what most computers ship with. In the kitchen, this would be the broth. It brings the ingredients together.
A typical inexpensive audio interface.
- MIDI controller: A physical device used to control software. The most common MIDI controllers are used to play notes into a sequencer and are styled to mimic musical instruments such as keyboards, guitars, and drum pads. However, they can be used to control virtually any parameter, so this doesn’t always hold true. They can take many forms, like grooveboxes or DAW control surfaces. Some programs allow you to set up any smart device as a MIDI controller. The sky is the limit for MIDI devices, and manufacturers have been very creative in this area. (As a side: MIDI stands for musical instrument digital interface. It is a technical standard developed to allow musical devices and computers to communicate with each other across brands, types, and platforms. If two devices are both MIDI compatible, they should talk to each other with no issues. This will be covered more in depth later). If we’re cooking, MIDI is the science. It is the chemical reactions taking place, enabling the individual flavors to compliment one another.
This MIDI controller is well equipped with keys, faders, rotary knobs, pitch bend and modulation wheels, and drum pads - all assignable to any parameter in the sequencer or VST you're working in.
- VST: This stands for virtual studio technology and is a standardized protocol that enables programmers to write plug ins that will work in any sequencer or device which supports VST. The term actually applies to the standard the plug ins ultilize, but has come to also refer to the programs themselves. These plug ins are musical instruments and effects which are software based and can run either “stand alone” in a computer or as “plug ins” inside a host sequencer. They can be (and are) anything you can imagine. Synthesisers, effects, samplers (which mimic analog instruments), noise generators, reverb, distortion, eq, spectrum analyzers, mastering tools, limiters, filters and almost anything else you can think of short of talent boosters. The VSTs are all the veggies, meats, and spices we’re cooking in this big pot.
Native Instruments FM8. This VST is a virtual FM synth designed to emulate Yamaha's DX series synthesizers.
- Monitors: These are the speakers through which your DAW’s audio is played back for analysis. They aren’t just any ol’ stereo speakers, however. They are generally made aiming for a flat response, meaning that they portray the sound exactly as it is being played back - they are not enhancing nor flavoring any of the audio in any way. The better they are, the less they “color” the signal. They are engineered for a true and accurate signal, and there is a specific formula to calculate in their set up and positioning. This accuracy is necessary in order to detect any issues in the recording, mixing, and mastering stages. This ability, along with a spectrum analyzer, will help you to be sure that all of your tracks are sitting where you want them in the mix and enable you to eliminate issues such as muddiness and phase cancelling. While it’s a great idea to check your mixes on every player you can (from the highest end stereo to the crappiest boom box), this is what is used for reference. Accuracy is vital, since you will be listening to very minute differences in audio that can make or break your mix. This is another purchase for which you should go as big (quality, not size) as you can afford. If we’re still making stupid kitchen analogies, this would be your tongue - you’ll know if you’ve got the dish right by using it.
Yamaha NS-10 studio monitors. They are both beloved and reviled due to their ability to reveal imperfections in audio.
- A nice, quiet room. If you have kids or live in the city (or both), this is the hard part. Reverberation in this case is your unwelcome enemy. Carpeted rooms are best, preferably with as few windows as possible (glass can shake and will reflect soundwaves like crazy). Otherwise, you’ll be desperately failing to explain to your wife what the science of acoustics has to do with hanging moving blankets all over the place. A dead quiet place to record is a luxury, and store bought room acoustic treatment options are pricey. But, if you can swing a hammer, there are some good DIY solutions on the net.
Acoustic room treatment may or may not be necessary, depending on what and where you'll be recording.
For the purposes of our guide, we will be using Cockos Reaper as our sequencer. It’s a solid traditional style sequencer, and there are Win and iOS versions available. You’ll be able to take the skills learned using Reaper and apply them to just about any other sequencer on the market. It’s stable, it’s light on CPU usage, it has a helpful forum community, a good manual, a vibrant homebrew scene which constantly makes Reaper-only plug ins, and it has a fully functioning free-to-evaluate 60 day trial period. It’s well known that Cockos does not cripple software after the trial period - even if you don’t purchase it - but it’s very reasonably priced at $60. I’ll leave the moral question of whether or not you shell out for the license in your hands, but when considering how good Reaper is as compared to other sequencers available… Sixty bones is a pretty fair price. Purchasing a license now covers all future updates until Reaper 5.99 (vers. 4.731 is current).
Cockos Reaper sequencer. If you're not familiar with sequencers, this might look a bit intimidating. Once you know the signal path and what each section's purpose is, Reaper is easy to use.
We’ll also need some VST plug ins. Luckily, there are a wealth of free ones available for sounds and effects. We’ll stick to the free stuff. I have some favorites, of course - but I’m also open to requests for ones you’d like to use in the guide.
Your homework is easy for this lesson: Go to http://www.reaper.fm/index.php and download the latest version for your system from the top right corner of the page. They just updated recently to vers. 4.731. Get used to that, they update a bunch. Then download Reaper User Guide v4.73 from http://www.reaper.fm/userguide.php. It can only help. It’s also available in hard copy as well, if you like. Have a look around their site and explore the forums. Get a feel for the place. Start thinking about what you want to record, and the equipment you might need to do so. Feel free to research gear that might fit your needs. Independent study is welcome.
Have I missed anything or made a terrible mistake? Do you have questions? Talk about it in the discussion thread:
Next up: The Computer