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Music In Our Schools

Multitrack Recording In The Classroom

Our educational consultant describes a basic, 4-track recording session from initial recording to final mixing.

Both teachers and newcomers to multitrack recording will benefit from this
step-by-step explanation of a basic recording session, by Stephanie Sobey-Jones.

Multitrack recording involves the recording of individual instruments and/or voices onto separate tracks of a multitrack tape recorder. The different tracks can either be recorded simultaneously, or one after the other — a process known as overdubbing. In this article, I'm going to work through a project to record a typical 'hybrid' ensemble, comprising drum machine, keyboard, electric guitar, flute and vocals, onto a standard cassette-based 4-track machine with integral mixer.

1: Setting Up The Machine

Start your session by cleaning the tape heads, and make sure you use a good quality Type II chrome tape for the recording (see Music In Our Schools November '92). Before you begin recording, it's a good idea to check the position of any EQ controls and set them to their neutral or centre positions. If you need EQ, you can add it when you mix. Also check that the pitch control is set to zero, as this can cause disastrous results if discovered part way through the recording!

When using the overdubbing method of recording, it is important that each player can hear what is already on tape so that he or she can play along in time. Working through headphones is one solution, though if you're recording electronic instruments, you might consider connecting the multitracker to an amplifier and speakers (a hi-fi system will be fine). However, if you are recording with microphones, this may not be a satisfactory solution since a live microphone near speakers can produce feedback (that dreadful high-pitched whine).

Noise reduction is well worth using, particularly where microphone recording is involved, and most machines have either Dolby or dbx noise reduction. If you intend to use it, make sure the facility is switched on from the start of your session — both while recording and playing back. As a rule, leave it switched on all the time.

2: Sound Sources

All electronic instruments have output sockets from which their sound can be fed, via a cable, to the input sockets on your multitracker. Some multitrackers have two types of input socket: mic, used by microphones, and line, for drum machines and keyboards. Other types of machine have dual purpose mic/line sockets so you will use these with both electronic instruments and microphones. Electric guitars can either be recorded by placing a microphone in front of the amplifier, or they can be plugged directly into a line input (a process known as Direct Injecting or DI). In the classroom, the latter suggestion may be more practical, and better received by neighbouring departments!

Since dry electric guitar doesn't sound terribly exciting, the guitarist may want to use an effects pedal, in which case you should connect the guitar to the pedal and take a lead out from the pedal into the multitracker's input. The main exception is when using overdrive or distortion pedals, which invariably sound awful when DI'd. For this kind of sound, mic up the guitar amp or use a guitar preamp designed specifically for DI recording.

3: The First Track

Although there are no hard and fast rules, most of us record the rhythm part first — assuming there is one. It's easy to play along to a steady beat, but virtually impossible to add a rhythm part after other parts have been recorded, particularly from a drum machine, since it will carry on at the same speed regardless of what everyone else is doing!

Let's assume that the drums are to be recorded onto Track 1; your drum machine therefore needs to be hooked up to the input socket on Channel 1 of the multitracker's mixer section. Make sure both the channel and the main output or master faders are up. Some multitrackers have a selection switch on each channel which determines whether you hear your sound source, or whether you hear what is on tape. Choose the setting which enables you to hear the drum machine if you start it playing — usually the Source position. At this point, if you can hear drums either through your headphones or speakers, everything is connected up properly. It is worth spending a few minutes making sure there is enough level going onto tape from the instruments being recorded — too much signal will give you a distorted recording, but too little may result in the track being swamped in tape hiss. Most electronic instruments generate quite a healthy signal, but you should adjust the Trim or Gain control on Channel 1 so that the loudest peaks in the sound show just inside the red part of your level meter.

Recording the first track is easy enough, but if everyone starts playing at the beginning of the song, you need a way of generating a tidy start on the other tracks, so some kind of count-in is usually a good idea. This could be a bar or two of taps — perhaps using a hi-hat sound — right at the start to set the tempo. At this point, refer to your multitrack manual if you are unsure as to how to make a recording or how to play back the recording once you have made it. Once the drum part is down, rewind the tape and check that you can replay it OK.

4: The Next Two Tracks

When you come to record the next track, you will need to hear what has been recorded on Track 1, so make sure that Track 1 is switched to its Tape (not Source) setting before you begin recording on Track 2. It is usually a good idea to record another rhythmic part next (or perhaps the bass part, depending on the music). Assuming that the electric guitar is going to play fairly rhythmic material, this may be the logical part to do next, followed on Track 3 by the keyboard part.


Sometimes it is quite difficult to build up a recording a part at a time and an alternative could be to record the previous three tracks simultaneously — but note that some of the smaller multitrackers only allow two tracks to be recorded at once, which limits their flexibility. Recording three tracks simultaneously works well with electronic instruments or electric guitars which plug directly into the multitracker. The instruments could be plugged into channels 1, 2 and 3 respectively and this way, the performers can play more as a group, whilst still being recorded on separate tracks.

Use the channel faders to set up relative levels so that everyone can hear themselves and each other through the speakers. When the players are happy with the balance, the music can be recorded. You can then finely adjust the balance between tracks when you play back the recording. Furthermore, if anyone has made a mistake, you can go back and record just their part again.

5: Five Into Four Won't Go

At this point we have three tracks recorded and only one track left for the two most melodic parts — flute and vocals. A solution to this problem is to combine two or more previously recorded tracks on a single empty track — a technique known as bouncing — which then frees up the original three tracks for re-use; your manual should give precise details on how to do this. Most 4-track machines will actually let you record 10 or so individual tracks using this method (see later). Every time you re-record material from one track to another, you'll notice a slight loss in quality, so it's best not to bounce material more than once — twice at the outside.

Stephanie Sobey-Jones is Education Specialist at Systems Workshop, and a part-time Lecturer in Music Technology. She is currently running a series of courses for Primary and Secondary teachers, covering different aspects of technology in the Music curriculum.

At this point, however, you'll have to decide which tracks to combine and how they should be balanced in relation to each other. This largely depends on the importance of the relative instruments within the song, but for now, assuming that the guitar and keyboard are playing accompanying roles, I would combine these parts and bounce them on to track 4, which is still empty, leaving the drums by themselves so that they can be independently raised or lowered in the final mix as required. It is worth taking some time to get the balance between the guitar and keyboard right in relation to each other, and if the two instruments are playing material in a similar range, you might consider using the EQ controls to 'separate' their tone colours a little.

Once the tracks have been combined and the original tracks re-used, there's no going back, so make sure the balance is exactly as you want it. Having completed your bounce, this now leaves track 2 for the flute and track 3 for the vocals, which will probably be recorded last.

6: Flute And Vocals

Recording acoustic instruments and voices with microphones is not as straightforward as the direct recording of electronic instruments, because the factor which often makes the greatest difference to the quality of your recording is the placing of the microphone in relation to the performer — and the quality of the microphone itself. In general, microphone placement is a matter of experimentation, and it is interesting to see how the sound can alter depending on where the microphone is. A good starting point for the flute is to place the microphone about two feet away from the instrument, midway between the top and the bottom, pointing over the sound holes. The player will need to be able to hear what is on tape while he or she is playing, and sometimes a microphone will pick up the sound coming from the speakers in addition to the instrument being recorded. Depending on the music, this may not matter a great deal, but one way of avoiding it is for the player to wear headphones instead of listening to the speakers, so that they can hear what has been recorded at a decent volume. When recording vocals, it is quite common for certain explosive consonants, such as 'p' and 'b', to feature rather more than is desired. This is known as popping, and can easily be eradicated by making what's known as a pop shield out of a loop of wire covered in stocking material which you place in front of the microphone; another cheap solution to the pop shield problem is to buy a frying pan splash guard, usually obtainable for a couple of pounds from kitchen equipment shops. In general, depending on the result you are looking for, placing the microphone nearer to the mouth produces a breathier sound, so a good starting distance for vocals is approximately 6-12 inches away — again you should experiment!

7: Mistakes

It is unlikely that everyone will record their parts correctly without at least one slip, but fortunately, one of the advantages of multitrack is the ease with which things can be patched up. Re-recording the whole of the offending track is one solution, but if the mistake is only small, it can be corrected by re-recording just the part of the track where the mistake occurred — a technique known as 'punching-in' (described in some detail in the article on multitrack recorders in the September '92 issue of RM). Punching-in can either be done manually or via the multitracker's punch-in socket, using a foot pedal. Either way, it's a good idea to begin your punch-in at a suitable pause in the part so that the effect is less noticeable!

8: Mixing

Once all the tracks have been recorded, the mixer section of your multitracker will allow you to set the balance between the four tracks by using the faders, and to tonally adjust some of the tracks by slightly altering the high or low EQ settings. (Some small multitrackers only allow EQ adjustment to the final stereo mix.) EQ can be useful if the tone of one instrument seems to conflict with the tone of another, or if you need a particular sound to cut through the overall texture, but as a rule, use as little EQ as you can. You may also like to experiment with some 'stereo imagery' by panning some tracks more to the right and others to the left. However, don't go mad with this feature — I once came across a home recording of a harp in which the glissando passages swooped from one speaker to the other. Very artistic, but definitely unreal unless the harpist was on wheels at the time!

If you have access to an effects unit, now may be the time to hook it up to the effects Send and Return sockets of the multitracker and experiment with some added reverb, which will completely transform your recording from its classroom venue to the concert hall, cathedral, or whatever setting takes your fancy! Some tracks will benefit from added effects more than others, especially the vocal and flute tracks, but be careful not to overdo it!

Now all that remains is for the multitracker to be connected to a stereo cassette recorder (via its Line Out sockets) and the recording to be transferred, or 'mastered' on to another tape, and the project is complete! Again watch the meters on the stereo cassette deck to make sure they don't go too far into the red on the loudest parts of the recording. Next month I'll be taking the same step-by-step approach to MIDI sequencer basics.

Effective Bouncing

A 4-track machine does not have to limit your recording creativity too much, as most multitrackers allow up to 10 tracks to be recorded with no part being bounced more than twice.

Here's how:
  • Step 1: Record parts A B and C on Tracks 1 2 and 3
  • Step 2: Bounce ABC to Track 4
  • Step 3: Record D and E on Tracks 2 and 3
  • Step 4: Bounce Tracks 2 and 3 on to Track 1
  • Step 5: Record F on to Track 2
  • Step 6: Bounce Tracks 1 2 and 4 on to Track 3 (ABCDEF)
  • Step 7: Record G and H on to Tracks 1 and 2
  • Step 8: Bounce Tracks 1 and 2 on to Track 4
  • Step 9: Record I and J on to Tracks 1 and 2

Final overview:
  • Track 1: Part I
  • Track 2: Part J
  • Track 3: Parts ABCDEF
  • Track 4: Parts GH

Parts A to E have two bounces and parts G and H have one bounce. You will need to carefully consider which parts should be combined in order to get the best final mix. (Parts I and J are probably best reserved for lead vocals or a solo guitar part.) If, when you bounce tracks together, you also record another part 'live' as you go along, you can record your 10 parts with no more than one bounce per part.

Recording Checklist

In order to avoid potential problems, check out the following:
  • Ensure that tape heads and guides have been cleaned before each recording session.

  • Check that your machine is switched on and that the tape is in and rewound to the start. If the tape won't record, check whether the safety tags on the cassette have been pushed out.

  • Check that all channel controls (EQ, Pan, etc) and the pitch control are set to zero before recording.

  • Check that noise reduction is switched on.

  • Check that channel is set to receive signal from the sound source, or signal from tape, depending on whether you want to record something on a particular track, or hear what is already on tape.

  • Select the track you want to record on to — most machines have a track select switch, or Left/Right Buss system which allows you to choose the appropriate track for recording. Switch this setting to 'Safe' after you have recorded the track!

  • Always test levels from your sound source before recording.

  • At the end of your session, rewind your tape and remove it from the machine before switching off.

  • Always label your tapes.

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Recording Musician - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Recording Musician - Dec 1992



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