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Home Studio Essentials - Basic Terminology part ii

In the previous post, I told you that there are two domains to every DAW: the Sequencer and the Mixer. Not all DAWs are made the same, but every last one of them will, in some way, come with the ability to layout clips and modify the way they sound. Modifying their sound is what mixing is all about.

Mixing is a somewhat deceptive term for two reasons. First, even if you only have a single track, more than likely you will have to do some “mixing” to it. Second, to mix two or more things generally means to blend them together. When you “mix” music or audio, you’re doing the opposite. You want each track and clip to find its own, unique spot in the mix while still working harmoniously with the others. It’s kind of like asking school children to get along. You don’t try and make them all behave as a blend of everyone, you try and find a way to allow each child to be themselves while getting along with their peers.  

But in order to mix, you need to understand some of the basic functions of the Mixer and a few concepts that go along with it. So here we go:

A mixer is a user-interface that allows you to process and edit your various sequencer tracks so that they sound their very best. Every mixer will allow you to adjust the volume level of your track in the overall mix, but more powerful ones will allow you to do even more editing, such as panning, EQ, compression, insert effects, send effects and more. Let’s become familiar with each one of these terms.

Volume Fader
The volume fader is the most basic tool you have in mixing. This amplifies or attenuates your signal. Move it up, the sound gets louder. Move it down, the sound gets softer. Pretty simple, right?

Mute and Solo Buttons
The Mute button for a track does exactly what it sounds like, it mutes that track. The Solo button does the exact opposite. It mutes every other track.

Panning comes from the word “panorama.” Having two ears, we hear the world in stereo (my apologies to anyone deaf in one ear!). This means that we are capable of hearing sounds from the left and from the right. When mixing, it is sometimes appropriate to shift a sound source from the center, that is equal power to both ears, to the left or right, that is unequal power to both ears. Most mixers will have a simple knob or slider to indicate Left, Center and Right.

EQ is short for equalisation. Unless you’re listening to a sine wave, sound generally ranges in amplitude and frequency across the hearable spectrum. Humans can hear soundwaves that range from as low as 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. In mixing, we utilize EQ to adjust the particular frequencies a sound source is producing. If you’ve ever owned a stereo or CD player with three faders or knobs marked Bass, Mid, and High, then you’ve had some experience using EQ to adjust the sound of your music.

Compression is one of the most common mixing techniques and also one of the most difficult to grasp and utilize. In the future, there will be a number of blogs dedicated to this topic but for now, a brief explanation will suffice. Compression takes the loudest parts of an audio source and “compresses” them to be quieter which reduces the dynamic range, that is the difference, between the loud parts and the soft parts. For example, when we speak, we lose our breath. Generally, the last few syllables we speak before drawing another breath tend to be slightly softer than the ones spoken immediately after a breath. Using compression, we can reduce how loud the first syllables are to allow every syllable to sound more even.

Insert Effect
An insert effect is an effect that is placed in the signal chain in such a way that it affects the entire source. An insert effect is run in series to the signal. Think of it like this. Source -> Insert Effect -> Output. For those of you coming from the realm of electric guitars, an easy way to grasp this concept is to think of an insert effect like a stompbox that goes “in front” of the amp. In other words, there is no portion of the signal that is unaffected. This kind of effect will always go “in front” of your fader.

Send Effect
A send effect is an effect that runs parallel to your original signal. Rather than affecting your entire signal, a send effect occurs when a portion (or all) of a signal is “sent” to an effect and then returned and summed with the original source. An example of this is when a reverb effect is used. Often we will “send” a vocal to a reverb effect and then return a portion of the affected signal. This allows us to maintain the clarity of the dry signal, while adding the lush texture of the wet signal.

“Signal chain? Dry signal? Wet Signal? What are those?!”

Once again, great questions. Here are the answers:

Signal Chain
A signal chain is the journey through which a source takes from input to output. Learning to keep each step of a signal chain in mind not only will save you headaches when troubleshooting (“Why can’t I hear anything?!?!?! Oh! I have the MUTE button on.”), but will also allow you to more effectively mix your audio.

Dry/Wet Signal
You will hear this term a lot. Dry refers to the unprocessed portion of a signal, wet referring to the processed portion. Many effects will come with a dry/wet ratio that ranges from 100% dry to 100% wet. Insert effects will generally be used somewhere in the middle of these ranges, while send effects will typically use 100% wet settings. We’ll explain more about this in later blogs.

And that’s it! I know it was a lot, but understanding these concepts will go a long way towards helping you create some top quality recordings. Take some time to tinker and experiment with these various settings in your DAW to get more comfortable with each of these concepts.

New post in a day or two; please look back soon.


Home Studio Essentials - Basic Terminology - part i

Basic Terminology

Have you ever spent time around a particular occupation and noticed that a particular lingo is used? It’s as if each job comes with its own dialect. I have got news for you. The same is true of producing audio.

No worries, though, it is all simple enough to learn and will really help you out as you continue reading these tutorials in the future. To start with, there is one term you need to know before all others:


DAW stands for Digital Audio Workstation and refers to any software used to record, edit, arrange, and mix audio on your computer. Everything involved with producing audio can be done entirely in the digital realm and is only limited by your computer’s hard drive, RAM, and the capabilities of your DAW.

DAWs come in every shape and size imaginable, ranging in price from free to several hundred pounds and capabilities from the bare essentials (recording just one track of audio) to incredibly robust powerhouses capable of 5.1 surround sound and more. Getting your hands on a DAW suitable to your work will be one of your first tasks in setting up your home studio. We will discuss which DAW may be right for you in a future blog. For now, all you need to know is that a DAW is where the magic, I mean “work”, happens.

Every DAW on the market operates on the same basic principles. Understand these principles, and you’ll be able to use any piece of recording software you come across. These principles generally fall in one of two domains: the Sequencer and the Mixer. We will cover everything you need to know about the Sequencer in this blog, and the Mixer in the next. Let’s get started.

Every DAW will, in some shape and form, have a sequencer. A sequencer is a UI (user interface) that displays the various audio, instrument and MIDI tracks and clips on a timeline.
“Woah! What’s a track or clip? What’s MIDI? What’s a timeline?” you ask. Good questions. Let me answer those and we’ll get back to describing the Sequencer.

Sequencers are comprised of tracks. A track is generally a lane that contains the audio or MIDI data related to a single input or instrument. For example, if I recorded one vocal take, the audio would be recorded to a track. Make sense?

A clip refers to a snippet of audio or MIDI data. This piece of data can range in length from a fraction of a second to hours long. It all depends upon hard drive space and what you’ve recorded and/or are editing.

MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface. If you only plan on recording audio, then you will never need to know what this is, but if you plan on composing music or backing tracks using virtual instruments, then listen up. MIDI is a protocol, established in 1983, which standardized the way that instruments and computers can interact digitally. MIDI transmits information such as note on, note off, velocity, volume, vibrato, panning, and a number of other parameters which in turn are interpreted by your computer or device and translated into recognizable sounds. Pretty cool, huh?

This is the part of the sequencer which displays the clips, in their respective tracks, in such a way as to indicate a progression of time, from start to finish (and beyond). The timeline might be displayed in minutes and seconds or beats and bars depending upon your particular DAW.

Back to the Sequencer
Combining all these elements, the Sequencer allows you to record, edit, compose and arrange all of your clips in order to produce your finished product. It’s similar to a conductor’s score, except instead of notes on a sheet of paper, it’s data on a timeline.

There’s one more thing you need to know about your Sequencer:

The Transport Section
No, this doesn’t mean your DAW will take you from your home to the market. Transport refers to the buttons used to navigate your sequencer. Play, stop, rewind, fast forward, loop and record are all typical transport functions found in virtually every DAW. Most of these operate exactly the same, but each DAW may have its own transport nuances. For example, Propellerhead’s Reason comes with a dedicated “LOOP” button whereas ProTools loop feature is set by Ctrl + clicking (Mac) or right clicking (PC) the Play button. It doesn’t hurt to crack open the user manual for your DAW to learn all the tips and tricks of your transport section.

So there it is! You now know a decent amount of terminology and are well on your way to becoming a pro with your DAW. Spend some time playing around with these features and getting to know your software. 

Be sure to check out Pt. 2 regarding the Mixer.