Continuing on the subject of the last chapter, I will talk about the other core controls here: timing, tempo, automation and record/monitor enabling.
This one seems obvious, but I still want to say something about it. Timing is about when to start a piece of audio and when to stop it.
Everybody’s intuition is telling them to start recording at the spot you should start playing, and stop it immediately when this part is done. While this is not wrong, there are better ways to do it.
First of all, to not create weird jumps in your audio you want to play through a connected piece of audio in one run. If there’s an intro of about thirty seconds where you are continuously playing guitar, it is not smart to record the first 15 seconds, and then the last 15 seconds. Playing through it in one continuous recording already makes it sound nicer, cleaner and more connected. Don’t be ashamed to do multiple takes on such a long piece of audio.
Besides that, there’s usually a small bit before the actual part where you fade in or start your playing. If you start exactly at the moment your part starts, you’ll miss your ‘introduction’ and it will seem like your instrument just fell into the song out of nowhere.
And lastly, it is hard to immediately get into the groove or exact rhythm of a song. Every DAW has a metronome built in, which you can set to the correct tempo and use for one or two bars before your part starts to get the tempo right. Which brings us to the next subject…
Most songs have one single, continuous tempo through the whole song. The most universally used tempo is 120 BPM (beats per minute). BPM is the common way to denote a song’s tempo, and BPM can be swapped for ‘quarter notes per minute’. A tempo of 120 BPM means that one bar takes 2 seconds.
What is a bar? A bar is a set of 4 quarter notes. Most songs can be divided into an exact amount of bars, and even verses and choruses follow the pattern of being built out of bars. The start of a bar, or halfway through the bar are the usual places to start new instruments/song pieces or to stop existing ones. If you’re going for a more complicated melody, you can divide a bar into 16 equal pieces (16th notes) and use them as starting and stopping points for notes.
While most DAWs allow a change of tempo even after creating the project, it is of course wise to know and set the tempo beforehand. The tempo is the lifeline of your song, and if even one instrument is not timed correctly the whole mix can feel messy and out of place. It is therefore important to know your tempo, and set your grid and metronome accordingly.
Of course, having a certain note or vocal just out of tempo can create an artistic effect, but use it sparingly or you’ll just sound like you don’t know what you are doing.
Tempos can be changed within a song, but it is a drastic change and should be a challenge that is taken on with care. If the two tempos are too close together, it will sound like a mistake rather than an artistic choice. If the switch is too abrupt, it will sound like something is missing in your song.
I’ve already mentioned it a few times, but it is important enough to have its own section.
All DAWs support enabling a metronome to click to the tempo of your song. You can usually set it to only make click sounds one or two bars before you start recording, but you can also let it click while you are playing. I recommend always using a metronome. Every instrument being timed perfectly is one surefire sign of a professionally recorded song. You might think you can just imagine the tempo in your head, but just enable that metronome to be sure and not waste time.
Automation is the music industry’s way of saying animation. It got this special name and place, because people usually tend to talk bad about it, even though it has some great uses and advantages.
The reason why it is this way, is because if you mix and master your audio correctly using the other core controls, you shouldn’t have to use it. People think that using it means you screwed up somewhere and want to put a bandage on the wound instead of fixing it.
While they have a point, automation is very well implemented in every DAW and should be used in some cases.
You can use automation to animate anything: volume levels, panning, effects, etcetera. I personally only use it for one thing: (cross) fading.
Sometimes you want an instrument to fade in or out, and it can’t be achieved by playing it softer. That’s when you use automation to animate the volume and create a fade.
There are also times when you create a part of the song using pieces of audio from different takes, or different recordings of that part. This can sometimes create weird, unnatural transitions between them, often with a click noise going with it. Using a cross-fade between the two pieces can smoothen it out, so much that somebody else will never notice there were different pieces. Most DAWs have a shortcut for this.
If you have an audio interface that can accept multiple inputs, you want to know about and use record enabling. Record enabling a track means nothing more than making the track record everything a certain input receives. Usually with standard settings, the track you’ve selected will automatically be record enabled. If you have only one input, it is simple: if a track is record enabled it will record everything from that input. If you have multiple inputs, you need to set which input to record for every track, and record enable/disable the correct ones.
Say you’re recording a new, acoustic song, and you just want to sing and play guitar at the same time, and do the whole song without stopping. Then you could put one mic for your vocals, and one mic for your guitar, and record both at the same time as you play and sing. This way you actually perform the song, but you can still edit and mix the individual tracks later on.
If you monitor your mixes via headphones or a special system, then you especially want to know about monitor enabling. When you monitor enable a track, it means that you want to hear what is on the track while you record. You’ll have to make sure the correct output is set on the track to receive the sound where you want, which is probably your headphones (because the audio from those are not picked up by mics). If you want to hear yourself loud and clear as you would sound in the song, you want to enable it. If you just want to play and hear it in the natural way (coming from the instrument), you need to disable it.