Updated: Jul 23, 2021
So you've decided to take the plunge and invest in your music career. You've looked high and low for a good recording studio and or engineer/producer to help you realize your musical vision. The day is rapidly approaching when you go into the studio and start working to capture your performance which will be forever entombed in sonic excellence and emotional connection. The last thing you want is for misunderstandings to occur which might lead to confusion or frustration during this special moment in time. I have pulled together a list of some of the most common terms and phrases you might hear in a typical recording session which may help you more effectively communicate with the producer or engineer who is working on your session. Hope this helps, and as always hit me up at dwpsounds.com if I can be of assistance with any of your musical endeavors! Aloha, David.
Tracking - The process of capturing musical performances. This term often is used synonymously with the term "recording." In this context, if you are "tracking vocals" you might do three or four "takes" which will end being compiled (comp'd) into a single coherent lead vocal track. You might also be recording an acoustic guitar at the same time on a different "track" than your vocal is being captured on. All of this is the act of "tracking" your musical performance.
Take - A single pass or run-through of a song in which you capture your performance, whether it be vocals, bass guitar, or whatever it is you are currently recording. Usually, you would hear: "let's do another take" after you have listened to the previous effort and decide you want to give it another go. Translation: dear revered client, I'm going to hit the record button shortly, please prepare yourself to run through the song again and this time, for the love of god, more cowbell please!
Track - Said in the context of the software used to record/capture performances. Each instrument (vocals, guitar, uke) is usually recorded on its own track with the microphone/pre-amp combination best suited for that instrument, With each instrument recorded on its own track, the song can best be blended into a coherent sonic sculpture in the mixing phase of production. Usage: let's record the guitar on a separate track from the vocals.
Punch-In - The process of re-recording only a section of a track captured in a previous take. Oftentimes, if a vocal performance was excellent except in one section, say the bridge, the engineer would set up the punch so just the phrase that needs to be re-recorded will be overwritten by a subsequent effort. An effective punch will have ample pre-roll (runway or context) to let the performer know where they are in the song so as to come in strong with the necessary phrase or guitar lick, etc.
Comp - Short for compilation. Often a vocal performance, for example, will consist of X number of takes in which the best parts of each are compiled (comp'd/chopped up/edited) into a coherent, compelling performance in a single track. This can be one of the most efficient methods of tracking. Certainly, it is more desirable to capture a complete, compelling performance in a single take but after a long day in a studio that can become more of a challenge.
Edit - The process of cleaning up breaths, mouth smacks, pops and clicks, dead silence, etc in a track. This can also include "chasing fades" making "crossfades" or fading in or out at the beginning or ends of tracks or "audio regions."
Chasing fades - Fading in or out the beginnings or endings of a track. This allows for a more gradual start or stops to the audio on the specific track.
Verb - Short for reverb. Often a vocalist may be asked, "would you like more or less verb on your vocals" during tracking. Adding verb to the vocalists' headphone mix during tracking can add a little ambiance and vibe to help the vocalist more easily get lost in the meaning of the song they are bringing to life, a good thing!
Click - Also referred to as a click track. Essentially the same thing as a metronome, it is used to help the performer lock into the tempo of the song and is the best friend of the mix engineer who takes over after the tracking phase of production has completed. A kind tracking engineer will often conjure up a suitable drum beat/loop to be used instead of the click track which can have an abrasive, distracting sound to some people.
DAW - Digital Audio Workstation. Essentially this is the software of choice used in conjunction with an audio interface that converts analog sound waves into digital ones and zeros on a computer. Some popular DAWs include Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton, GarageBand, Reason, Audacity, etc. Don't let audio snobs sell you on one DAW sounding better than another, each has its pros and cons and comes down to the preference of the engineer that uses it and how efficient they are with the software. If someone is using a lot of keyboard shortcuts, this is a good sign they are very efficient with their DAW of choice. No one likes waiting for someone to mouse through a menu to find the command they are looking for!
Grid - The grid is defined by the tempo (beats per minute) of the song and the measure such as 4/4 or 3/4 time. The main thing you would need to know about the grid is recording to a click allows performances to later be perfectly lined up on the grid (imagine the drummer having played with perfect time without slowing or speeding up). This can be a desirable option based on the style of the music. Jazz and some folk styles are not well served by lining up performances on the grid. Most other genres can benefit from at least having some elements of the song lined up on the grid, i.e. drums and bass. Recording to a click track leaves the mix engineer with more options down the road.
Compressor - Either a hardware or software tool which helps to level out the loudest and quietest sections of a performance. It is often desirable at the time of tracking to run the vocals or instrument through a nice-sounding high-end compressor so that less work has to be done using software tools in the mixing phase. Care must be taken, though, not to over-compress at the time of tracking since this can suck the life out of a compelling vocal or instrumental performance.
PreAmp - In a nutshell, this is what a microphone or instrument is connected to at the time of tracking. The preamp in its most pure purpose is used to amplify the signal that is coming into a usable level in the DAW. There is also a beautiful sense of art derived from the choice of pre-amp. Each preamp is much like the various colors in a crayon box. Some paint a tale of gritty pain and frustration, some paint an elegant picture of beauty or satire. The experienced engineer will choose a preamp based on the vibe of the song and the attitude or emotion of the performer. Never underestimate the power of a good preamp, but at the end of the day don't lose any sleep over it. The performance of the musician and the sound of their instrument is way more important than either microphone or preamp choice!
XLR - A type of cable that connects either a microphone or a DI (direct input) to a preamp.
Quarter Inch - Also called an instrument cable. Is used to connect an instrument such as guitar or bass to either a DI box or an instrument amplifier.
D.I. - Direct Input. Used to convert a signal coming from an instrument cable to a mic signal which would be carried on an XLR cable to a preamp. Basically, a fancy signal/impedance converter.
Line In - Line in or line-level is essentially a machine-to-machine communication signal. A line-level signal coming from an external preamp into a DAW audio interface would use the line-in jack of the audio interface. Otherwise, going line into a mic signal would not sound good at best and possibly cause some damage.
Condenser Microphone - In a nutshell, it's a microphone that requires electricity for it to function. Condenser mics usually have a wider frequency response (can capture more of the high and low-frequency spectrum) and are often used on vocals and stringed instruments. One of the most common condenser mics you might find in a studio is the Neuman U87 or one of its clones.
Dynamic Microphone - In a nutshell, does not require electricity to function (you still have to connect it to an XLR cable to hear any sounds it captures). These mics can usually handle much louder volumes and will often be used on drums and guitar cabinets, sometimes vocals too. Popular examples of dynamic mics include the Shure SM58, SM57, and SM7B.
Engineer - The person setting up and placing microphones, choosing preamps and compressors, and running the DAW during a recording session. Often a producer will also be engineering a session. The engineer/producer is often focused on "blades of grass."
Producer - The person guiding the direction of the song and either making decisions or making suggestions about instruments and sonic elements to add to a production. Often the producer will also be coaching musicians and vocalists on their performances while trying to maintain the vibe and vision of the song. In smaller operations, the producer will often time be functioning as the engineer as well.
Mixing - The phase of production where all of the elements captured during the tracking phase are polished, edited, and blended into a coherent musical outcome that best amplifies the emotion and mood of the song. This is more of a "trees" perspective.
Mastering - The forest perspective. Adding final polish to one or more mixed songs such that there is a flow and consistent EQ, vibe, and volume between all the songs in a project.
Distribution - Phase of a song release life cycle where you upload your mastered musical masterpieces to a distributor such as Distrokid, who I use, or others such as CDBaby. These distributors get your songs placed on the streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music.
Publishing - Arguably the only way for mere mortals to make any real income from their songs. A publisher will work to get your songs placed in ads, movies, sitcoms, etc, ie, to monetize your songs for a cut of any profits generated from placements they facilitate. Don't be afraid of publishing. If you want to make a career in the music industry, publishing might very well be your best bet given that Spotify and the rest aren't exactly bathing artists in a windfall of money.
Split Sheet - A fairly simple agreement between songwriters and collaborators that spells out the percentage of royalties each person will get when the song is released. It's usually a good idea to take care of this piece of business before spending too much money in a recording studio. There are many split sheet templates out there, CDBaby offers one for free here: Musician Split Sheet.
Many other terms encompass the world of audio production but these are some of the more common terms you may hear. In the ideal situation, the artist should never have to think about anything technical if the engineer is doing their job which is to create an environment conducive to capturing the magic in the recording studio. The best engineer might be the one you don't even notice, who creates a safe space for you to create your sonic art! Aloha to the moon and back, DWP!