Recording Multiple Instruments At The Same Time
Tips and techniques for simultaneous recording
We’ve all been in the situation where we need to record something quickly. Where you don’t want to mess around with overdubs. Where you’re trying to capture the moment of performance in one fell swoop.
It may be that amazing riff you come up with, with the killer melody, that you need to get out of your head now. Perhaps you’re trying some things out ahead of a live performance and want to see how they sound. Whatever your reason, the ability to record more than one signal at once is a powerful and hugely liberating tool. Let’s have a look at some methods for recording multiple instruments at the same time, or multi tracking as it’s sometimes known.
The basic idea behind this task is simple. We want to record two signals, simultaneously, into one place. We’ll make a couple of key assumptions for the purposes of this article; one, that we’re recording onto a computer and two, that we’re using only two signals at this stage. Increasing the numbers of instruments in the future is fine, and while you may need slightly ‘bigger’ equipment the principles are the same.
Essentially, what you need is a device to capture the sound from the instruments or microphone; a device (usually a piece of software) to record into; and a way of listening back to your recording afterwards. Oh, and your instruments… Let’s drill down into each component part separately.
The first key bit of kit is the audio interface. Commonly these plug into your recording device via USB and convert the analogue signal from the instrument or microphone into a digital signal which can be interpreted by a computer. Typically, you’ll be able to tweak the input signal so it doesn’t ‘peak’ or distort on the way in, as well as route the audio back out from the computer to headphones or monitor speakers.
At the basic home-recording end of the scale, these units don’t tend to add too much extra colour or flavour to the sound, and can be relied on to produce good quality recordings. The Focusrite Scarlett range is well known in recording circles, and their 2i2 audio interface is a solid choice for anyone looking to record two signals at once.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
DAWs are the brains behind the operation. They act as a kind of human/machine interface and allow the user to ‘see’ graphically what has been recorded, before then giving them the tools to edit, produce, mix, master and apply all kinds of studio magic to their recordings.
There’s plenty of choice in this field, with each of the big players offering something slightly different. Ableton Live is one of the biggest names, and is a dream for both writing and performing thanks to its highly intuitive features, as is Native Instruments Komplete 11. Cubase is also well respected among home recorders and comes with some amazing in-built functionality. Whichever you choose, they can all cope with recording multiple instruments at once, so it’s really a personal choice. There is, it must be said, a slight learning curve with DAWs too, but while the features may vary slightly the basic principles remain the same. Choose one you’re comfortable with, learn the features and you’ll be set.
Outputs & listening
The final piece of the puzzle is something to listen back to your recordings on. We won’t go into too much detail here; you’re likely going to use either headphones or speakers. The best advice here is to make a decision based on your needs. If you’re only recording the occasional thing, or if you require portability, then a decent set of headphones will suffice. We have a neat guide here on the differences between various types of headphone.
If, on the other hand, you have a dedicated studio area then you will probably benefit from some dedicated audio monitor speakers. Buy the best you can afford here; you won’t regret the investment in the long run.
Ok, so you’ve got the gear you need and you’re ready to record. We’ll cover two examples here; recording two audio signals (an electro-acoustic guitar and vocal), and recording a MIDI instrument and a vocal. There are slight differences in the process, so let’s look at that in some more detail.
- Two audio signals
This is perhaps the simpler of the two setups. All that’s required here is to connect the output leads of your instrument and microphone into your audio interface. Once that’s done, you’ll need to tell your DAW where it’s to pick up the signals from. Most interfaces these days are plug and play (look for the phrase ‘class compliant’) – this means the computer will automatically begin hunting for the necessary technical gubbins it needs so you don’t have to worry about it. With that done, create two audio channels, point your DAW in their direction, arm both tracks to record and off you go. It’s really that simple.
- Audio & MIDI
Things are slightly more complicated if you’re using MIDI, but not overly so. We’ll assume it’s USB MIDI being used, as using ‘old’ MIDI does bring another level of complexity…
Again, the key here is to tell the DAW where it should be looking for an incoming signal. Create one MIDI track and one audio track; load your plug-in instrument or soft synth to the MIDI track, tell the audio track to take its signal from the interface and you should be set. Arm both tracks, hit record and you’re away.
Recording multiple instruments at once isn’t a difficult skill, however it will become an essential one to many artists. As we’ve seen here, the main things to consider are the equipment which makes up the recording chain, and the instructions you give to the recording device. The rest, our friends, is up to you.
In summary, when recording two audio signals;
- Connect the output leads of your instrument and microphone into your audio interface
- Tell your DAW where it’s to pick up the signals from (look for class compliant)
- Create two audio channels
- Point your DAW in their direction
- Arm both tracks to record
In summary, when recording with an audio & Midi source;
- Tell the DAW where it should be looking for an incoming signal
- Create one MIDI track and one audio track
- load your plug-in instrument or soft synth to the MIDI track
- tell the audio track to take its signal from the interface
- Arm both tracks and hit record!
View a complete range of recording equipment over at the Dawsons website.