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Music 265b Lesson 2: Basic Tracking Session

PDF version is available HERE

The Setup Sheet

First and foremost, you need to make a good setup sheet. This will tell your assistants exactly where to place chairs, music stands, mic stands, what mics to put in front of each instrument, and so on. By making detailed notes, this will avoid problems & confusion during the session. Things to keep in mind:

  • The musicians need to be close enough to one another in order to see, hear, and play in tune together. If you’re not sure how to place the chairs, consult the Music 165 textbook for diagrams. Use Baffles when needed.
  • You can only record up to 32 tracks in our Pro Tools system at the same time.
  • You have to choose what you can & can’t mic: if you’re recording full big band at the same time, you don’t have enough inputs to put one mic on every instrument, or each drum for that matter. Again, consult the book.

The Work Order: Paid Sessions

In a professional setting, before setup, you need to fill out a work order, keeping track of your setup start/end time, tracking start/end time, etc. A studio may or may not charge for setup/strike, but when the session is finished, count up the number of hours worked, sign off, and charge the client accordingly. Unless you have something worked out in writing, never give out any materials until you have been compensated.

Setup

Get there early. Turn on the control room, and be sure to zero-out the board: make sure all the knobs & faders are reset back to 0, all the buttons are un-pushed, etc. The last person to use the console should have reset it before they left, but always double check: one wrong button can (and will) ruin your session.

Before you start plugging in cables, MUTE all of the inputs on the console. Connect the snake to the mic panel, arrange the chairs, stands, etc. Follow the setup sheet: Label your tracks & inputs. Get the microphones on stands and put them where they’re supposed to go before the band gets there.

Once everything is plugged in, unmute the console and do a basic mic/line check: ‘scratch’ the mics or talk into them in order to make sure signal is coming through clearly. This is a good time to check for buzz, etc. If cables need to be replaced, or if channels need to be bypassed, now is the time to do it (See the Troubleshooting section on the last page). 
Once everything on the console is working, setup your headphones (if needed) and patch in your outboard compressors & effects as needed. Turn off your cell phones.

Make Your Pro Tools Template

This part can even be done at home ahead of time. Launch Pro Tools and create a blank session. Typically you want to record at Mastering quality: 48kHz sample rate, 24 Bit Depth, or better. Name the session file, and save it in your project folder, or on your portable firewire drive. Make sure you know exactly where you are saving this session: do not save it inside another student’s session files.

From the menu, go to Track > New, or use the shortcut, COMMAND SHIFT N (on a PC, shortcuts use Control instead of Command), to make (up to) 16 mono audio tracks. Label them according to your setup sheet: make sure the names, numbers, and inputs/outputs are correct: Tracks 1- 16 in Pro Tools should have their inputs set to Analog 1-16. If the session requires you to make a click track or a headphone mix as a part of your template, do this as well. If you don’t need to, don’t do it.

Because this is a tracking session, you do not want/need to concern yourself with plug-ins & effects unless you absolutely have to. You will be using Pro Tools as a simple multi-track recorder for the time being, so you want all of your computer’s resources focused on recording clean, solid levels without clipping, lagging, or stopping in the middle of a take.

Once the template is finished, go to File > Save as Template, and either save it in the Music 265 category, or save it in your project folder: Give it a name that will distinguish it from your other templates in case you need to use it for another session (e.g. “Mike’s 10-piece Jazz Band, December 3”).

Sound Check

By now, the band should be arriving, setting up, and warming up. Use this opportunity to quickly get all of your microphones in the right place (when in doubt, consult your textbook). When you’re ready, arm (record-enable) your tracks in Pro Tools, just like a tape machine (if you’re not using a track, or if you know a performer will not be playing on a channel, do not arm/record that track: dead air eats up your hard drive space). When they’re playing, you want to get a strong, clean signal: as reasonably loud as you can get without distorting, clipping, saturating, etc. Adjust the Gain or Trim knob so the performer’s loudest notes peak just below the red line on the meter: give yourself some extra headroom in case they get louder. Once you have good levels on the console and in Pro Tools, you should be ready to record. Just to be safe, have the band play through a louder song/section in order to set your levels & mix.

Tracking

When you’re ready, go to File > Save As and save the session as the name of the song, in your project folder (you should now have two sessions: the template, and the first song). While in the song’s session file, hit ENTER on the number pad to make a memory location, and call it Take 1, etc. Arm the tracks you want to record, arm the transport (right-click the record button and select “Quick Punch” for less work), and tell the bandleader that you’re ready to record. When the band is ready, hit record and cue the bandleader. While recording, try to avoid adjusting the levels going into Pro Tools unless you absolutely have to. However, you can mix inside Pro Tools without affecting the incoming signal.

At the end of the take, make a memory location for take 2, or create a new Playlist for each take. If they’re moving on to a new song, then save the session and close it. Go back to your original template (with no audio recorded) and do File > Save As song 2. Repeat the process for each song until the tracking session is done. Alternatively, you could record everything into one session and sort it out later. This takes more time in the long run. At the end of the session, finish off the work order, sign it, and have the client sign it.

Strike

When you’re done recording for the day, disarm your tracks in Pro Tools, mute all the channels on the console, and start packing up. Put the microphones away first, then wrap up your cables. Put the mic stands away, and set up the chairs for the next class that needs to use the room. Always remember to zero out-the board before you leave. If you turned a knob or pushed a button, reset it. If you need to save your settings on the console for your next session, write them down along with all of your patches. Shut down the computer, and turn off the power conditioners (one on each rack); turn the power amps to the monitors off first. Cover up the board, and lock up the studio: do not leave until the studio is locked.

Troubleshooting: what to do if something goes wrong during a session

Take extra time during the setup phase to make sure everything is working properly. We want to be fast, but we need to have good tracks to make a great recording. If you run into a problem, write down what you think the problem is and what you did to fix it.

Think logically, check your connections/routing first, and work your way back from one end to the other in order to diagnose and fix a problem.

  • Check your patches: are they pushed in all the way? Are they in the right patch points?
  • Check the console: is the trim/fader volume up? Is something muted? Did somebody push the 
tape return or mic/line button on accident? If it’s a condenser mic, is phantom power on?
  • Check your cables: is the snake connected? Is the cable plugged in all the way? (The XLR plug on a Monster Cable is too bulky to plug into the black Whirlwind direct box) Is it the right cable 
(3-pin XLR for mics, Balanced 1/4” TRS for headphones, unbalanced 1/4” for guitars & bass)?
  • Check the microphone/direct box: is it turned on? Are the settings right?
  • If it’s a bad cable, replace it and set it off to the side and make a note: test it later and fix it with a soldering iron.
  • If it’s a bad channel in the snake, plug directly into the mic panel on the wall and make a note.
  • If the channel/cable is picking up interference (radio, ground buzz, etc), make a note and use a 
different channel. Remember, you have 16 channels on the console. Patch as needed.
  • If there is too much leakage in the mic, adjust the positioning, and use a baffle.
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