Recording for the first time can be daunting and you need to know the right recording studio terminology. This definitive glossary will cover all the terms you’ll need so you will know exactly what your engineer is talking about.
Learning vocabulary used in recording studios will not only allow you to fully understand the aims and objectives of the engineer, but it will also show that you have made the effort to understand a complex world that people train for years to become part of.
Recording at a studio is cool but it’s a technical place and you will be under pressure to get results. Here are the most common recording studio terms and fundamentals so you know exactly what the producer/engineer is talking about.
Recording studio terminology
- Click track
- Studio desk
- Dynamic range
- And many more studio terms!
You don’t need to know everything in great detail but knowledge of the most common terms will mean that you won’t waste any time having to have everything explained to you during the session. Your engineer will be particularly pleased that they don’t have to dumb anything down. It will help them focus on the job at hand – getting you the best possible recording of your material.
What are the most common music studio terms?
Recording studios are like miniature worlds, with their very own landscape, language and rules. The sooner you can acclimatise to these, the quicker you will begin to understand and enjoy the process.
Very often, in order to get the results you desire, you need to be able to communicate with an engineer or producer in a specific way, so they know exactly what you mean.
With this in mind, we have prepared a quick guide to some of the most common and crucial terms you will come across in the studio setting.
This is a studio version of a metronome. Usually played inside your headphones for you and any other musician to help you all keep time. Most live bands will insist that they don’t need a click-track – and lots of them don’t – but having one gives the engineer a rigid time-stamp on the computer software, which can be used to nudge any out of time notes back into place. It means that if you hit a duff note, you don’t need to lose the whole take, you can simply move the note or drop-in and record it again.
The process of automating a function on the computer with regards to the recorded sound. In most cases, it is used to fade the volume up and down. It can also be used to fade the music from one speaker to another – left to right, for example, this is called panning. It can also be used to alter the actual sound using an effect parameter. You could, for instance, automate the timing of a tremolo effect so that over the space of 8 bars it cycles between a quick rate and a much slower rate.
A short way of saying mixing desk. A mixing desk is a device that channels audio inputs – your voice, through a microphone, for example, and then feeds them elsewhere, allowing you to make changes to the sound.
In a live scenario, a mixing desk takes your sound and feeds it to speakers. The same happens in a studio, but it also gets fed to the computer to it can be recorded by the software. In an analogue studio, the sound will be fed to a tape machine to be recorded.
Tracking simply refers to the recording of a particular track. In the studio, it is referred to as the process of creating tracks. More specifically, it relates to when each individual is recording their parts separately. In a band scenario, for example, the band can play live (all at once) or be tracked (each individual plays their part separately along to a guide track).
A type of connector used on audio cables, primarily for microphones. It has a male and female end and connects between a mixing desk and the microphone itself. Can also be used for speakers and lighting rigs.
In the recording studio setting, digital simply refers to any signal that is based on fixed numeric values. It can refer to guitar amps, effects, computers or any other piece of kit that has a digital component.
This refers to those signals being used in recording equipment that uses continuous change. Think of the difference between a
The process of altering, changing and affecting a piece of music. Typically, editing is done on a computer using a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) as it offers a suite of tools that make the process really simple. Years ago, before computers had the capability, editing was done by cutting up and splicing together pieces of magnetic tape.
Any musical signal that is being recorded has a natural range in volume from quiet to loud – this is referred to as the dynamic range. It can be controlled using compression.
Compression is an audio effect that is used to tame the signal that is being recorded. Think of a person jumping on a trampoline and you want to make sure they don’t jump too high. So, you stretch an elastic band above them, so that if they jump too high, it restricts the height of the jump. A compressor works in the same way so that the signal stays within the parameters you set.
A term used to describe when a musician or vocalist drops-in to record an additional part or correction at a specific time. So you might be dropped-in to re-record a chorus. Or dropped-in for the middle 8.
What is a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)?
This refers to the computer and software being used to capture your musical signals. In most professional studios the sound will go through a mixing desk before it hits the computer.
Once it hits the computer and is fed to the software it can be captured and digitally edited. The three most common DAWs include Apple’s Logic Pro X, Ableton and Avid’s Pro Tools. They allow engineers to make edits, add effects and then create the final file, which you can upload to Spotify or send to a pressing plant to create CDs and Vinyl.
This is a separate software element that plugs-in to the DAW. They are developed by third parties to do specific things. Your engineer may have specific plugins for reverb, distortion effects or software models of vintage studio kit.
A term that describes the process of mixing tracks together to produce a balanced and coherent sound. In the studio, it is the art of making everything sound like it has its own place without blending everything together into a musical mess.
How to translate your ideas to a producer
Before you even set foot in the studio you need to have a really clear idea about what you want to achieve. Then, you need to find a way to clearly communicate those ideas with your engineer or producer. The easiest way to do this is to provide studio staff with a demo of the work you intend to record and then some examples of how you want it to sound.
In reality, a delay is simply an echo effect. The signal is delayed and then repeated. Whether you are using a pedal or digital plugin, you can change the volume level and a number of echoes that you hear.
Multi-tracking simply refers to more than one track being recorded. A perfect example is the drums. Collectively grouped as one instrument but recorded using lots of different microphones. It’s really impressive to see them in the studio mic’d up and then going through the desk and into the computer.
Moving the sound from one side to the other, from left to right, or right to left. If you listen carefully to most recordings, some sounds have a heavier presence on one side or the other. Only the vocals and drums tend to hold the centre. Try listening to your favourite track on headphones and you will instantly get it.
The process of adding additional tracks to the recording. It can also refer to the re-taking or re-recording of tracks to be placed in the mix. The term comes from the tape-recording process used many years ago where the only way to add additional tracks was to ‘dub’ them into a second machine.
Reverb or reverberation is an effect which can be added to any musical signal to add depth and fullness. You can experience reverb naturally when you perform in a large hall or a small bathroom. The digital effect is simply a manufactured way to recreate this natural phenomenon.
Phase is another type of effect that can be added to an audio signal. Usually used by guitars, it splits the signal into two paths and when they merge they create a notched, futuristic sound.
Similar to phase, the signal for this effect is once again split in two, only the second signal is delayed over time creating the characteristically cool jet plane-style effect.
Much like Flanger and Phase, the chorus effect also splits the signal, however, when they are blended the delay is much greater with the aim of adding a more ethereal and choir-like effect to the sound. Used primarily for guitars but also for vocals.
This is a modulation effect that alters the volume in a rhythmic pattern and can be controlled and altered on the pedal if you are using a guitar effect or on the dials available on your plugin. Often used to give a spacey, retro feel to guitars.
What equipment do studios have and what they are used for?
Most studios have a host of kit they can use as and when they need it. This can range from microphones to musical instruments, from amplifiers to percussion. It’s highly likely that a studio has better kit than you do, so if you get the opportunity to use a better quality microphone, guitar, amplifier, piano – or whatever, you should take the opportunity to have it feature on your track.
Great amplifiers can make a world of difference to guitar and bass sounds. If there is a great amp you can use, jump on the opportunity to have it feature on your track.
If you go to a really famous studio, you could use the same amp as say John Squire did to record Stone Roses. Not only will it add to the quality of the recording but it will add to the magic of your time in the studio. That’s why we’re doing it, right?
A decent studio should have hundreds of mics. They should have drum mics, vocal mics, room mics, instrument mics and a whole host more besides. Let your engineer worry about which one is the best for your sound. Just make sure he or she knows exactly what you are trying to achieve.
In the absence of a mixing desk, your audio input (i.e. your voice from a microphone) is turned into a digital signal and fed to the computer via a dedicated device – an Audio Interface. Technically speaking, a desk is also an Audio Interface, only with a specific name and purpose.
Record a demo for your studio session
The easiest way to explain your song to an engineer or producer is to record a demo version so they can hear it for themselves. You can record your demo on your phone and send it ahead of time along with the examples of styles and sounds you want to emulate.
If you are trying to take a recording of a band for a demo, you need to think about where you place your phone for the recording so that you capture enough of the sounds for the engineer to make sense of everything.
You also need to be well-rehearsed enough that the song sounds tight, finished and full of confidence.
Find examples for your recording studio session
It’s always a good idea to send some examples of sounds you’d like to emulate for your recording session. You can either send tracks that show the whole sound you would like to mimic or just individual elements. You could, for instance, send a Beatles track and say that you want to emulate the delay and double-tracking used on the vocals.
Bring your ideas to the studio
We’ve mentioned before how crucial it is to have a plan when you go into the studio, you can check out our specific post on this here. You also need to have been really clear about your sound, which is why you need to be able to use recording studio vocabulary.
You should make notes on exactly how you want each element to sound. This may involve really detailed notes on how each verse, chorus, middle 8 or other musical elements should be approached. You can have notes on each instrument too. The more detailed your plan of attack, the more likely you are to walk away with a finished product you can be really proud of.
The basics of digital music production
Digital music production refers to the use of computers to create and edit music. Almost every studio you walk into will have a computer at its heart. Despite all of the cool analogue kit you can get, computers have become a necessity thanks to the suite of tools they offer. These allow engineers and producers to quickly edit multiple tracks.
How is music made on a computer?
The software allows the producer or engineer to create tracks and then assign instruments to them. Those instruments can then be controlled by a keyboard.
Each and every note contains a digital signature which means that different sounds can be attributed to those commands. This is a system called MIDI.
Vocal tracks can then be added using a microphone and an audio interface, which will convert the sound signal into a digital wave file, which can be edited using the computer.
To create computer-generated music you will need a computer or laptop, a piece of software to do your editing and possibly a keyboard to play musical parts. You will also need a microphone and an audio interface to record vocals.
There are tons of options when it comes to computer software. The industry standard that you will find in most professional studios is called Pro Tools. Another top-level option is Logic Pro X. There are others too, like Ableton Live, Propellerhead Reason, Cubase or Ardour.
If you plan to get into the production side of things then learning your way around various pieces of software is essential.
What are VST’s?
Virtual Studio Technology is a software interface created specifically for computers to allow them to integrate synthesizers and effects into DAW’s.
These days they are so good that they can recreate classic pieces of studio equipment and emulate their sounds almost exactly.
Let us know your favourite things about recording studios in the comments below.