BY GARRETT HAINES | FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MAY 2018 ISSUE
Going into a professional studio to record can result in some of the most fun you’ll have as a drummer. It can also be overwhelming, at least until you learn the ropes. Since time is definitely money during any session, it’s essential to be familiar with recording terminology in order to communicate clearly and efficiently with the engineer.
That’s where this cheat sheet of contemporary studio lingo comes in handy. While some of these terms might be self-explanatory, others can be confusing, originate from old technology, or just be outright misuses of proper expressions. Study this list, then go talk with the engineer and disprove all of those drummer jokes that guitarists make.
In larger studios, this person is responsible for setting up microphones, connecting cables, and most of the engineering grunt work. He or she usually reports to the recording engineer, and spends a lot of time in the main live room while the engineer monitors things from inside
the control room. In smaller studios, the assistant engineer may be an intern.
A software application made by Antares that allows audio engineers to manipulate a vocalist’s pitch. Like Kleenex, Xerox, Google or Rollerblades, it’s a brand name that’s replaced the actual term, which is pitch- correction. It’s both a verb (“Is that autotuned?”) and a noun (“Does that have autotune on it?”). Most people say “autotune” in reference to pitch correcting of any kind.
Refers to undesirable sound from another source being picked up by a microphone, such as a loud guitar amp being picked up by drum overhead mikes. Also known as spill.
The board, short for mixing board, is the large electronic device often seen in control rooms. It has lots of knobs, button, lights, and sliding faders. It is primarily used to amplify microphones, combine signals, and route audio. Larger boards may offer effects like equalization and compression. Also known as a desk, mixer, or console.
A backline company that rents gear and instruments on an as-needed basis. This is most common in Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York, where a drummer might fly in for a session without her or his drums.
A single, vertical strip of a recording console. This is not to be confused with a track. Think of is this way: a track is recorded through or played back through a channel on the console.
A metronome that is played in a performer’s headphones during recording. A click track helps to ensure that a song is recorded at the targeted tempo so later recordings can be layered over the basic tracks without fear of timing issues.
In the digital realm, “clipping” refers to an audio signal that exceeds the headroom of the recording system. The resulting distortion is quite different than analog distortion. It is unpleasant and undesirable, and typically can’t be fixed.
Headphones that have sealed or enclosed speakers. Although they lack the bass extension of open-backed or vented models, the close-fitting ear piece helps reduce bleed from click track and monitor mixing into microphones that are near the artist’s head.
Unlike the rugged dynamic mikes often used in live situations, condenser microphones are fragile, sensitive, and require power to operate. If you are ever asked to test a condenser microphone, do not tap on it or scrape the grill. Simply talk near it or play the drum it is recording. Treat them with care — many studio vocal condenser microphones cost as much as or more than a new drum set.
In most studios the recording console, outboard gear, and patch bays live in a command center known as the control room. These rooms are acoustically isolated from the main recording rooms, with at least one large window affording a view into them. The producer and engineer usually work in the control room.
A physical surface used for controlling a digital audio workstation. At first glance, most control surfaces look similar to recording consoles; however, they are not interchangeable. A console processes audio, while a control surface provides a human interface device (HID) that sends commands to recording software or other digital applications.
A device that changes analog voltages to digital signal (A/D converter), and digital data into analog sound (D/A converter). Converters vary greatly in price and quality, with high-end models continuously being refined to better emulate an analog waveform.
A device that reduces the dynamic range of an audio signal. These were originally designed to prevent recordings from distorting and ruining the recording of a performance, but over time engineers found that compressors could contribute to the sound by making audio thicker, more impactful, and louder.
Guiding audio that an artist listens to while performing their part. Also known as a cue mix, guide track, or scratch track.
Digital audio workstation. This is computer software that uses converters to record audio to hard drives. DAWs also provide extensive editing and processing powers, allowing for incredible creative control over audio tracks that was previously impossible. Popular recording DAWs include Pro Tools, Logic, SONAR, Ableton Live and several others. Even GarageBand is considered a DAW, though it’s not likely you’ll find it in a major studio.
In movie making, the engineer would be the director of photography. He or she determines microphone placement, gear selection, signal processors, gain stages preamps, creates headphone mixes, records, and maintains stewardship of the audio signal chain.
These are usually the people that provide financial backing for a recording project. They do not have the day-to-day responsibilities of the main producer, but can exert influence because they control the purse strings.
The process of setting the proper signal level for each recording input. If a signal is too low, more noise than sound may be captured. If the input is too high, audio could distort or overload the recording. Along with microphone placement, gain staging is one of the most important procedures a recording engineer handles during a session. If the engineer seems to be checking audio levels while moving knobs, they might be optimizing the signal path. At this time, it is best not to interrupt or ask questions.
A movable acoustic structure used to isolate, diffuse, or absorb audio in the studio. Gobos vary in size and purpose, with some being only 2 feet x 4 feet, while others as large as walls. They can be mounted on wheels or hung on stands, and sometimes even include windows to maintain sightlines among players.
The slicing, stretching, and squishing of recorded audio, often drum parts, to fit onto a specific timing meter. The “grid” refers to the visual timelines displayed on most digital audio workstations. Many contemporary pop music productions grid-edit all drum parts, no matter how solid the player is.
A special type of compressor that focuses on keeping audio from exceeding a particular loudness. Originally used for broadcast and other areas where maximum amplitude was set by regulations, limiters are now used creatively in the recording and mixing process to enhance the sound of a particular track or an entire mix.
The large main room where most recording is done. Also known as a tracking room.
An isolated room containing noisy audio equipment. Machine rooms were very common during the days of analog tape machines. “Isolation boxes” that are advertised to keep recording computers quiet are nothing more than a miniature machine room.
The process of assembling the final stereo mix (the result of the mixing process) into a final presentation. Mastering engineers polish the mixes, sweeten the sound, help to ensure volume levels are consistent among songs, and put a sonic frame around the project. Once the audio massaging is complete, the mastering engineer generates the final output for the multiple formats, including vinyl, CD, digital download, iTunes, radio, cassette, streaming, etc. To be pedantic, the mastering process described here actually refers to premastering, while mastering technically means creating the actual physical stamper used for vinyl or CD making. But even industry insiders seldom use the term “premastering.”
This is the process of balancing the recorded audio tracks into a final presentation. This includes more than just volume — there’s also panning, effects processing, and many other steps involved. Traditionally, mixing is done on large-format consoles with many faders and provisions to connect external gear and effects. Today, some studios mix on the computer entirely inside the digital audio workstation, which is often called “mixing in the box.”
Modern recording studios have small kiosks, tables, or platforms that hold headphones and a small mixing device. These stations allow the engineer to place headphones physically near each artist. Depending on the brand and model, the mixing device can provide from 1 to 32 individual volume controls for the artist to make their own personal mix while recording.
Nashville Number System
A type of shorthand used by session players to transpose songs, write out quick-and-dirty music charts, and trade ideas. This music theory-based charting system denotes the scale degree on which a chord is built. Roman numerals (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii) replace the letter names of keys and chords, allowing key changes to be adopted quickly and without the need to rewrite full staff charts. Drummers don’t need to read this system, but it doesn’t hurt to understand it.
In the days of analog tape, the term “cut and paste” actually meant taking a razorblade to tape, cutting out a section, and splicing it back together. The first digital systems followed this convention — any edit made to the audio was permanent, affecting the source material. Modern programs don’t manipulate the source audio (unless you direct the software to do so). Instead, all editing is done with pointers and commands that tell the processor what to do without altering the base audio. Since these edits don’t change the original data, editing is said not to destroy the source and is therefore “nondestructive.”
Adding more audio or more tracks to previously recorded material.
A panel of jacks used to connect and route audio signals in a convenient, flexible manner so you don’t have to crawl behind racks to connect units point-to-point. These are usually quarter-inch connections.
A 48-volt current required by condenser microphones. Usually, recording consoles and preamps provide phantom power for mikes, but some tube microphones have their own power supplies. It’s reportedly called “phantom” power because dynamic microphones do not “see” or sense the voltage. While phantom power may not harm dynamic mikes, it can damage some vintage ribbon microphones. It’s best to avoid touching any switch that says “phantom” or “48v.”
Microphones have very low output signals on their own. A preamplifier, often called a “preamp” or simply a “pre,” is a device that boosts the level of signal captured by a microphone. Many consoles have preamps on each channel, but there are times when an engineer wants a different sound, or “flavor,” for a microphone on a given instrument, so a variety of outboard preamps are widely available.
The first step in the recording lifecycle. This is when the artist meets with the producer and engineer to determine the songs to be recorded and the instrumentation required, as well as to explore any scheduling and logistical issues. Preproduction forms the blueprint for the recording process.
When overdubbing a section of music, most musicians prefer to hear the audio leading up to the part they are about to rerecord. Pre-roll refers to the section of preview audio you will hear before beginning the overdub. Although you can set pre-roll as minutes or seconds, most musicians prefer to specify bars or beats.
The producer is the person responsible for maintaining the creative, quality, and scheduling standards for a recording. They are the lion tamer, the therapist, and the gym coach, and sometimes even contribute performances to the record. The producer is the person who tells the recording engineer and the band whether a take is a keeper or should be rerecorded. A producer keeps an ear open for artistic matters while the engineer focuses on technical aspects such as signal flow and gain staging. In movie making, the producer would be the director.
Sometimes a recording take is perfect except for one small section. Instead of rerecording the entire song, the artist may want to record over just the parts that need to be fixed. The engineer plays the recorded song and, at the appropriate time, begins recording over a previous take. The part is then edited to start and stop in exactly the right spots. On analog systems, the engineer would have to time this well enough to start and stop in the right spots on the fly, since there’s no “undo” button on a tape machine.
“Punch point” is a slang term created by studio drummers who purposefully leave space at key song breaks so it’s easier to do punch-ins. Instead of letting a cymbal ring before a fill or letting the hats get messy, an experienced drummer might purposefully rest between measures to create these natural spots to punch in. With digital technology this is less of a concern than it used to be, but the term is still in use.
PZM stands for “pressure zone microphone,” a type of microphone that uses a small transducer mounted next to a hard surface or plate. It often resembles a black ping-pong paddle. Placed on a continuous, flat surface, it will eliminate interference from reflected waves. Also known as a boundary microphone.
This ingenious invention by engineer John Cuniberti (Joe Satriani, Dead Kennedys, The Smithereens) is a dual-function direct box. On recording day, the engineer runs a copy of the guitar’s pickup output through the reamp. This preserves a clean, direct guitar or bass signal. The engineer later plays this recorded audio back through the reamp box and into a guitar amp, which can be done without the guitarist present. The engineer can swap out entire amplifiers and change settings while relying on the original performance of the guitarist.
Short for “representative.” This is usually a person from the recording label or management company. In big studio days this could have been the Artist and Repertoire (A&R) manager, or it could be any label employee who attends the recording session. Reps usually want to make sure the record is going according to schedule and budget.
Although most recording studio microphones are sensitive and/or expensive, a ribbon microphone bears special mention. These mikes are very sensitive to wind or sudden pressure changes. They are made with a layer of aluminum foil so thin, if you sliced a piece of paper into five layers the aluminum would still be thinner. Although modern mikes have designs that help make the ribbon more robust, you need to be careful around these units. Repairing a ribbon is expensive and time consuming.
Some recording engineers create a fast-and-dirty mix of each day’s work as a courtesy to the band and producer. Rough mixes are not final and therefore not suitable for distribution.
The contemporary process of digitally replacing or augmenting recorded drum sounds with pre-recorded samples of other drums. Some engineers record samples of the drummer’s kit at the start of the session for this purpose.
Similar to a film slate, an audio slate is a tag of audio printed before a recording that provides information about the take, time, and date. Slate was very common during the days of analog tape, but is used less in digital workstations since engineers can readily make notes inside the computer session.
Microphones and recording gear are not only expensive, they are very sensitive to vapor and environmental pollutants such as smoke. Most recording studios won’t permit smoking or vaping inside the control room or any of the live recording rooms. Consequently, a smoking area is where you need to be if you intend to inhale.
A continuous recorded performance.
Given that most engineers are isolated in a control room, it’s difficult to talk to the artists in the live room without a dedicated line. The talkback channel connects to a microphone in the control room that allows the engineer, producer, or anyone else in the vicinity of the mike to speak to the artist in their headphones, thereby keeping the conversation out of the microphones.
A single linear recording of audio. This is not to be confused with a channel, which is one vertical line on the mixing console. On analog recording machines, the number of tracks is limited by the recording medium. For example, a 24-track tape deck could record up to 24 different tracks. In modern computer systems, track count is limited only by computing power and hard drive space, effectively making the number of tracks unlimited.
A device that senses physical impulses and converts them into a control signal. These are essentially pressure-sensing microphones. Before sample replacement software was invented, it was common to attach triggers to acoustic drums to serve as a backup for the recording engineer. Trigger data is not audio, it is purely information. This is typically recorded on a MIDI (data) track and can be used to swap or augment drum sounds with other audio from sound libraries.
An isolated room designed for singers. Typically a vocal booth will have one or more windows that afford sightlines to other artists, engineers, and producers, while keeping the sensitive vocal microphone isolated from loud instruments such as drums and guitars. Many artists call it the “booth” for short.