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Or, Dragon's Dictionary of Home Recording Terms

...being a set of definitions of terms used in home and project studio recording, sometimes serious, but always completely true. Even the pros have been known to use some of these words from time to time, although they also use the highly technical phrase "%$@#(*&?!" when they lose a master tape...

  • 4-track: a cassette multitrack recorder with 4 tracks.
  • 8-track: 1. a cassette multitrack recorder with 8 tracks. 2. a 1970s car stereo playback device (click), invented by Bill Lear of LearJet fame (click), which fortunately (click) is gone forever (click). Unfortunately, so is Bill (click).
  • A/D Converter: converts an analog sound signal to a digital bitstream that computers can mess with.
  • Analog: normal, everyday, sound or electronic equipment that deals with real sound rather than sound that's been transformed into bits and bytes.
  • Audio Spectrum: sound frequencies that the human ear can hear, generally between 20 and 20,000 Hz.
  • Can: what you're sitting on when you get your best ideas.
  • Cans: slang for headphones.
  • Cassette: a plastic shell with 1/8" analog audio tape in it, invented by Philips in the 1960s.
  • Cassette Multitrack Recorder: a cassette tape recorder, usually with a built-in mixer, with multitrack capabilities...effectively, a recording studio in a box.
  • CD: Compact Disc. You knew that, I hope...
  • Compressor: a widely misused piece of electronic equipment that reduces dynamic range. A compressor will tend to make louder sounds the same level as softer sounds.
  • D/A converter: the opposite of an A/D converter, of course!
  • Digital: 1. computers' favorite food 2. of or pertaining to your fingers.
  • DAT: 1. Digital Audio Tape, a.k.a. 4 mm. cassette. DAT recorders are the tape medium of choice for mixing down to, because you can send a DAT tape to any CD pressing firm and (assuming you used the correct 44.1 KHz frequency) can be translated direct to CD in the digital mode without losing anything. 2. Brooklynese for "that".
  • Digital Recording: 1. a method of converting audio to digital signals so they can be processed and recorded with more expensive equipment that doesn't degrade the sound 2. more proof that computers are taking over the world.
  • Dynamics Processing: anything that interferes with the natural dynamic range of the sound.
  • Dynamic Range: the "loudness spectrum", from, say, a whisper to a shout.
  • Effects: 1. generic name for any electronic box that changes the sound in some way other than EQ or dynamics processing. Examples: reverb, tremolo, flanging, fuzz, chorus, delay. 2. what you're going to spend lots of your money on before you know what hit you.
  • EQ: short for equalization.
  • Equalization: a long word for "fancy tone controls". Equalization lets you boost or cut frequencies in any part of the audio spectrum.
  • Headphones: 1. a small set of speakers you wear on your head that ideally keep outside sounds out, and what you're listening to from bleeding into the mics 2. poor man's studio monitors.
  • Limiter (or peak limiter): sets a "never to be exceeded" plateau for sound volume; everything over this peak gets "squashed down" in volume. Important to use with digital equipment.
  • Master tape: the "1st generation" tape that you recorded on, generally on a multitrack recorder. Erase this by mistake and it's "The Day the Music Died".
  • Mastering: a process whereby a number of songs, after being mixed down, are EQ'd, compressed as necessary, and balanced in volume with each other, so that they will sound good when placed together on a CD.
  • Mic: short for microphone and pronounced like the name "Mike".
  • Mike: the bass player in my high school band, now a world-famous video artist.
  • Microphone: sound goes in one ear, and electricity out the other.
  • MIDI: an acronym for Musical Instruments Digital Interface, MIDI is a common encoding language that most keyboard synthesizers speak. As used in most recording studios, MIDI files (generally stored on a computer) can be used to force MIDI-based sound modules or sound cards to act as high-tech "player pianos". That's not an analogy, either, that's exactly what they're doing.
  • Mixer: 1. an impressive-looking device* with faders and EQ knobs whose sole function is to control the level of sound from different tracks or inputs. 2. a kind of inane party given by local Chambers of Commerce.
  • Mixing down: taking the tracks from a recording session, playing them back together, and adjusting the voulme, panning, and effects so you can record the final result in stereo to a "mixdown recorder".
  • Mixing up: what you do with patch cords and master tapes when it's way too late at night.
  • Monitor: 1. speakers that you use when mixing down, also known as "studio monitors". 2. a large carnivorous lizard. 3. a computer screen, like the one you're looking at right now.**
  • Multitrack: any recording device with one or more tracks that can be separately recorded and played back. In the 1960s, this was called "sound-on-sound" and "sound-with-sound", which nobody understood except a few editors at audio magazines.
  • Normalizing: 1. to make normal (this never worked on me) 2. to normalize tracks. Duh...seriously, just click here.
  • Patchbay: 1. a signal rerouter that mounts on a rack, with dozens of jacks on the front and the back. 2. a very useful item that you will have to buy to prevent going insane after you have your multitrack recorder, compressor, effects boxes, and mixdown recorder, so budget an extra $200 right now.
  • Patch cord: 1. a short cable used to connect inputs to outputs on a patchbay. 2. inch for inch, the world's most expensive guitar cable.
  • Portastudio™: this is a trademarked term of TASCAM referring to their cassette multitrack recorders.
  • Producer: 1. someone who thinks he knows more about recording and mixing a song than the actual musicians. 2. someone who actually does know more about recording and mixing a song than the actual musicians, which is why he gets paid for doing it.
  • Punch in/out: 1. a pedal that controls the recording signal so you can "go over" a short section of already-recorded material that you (or the producer) think could be improved.  2. what you have to do at hourly jobs. 3. what you are liable to do to the producer if he asks you for one more retake.
  • Rack: 1. an expensive box with metal rails 19" apart, that you mount all your expensive electronic equipment in. 2. no torture jokes, OK?
  • Virtual Tracking: first you record MIDI or SMPTE timecode onto one track of your recorder, using a MIDI sync box. Then you set up a sequencer with your MIDI file (usually the rhythm tracks of a song you want to play along with). The timecode forces the sequencer to play the MIDI file as the tape rolls, so that you can mix the sound from the MIDI in directly along with the tape tracks. See our MIDI page for more info.

* Remember the Death Star's planet-busting ray ("Commence primary ignition") in Star Wars? The control panel for that was an off-the-shelf Grass Valley Group 1600 video mixer.
** On top of my computer monitor, I have a very lifelike rubber Chinese Water Dragon (a member of the monitor family), and I have sound monitor speakers on either side, so I've got all three definitions going at once!

Here's another glossary, a bit more complete, of mostly audio terms.

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