Recording the piano at home – Part 5: Digital Recording, Editing & Mastering

What is a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)?

You can now do digital recording stuff on your laptop that was either impossible or very expensive or both just five years ago. All thanks to cheap and powerful CPUs, cheap memory and mass storage, and cheap and good graphics processors. For example, on a current model MacBook Pro laptop with sufficient RAM you can run digital audio workstation (DAW) software and USB/Firewire audio interfaces that allow you to:

  1. Do analog-to-digital conversion, capture and editing of digital audio sampled at 24-bit/192-kHz resolution;
  2. Create/record, and edit MIDI tracks;
  3. Create composite MIDI/audio multi-track recordings;
  4. Do mastering and output the final mix in different compressed and uncompressed digital audio formats, and in stereo or surround sound;
  5. Do digital-to-analog conversion and play out mixes in analog stereo or analog multi-channel surround sound.

You can read more about DAWs in general here:

If you already have a good laptop or desktop with one or more fast CPUs, lots of RAM and hard disk space then what you need to do next is to select your audio interface. Many of these audio interfaces come bundled with DAW software that provides enough functionality for producing pretty decent sounding recordings.

Digital Audio Interfaces

Since we aren’t producing commercial quality recordings then we need consider only the lower-level interfaces. Even then, many of these consumer or prosumer level audio interfaces contain dedicated digital signal processors (DSPs) that allow even the amateur to do some really fancy things with the audio signal. Here are some audio interfaces available on the market in Singapore:

Some audio engineers may warn about the microphone preamps use in the audio interfaces listed above. They say that the mic preamps used in these low-cost audio interfaces can be a little noisy and lack dynamic headroom. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. The recordings you produce with them have noise floors below that of most if not all of the analog-to-digital transfers of old pre-digital master tapes.

Just make sure that the recording level is set so that the loudest passages in the music do not cause distortion. You can use limiters in your DAW mixing console during recording, but should avoid that if at all possible. Doing so will not allow you to capture the full dynamic range of the piano.

Digital Audio Editing

A good overview of some basic techniques can be found here. For most piano recordings that you do at home, the most common things that you will be doing are:

  • Removal of extraneous noise before and/or after a take. For example, removing the click of the ‘record’ button being pressed on a handheld recorder.
  • Splice together two or more takes of the piece that you are recording.

Once you have completed the editing you will then master the recording.

Mastering

Mastering is the art (some say black magic) of tweaking the audio waveform in ways that enhance the sound. The enhancements include things like:

  • Performing frequency equalization (EQ) to emphasize or de-emphasize specific parts of the audio spectrum. This is done for things like ameliorating a particularly nasty resonance in the room.
  • To apply compression to the waveform so that the overall dynamic range is reduced. This allows the track to sound louder because the softer sounds now are at a level that is closer to the louder sounds. This isn’t necessarily a good thing for piano music, but is something that is widely practiced for various reasons.
  • To boost or cut the levels of specific events during the recording.

You can get an idea of the art of audio mastering from The Audio Mastering Handbook and from Bob Katz’s The Secret of the Mastering Engineer.

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