A decade ago, in one of my earliest reviews of a software-based recording program, I dubbed it “Abbey Road in a Box.” That may seem slightly hyperbolic at first, but today’s digital audio workstations (or DAWs for short) are incredibly sophisticated programs, combining the ability to record music digitally, then add built-in and aftermarket effects, and layer in a variety of software synthesizers and prerecorded loops as well. In short, they leave the stone knives and bearskins-level technology the Beatles had available to them in the 1960s in the dust.
But a DAW can seem as overwhelming at first as walking into a physical recording studio. As producer Brian Eno said of an actual mixing board 35 years ago:
Most people see a large mixer, and they’re completely bewildered because there are something like 800 or 900 knobs on it. Actually it’s not so complex as it looks – it’s the same thing repeated many times. Since you’re dealing with 24 tracks, everything has to be multiplied by 24; it’s not a very complex system. Each track from the tape recorder plays back on one channel of the mixer. Each individual channel has a whole set of controls that duplicate the other channels; that’s all.
But what do those knobs do — and more importantly — what can you do with them?
In other words, Abbey Road is just a series of acoustically-treated rooms and electronic gear without the skill of the engineers and producers who know how to make it work. Paul White’s The Producer’s Manual, published by British electronic music house Sample Magic and written by the editor of Britain’s long-running Sound on Sound magazine won’t turn you into the second coming of George Martin alone. But at over 350 full-color, heavily illustrated pages, with a glossary defining of all of its jargon, it’s an excellent guide to unlocking the power of the recording software and equipment you may already own. And what to look for when shopping for your next piece of kit.
If you already own a DAW, it may well have many of the digital tools that White describes in The Producer’s Manual. But how to make the most of them? What physical equipment do you need? What sort of sound card do you need? How do you choose which microphone for which application? Which speakers to ensure your mixes still sound the same beyond your basement? Are the acoustics in your recording room up to snuff?
And then there actual recording techniques — which is what you’ve assembled all this gear for, in the first place. What if you need to record an acoustic guitar? A chorus of background singers? How do you mic up a drum kit? Or heck, what if Christina Hendricks drops by and wants you to record her accordion playing?
OK, White doesn’t specifically mention Christina Hendricks — but he does go into how to record an accordion, along with all sorts of other instruments. And then how to edit, assemble, and master their parts — and how to salvage things afterwards if a session goes haywire. These are but a few of the topics that White explores. Beginners will learn much — I sure wish this book had been around a decade ago when I first made the leap to digital music recording after a decade toiling with cassette four-tracks. But those with plenty of experience in the brave new world of DAWs will find much to learn in this highly recommended book as well.