Why record? Why start using sequencers?
Recording our own singing or instrument playing and listening back to it is probably the single best activity that can bring considerable improvement to our skill.
And, if you have a computer, it is very easy to start recording. Get a basic mic (Shure SM58), excellent affordable audio interface (Focusrite Scarlett 2i2) or get a mic with USB connectivity (Audio Technica AT2020USB) and connect directly to your computer without having to use an audio interface. Once connected to the computer, your singing or instrument can be recorded into the computer harddisk, edited, instrument tracks and effects added,mixed and produced into mp3, wav or other format using a software sequencer. More about it in this article.
DAW : Digital Audio Workstation
To make songs which have more layers of sound than one going on at the same time, we naturally need a device or software that will allow us to run more than one layer of sound, at the same time.
What mixers and hardware recording devices used to do once, is now done using our computers by installing sequencing and audio editing softwares.
Using our computer along with a sequencer software allows us to compose, arrange, edit, mix, and master songs or any other audio projects. These softwares have become very evolved with numerous options offering us freedom with the work flow and creative possibilities.
A complete laptop based recording studio
Add a hardware audio interface of your choice (AD/DA: analog-to-digital/digital-to-analog), a microphone and appropriate monitoring devices (headphones and speakers). Now our computer with its sequencer software, is a complete recording studio which can record solo performances or a whole band or a whole choir (you could build a whole choir sound with just you and some knowledge of using effects), mix elaborate arrangements with multiple instruments, sounds, effects, edits…
Sequencer work is nondestructive multi-track recording. That is, editing and effects applied are either not directly on the recorded audio or they can be undone easily. The mixing stage is where those decisions are made, while leaving the recording stage without any treatments that may affect the sound later.
Now you can record layer after layer of audio, which can be corrected and edited as you wish. They can be recorded one after the other, and be played together to make your complete songs.
A studio now may not have expensive equipment, amplifiers, hardware effect boxes etc. A studio now is most often the sequencer equipped laptop and a good audio interface, microphone and listening device… patience and readiness to work and make the best of your talent.
Arranging with a sequencer – the multi layer task
Arranging is the act of developing a musical composition by adding musical variety to it through orchestration, harmonizing, adding more parts and phrases etc. A sequencer helps us practice arrangement of music, by allowing us to add layers of composed tracks which can be played back at the same time to make music complete with different instruments, effects, all mixed in proportion.
Below is an image of a sequencer with multiple layers of audio. This image from the SEQ24 free and minimal sequencer's song editor view.
In the world of sequencers, the Cursor is the black vertical line. The cursor line passes through all the sound that is heard at the same time. It is sort of the prime meridian or the date line or any line on earth that runs vertically on the map and connects all points on earth that have the same time at that moment.
Sequencers have the option to keep the screen still while the cursor moves or keep the cursor still while the tracks move in time.
The above image is a representation of layers of tracks which can be played at the same time to make complete multi timbral arrangements, songs with any kind of instrumental or vocal arrangement you wish.
1) The arrange window with a display of the multiple layers that can be played back together, 2) a mixer view that shows all the level faders and 3) a midi window to edit the midi tracks – these three views are common to any sequencer we use.
Connection with the hardware
The sequencer lets you record with your mics through your audio interface, and plays back all the audio and midi tracks along with the effects back through your audio interface to the speakers or headphones.
- Connect your audio interface through USB or Firewire
- Open the sequencer
- Open the area of the sequencer that deals with device set-up, choose your audio interface
- In the area for VST connections, set the input tracks to the inputs that you have connected your mics or instruments to. You could name the input busses appropriately. Set the output tracks to the outputs of the audio interface connected to the speaker on monitor.
- Each time you open an audio track to record, choose the correct input track, record.
That is it. (Here is more on how to connect the hardware to sequencer, using Nuendo / Cubase as example.)
A few popular sequencers
A few short notes on some of the popular sequencers used world wide professionally.
Nuendo / Cubase
Nuendo / Cubase comes along with the user guide, to help you start using Nuendo / Cubase to make music. There are enough forums online that discuss these sequencers, where you can find enough info on how they work, even if you don't have software yet, but would like to get to know them better. A search on google will lead you to a download of the Nuendo 2.1 guide as pdf, which, though an older version, has all the basic set up guides as applicable to the later versions.
Reaper is an excellent sequencer, which is free to use for 60 days, and then you can pay $60 for the complete license. During the evaluation period, you get to use all the features, there is no crippling. Even after the sixty days, you are reminded about the evaluation – there is no technological license control. With the full fledged features and their fair manners, we can guess that many of the long time users will happily pay for the license.
Makers of Reaper (the Cockos team) also makes available a full set of VST effects free as Reaplugs to download and use with any sequencer you may wish.
You could learn more about sequencers by reading about them online, or try out sequencers, and choose one that suits you. Since the sequencers will all deliver the same quality of production, it is a personal choice depending on how the workflow of the sequencer suits you, when it comes to which sequencer you want to stick with.