Music Recording – A Logic Pro X Workflow


What follows is a method of music creating using Apple’s Logic Pro X recording software, but over the last 20 years I’ve used other brands of software, including Trax (a MIDI only software package that I used with Windows 95, but which will run on Windows V2.0!!), Cakewalk Home Studio, Sonar and when I switched to Mac, various incarnations of Logic from v8 onwards. So much of what I say here will apply to pretty much any software package, as it’s more about a philosophy, rather than “click this, then click that”. I hope this workflow will prove useful for all budding musicians, and that it entertains you more than wading your way through one of the many enormous books on the subject.  Having said that, this will be a long article, but read it and keep referring back to it.

A quick word about me. I am a geek. I can spend hours creating music on a computer for nothing more than my own pleasure, and I used to be so nervous about playing my creations to other people that I had to leave the room while they listened – preferably over headphones so I didn’t have to over-hear it myself! Over the years, however, I’ve found many ways to get my music heard in the real world, mainly via my interest in amateur dramatic productions. I am currently working on creating the backing tracks for a local amateur production of “Grease”. A quick Google would doubtless reveal umpteen pre-made MIDI files but it’s much more fun – and creative – to start from scratch myself! Now in an ideal world I’d have my own fully equipped recording studio, and a house band who pick up real instruments and play them. Alas, most of us don’t have this luxury, but modern software, such as Logic Pro X is very good at fooling listeners into believing just that. So let’s get started.

1. The Right Equipment

Logic Pro X contains everything you need to get started right from the moment you download it – from hundreds of professional grade built-in sounds, a virtual mixing desk, hundreds of loops, and effects from filters to compressors to delays to reverbs. It will emulate different amplifier set-ups or classic microphones and much much more besides. All through a very usable interface. Creators of electronica could have hours of fun just by dragging and dropping loops into the arranger window.

Sooner or later though, you’ll want a quick way of inputting your own tunes, and for this you need nothing more than a cheap controller keyboard. Mine is a very cheap (£49 in 2007!) M-Audio 49 key thing that works via USB.

Plug it in, and when you fire up Logic Pro X, it will ask you some basic questions about the project you wish to create. (Most of us would call it a song, but Apple call it a project.) Choose Software Instrument, type in the number of tracks you wish to create, and Apple will present you with [16] tracks all configured to the default Electric Piano sound. Enable a track to record, play the keyboard and you’ll hear the sound it’s chosen. To change a sound to e.g. a trumpet, use the Library. The icon is top left and looks like a drawer with filing cards in. There’s even a handy index-searching facility. Type in the first few letters of “trumpet”, choose one of the options, play the keyboard, and hear the new sound (or patch, to use the studio vernacular).

To monitor your work, you could get away with the speakers on the Mac, but it’s possible to feed the headphone out socket to an analogue input on your hi-fi amplifier. The 3.5mm headphone jack on most Mac laptops and iMacs from at least late 2007 onwards doubles as an optical digital out. Given that the Mac sound chips are designed down to a price, the sound quality of the built-in instruments (and effects) are dramatically improved if this can be fed into the DAC of your favourite sounding CD player. To tell the Mac to change from headphone out to digital out, use the Audio MIDI set up utility found in Applications/Utilities. It’s also possible to use an external DAC via USB. The benefits are system-wide, so all your audio, from iTunes downloads to iPlayer etc will be routed to the DAC.

Finally, for those wishing to record vocals and other “real-life” instruments, the very least you will need is a microphone. You’d be surprised at the quality you can extract from the Mac’s built-in microphone, and this can be used at a pinch. But a quality USB microphone such as the Blue Yeti can be had very cheaply. If you need jacks for plugging in electric guitars etc, it’s best to use an audio interface, which usually also includes MIDI ins and outs. Here, it’s best to err on the side of “the best you can afford”, as the cheaper ones can sound very nasty indeed, introducing all kinds of weird noises into the signal path which are very hard to live with.

From the Logic Pro X menu, select Preferences/Audio to tell the software which sound devices you are using. If you’re using the analog headphone socket to monitor, this is referred to as “built-in output”. It’s possible to mix ‘n’ match inputs and outputs. So selecting Blue Yeti as the input, and USB as the output means I want to sing into the microphone and hear the results via the USB socket of the DAC built into my Rega Saturn-R. You’ll quickly get the hang of configuring the Audio for the equipment you have. Anyone who’s used the Audacity Freebie to make digital transfers of vinyl will be able to make sense of it. It’s possible (nay essential!) to mix and match “real” audio (via e.g. a microphone) and Software Instruments within the same project. Just choose the Plus Sign above the tracks in and configure away. You can also configure the Audio Ins and Outs without going into the Preferences Menu from the Add Tracks dialogue box.

That’s most of the technical stuff over with – from here on in, it’s about music – I promise!

2. Preparation

WRITE STUFF DOWN. That’s about all there is to say. I studied music notation and theory, so if I’m recording a cover version more often than not I use sheet music. And I jot stuff down on it, and spill tea on it. It’s a working document, after all. If I’m composing my own song, I have developed my own shorthand methods to jot down melodies, but the very least you’ll need is a sheet with the words, chords and how many bars there are in the verses and choruses etc… When composing, often I have no idea what the introduction will consist of, so it’s perfectly possible to leave e.g. an 8-bar gap and start recording a verse at bar 9. Like all music software, Logic Pro X supports copy/paste (more on this later!) and drag and drop, so once you have recorded a couple of verses and choruses, you can play with the song structure at will. But WRITE STUFF DOWN. This recording malarkey takes TIME, and after several hours’ work your brain will be fried, and you won’t even remember your favourite take-out pizza toppings. So write those down as well.

3. Recording some tracks.

KISS. KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID!

I almost invariably start with the drums.  Logic Pro X has a built in UltraBeat drum machine, which resembles a grid of small squares.  The Y axis is labelled with the drum sound, (kick, snare, cowbell etc) and the X axis represents the beats (and divisions thereof.)  So you just click in the squares.  UltraBeat loops your pattern over and over until you have created a pattern you are satisfied with.  Thus satisfied, you drag your pattern to a track in the arranger window and copy/paste to your heart’s content.  If you need to vary the pattern, you create another UltraBeat and drag that into the Arranger.  It works very well for electronic music, but for more acoustic styles it can be very rigid.  I have hardly ever used UltraBeat – certainly never in a finished piece of work –  and the only reason I know about it is because in 2008 I watched a Logic tutorial in an Apple Store.  Along these same lines, exploring the Apple Loops will yield pre-arranged drum and percussion patterns.  Again these are drag-and-dropped into there arrangement window.  To repeat (loop) them, you simply copy and paste.  The [Command+R] short cut will repeat the region on the next beat, so if you need 8 bars of a 2-bar pattern, drag the loop from the loop library to the required track & bar in the arranger window.  Press [Command+R] 3 times and your 8 bars will appear.   Be wary though.  Those loops coloured green are intended for Software Instrument tracks, and have been arranged using the Software Instruments.  I used a couple of the tambourine loops yesterday.  The preset it chose (from the Software Instrument Library – the filling cabinet icon) was Studio Tight Kit.  I was able to use my USB keyboard to add extra tambourine hits where I wanted them.  There was little of the UltraBeat style rigidity, in fact, the pre-arranged pattern was very natural, with beats accented as I needed.  Those loops coloured blue are AUDIO files, e.g. a musician has made a recording of a real tambourine or set of bongo drums or whatever.  I suggest wariness because a) these need to be dragged onto an Audio track and b) although you can chop up the patterns and copy/paste etc, you can’t find exactly the same set of drums in the library if you need to vary them in any way.  Thus, if I use the Apple Loops (and other software packages will doubtless include the equivalent), I only use them for extra percussion – if I need a some cowbells, tambourines or maracas – whatever – to augment a drum track that I have composed, performed  and recorded myself.

So I start from scratch.  You will doubtless have noticed a large window, top centre, containing such information as the time and key signatures, as well as the Tempo speed.  Double clicking these parameters allows you to change them.  The tempo defaults to 120bpm (beats per minute) and I change this to about 80, a speed I can comfortably play.  From the Library Filing Drawer Icon, I select a drum kit.  Logic Pro X maps out each item in the kit (kick, toms, snares etc) to a key on my controller keyboard.  I’ve come to memorise where the important sounds are.  Since the Software Kits are modelled on the General MIDI standard, whichever kit variation you select from the Library, the kick will always be on bottom C, and playing the D & E in the same octave will give 2 different types of snares.

KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID!  Professional studio engineers will often mike up each drum in a kit, and record each on a separate track.  The advantages of this are obvious, as each sound can be balanced independently and if you need tonnes of echo on the snare but not the kick, this can be done easily.  With a USB keyboard and with me not being a real drummer though, it’s a pain in the neck.  However, I make things easier for myself, by recording kick, snare and toms to one track and cymbals to another.  ABBA’s engineer, Michael B. Tretow, once said that he hates cymbals, because they are much closer to the overhead microphones and drummers invariably hit them too hard!  So, at the mixing stage, I can alter the balance between the drums and cymbals, so neither section over-dominates.  By actually “playing the drums” manually, I can alter the accents, by pressing the keys harder or softer as necessary.  Since I am using 2 tracks, I can record them one at a time.  When I press play, I hear the drums and cymbals both together.

I can’t keep time as well as a good drummer can.  So, despite Logic Pro X obligingly counting me in and providing a metronome as I record, there are bound to be some fluff ups.  In the following screenshot, you’ll notice a panel, top left.  If you select any track (e.g. Afro Cuban Piano in my photo) you can quantise the beats, so that they automatically fall exactly in the right place in the bar.  For example, if I choose eighth-notes (quavers), the smallest division of the bar is set to quavers, and any note I play automatically falls on the nearest quaver.  Test it out.  Record yourself playing something – anything, for a few bars.  Select the region when you have finished and press [Command & 5].  You’ll see a musical score, and likely there’ll be a few beats that are out of place.  Now choose the quantise function and select the note value for the smallest value (quickest) notes you played, e.g. if you played a mixture of minims and quavers, select the eighth note pattern, and watch the notes correct themselves!  Now change the quantise to half-notes (minims) and look/listen to how bizarre your piece sounds, since anything smaller in value than a minim has been placed where minims would fall in the bar!  There are a number of different quantise options, and I find that for the average pop song in 4/4 time, the 16 Swing A setting normally provides the balance between marching robots and drunken soldiers marching out-of-step!

 

The quantise function in Logic Pro X allows you to play out of time and it will correct you!

To make things simpler, I use the copy/paste function too BUT with a caveat.  If I record, say, an 8 bar drum pattern, with 7 similar bars and tom fill-in pattern for bar 8, and repeat that to get 16 bars, when I come to record the cymbals I’ll make sure there are some TINY differences in the cymbal pattern from bar 9 onwards, to make it sound like a real human is playing the drums.  I’d probably also delete bar 16 and change the fill-in pattern.  Don’t play cymbals where there are tom fills.  Drummers just don’t.  If you do this accidentally, delete the cymbals.  All the time, I’m also searching for the tempo that feels right, so I record slowly (e.g. 80bpm) and play back faster.   I apply this copy/paste caveat to other instruments too.  If I repeat an acoustic guitar pattern, I’ll make sure that another instrument (e.g. piano) doesn’t repeat itself in the exact same place.

Finally for this thesis on drums, do yourself a favour and invest in a couple of music books which contain drum patterns.  I have one book which is intended for session drummers, and it lists, in conventional notation, a variety of rock, disco, bossa nova etc patterns.  I have a similar book which lists far more patterns and a variety of fill-ins.  This book is intended for drum-machine programmers and the notation resembles the UltraBeat grid I talked about earlier.  I’ve laboured this section on drums because it’s by far the hardest bit to get right.  It becomes easier with practice.  I took me 2 years to learn what I’ve just taken 2 thousand words to describe.

Once I’ve recorded my drum and cymbal parts, I’ll next record a pitched instrument part that gives me an idea of the chord structure.

IT”S ALL ABOUT SPACE!

Imagine, if you will, trying to fill a room with STUFF! Part of that will involve placing items from floor to ceiling.  That’s what we’re trying to consider when arranging a song for instruments.  The low notes are the floor, and the high notes are the ceiling.  Listen to your favourite songs, and you’ll find a variety of instruments which occupy low, middle and high.  Don’t forget the vocals, which are typically mid-range, unless you’re listening to Sarah Brightman singing Phantom of the Opera.  Someone has to and it won’t be me!

So I start out with an instrument which, in one fell swoop, will cover all pitch ranges.  It might be an acoustic guitar sound, but more often it’s the piano.  Even if I don’t want the piano to be especially prominent, there’s usually one there in all my songs.  It could be simply the default electric piano that Logic Pro X defaults to, but I have a digital piano, which is far more satisfying to play than my MIDI USB controller keyboard.  It has pedals and real weighted keys, and I am actually a trained pianist, although I’ve seen better days.  My digital piano, like most of the breed, has a very simple record function, that plays back what I’ve just played.  Nothing as good as Logic Pro X, but it has a metronome.  If I set that to 80, my preferred record speed where I can play accurately, I can record a piano part, perfecting it in a few takes.  This can be copied to a USB stick and imported into Logic Pro X (via File/Import/MIDI file).  It copies my piano part to a new track, which can be edited and quantised at will.

Next, I’ll normally find a good bass guitar sound, and work on the bass line.  I won’t want the low piano and bass guitar notes to interfere with each other, so I’ll use the [Command & 5] Logic Pro X shortcut to bring up the musical score and either drag any offending piano notes to a higher octave or delete them altogether.  John Taylor, the bassist with Duran Duran, once said that the worst part about playing bass is that you can’t rest on your laurels – you have to play a lot and it’s hard work.  The bass guitar gives a song drive and energy.  It should sync well with both the kick drum and the rhythm guitar.  We need the piano as well, but if its low notes muddy up this bass/rhythm guitar/kick feeling then it’s better to sort the piano than the bass.

IT GETS WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER

By now, you’ll have a bass, piano and drum track that probably sounds amazing.  But every pop song needs some sort of guitar and probably also strings and brass.  Exactly the kind of instruments that keyboard “substitutes” traditionally don’t do well at all at replicating.  The mixing features in Logic Pro X (and other similar software) are now so advanced that they do a pretty good job of replicating sounds that just can’t be made by merely playing them on a keyboard.  So, if you are using Software Instruments, follow the tips below.

GUITARS

There really is no substitute for a real guitarist, but if, like me, you are a one-man-band follow a couple of these recipes.

Two rhythm guitars are better than one.  First, use the Library to find an appropriate sound that you are trying to approximate.  Record your rhythm guitar part.  On the next track, choose a similar-sounding guitar patch.  Copy/Paste the part you just recorded onto this new track.   On a funky disco track, try this with the fuzzy wah on one track and a roundback guitar on the other.

Two lead guitars are better than one.  Lead guitars either play in extended solos, or short riffs in between where the singer finishes one line and starts the next.  Refer to The Beatles version of Dizzy Miss Lizzy for a no-frills example of this. (And while you’re at it count the times George Harrison fluffs this riff.)  Now repeat the copy/paste procedure on the next track.  Adjust the “Snap Properties” so that instead of it saying “SMART” it says “TICKS”.  You will now be able to drag the second lead part by minute amounts so that you create a delay effect.  You may only want this in small sections of the guitar part.  Select the track containing the first lead guitar part.  Click where you want the delay effect to start and press [Command & T].  Click on the first guitar part where the delay should end and press [Command & T] again.  Remember T for Trim.  You’ve now isolated the part of the lead guitar where you want your delay effect.  You can now copy that and paste it onto your new track, with a slightly different sounding lead guitar selected.  Drag the pasted section along a bit so that it echoes the first guitar.

IT GETS WORSE BEFORE IT GETS BETTER

I hadn’t intended to discuss mixing here, but chances are that by now you’re ready to throw Logic Pro X in the bin because these 2 recipes probably sound awful!  But go with it.  Firstly, press [Command & 2] to bring up the mixing panel.  Find the fader corresponding to the second guitar part, e.g. the delayed Lead.  You can drag this down so that you can only just hear it.  Exit the mixing desk.  In the Arranger window, in the same panel where the quantise functions live, you’ll find Transpose.  Click the up/down arrows. Plus/minus 12 equals up or down an octave.  Try transposing the now very quiet delayed lead up one or even 2 octaves.  The two rhythm guitars shouldn’t create too much of an issue, but you may want to reduce the faders if they’re simply too loud.

STRINGS AND BRASS

In general, these work best if you record them over at least 2, preferably 3 tracks.  For strings, try cello, viola and violin, For brass try baritone sax, alto sax and trumpet.  Pop songs sound good if the cellos are at least an octave above the bass.  They can play any notes in the chord, so try long sustained notes that last a bar or more each.  Next add a track of violas that mimic the cellos but starting on different notes of the chord, about an octave higher than the cellos.  You may want to create a bit more movement in the violin track, but in general it should be roughly a 6th higher than the violas.  Remember, floor to ceiling.  If you want really lush strings, create a 4th track and choose a string ensemble, or even a synth string ensemble.  It’s possible to “overdub” on a single track, so first copy/paste the cellos onto the ensemble track, position the cursor at the beginning of the required song section, copy the violas onto the ensemble track over the top of the cellos and repeat for the violins.  Select the string ensemble track by clicking its name.  and press [Command & J] to merge (or J for Join) all the 3 layers.  Pressing [Command 5] brings up the score, so that you can verify that the violas, cellos and violins have successfully been merged onto one track, plus you still have the original 3 tracks.  At the mixing stage, you’ll play with the volume, reverb and panning of these four tracks to create the London Symphony Orchestra!  Try a similar strategy with the brass section.  Instead of long, flowing notes, try strategically placing very short “stabs” with the occasional long, flowing section.  Really, brass doesn’t work well without at least 2 tracks of flowing strings, preferably 4.  To create the illusion of “reality” both sections belong in an orchestra, so they sound right together.  Think Motown.  By the way, you’ll notice very little brass on ABBA’s recordings, and what there is is normally played by a Polymoog synthesiser, for the simple reason that it’s incredibly hard to record and mix, especially in the context of a pop record.

So that’s basically it for arranging the musical parts of your song.  As you add instruments, keep referring to the floor to ceiling analogy.  It’s worth noting that if I’m making a cover-version of a song, I don’t labour over the “official” recording.  Indeed, if I know the song well (e.g. the Grease songs) I won’t even listen to it at all before I record it.  I’ll download the sheet music to get the chords and basic structure, and work from that.  All that matters is conveying the rhythmic feel of the song and the overall sentiment.  If the bass and drums in the original create tension by syncopating with one another, then you do that in your interpretation.  You don’t need to know every note the studio musicians played.  Just approximate it.  By working from your memory of a song, you’ll add new creative twists which will make it your own.

TEMPO

Now that we have an Arranger window full of Logic Pro X Software Instruments, it’s time to consider the tempo.  Note that so far, we haven’t added any tracks containing “live” audio, such as vocals.  This is because we’ve been constantly chopping and changing the tempo, slowing it down to record at a comfortable speed and checking it at the correct speed.  Audio tracks are not as pliable as MIDI tracks.  If you speed up and slow down Audio tracks, they lose sync with the recording.  So only when the software tracks are recorded and the tempo finalised would I ever attempt recording Audio.*

Drummers rarely play at a constant speed throughout a whole song.  One bar may be recorded at 98bpm and the next 97bpm and the next 100bpm.  As long as the speed is fairly constant, the listener hardly notices.  This is a faff to emulate in Logic Pro X, but a chorus may be a tiny bit faster than the preceding verse, to add urgency, the bridge section might be a wee bit slower.  Let’s say we want the intro and  verse 1 to be 98bpm and the chorus beginning at bar 24 to be 100bpm.  In the Arranger Window, pressing the Enter Key moves the cursor to the start of the song.  (Pressing Space Bar will start and stop the song playing, by the way.)  From the Edit menu, choose Tempo/Show Tempo List.  There should be one entry, showing the current speed at Postion 111  1.  If this is correct, leave it.  Otherwise, under the Tempo column click and correct the speed by typing it in.  You don’t need the decimal point and all the zeros, just 98 will do.  Click the + button.  It will duplicate the previous entry, and awkwardly be ready to type in the FIRST box.  So click under position, and type 23, to set the cursor to the beginning of bar 23.  We’re going to prepare the listener for the faster chorus by making this bar 99, and adding a further new tempo entry for bar 24, and setting that to 100.  Work through the whole  song in the same way.  By adding frequent tempo entries, you can create a gradual but very pronounced slowing down at the end, if the song warrants it.   It’s laborious, and there are ways you can draw in speed changes, but I prefer to use the tempo list.  KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID!

If you now decide that what your song really needs is a 100mph guitar solo, and you want to slow it down to make it easier, you’re out of luck.  Adjusting the tempo in the window above the tracks will just cause Logic Pro X to tell you off.  So be sure before you make your tempo changes that the song contains all the Software Instrument recorded parts you need.  We’re on the home stretch.

4.  Mixing

A section of the Logic Pro X Mixing Panel

Let’s return to the analogy of our room that needs to be filled with junk.  It needs left to right “fullness” and “front to back” fullness.  The quieter a sound is, the further away it is.  The mixing panel contains one fader for each track you’ve recorded, and some extra ones.  Of these “extra” faders, the one far right, labelled “Master” is the most important.  Set the mixer to Full Screen so that you can see all your instruments.  Each fader is demarcated with a decibel (dB for short) scale, and next to that is a meter which lights up and performs a merry dance when there is music playing on that track.  If you set your song playing, you’ll probably see on the Master track that the meters turn red a fair bit.  This is bad!  It means your song is distorting.  Think of the 0dB on any of the faders as the ceiling of your room.  It’s the maximum volume any instrument can be before it begins to distort.  More than likely, none (or at least very few) of the faders that represent the instrument tracks move into the red, but the combination of all the instruments playing together causes the Master Fader to distort.

RED RAG TO A BULL.

The purpose of the volume faders is to ensure distortion doesn’t occur, and to add front-to-back depth to our mix.  We want important instruments at the front (you make the decision about what’s “important”!) and supporting instruments further back.  If your lead guitar solo can’t be heard, it’s probably because some other instrument is too loud.  So go ahead and turn the offending instrument down a bit.  You’ll notice that turning it down causes the fader to go into negative numbers.  We don’t really ever want the faders to read positive numbers.  We can use all kinds of trickery to make instruments sound louder or quieter than they really are, and to do that we use some of the effects.

Above the faders, just underneath the track titles you’ll see some blue and grey boxes.  These are effects.  Blue boxes show that an effect is currently active.  So far, we haven’t added any effects, but Logic Pro X turns some effects on by default on certain instrumental sounds.  Grey boxes are suggestions – Logic thinks you might like to add some e.g. compression to a trumpet, so it prepares that strip in the mixing panel.  To turn on an effect that is showing as grey, just hover over it with the mouse.  You’ll see its Power On button appear on the left, and you can click it to turn it blue.  Clicking once in the middle of the effect button will cause a dialogue button to appear, from which you can alter many parameters.  I don’t profess to understand what all of these things do, but you can do no harm by playing around.  Many effects, such as the compressor, come with presets that are designed to enhance specific instruments and these come in very handy.  To add an effect, just hover in the grey indented area underneath the previous effect boxes and click.  I have yet to exhaust the number of effects you can add to any channel on the mixer, but be aware that your Mac might slow down if you overdo it.  So let’s deal with each of the instruments that I dealt with in section 3.

DRUMS/CYMBALS

The most useful effects for drums, and many other instruments too, come to that, are EQ, Reverb and Compression.  Think of EQ as a treble and bass control, but more sophisticated.  There’s probably an effect called Channel EQ enabled on the drum track, if not add it.  Click underneath whatever effects are already on the strip, hover down to EQ, and choose Channel EQ.  There are other EQ effects to play with but the channel EQ is most useful.  In the Channel EQ dialogue box there’s a drop-down menu top left, from where you can alter the EQ settings. Hover down to drums, and you’ll find all sorts of presets to play with.  Some relate to specific aspects of the kit, e.g. choosing a particular setting might stop a kick drum from being too boomy, or another might add “snap” to a snare drum.  Remember that these effects can be applied to software instruments or live instruments, so it’s perfectly possible to mic up a real drum kit, and apply EQ to each part of the kit.  My drum track is a mixture of kick, snare and toms, so I’d probably choose an option that affects the whole kit, such as overhead microphones.  I’d choose the same setting for the cymbal EQ, and on this track I might add another Channel EQ setting and select either the Cymbal EQ or Brighten Hi-Hat settings.  Have a listen.  You might find that you’ll need to turn the faders down!

Compression, at its most benign, simply is a way to automate volume levels, so that quiet sounds are not drowned out, and loud sounds don’t distort.  However, it can and very often is, applied to instruments to enhance the rhythmic aspect of a sound.  Without compression, a heavy metal band such as Iron Maiden would never have been able to record their sound to tape, and it’s what makes disco and funk so danceable.  In Logic Pro X, I love the sound of the FET Live Drum Compression.  Go ahead and apply it to both the Drum and Cymbal channels.  You’ll find a variety of compressors under the Dynamics Menu.  The most useful one is simply called Compressor, and you’ll find the FET Live Drums listed as a preset.  Be doubly warned!!  This will make the drums extremely loud, and you’ll need to turn the volume right down and slowly increase it, so the drums don’t overpower the mix but still sound powerful.  You’ll probably need to turn the Cymbals down lower in the mix than the rest of the kit.

Picture a band.  The drummer normally sits a little way behind all the other musicians.  We can create this illusion by adding Reverberation, Reverb for short.  This is often incorrectly described as “echo”; echo is a type of Reverb.  You’ll even notice that Logic Pro X can emulate an Echo effect.  The more reverberant a sound is, the further away it appears.  Also, different rooms in your house will sound different.  Try singing in the lounge and then in the bathroom.  You’ll probably prefer the sound in the bathroom, because the tiles on the walls cause “slap back”, i.e. the sound bounces off the walls.  In Logic Pro X, I find the most useful reverb settings are under the Platinum Reverb plug-in.  Again, there is a drop-down menu for presets, and you’ll find that the software can emulate various types of room.  In general, a fast paced rock or funky number is best suited to a room reverb.  By default, Logic Pro X overdoes the amount of reverb.  So this type of song will not require very much reverb at all.  A slower power ballad (think of “Simply The Best” by Tina Turner) might require more reverb in a reflective room.  A diva, such as Conchita singing “Rise Like A Phoenix” might require a small hall and again, plenty of reverb.  Higher pitched instruments such as vocals, tinkly pianos, trumpets etc respond well to lots of reverb, but applying lots of reverb to deep sounds, such as bass guitar or cellos will just cause the mix to sound muddy and it will slow the overall pace down.

In Logic Pro X, the way to alter how much reverb is applied to an instrument is via 2 sliders – one is called Dry, and the other, Wet. Dry refers to the original sound , before reverb, and Wet refers to the sound after reverb has been applied.  Simply experiment with differing proportions of Wet and Dry until you reach the sound that you like.  My hypothetical song is a funky disco number, so I’ll choose Big Room as the preset, and I’ll begin by not applying very much reverb to the snare, kick and toms and a little more reverb on the cymbals.

It’s worth pointing out that once you’ve chosen a reverb preset, apply the same preset in varying degrees to each instrument. Even with bass guitar, I’ll apply about 10% wet signal to 100% dry.  You want your song to sound as though it’s coherently being sung in one type of room.  It’d sound rather odd if the vocals sounded like they were being sung in the Albert Hall whilst the acoustic guitar was being played in a cellar!

So, work through the different instrumental tracks, varying the Volume, EQ, Compression and Reverb, keeping an eye on the faders so that they don’t go over into the red.  If they do, there are various ways round it.  Once you’ve set up your basic mix, if an instrument flashes into the red once or twice, you may want to “limit” it.  Again this is an effect, and it’s under the Dynamics heading.  Think of a limiter like a hammer.  If a sound dares to rear its ugly head over 0dB, the hammer will bonk it on the head.  Most times you don’t need to alter the settings on the limiter, just go ahead and turn it on in the channel strip.  Beware!  Limiting has become, in recent years, another weapon in the arsenal of those who want to make music excessively loud at the expense of other attributes, such as clear separation of instruments and rhythmic quality.  I speak of the Loudness War.  In Logic Pro X there is an Adaptive Limiter which will do exactly this.  If you just need to control the volume of the music so that occasional rogue notes don’t cause distortion, use the effect that is simply called Limiter.  Just turn it on.  It’s quite effective when applied as an effect on the Master Fader.  That way, the other faders can be as loud as they need to be and still not cause distortion.

If the piano is too loud in the verse but OK in the chorus, you can automate the fader so that it lowers the volume for the verse, and increases it in the chorus.  I seem to remember that Cakewalk and Sonar work in a similar way to Logic Pro X to achieve this.  Close down the mixer window, so that you can see the main arranger window once more.

To activate this feature you need to locate and click the “Show/Hide Automation” button.  It looks like a zig zag line, punctuated by 2 heavy dots, called nodes.  See my photo below.  It’s to the right of the View button.

The Show/Hide Automation button, to the right of the View button. It can also be used to automate other effects, such as stereo panning.

Clicking it causes the channel strips to reveal yellow lines.  If you click on the line a little bit before you need to change the volume, you add a node (dot) to the line.  Click again, still just before the volume change, to add another dot, and add 2 more nodes just after the part of the song where the volume needs to change.  You can then drag the yellow line up to increase or down to decrease the volume.  You’ll see that the track width has increased and a new dialogue box has appeared underneath the picture of the instruments in the track headers.  The word “Volume” is written in this box, but you can change that.  If you need to alter the amount of reverb on the drums just at bar 45, you can achieve this in the same way.  (See my illustration below.)

Automating the panning in the trumpet, and the volume in the piano.

Press the “Show/Hide Automation” button again to make those nasty lines go away, but Logic Pro X has remembered your volume changes.  When you next open the mixer, you should see the faders move up or down accordingly as the song reaches the part where changes are required.

Finally, as far as mixing goes, we need to fill the space in our room from Left to Right.  Each mixer strip has a panning knob above the fader.  Double click the knob.  Enter a negative number up to -64 if you wish an instrument to appear somewhere on the left, and a positive number up to 64 if you wish it to appear on the right.  Since the 1960’s when attitudes towards stereo mixing were limited by the small amount of tape tracks to record on, a number of conventions have developed.  Kick and Snare drums are best left centred.  In fact, if you leave the panning for drums and percussion alone, Logic Pro X will do it’s own thing, according to the kind of drum kit selected.  Some are almost mono, whereas others will place the toms so that they will pan e.g. from right to left as they are played.  I have tried on occasion to mimic vintage stereo recordings by placing the drums to the right or the left, but in general, as I say, it’s best left alone.  Similarly, the ear finds it much harder to tell where low notes emanate from, so bass instruments are best left in the middle.  The lead  vocalist, who is normally the most prominent feature of the mix, should also be centred.  Other instruments can be placed as you wish.

In my hypothetical song, I suggested creating 4 tracks of strings.  The “Ensemble” track I’d suggest placing midway e.g. left (-35), and spread the other string instruments out a little on the right – what about 28, 34 and 38?  In this way we are left with no dead spots where nothing appears to be happening.  If I were to place my piano over on the left and rhythm guitar on the right, that would fill my stereo left to right space even further.  I suggested adding some delay to a lead guitar via an extra track, just about audible in the mix and smothered with reverb and extra delay.  Placing this track on the opposite side to the main lead guitar sound would make for an interesting production effect.

And that’s it for mixing.  You should now have a song that sounds fantastic!

BUT

There are no vocals yet, and Logic files won’t play in iTunes or other music software and neither will they play on a CD.

5.  Bouncing and Adding Vocals

Our hypothetical Logic Pro X song contains lots of tracks, and so far the mix is a good one, and if we wanted to we could just add a couple of Audio Tracks to this file.  But to make things a bit easier when mixing the vocals, I’m going to suggest “Bouncing” the tracks to one stereo audio file, and importing this into a new Logic file.

So, do Edit/Select All and then press [Command & B]. Choose “Project or Section”.  This brings up the Bounce dialogue box.  Make sure to set it to AIFF (Apple’s proprietary high-res format).  The bit rate should ideally be 24bit, sampling rate 192000 (192KHz) but if drive space is an issue 16/44.1 will do.  Save the resultant file somewhere convenient.

Open a new file in Logic Pro X, and do File/Import/Audio file to bring in your newly converted file into a new audio track.  You’ll be asked if you want to import the tempo information and markers, which can be useful so say yes.

You’ll record your vocals on a new audio track so go ahead and create one.

When actually recording the vocals, most of us don’t have the luxury of an acoustically designed chamber, but do yourself a favour and close windows, doors and curtains.  Banish pets, kids and spouses from the immediate vicinity for a few hours.

A newbie vocalist is bound to be a bit nervous, so get them used to singing with your backing track.  Only when your vocalist is completely comfortable singing in front of you should you begin to record them, and certainly don’t play back the “results” until you are sure you have a technically good capture.

Ensure that backing track levels are comfortable in the vocalists’ headphone.  Adjust microphone gain (input) levels and the Mac’s recording levels (in System Preferences, NOT Logic Pro X, bizarrely) until the singer’s loudest notes reach about half way on the Mac’s level meter.  Headroom is key here.  You can always make the singer louder, but correcting a distorted recording is nigh on impossible.

If possible use a few tracks and record multiple complete performances.  Using the Mute and soloing and copy/paste features in Logic Pro X, you’ll be able to compile a single track of the best vocal performance.  You may also need to use the Normalise Function to rescue sentences/words that get lost in the mix.

To do this, ensure the Logic Pro X pointer tool is active.  Double click the blue & white area of the audio track.  You’ll see an enlarged version of the track in the bottom area of the screen.

A file ready for Normalising. The white (recorded signal) areas run along the centre of the track indicating that maximum levels have not been reached.

Click the large File button in the centre of of the lower window. Choose Functions/Normalise.  This ensures that the loudest parts of the recording reach 0dB, the maximum allowed before distortion.  The rest of the recorded vocal will be increased in volume relative to the new loud point.

Nomalising is the safest, most “genuine” way to increase volume without resorting to heavy limiting and compression.  Of course, there may be a verse (or even a couple of sentences) that still gets lost in the overall mix.  Using the [Command & T] function to split the vocal track into regions, you can add further normalising as necessary.  Don’t go wild with this or you’ll get unnatural loudness “bumps”.

Flatter your vocalist.  Whilst mixing, adjust the faders so that the vocal track does not stick out like a sore thumb.  Remember that if the backing builds in volume, perhaps by extra instruments joining in, they will naturally drown out the vocalist a little.  Apply some reverb.  Use the same settings as you used for the instrumental track.  Apply some EQ.  Logic has some very good presets for a variety of musical contexts.  Apply some compression.  Again, Logic has some good vocal presets.  Be mindful that you may need to reduce the vocal fader somewhat.  Add some delay.  Remember Logic seems to apply Over The Top levels of delay, but in general a little extra delay will flatter vocalists.

Use snippets of vocals of unused tracks to double track sections of the song.  Maybe this would be appropriate for the bridge.  Record some backing vocals –  some “Ooohs and aaaahs” and some harmonies.  You could use the same singer.  If they sing in different registers, and you apply different levels of EQ and compression you’ll soon build up the impression of many singers, especially if you pan the vocals in different places on the stereo spectrum.  You could pan a group of voices into the same area where there are tambourines and other percussion playing, to give the impression that they are playing those instruments.  Experiment.

When you’re all done, do Select All, then File/Bounce/Project or Section.  You could now use this box to create a 16 bit/44.1KHz AIFF or WAV suitable for CD, and an MP3 for software music players, such as iTunes.  This feature is very powerful and can create multiple files at the same time.  It can even burn a 16/44.1 file directly to a CD.

And that, dear reader, is just about all you need to know about using Logic Pro X to create music.  Remember, it took me 20 years to learn and practise what I have distilled into 20,000 words.  And I’m still learning.  Enjoy.

Mark Pearce, June 2017

*It is possible to get audio to sync with MIDI using Logic Pro X but it’s not really my musical bag, and I don’t know how to do it.

 

 

 

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About Mark Pearce

Mark Pearce is the author of the YouTube Channel MarkPMus. Check it out if you're interested in Hi Fi, songwriting and music reviews. Nuggets include 2 series of ABBA Gold Anomalies / More ABBA Gold Anomalies, the Magical Musical Moments series and Hi Fi 101. You'll also find examples of the author's songwriting and photography.

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