For the record, music industry jargon doesn't have to be difficult
Just like every other profession, musicians, recording artists, and record producers have a special language all their own. Using technical terms for music helps them communicate ideas more quickly and specifically to each other, reducing confusion and smoothing the recording process. However, to someone new at recording sound and audio music, it can be very confusing! This guide provides a quick reference to some of the most common technical terms used by music professionals.
When Recording, Stay On Track
The most common word you will hear in a music studio, home or otherwise, is "track". Yes, this is something trains ride over, but that isn't what the musicians are referring to. In recording terminology, a track is one channel of recording. You have multiple channels (or tracks) for each recording, usually with one or two instruments per track. So, for instance, you may combine a vocal track, a guitar track, a drum track, and a bass track to make a rock song. You will be recording all of these sound tracks on your laptop computer.
It can get confusing quickly, though, because "track" is also the term used for the finished song. Producers refer to putting several tracks on an album. This is also the same sense used with an "8 track tape" - it was only long enough to fit eight songs on it.
However, you can tell the difference from these two recording terms based on context. If you are talking about recording a song, a track is usually a channel. If you are talking about a music album, a track is usually a finished song. If you get confused during the conversation, don't be afraid to ask!
Mixing Is Essential To A Tasty Musical Result
Another term you will hear quite a bit is "mix." When used as a verb (or action word), "to mix" means to combine multiple tracks into a single, cohesive sound. It is exactly like you would do in the kitchen - you take multiple ingredients (in this case, sound tracks), put them together, and cook up a delicious audio mix! This is what happens when you mix down a song.
When used as a noun (or object word), it often refers to the song itself, usually when unfinished. When a song is ready to be sent into the world, studio engineers "mix down" the tracks into a single, finished product.
Mastering... the Art of Audio Production
If you have purchased the CD or digital version of an album produced before the 90's, there is probably a note on it saying that it has been "re-mastered". Well, before it was remastered, it had to be "mastered"! This is the last step in the audio music production process.
After an album has been recorded, it is usually a set of several songs, with multiple tracks for each song. The relative volume of each track on the song has been set to sound best with everything else on the song, but one song may be overall louder than another! The technician performing the mastering mixes each song down to two channels (or more, depending on the sound system they are designing for), making any sound level adjustments needed in the mix. After that, they adjust the volume of each track so that it flows together smoothly, making sure one song isn't too quiet relative to another. It is essentially putting the final polish on the album itself.
Historically, mastering was very much an art. Mastering engineers had to rely upon highly specialized equipment and their finely-tuned ears to make sure everything worked together. However, with the development of modern digital music recording technology, computers can make a mix sound far more sophisticated and pleasing than in previous eras. Remastering an album also typically involves restoring sounds lost through age, poor equipment, or bad transfers. Plus, it gives record companies a chance to sell the records again anew!
While there are many other technical terms used for sound and music recording, these three terms - track, mixing, and mastering - are by far the most common. Learn these well, and you will be on your way to become a high-powered music professional!