Troubleshooting in the Recording Studio
Do you ever wonder how to solve time consuming problems in the recording studio? Have you ever gotten frustrated with a new issue and thought “What is it now? Uggh!”? Rejoice! this post is just for you! In this post we are going to tackle the overall approach to solving problems in the studio while recording or mixing. In Most cases you will need to look up a specific problem when you have one, if it’s something foreign to you, but this post is here to remind you of the most effective “principles” behind troubleshooting. One recent tactic I use when troubleshooting as an audio engineer, is to do a Google search whenever I have a problem I can’t identify. Often this will be the quickest process, after all, in most cases the problem is not unique, and you will definitely find a forum much like ours that tackles the issues you may have. By the end of this article you will be better equipped to solve your next “hiccup” in the most efficient manner, whatever it may be. Let’s go!
Can’t get any signal?
Problems in the hardware domain range from impedance issues (learn more about those here), latency issues, or maybe the unit just isn’t working properly/“sounding” the way it used to. Just like any other problem, I’ve always gotten the best results for pinpointing an issue by working through the “process of elimination”. Frequent problems when setting up large sessions may be: cables not working, patch bay issues, maybe even TT patch bay connectors failing etc. Not getting signal from your kick drum mic in studio B? First thing to do, check that the connectors are in the correct patch assignments, and cables are plugged in correctly, then we move to checking patch cables, swopping out mic cables, and testing the pre-amp channel with mics you know are working. It’s all part of eliminating each item by ensuring that it works before moving on, once you are unable to rule out a certain issue as the culprit, you’ll be a step closer to pinpointing your problem.
Why is the signal level so low?
Impedance matching issues are most common in the analog domain, and even more common with older hardware. If you are using outboard gear in your signal chain, you may find that a sufficient signal inside your console or D.A.W isn’t powerful enough to drive your outboard properly, and you are required to crank your output to get a sufficient return signal. Check out the above impedance explanation article from Sound On Sound magazine to learn more about why impedance matching has a huge effect on these signal level inconsistencies, particularly regarding analog hardware.
Many of the audio engineers reading this post will know that mixing in mono, or at least checking your mix in mono, can save you a headache or two when it comes to phase translations with a stereo mix played in mono. Your translation from stereo mix to mono mix should be seamless, as mono playback is still quite frequent in certain situations. “Out of phase” issues are commonly described as a feeling that your signal has “lost its depth” or it’s not as “aggressive” as it once was. Check your waveforms to see if you have a stereo signal that may be 180 degrees (or even less than 180 can still cause issues) out of phase in one channel, this can and will, cause a drop in perceived signal level.
With any issue involving troubleshooting in the recording studio, it proves useful to be prepared before the session with extra cables, cable testers, patch bay cleaning Brillo pads etc. Arrive to the studio early to try to head off a lot of these initial issues if possible. You will never eliminate all mistakes or mishaps, but be proactive and test equipment, often that’s your best firewall. Remember to approach each issue with the “process of elimination” viewpoint and you’ll be best equipped to solve problems efficiently. Lastly, unless you have a very esoteric piece of gear, a quick Google or Bing search can give you an idea of how others have tried to tackle the same issues.
What’s that error message?
From time to time, you’ll get error messages from your D.A.W or other audio software applications. Remember the “process of elimination” when problem solving and you’ll tackle every issue more quickly. In most instances you’ll know exactly what caused the error message. You insert a specific plugin, and you immediately get an error message or you open a certain program and you immediately have “hang ups” or glitches in your audio reproduction. Here are a few general tips if you have problems with plugins or audio glitches:
Why is the D.A.W acting up?
Check your Buffer setting in your DAW, larger buffer ranges give more time for plugins to load, but also add latency issues when recording, so you have to balance between the two. Obviously if you are recording, shorter buffers are better, and with mixing larger buffer ranges can be beneficial.
If you use a Mac or a PC, it’s often important to have the “activity monitor/windows task manager” feature enabled so you can view how your computer resources are used and you can see if any certain program or application increases the strain on your computer versus other programs. You can then make adjustments more definitively.
The Safari web browser is generally a computer hog, if you don’t need it, or don’t have the RAM to compensate for it, don’t have it open or in the background. Other browsers are less computer straining, you may want to look into browsers that don’t do as much “pre-rendering”. Pre-rendering occurs in Chrome, Safari and Opera and allows these browsers to pre-load data that may be used in the future. This data ultimately may or may not be used, and allows your browser to use more data than needed. Keep that in mind if you are showing spikes in CPU usage and you have one of these browsers, consider using Firefox (or another browser that doesn’t pre-render) for internet access while in your D.A.W.
Why is that plugin not working?
Certain plugins such as linear phase plugins, multiband compressors and limiters have “lookahead” functions that add latency to your D.A.W (that’s why it’s important to have latency compensation enabled), so don’t be surprised if your D.A.W takes a hitch when using these plugins or others that are more CPU intensive. This advice is predominantly for native plugins, but it’s also been my experience that UAD plugins, although external DSP dedicated, are very DSP intensive, so it pays to monitor how many you use depending on your DSP power. (Many third party convolution plugins are very processor intensive as well) (DSP = digital signal processing)
As I said before, In most situations you’ll know exactly what the issue is, but in the event you open up a previously working session and all of a sudden have problems, or you start to recognize problems seeping in where you didn’t expect, remember, the first thing to do is to identify the things you are positive are working properly, next, you can hone in on where the problems may originate. It’s more efficient to use the “process of elimination” and work backwards from when things were working properly. You can always copy that error message and insert it in a Google or Bing search as well. It’s extremely rare for you to have a problem that’s never happened before, in most instances you are one of many.
Overarching problem solving principle
The process of solving all these issues have what I call the “problem solving principle” in common. This troubleshooting article is focused on your thought process when you encounter a problem you don’t immediately recognize. When that happens always remember the process of elimination.
- Start by determining what parts of your setup are involved in the current situation. If you are recording, you are now thinking about your signal chain, and your monitoring chain. If you are mixing, you are now thinking about your DAW and your monitoring chain, there’s no recording chain involved here etc. Eliminate what’s working, i.e. I know I’m getting sufficient signal from my mic, because I can see the meter on the preamp moving, I know my preamp is working because I can see levels on the meter, and when I make adjustments to gain or trim I hear them etc. It’s all about eliminating things you know are working while isolating parts of the signal chain you haven’t tried yet.
- Once you are able to isolate the issue in a certain piece of hardware or software you are closer to solving your problem. i.e “Now that I have tried my microphone with different cables and it works, I know it’s the cable”. In this situation you can test your cable with a cable tester right away or chuck it aside for later, but you’ve pinpointed your issue (a faulty cable) and you can move on.
Problem solving resources:
To conclude this article I figured I’d list a few of my favorite places to search when I’ve encountered a problem that’s got me confused. I hope you’ve garnered a basis for how to approach the next problem you encounter that you don’t immediately know how to solve. Troubleshooting is one of the best skills to learn as an audio engineer and can make you exponentially more valuable to your next client or on your next gig. Want more in depth info on each and every part of your signal chain? Stop by and get the most detailed studio explanations around in our Signal Path Series. Check out the resources below:
Logic Pro User Manuals and community
Pro Tools User Manuals
**Have any thoughts on audio recording and mixing troubleshooting? Jump to the Forum and let us know!**
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