Line 6 Guide to Home Recording, Part 4: Effects and Automation

In the last article of our Home Recording series, effects and automation -- and the freedom they deliver -- are explored in detail. Make sure to read the other parts in the series (Part 1: the Computer, Part 2: Choosing Microphones and Part 3: DAW Software) for valuable information that will make your recordings better than ever.

By Philip De Lancie

In our previous article on DAW Software we defined the core tasks of a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) and used Propellerhead® Record® software to show how some of those tasks are handled. This time we'll look at a couple tasks we didn't get to before, specifically applying effects and using automation. We'll once again use Record as our example DAW, with Line 6 POD Farm™ 2 serving as the source of the effects.

Effects are used to alter the sound of either an individual instrument (e.g. guitar) or the entire combination of instruments that goes into a finished mix. Whether subtle and tasteful or wild and in-your-face, effects give character to instruments and, in the case of spatial effects such as reverb or chorus, change their perceived location (close or distant) in the overall sound field of the mix.

Before the advent of modern DAWs, effects other than reverb/echo and compression were typically applied to instruments during recording. For guitars, for example, a combination of amp settings, pedals and mic placement was used to get the desired sound in the studio, and the engineer's job was to capture that sound. If it later seemed that the effect wasn't quite right you had to either live with it or re-record the performance.

These days, home recordists are no longer locked into recording effects as part of their tracks. Instead, a track can be recorded “dry” and effects can be applied after the fact within the DAW software, keeping the track and its effects independently controllable. This approach also allows your effects to be stored as presets so they sound exactly the same every time (unlike hardware devices with rotary knobs). And effects applied in software are automatable in most DAWs (including Record). That means that you can change settings over the course of a song (e.g. make the chorus sound different than the verse) and those changes will be remembered by the DAW and executed every time the track plays back.

Setting a Tone

The fact that effects can be applied to an already-recorded track doesn't mean that you'll always want to record tracks dry (without effects). If you're using a POD Studio™ recording interface from Line 6 you won't have to choose one approach or the other because the included POD Farm 2 software operates both ways. And even when you want to record dry, POD Farm lets you monitor with effects so you're hearing what you need in order to hear to play with the feel you want.

To see how this works, let's say that you're recording a guitar part. To tweak your tone until it sounds exactly how you want it while you're playing, first get POD Farm 2 ready for action:

» Plug into the Instrument input on your POD Studio interface.

» Launch the standalone POD Farm 2 application.

» In POD Farm 2, click the Mixer View button (just to the right of the Line 6 logo) in the Main Control Bar at top. By default you’ll be in single-tone mode (the DUAL switch, to the right of the drop-down Tone Preset Menu, is off) so your input will be Tone A.

» Use the Tone A Input Source Menu (just below and to the left of the logo) to choose Instrument (the input that you plugged into on your interface).

Now let’s set a good level for the guitar:

» In the Signal Flow view that makes up the bottom half of the POD Farm window you'll see the components that make up the current tone (e.g. amp, compressor, etc.). The components are connected from one to the next (left to right).

» Right-click each of the components and choose Bypass from the pop-up menu. When done, the guitar sound will be completely dry, and the interface will be acting only as a latency-free input to the DAW (useful for recording vocals or acoustic instruments).

» Adjust your guitar volume to full then set the Tone A Level knob so that when you play your loudest the Input meter reads just below 0.

» If the clipping indicators for the Tone A output meter come on when you play, bring down the Tone A output fader (just under the Mute button).

» Use the output knob on your interface to set the level for monitoring through speakers or headphones (this setting has no effect on the level going to the DAW).

At this point you’re hearing how the guitar sounds without any POD Farm 2 processing. Now let's choose a tone for your guitar part, and tweak it as desired:

» Switch to the Panel view (second button to the left of the Line 6 logo).

» Choose a preset (e.g. 21st Century Clean) from the Tone Preset Menu at the top of the Pod Farm 2 window. Note that if you choose a dual tone, you will be able to record your guitar with that tone applied but not apply the dual tone as an effect on an already-recorded track in Record. (This dual-tone limitation does not apply when using POD Farm 2 in DAWs that support plug-ins.)

» When you choose a tone, the Signal Flow view shows the new tone’s components. Click on a component (e.g. the amp) to select it. The component’s name will show in the drop-down Model Menu just below the Line 6 logo.

» You can customize the preset by changing parameters on the currently selected component. When the main amp is selected, you can not only adjust amp settings but also switch to CAB (button to the right of the Model Menu) to set the virtual speaker cabinet, microphone and mic placement.

» Your tone affects your volume so switch back to the Mixer view and re-check your levels.

» When you're happy with the tone, you can save it as a preset by clicking on the folder icon at top (just left of the Tone Preset Menu) and choosing Save As.

Tracking: With and Without

With our tone safely saved we're ready to look at the two different approaches to recording the track. We’ll start by recording the instrument and the effect together:

» In Pod Farm 2, switch to the Mixer view where you'll see two REC sections to the right of the upper half. Each has a level fader and a drop-down menu to choose what signal is sent to your DAW.

» If you’re using a single tone then SEND 1-2 should indicate Tone A. If you’re using a dual tone it should say Tone A+B.

» If needed, adjust the 1-2 level so the meters read close to max but are not clipping.

Now launch Propellerhead Record and set up to record on a newly created audio track (see the “Overdubbing audio” section of the DAW Software article):

» During recording we’ll be monitoring our sound via our POD Studio interface, so in the Audio page of Record’s Preferences (Edit menu) set Monitoring to External.

» In Record’s Sequencer view, check the source of the new track using the drop-down Select Audio Input menu (just to the left of the track’s horizontal meter). If you’re using a dual tone, set the track input to stereo and the source to Send 1 + Send 2. Otherwise, set up for mono from Send 1.

Record a guitar track (if desired, enable the Click in the Transport). While you're recording, you'll hear the guitar with the POD Farm 2 tone you set above. Because of the ToneDirect monitoring feature in POD Studio interfaces there is effectively no latency. To set the volume you hear your guitar at during recording, adjust the Out knob next to the meter at the upper right of the Pod Farm 2 Mixer view. When you play back the recorded clip, the guitar sound will be the same as what you heard in Pod Farm 2 (the effects are already applied). You can adjust the playback level of your track in Record’s Mixer view.

Next we'll record a dry guitar track. Thanks once again to ToneDirect monitoring, you'll still hear your chosen tone when playing and recording but only the dry part of the signal will actually be recorded onto the track:

» In POD Farm's Mixer view, change the SEND 1-2 drop-down to Dry Input (no effects).

» The output level will probably drop when effects are removed so readjust the Send 1-2 level.

» In Record, create a new audio track and record the dry POD Farm send.

» When you play back the recorded clip the guitar will be dry, just as it sounded in POD Farm when you bypassed all the components in the signal flow.

The point of recording a clip without effects is to keep the flexibility to change the sound later without redoing the performance. So now let's add effects to the dry track in our DAW. In many DAWs including Avid® Pro Tools® 9 we would do this by instantiating POD Farm 2 as a plug-in on the guitar track. Record, however, doesn’t use 3rd-party plug-ins. Instead, POD Farm 2 tones are available via a Rack device called the Line 6 Guitar Amp, which has a different user interface than the standalone POD Farm 2.

Here’s how to apply POD Farm 2 tones to a dry track in Record using the Line 6 Guitar Amp:

» In Record, switch to Rack view, then find and select (click) the device representing your guitar track (“Audio Track 1” unless you renamed it). The device will now be outlined in electric blue.

» From the Create menu, choose Line 6 Guitar Amp. The guitar track device will expand, and an amp module will appear in the rack immediately below it.

» On the amp module, click the Browse Patch button (folder icon at right of display area). An Open dialog will open.

» In the dialog, navigate to a folder containing Pod Farm 2 tone files (.l6t) such as your Line 6/Tones/Pod Farm 2 folder (in your Documents or My Documents folder). Within the folders inside, you’ll see tone files for your available effects presets. Owners of certain Line 6 hardware have access to additional tones beyond the default tones that come with Record. The first time you use Record with your Line 6 hardware, you may need to activate your tones for use with Record.

» Choose a preset (e.g. 21st Century Clean.l6t) to apply to the guitar track (you won’t be able to choose dual tone files because those presets are not currently supported by Record).

» Play the track. You’ll now hear the preset’s effects on the guitar. Use the Bypass button on the track’s device to compare the dry and processed sounds.

Automating Effects Parameters

An added advantage of applying your tone as an effect is that it allows you to automate aspects of the sound that are difficult or impossible to control while playing your instrument and recording your track. For example, let’s say that you want to automate a clean guitar sound on verses and a more overdriven effect on choruses. In Record, you can do this by recording “parameter automation” for changes to the Drive setting on a Line 6 Guitar Amp:

» In Record’s Rack view, right-click on the amp’s Drive knob and choose Edit Automation from the pop-up menu. The knob will be outlined in light green.

» Switch to Sequencer view, where you’ll see a new track called Guitar Amp 1. Click the enable button for parameter automation (just right of the track’s solo button).

» Switch back to the Rack view. In the Transport at bottom, click the record button to start recording. As the track plays, move the Drive knob to change its setting.

» When you’ve recorded some changes, stop and play back the track. You should see the Drive knob re-enact the moves you made, and you’ll hear corresponding changes to the Drive setting.

Back in Record’s Sequencer view, you’ll see an automation lane labeled “Drive” in the Guitar Amp 1 track. The lane contains an automation clip in which the Drive changes that you recorded are represented by a line. By editing this line we can modify the timing and amount of the Drive changes:

» Double-click in the clip. A set of “points” (small white circles) appears on the line.

» You can select points individually by clicking or right-clicking them, or select a group of points by click-dragging over a portion of the clip.

» When selected, points turn from white to black and their position and value are displayed in fields at the top of the Sequencer view. Selected points can be moved by dragging or deleted with the Backspace key.

» If you want sharp changes in Drive at section boundaries (e.g. from verse into chorus) you can make a cleaner line by deleting a lot of your manually recorded points.

» You can also “draw” automation changes by adding points that you did not record. Just click the Pencil Tool button at the upper left of the Sequencer view, then click in the clip wherever you want to add a point. Then drag the point to the desired location and value.

» To adjust the Drive setting for the parts of the song that are not covered by your parameter automation clip, click the Edit Mode button at the upper right of the Sequencer view. You’ll now see a Static Value handle at the left of the lane, which you can adjust as needed.

The automation techniques described above for Drive can be applied to any parameter of a Line 6 Guitar Amp device, including parameters such as volume, tone controls (Bass, Middle, Treble, Presence) and even Wah. That gives you great control over how your Record-supported POD Farm 2 tones are applied to dry tracks.

The same automation techniques used for controlling the application of guitar tones to tracks apply to many other controls in Record as well. When mixing down your songs, for example, Record lets you automate most controls in the Mixer view including faders, panning, effects sends, EQ and dynamics.

Mix automation can be used to aid the blending of instruments by compensating for level changes in the original tracks. It can also add variety to a song by varying relative track levels to bring out different musical elements in different sections of a song. Of course there's much more to know about automated mixing than can be covered in a single article, and while the basic concepts of working with automation hold true the specifics vary from DAW to DAW. But hopefully the above sparks some ideas that you can experiment with and put to use in your own personal studio. And that's a big part of what home recording is all about.

Philip De Lancie is a freelance writer covering all aspects of audio and multimedia production and distribution. His work, which has appeared regularly in leading publications for production professionals, draws on his own professional experience in audio engineering and multimedia production