Recording Methods & Tools

What's New? Bruce Irving Music Recording Tools

Update Summer 2016: The information below is not up to date on software versions, though I still use Band in a Box as well as the latest version of Cakewalk SONAR for writing and recording, along with a wide array of iOS music apps on my iPad Air 2.

For anyone who wonders, how do you record songs and get them on the internet, here are a few details on what I'm doing (there are many other tools and methods - I don't claim this to be the best approach, but it works for me). I'm primarily a songwriter and singer, though I'm OK on guitar and can play keyboards just a bit. Many of my demos start out with me playing guitar or my Casio electronic keyboard directly into the SONAR X2 recording software. If I want a really professional sounding track, I book a session with Roger Lavallee at the Tremolo Lounge. But to make home demos that sound more or less like a band, I get help from software.

Band in a Box
I really like this program from PG Music ( Band in a Box (BB or BIAB for short) allows me to enter the chords that I play for a song by name, choose a tempo, and choose from one of hundreds of musical styles. The program then generates an arrangement for MIDI-generated bass, drums, piano, guitar, and strings.

I can audition different styles in real time as the song plays, and even modify styles, usually by importing parts from other styles. How is this different from the auto-accompany features in a Casio or Yamaha keyboard? Well, there are many styles, each with two substyles (e.g., for verses and choruses). But most of the styles have many different ways of playing each part, chosen randomly based on various rules controlled by what's happening bar-by-bar in the music. Since the "riffs" in these styles have been played by professional musicians, they are often quite human sounding.  I've upgraded BIAB several times - upgrades typically add some really cool and useful new features, and various new styles are also included depending on the particular upgrade you buy (they usually run holiday specials in December).  Good stuff.

2012 Update: In the last few releases of BIAB, they have greatly expanded their RealTracks feature. Style with RealTracks replace MIDI parts with audio samples recorded by professional musicians instead of synthesizer voices. They sound real because they ARE real. I had a few of these style from recent updates, but this fall I decided to bite the bullet and by the 2012.5 "Ultra" edition of BIAB which includes ALL the available RealTracks styles (it comes pre-installed on a USB hard drive). I've already gotten a few songs out of all these great-sounding styles, and I have been able to use some of the RealTracks parts in my final recordings in Sonar X2 (it's easy to render and export all the BIAB parts to individual track WAV files for use in Sonar X2). 

Going to MIDI
Once I have an arrangement I like, I need to export to a general recording program, Sonar X2 these days (BB allows you to record one audio track in addition to the standard MIDI tracks - I sometimes use this for a rough vocal to see how it works with the MIDI instruments). BB allows you to export a general MIDI file of the selected tracks, which I still do sometimes if I'm not using RealTracks styles. MIDI files are compact data files and can be played on most media players, though the sounds that are generated will depend on the quality of the sound card in the PC, or the external synthesizer or keyboard you use. MIDI files contain digital descriptions of notes and other music "events," but no actual sounds.

I started with Cakewalk's Home Studio 2002 for general recording ( This was the junior version of Cakewalk's SONAR, and it was a great program for not much money. I did a couple of upgrades to Home Studio but in 2004, I got a pretty cheap upgrade offer from Cakewalk and moved to SONAR 3. In 2011 I bought a new high-end laptop running Windows 7 so I could upgrade to the latest SONAR X1 version, which I upgraded to X2 in 2012. SONAR comes with good documentation and some sample recordings, but I have bought several third party books that were more helpful in learning this rich and complex program.

I usually import the MIDI tracks (and sometimes RealTracks) I created with BIAB, then begin overdubbing vocals, guitars, or maybe even other MIDI keyboard parts. I have also used SONAR's ACID-compatible "looping" features, using a couple of loop library CD's I bought, including some great steel guitar samples.

Do the WAV
MIDI tracks have to be rendered to audio. Often your sound card does this, but I usually use the many "software synths" supplied with SONAR X2. Once I have the track mixed the way I want, I use "export audio" to create a CD-quality WAV file. These files are huge (36 MB is typical).

MP3 to the Web
There are various programs that can convert WAV files to the compressed MP3 format. I have used Audio Grabber and even iTunes to do this conversion. Recently I've been using the free site to share works in progress and musical experiments.

Writing and Recording Apps
I travel a lot, and in the last few years, music creation apps for the iPhone or iPod Touch have matured to the point that I can write some of my new songs and reven record basic demos on my iPod Touch, whether I'm on a plane or in a hotel room somewhere. Here's a recent blog post I wrote discussing some of these apps. If you search my blog for "apps" you can find a number of other reviews of music apps that I use. GarageBand, Thumbjam 2.0, and Music Studio 2.0 are three of my favorites, but there are a lot of great music apps, some for as little as 99 cents, though some of the more capable apps can cost $5 or even $15. This is still very cheap compared to PC based applications (not to mention studio time).