If you've been recording or producing music for a while, you've likely heard the term “print” thrown around to some extent, and if you're confused by it, you've come to the right place to find the definition(s) of the term.
What does printing mean in audio recording and production? The term printing comes from “printing” or recording analog audio to tape to capture the audio and all the processes. Printing is the act of recording effects/processes to audio rather than having processors/plugins running. The term extends to MIDI, meaning recording MIDI instruments as audio.
In this article, we'll break down what printing means in audio to catch us up on the vocabulary and discuss why printing is a useful strategy in music production.
The Definition Of “Printing”
Meriam Webster defines print as the act or product of one that prints. It defines print as follows:
- a: a mark made by pressure
b: something impressed with a print or formed in a mold
- a: printed state or form
b: the printing industry
- a: printed matter
b: prints plural: printed publications
- printed letters
- a(1): a copy made by printing
a(2): a reproduction of an original work of art (such as a painting) made by a photomechanical process
a(3): an original work of art (such as a woodcut, etching, or lithograph) intended for graphic reproduction and produced by or under the supervision of the artist who designed it
b: cloth with a pattern or figured design applied by printing
also: an article of such cloth
c: a photographic or motion-picture copy
especially: one made from a negative
Most of these definitions have to do with visual art, though in the world of audio, we're not so much concerned with the visuals of “printing”.
Rather, we're looking to copy an audio signal and have our own independent “print” to work with.
Some will argue that the term “print” shouldn't be used in audio and prefer the term “record” for all things audio. The argument is that “print” is solely to do with the visual system, and “record” is solely to do with the auditory system. However, the term “print” in audio is here to stay, so it's worth knowing what it means whether we use it or not.
Semantics can be a bit difficult, but the term “printing” is generally used in the following contexts:
- “Printing” audio to a medium (tape, vinyl, compact disc, hard disk, etc.).
- “Printing” the effects/processors inserted on a channel to a new audio signal.
- “Printing” MIDI information through a MIDI instrument to a new audio signal.
- “Printing” lyrics, chord changes, sheet music, tablature, etc., to paper or digital documents.
In the following sections, we'll discuss printing in more detail, beginning with printing to paper before moving on to “printing” audio.
Printing Music And Lyrics
Since audio is so tied in with music (or written scripts), we need to be aware that the obvious definition of “print” shouldn't be forgotten.
For example, when working with session musicians, it could be the case that they'll need their sheet music, lyrics or something else printed for them to play. This could be on paper or a digital document.
As another example, dialogue or voiceover recording sessions will typically require the written lines to be printed out for the talent to perform.
While this isn't necessarily the responsibility of the audio engineer, it's still important to know that the typical definition of printing is still at play when recording and producing music and other audio products.
Printing Audio To Tape And Other Media
The term “printing in audio began in the days of analog when engineers would “print” or record audio to magnetic tape.
Before multitrack recording, any “mixing” would have to be done during the recording. Everything would be set up for optimal recording since there was no “fixing it in the mix”. The audio signal(s) being recorded would all be summed to a mono recording, so “printing” in this time/setup would simply mean recording.
Once multitrack recording came along, mixing engineers were able to record multiple tracks to multitrack tape machines and play them back through mixing consoles to control the mix. While it was still important to record as optimally and efficiently as possible, there were opportunities to mix the multitracks post-recording with faders, routing and inserted outboard gear.
To finish a mix, the console would output to a dedicated tape (whether it was mono or stereo), and the mix would be “printed” to that tape.
This definition can extend to compact discs, hard disks, and even vinyl, though it typically doesn't.
To learn more about multitracks, check out my article What Are Multitracks? (Audio Recording, Mixing, Playback).
Printing Effects And Processes
In the age of digital audio, the term “printing” generally refers to recording audio with all the effects applied and included in the recording.
This can be on the way in, as was often the case in analog records. It can also be after the recording during mixing.
For example, when recording a vocal performance, the singer is picked up by the microphone. We could apply gain to the mic and record it “dry,” or we could run it through compression, EQ and other processes before it ultimately gets recorded (in digital or analog systems). In this case, we're “printing” these effects onto the vocal signal.
As an example from mixing, let's say we have a vocal that was recorded completely dry. We apply some Autotune, EQ and compression to make it fit in the mix and then “print it” in place. We now have a new vocal track that's tuned, EQed and compressed, and we no longer have to run audio through those processes.
In this example, we can free up CPU load in digital systems. Considering analog equipment (we'll forget the digital Autotune for a moment), this means that we can now use the EQ and compressor for other purposes in the mix.
• Top 11 Best Tips For EQing Vocals
• Top 11 Best Tips For Compressing Vocals
This process can also be referred to as destructive editing, as we're effectively making a decision and living with it for the rest of the mix. We're committing to the effects and moving forward in the mix without going back to tweak the parameters of the inserts.
In this way, we can say that printing is committing to whatever effects/processes we've dialled in on a track.
The pros of this are that we get rid of the ability and urge to endlessly adjust our processes, we get a better look at what the audio waveform actually is (great for seeing phase relationships), and we either reduce CPU or free up analog hardware.
• Mixing: What Is Phase & Why Is It So Important To Get Right?
• Audio: What Are Inserts? (Mixing, Recording & More)
The con is obviously that we can no longer go back to adjust the audio processing, as printing cannot be undone.
Of course, in the virtually unlimited track counts of modern DAWs, we can always save a backup of the original signal with the processes in place for safety purposes or for future remixes. In this case, I'd recommend turning off the processes, muting the audio and the track, and hiding them from view. Alternatively, you could save the session with the original versions and create a copy of the session with only the printed audio.
To recap, printing here is about recording new audio from a track that effectively includes all the processes the track is running through.
As an extension of printing effects/processes to audio, we can also print our MIDI tracks to audio.
Perhaps the most important reason comes from the propensity for virtual instruments to react differently on each pass, even if the MIDI information they're being fed remains the same.
Additionally, it's not unheard of for MIDI to mistrigger during playback and bouncing. When this happens, the MIDI track miscommunicates with the virtual instrument (or other MIDI-controlled devices/software), causing the performance to be something other than what we had programmed.
There are enough changes in perception during the mixing process, and having a virtual instrument sound different with each pass isn't something we want to deal with.
Bouncing MIDI to audio is also beneficial to eliminate the temptation to tweak the MIDI information or virtual instrument parameters. By bouncing to audio and muting, hiding or deleting the MIDI track, we can focus on tweaking the audio track's processing (if needed). Having audio restricts us from getting into the details of the instrument or MIDI (which should have already been taken care of in the recording/production session).
So before we get to mixing, it's a good idea to consider bouncing any MIDI track to audio.