The Recording Process
From time to time I am asked a question like, “What does the recording process involve?” or “What should we expect in the recording studio?” The following article is designed to help answer such questions. As with most procedures, there is no one right way to carry out this process. So as I proceed through the following paragraphs, I will cover typical scenarios and mention others when appropriate. [Note: Click on highlighted words to go to their definition in our glossary.]
Preproduction is basically everything that takes place before entering the studio. From an administrative viewpoint this may include hiring a producer. Most of the time the producer is responsible for hiring a recording studio and engineer and lining up session musicians, if needed. Sometimes a producer is used only to help with tracking and mixing. If you will be producing your own CD, then these jobs will be handled by you or a designated member of your band. Acquiring funding or lining up financial backers may be part of your preproduction process. If you will need specialized equipment, such as a special microphone or guitar, then arrangement to buy or rent such equipment should made during this time. Someone needs to make arrangement to acquire new strings, drum heads, and other items that will be needed during the tracking session.
From a musical viewpoint you need to decide on what songs to include on the album. If you are short a song or two, you may need to include songwriting as a part of preproduction. Once you have your song list the band needs to get together and work out arrangements for each song. Then they should rehearse every song until they have them down pat. It is a good idea to prepare one or two songs more than you need. You never know when a song or two just won't work.
There are probably as many ways to record a project as there are recording engineers. One choice is to record everything live. That is, each instrumentalist and vocalists is recorded at the same time with each instrument/voice being recorded on separate tracks. The advantage is that you tend to get more spontaneity when everyone is playing together. However, there are a number of disadvantages. You have to contend with bleed, which can create significant problems when it comes time to mix these tracks. You can overcome some of the bleed by isolating each performer in separate rooms. There will still be bleed between the instrument and vocal mikes if the vocalist is playing an instrument. Once you isolate each performer, you tend to lose some of the spontaneity. Another problem with live recordings is that punching in can be more difficult. Sometimes the only way to fix an error is to rerecord the song until you get it right.
Probably the more common way of tracking today is by using overdubs. Typically a scratch track is recorded. This can be anything from the vocalist and his or her guitar to the whole band. The scratch track is commonly recorded using a click track. Choosing the correct tempo and timing is important at this stage as it will be basis for all the overdubs. Once a good scratch track has been laid down, each person comes in and overdubs his part. Usually drums and bass are tracked first, followed by each of the remaining instruments. The vocal is usually tracked last, so that the vocalist has the whole arrangement to sing over.
Sometimes keyboards and synthesizers are used to create the rhythm track. In this case, these tracks will be used instead of a scratch track, although sometimes a scratch track is used in conjunction with a synthesized rhythm track.
Once the all the overdubs have been completed, the tracks are edited. This is when things get fixed, and many things may need fixing. For example, this is when you remove all unwanted sounds and noises. From snap, crackle, and pops to lip smacks, coughs, and heavy breathing, any undesired sound should be edited out. In the digital age, this is much easier to do than it was with analog tape. There are a number of ways of removing such noises. You can simply highlight the noise and erase it or you can use automation to drop the level or mute the signal when the noise is present.
Editing may be the time when comping takes place. While this procedure is done most commonly with vocals, it can be applied to any instrument that has multiple takes. Sometimes comping takes place during the tracking process to insure that a complete take can be accomplished before moving on to the next overdub.
Another thing to fix is timing issues. While it is possible to quantize tracks so that every note occurs on the beat, this often produces an unnatural mechanized sound. The goal should be to make sure that no instrument or vocal note is obviously out of sync. With careful listening you will hear an occasional instrument that is slightly out of sync with the rest of the band. That note or notes can be shifted in time to bring it back into sync.
If the vocalist occasionally hits a note that is flat or sharp, this is the time to correct it using pitch shifting software such Autotune or Melodyne. While Autotune can be used to the extreme to create the so-called “Cher effect” that is so popular in today's hip-hop, it can be used more judiciously to subtly correct the occasional missed note in other genres of music. While some people take this as cheating, it is preferable in most cases to getting the vocalist back into the studio to rerecord the offending section of music. Of course, it does allow the run-of-the-mill singer to produce a great sounding vocal.
Mixing is the art of combining the various multitracks into a pleasant sounding stereo track. (The meaning of the term pleasant here is in the ear of the beholder.) Although we list this as a separate phase, it is not uncommon for many engineers to be mixing while still in the tracking stage. The goal during mixing is to not only to get all the various instruments to blend together, but for each to contribute to the overall sound without drowning out or masking other instruments. This process is accomplished through a carefully selected blend of panning, EQing, compression, reverb, and delay.
Mixing is also the time to eliminate some instruments during certain passages and other instruments during other passages. For example, you may want to have just an acoustic guitar during the intro with the bass and drums coming in at the beginning of the first verse. In this way mixing can become part of the creative process as well.
With today's high quality software plug-ins, it is possible to use only the effects in the computer. This is the so-called “in-the-box” approach to mixing. On the other extreme is the mixing engineer who uses only outboard gear, effects created with hardware. And of course, you can use a combination of the two approaches. While there are proponents of each approach, the key to getting a great sound is a mixing engineer who know how to use the tools he has effectively.
The goal of mastering is to create a cohesive sounding album. Levels and tones are adjusted so that the sound of all the songs on the album match one another. Within each song a variety of tools are used to improve the sound and give it that extra “punch.” These tools include multi-band compression and equalization, among others. Finally the songs are placed in the order they will appear on the album and proper spacing is placed between the songs. The mastering engineer will also insert text such as artist and title into each song. If desired he or she can add IRSC codes. Mastering can be done in the original recording studio or in a specialized mastering studio. For a discussion of making this choice, visit our FAQ page.
The final step in the creation of a CD used to be replication, the process of making many copies of a CD using a stamping process. However, for many artists making thousands of copies of a CD is too expensive. I also have heard stories of garages full of unsold CDs. For smaller quantities the alternative for many is duplication, the process of reproducing CDs using CD-Rs, the same way you would copy a CD in your home computer. While duplication may fit the budget (and storage requirements) of many artists, care must be exercised when choosing a vendor for this process. We have found that some vendors are using inferior blank CDs for duplication.
In some cases artists are foregoing the duplication and replication process altogether and simply using internet distribution. While many artists do both a CD and internet downloads, there are others just doing the latter. Although there are a number of sites that provide music downloads, such as Itunes, CDbaby, and Amazon, it is sometimes a challenge to get music placed on these sites. Many independent artists have found it convenient to use an aggregator to accomplish this task. For a small fee, these companies will take your music and make it available on numerous download sites. Now it is easier than ever to record your own CD and get distributed to the world.