The Recording Process

Sometimes when I talk with artists about their upcoming project, it seems like we’re talking about two completely different things. It’s not that we’re trying to throw each other for a loop, it’s just that we have a different set of expectations. But when expectations are different, we’re both set up for a difficult ride, so it’s important to clarify what the standard process is for producing a record, so we can speak on the same wavelength. It’s important to note that this is based on my own experience and education, and someone else might have a different take. Whole books have been written on each subject, and this is a much more condensed version.

The recording process is:

 

  1. Pre-production. Easily the number one rookie mistake is not believing this is super important. Pre-production is easily the most make-or-break part of the process. It’s essentially the process of selecting (and sometimes writing new, or finishing) songs for the album. It’s also editing the songs’ lyrics, arrangement (which instruments play, and when), and structure to maximize their emotional and expected sonic impact. This means really digging into the songs critically, and can be the most painful part of making the album. Sometimes it involves “killing your sacred cows” – the one thing you’re married to about the song may be the thing that’s holding it back. The preproduction stage, however, is truly where the songs go from good to great. The good songs rise to the top, because they are the usually ones that need the least work. Think about the greatest songs you know – they can be performed at almost any tempo, with almost any instrument, and still have their impact. Neglect the necessary criticism at this stage to your own detriment. This stage should certainly involve your producer (if you have one) and should see demos for every song that you are considering.
  2. Tracking. This is the process of actually recording each of the parts for the album. If you’re making a standard rock and roll album, stuff like drums, guitars, bass, keys, vocals, and horns (wait, is this a ska record?). Often you will hire a tracking studio and tracking engineer for this step, with the producer present to make sure everything is going well. Make sure you schedule enough time here for “happy accidents”: experimentation with tones, effects, and performance styles. If you have an idea of a crazy effect or funky production idea that involves any amount of time to get right, do it now. In a perfect world, you’ll get all the parts that will make it on the record here. If not, it’ll slow you down in the later steps and probably involve an awkward conversation or two.
  3. Editing – The Ambiguous Middle. You might not have anything here. Or you might have a bunch of stuff. Editing, timing of different parts like drums, guitars, bass, or anything that needs a little love after the tracking room has closed and the mics have been put away. This often includes vocal processing (tuning, timing, or other kinds of love). If your engineer or producer has to do a bunch of work at this stage, it likely means that the performance left a lot to be desired. This is okay, we deal with this a lot, and we’re usually pretty good at touching things up. On rare occasions, you may have a producer or engineer that starts to worry they need to edit everything. If that’s the case, and you’re confident with how it sounded before (it sounds like a bunch of pros played this stuff!), let them know as early on as possible. They’ll be grateful that you’ve saved them hours of tedious work.
  4. Mixing. This is the art of taking all your isolated tracks and blending them together into a stereo file in such a way that maximizes their impact. It’s common to hire a mixing engineer for this process, and this is their sole contribution to the project. Mixing is usually the most expensive part of the process. The big name guy will charge you thousands per song, and the dude on Craigslist will charge you $5 and a shoutout on Instagram. The big secret is no secret at all: you get what you pay for. The mixing process can result in something different than what you’ve been listening to during the previous stages. Parts may be removed, louder, or softer than you’ve expected them to be. It’s important to take a step back and try to listen as a fan here. You’ve been listening to these songs in a different form for weeks at this point. The unfamiliarity of a new mix is not necessarily a bad thing. If there’s a glaring issue (“where’s the vocal?”), or subtle nuances you’d like brought out, make a clearly written list of your changes (what part, louder or softer, at what timestamp).
  5. Mastering. This is the final processing of each stereo track. Usually this involves making it the same level of loudness as other commercial songs, and making sure it will sound good on lots of different sizes and kinds of speakers. Your iPhone’s built in speakers, your car stereo, and your weird uncle’s home hifi system. A good master will sound like the mix you were happy with, but louder, clearer, and sometimes a little more balanced. It shouldn’t sound distorted, squished, less clear, or funky. Again, you get what you pay for.

In a nutshell, this is the recording process. Keep an eye out for posts that go into each of these steps in more detail. As always, feel free to use the contact form if you have any questions or are interested in working with me on your next project.

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