Ever wanted to get into the wonderful world of Music Production and Are you ready to become a Music Producer? Then you have come to the right place.
Music Production 101: The 4 Steps to Recording a Song
The world of music has changed.
Years ago, if you were a musician, and you wanted to record an album, you and your band played shows in bars and clubs every night, and prayed that some big-shot producer in the audience who would impressed enough to give you a shot.
Times have changed.
Today, the trend in music production is shifting more and more toward home studios. Great music is being produced all the time in bedrooms, garages, and basements by everyday artists.
Record a song, post it online, watch it go viral, and you’re famous overnight. While it’s not that EASY, but it is that SIMPLE. But before any of that can happen, you must first know the process of how music actually is recorded.
I will break it down for you in 4 steps.
Lets do this!
Step 1: The Recording Process
In the earliest days of the music recording, the process was much simpler than it is today. Entire performances were recorded in single takes, sometimes with just 1 or 2 mics.
Today though, we use a more sophisticated process known as multitrack recording. This is where each instrument is recorded separately and combined later in a “mix.”
This offers two HUGE advantages:
- It allows engineers to mold and shape the sound of each instrument independently of the others.
- It allows each instrument in a song to be recorded one at a time.
What would used to require an entire team of engineers and musicians, it can be done by just one person.
While the actual steps in the process vary from engineer to engineer. Here is a general guideline of how this works.
1. Create a Track to Follow Along With
The first step is creating some kind of guide for the other instruments to follow along with.
Most people use a simple click/metronome to set a tempo. But since not all musicians can follow clicks, you could also use a pre-recorded drum loop instead. And since not all songs have steady tempos, a third method is to create a scratch track. Where an instrument or group of instruments are recorded as the guide, then “over-dubbed” one at a time, until the original can be deleted or “scratched“.
2. Record the Rhythm Section
As any musician knows, the rhythm section is the foundation of any song. When bands play together, everyone follows the drums/bass. It makes sense that these be the first instruments you normally record. In songs that lack drums/bass, another rhythmic instrument (example: acoustic guitar), can be used instead.
3. Record the Harmonies
Once you’ve built a good foundation, next it’s time to add to it by creating a chord structure. Depending on the song, that could mean adding rhythm guitar, piano, synths, horns, etc.With a basic chord progressions now in place, next it’s time to record the melodies
4. Record the Melodies
Since most songs use a combination of instruments to form the melodies, it makes sense that whichever ones are most dominant (usually lead vocals/lead guitar) be the ones you record first. Then afterwards, you can fill in the gaps with all the supporting melodies.
5. Add Color
To put the finishing touches on your song, you add all those little nuances that add color and flare to the main tracks. These include background vocals, percussion fills, piano fills and sampled sound effects.
One of the hardest parts about recording all this stuff is finding competent musicians to play all these different instruments. You may be lucky if you have a band, or at least some friends willing to help out.
However, many of us don’t have this. In which case, I highly suggest checking out specific Facebook Groups. You can join one of these groups and meet all kinds of people willing to help out. An example is the Young Entertainment Professionals of Nashville. Or YEP Nashville for short. As of this posting, this group already has over 34.4 thousand members, and growing.
Once that’s done, you’re ready for the next Step in the process. EDITING
Step 2: The Editing Process
Now that you’ve finished recording your tracks, it’s time to clean them up. No matter how careful you were in the last step, there will always be some mistakes that should be fixed.
Typically, editing is made up of 5 common tasks:
- Noise Reduction
- Time Editing
- Pitch Editing
With arrangement, you take an overall look at everything you’ve done so far, to evaluate what works, and what doesn’t.
For example, you could do the following.
- delete entire tracks that don’t add value
- cut out sections of tracks that clutter the mix
- move a section to a new part of the song
- delete entire sections of the song altogether
With comping, you compare the duplicate takes of each track, and select the best one. If you like, you can even select best phrases from each take and combine them all into one take.
With noise reduction, you cut all sounds before, after, and in-between each section of audio where the instrument is playing.
This means removing:
- Background voices
- Amp hissing
- Chair squeaks
- Dead air
A cool trick: To reduce noise further, you can add a high-pass filter beneath the lower frequency range of non-bass instruments, to remove rumbling sounds.
With time editing, you can fix off-beat notes, using one of two methods:
- There’s the “cut and paste” method, which works well on percussive instruments.
- There’s the “time-stretching“method, which works well on almost all instruments.
With pitch editing, you can shift any sour note back on-pitch, using Auto-Tune or something similar. Normally it’s used on vocals, but it also works well on many melodic instruments.
Now that you have the basics of the Editing Process, its time to move on to the next step.
Step 3: Lets Mix it Up. (Mixing)
Once the tracks are arranged exactly as you like. The next goal is to make them blend as one cohesive unit through the process of “mixing“.
While mixing is an art form in itself, and can be done in many ways. There are certain fundamental tasks that everyone does…
Some examples include:
- Balancing Faders – which is done so that no instrument sounds too loud or soft in relation to the others.
- Panning – which gives each instrument it’s own space in the stereo-image, much like each musician has his own space on-stage.
- Equalization – which crafts a unique space in the frequency spectrum for each instrument, so that no two sounds compete for the same band of frequencies.
- Compression – which levels out the dynamic range of an instrument so each note is heard clearly, and the mix sounds louder as a whole.
- Reverb – which creates 3-dimensional space for the mix, adding a sense of depth, and unifying the instruments under one room-sound.
- Automation – which allows you to change settings at different points in the song, to give your mix a sense of movement.
Once you’ve used these steps to craft your mix, it’s finally time for one last step.
Step 4: The Master of Mastering Process
Before your song is ready to be mastered, all tracks must be re-recorded and flattened down to a single stereo file. This is also known as it being “bounced.”
Once that’s done, various mastering techniques are used to put the finishing touches on your song so that it sounds even better.
Common techniques include:
- Maximizing Loudness – through further compression and limiting, so the average signal level over time is as high as possible, without sacrificing too much dynamics.
- Balancing Frequencies – through further EQ, and a process known as multi-band compression, which can compress individual frequency bands separately from the rest of the spectrum.
- Stereo Widening – with a special plugin designed to add an additional sense of “width” to the higher frequencies in your mix.
Once everything sounds perfect, the track is converted to its appropriate sample rate/bit depth. For example, CD audio is 44.1 kHz/16 Bits.
Should you DIY or Outsource?
To put it simply, mastering is difficult. And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can easily make things worse, rather than better. That’s why it’s standard practice for mix engineers to outsource the work to a “mastering engineer“, rather than doing it themselves.
If you want to try it anyway, here are the software tools I recommend:
Good mastering engineers cost money, which not everyone has. Luckily though, these days there are many online freelance engineers willing to work for not much money at all and you meet awesome people in the process. Remember, you can always search in Facebook Groups for the right fit for you.
The one big question is, “Should I even worry about mastering my music?” The answer is a very stern YES. When listening to music that has been pitched to me, the ones that stand out are the ones that have been produced and mastered well. When you put out a song, you should always listen to it and have others listen as well. Get their honest feedback and ask them this question. If you turned on the radio right now, could you hear your song on a local station? If it sounds like it was recorded on a potato, then no, you may have just ruined your shot at a hit song. If you are going to spend money on one thing, the most important is production and mastering.
If you want to get into the world of Music Production, become a Music Producer and have a Music Background, you can also go to school to get a formal education as well. You can choose a fully online school like Full Sail University, or you can go to a Music focused college, like Belmont University. Music Production is an exciting venture, especially if you have a Music Background or are already a Music Producer.
Jerrett Franklin is a singer/songwriter from Loretto, TN. After growing up in a small town, he moved to Nashville to pursue a music career. After writing for a few different artists in the area, he decided to branch out and give local music the spotlight. That is where the idea for Music On The Rox originated from. We are dedicated to shining a light on local music and giving a voice to those who aren’t being heard.