Step 4 – Recording

Recording Studio / Working with a Studio Engineer / Recording / Tracking / Editing / Mixing.

You’ve opened the door and now it’s time to walk the exciting and adventurous route of the recording process!

By this stage, you must have already chosen a recording studio (be it a home studio or a bigger, more commercial studio) to lay your tracks down and record your material. Studio rates vary and the one you choose should be able to give you what you need that is within budget. Studio time is usually billed by the hour. Some studios may offer special package rates for bigger projects. A good recording studio for you would be one that is affordable but does not skimp on quality. It also helps if the recording studio engineer has experience in his field and is one who is highly competent and personable.

Before you enter the studio, you can decide to lay your tracks down per song. Which song will be recorded first and which ones will come next? Will you need to prepare chord charts for musicians? How about lyric sheets for the singers and the sound engineer? Will there be any session musicians involved? When will they be scheduled? During breaks, will you feed everyone? Have expenses been noted and are payments ready?

Notes on studio costing

Recording sessions are a major part of the budget. Get ready to spend for hours and those hours translating into days. Factor in all the other miscellaneous things like lunch and dinner, and emergency/contingency within the time you will be working in the studio. If you are a big group, much like a band, you will definitely have to prepare yourself for many hours. But if you are going solo and all you need to record are your guitar or keyboard and vocals, things will surely come out cheaper and faster for you in the studio. Same with having pre-sequenced instrumentals for lay down ready for vocal overdubs.

The beautiful challenge inside the recording studio is mostly how to manage time with all that needs to be done within a given schedule. It is key to getting your recordings done successfully. If you have schedules laid out, everyone will know what to do and what to prepare for.

Recording/tracking

Here is where the actual recording of the instruments and the vocals come in. An experienced, knowledgeable and otherwise, friendly sound engineer inside a well-equipped studio are a good combination to start off.

This stage consists of tracking, editing and mixing.

Tracking is basically the process of recording your songs. Each instrument (or vocal) is recorded individually in a track in the mix. This is usually done onto a digital audio workstation where you can lay down all your parts as layers to make a song. Instruments and vocals are recorded without effects, usually, so that the sound engineer can tweak the sounds later on as a whole. Recordings can be done live, with musicians playing together at once, or can be done one at a time.

Recording is an exercise in perfection, but not quite. Sometimes it will require you several “takes” to get the perfect sound or lyric in. Some artists have recorded songs with just one take, meaning the first time they sung a particular song, they used it as their final recording. As for ordinary mortals such as ourselves, we may not be as lucky. So we do as many takes as we can to make things sound the way we want it. The right emotion is what you should look for together with a good technical take on a track.

Let’s say you’ve laid down the basic tracks of your rhythm section (drums, bass, guitar and keyboards). After you lay down your basic tracks, you can overdub other tracks on the rhythm section. Overdubbing is the process of adding supplementary recorded sounds to a previously recorded performance. If your music piece is a song, then you can now record vocal tracks over the rhythm section you just recorded .

Maybe a solo vocal first, then followed by an overdub of other vocals for the harmony, which may be done one by one, or together on a take. This comes out as a great convenience when you may not have enough people to do the parts. The same vocalist who did the solo can also double as the vocal on a harmony part. Layers can be recorded by one person to form a harmonic piece of work. Each part is recorded one track at a time. Tracks are usually recorded without effects, to give the sound engineer a clean signal to work with. Effects can be applied after recording. If effects are combined with recording, it cannot be undone. So it’s best to have a clean, recorded sound so you can have room for change.

As much as possible, keep to a minimum number of people inside the studio. Only the sound engineer, the producer and musicians needed should be around. To be able to focus on the work at hand, keep only the necessary people in and guests out.

Just remember that you can also overdo this to the point that you overwork your musicians or your ears, and maybe even your budget.

Find another time to book if anyone in your team is sick or in circumstances beyond your control (e.g. singer with sore throat, guitar player rushed to the emergency room for a sudden appendectomy). Be understanding within reason.

Recording studio set up

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all pattern to get things done in the studio. However, here’s a sample of what you might run into when you record. Since this doesn’t necessarily describe exactly how your schedule looks, take what you can and apply what you need when it’s your turn to record.

Gear Check

Make sure the instruments and other gear you will be using are all in good working condition. Batteries for effect boxes? Cords? Test them beforehand. Tune. Check your strings. Bring an extra set. Take this time also to get organized internally and physically. As a traveler might put it, “Make sure your bags are packed with everything you need.”

Set Up Time

Setting up of equipment inside the studio takes time. Microphones and instruments, amps, cables, connections – these may take a half day to a full day. Placement and setup are key to getting the best possible levels of sound during recording.

If you are renting some gear, make sure everything is ready on setup day.

Drums

Drums take a good number of hours to set up and retune. Just make sure that before drums are brought in, you’ve practically tuned them beforehand, so that there will only be minor tuning adjustments inside the studio. Good drum sounds are essential in a recording. Work well with the engineer to get the sound you want.

Bass

An hour or less will suffice. You can either mic a bass cabinet, or run the bass through something like a SansAmp where it’s plugged directly into the studio’s mixing board.

Guitars

A couple of hours probably. Mic amps and check tone.

Other instruments

An hour. Keyboards. Check tone and output.

Basic Tracks

During the recording sessions, you can playback the song or tracks and take breaks, too. Be prepared to work for hours on every song you record. Also try not to lose the feel of your song just because you want everything to sound totally perfect.

Producer David Henry writes, recording should be thorough but not laborious. Otherwise, everybody gets tired, frustrated, and bored. It’s hard to get a drummer to give you a fresh exciting track if you made them pound on the snare for three hours while the engineer tries out fifteen different compression ratios. You should find an engineer/producer who works quickly and keeps the sessions fun. If the band is having a great time in the studio, the tracks will sound that way.

Overdubs

This can be scheduled on another day. Re-listen to what’s been recorded so far and go about deciding which parts to record where. If you seem to be iffy about a song in some way, you can set it aside and move on to the songs you are sure of. If you are constantly working out stuff on a song that just won’t come together nicely, decide whether it’s worth your time to keep pushing and forcing your way through.

As for the instruments you’ve recorded, you can spend studio time cleaning up parts recorded on previous days. You can also start the overdubs on the lead instrument tracks and other instruments that contribute to the dynamic range of the song.

Vocals can be done on a separate day after the first set of overdubs. But try not to fit recording all the vocals in one sweep. Remember, their voices need to be in top condition and there is such a thing as voice strain and over singing. Vocalists need time to also take breaks within songs. It is important to take the time and effort to get the vocals down pat, whether solo (lead vocal), harmony or backup (or background) vocals.

Editing

After recording, you will want to listen and re-listen to the material and edit. This means additional work in terms of adding or subtracting things, tuning certain instruments or vocals, curing certain takes, adjusting timing or tempo, cutting and pasting portions, pitch correction, etc. Editing music is that process that alters the original recorded performance.

With all that is readily available editing-wise, so much is possible. Through this process, you can clean your tracks the way you want.

These are done in order to come up with a sort of “final” form to get the material ready for mixing.

Evaluate well during this phase. If there are notes that stick out like a sore thumb, fix them. If the song is better without the guitar solo on bar 58, then go ahead and remove the solo. If it sounds better on another track, then record it onto the track where you feel it belongs. If a certain note is bothersome, go tune, re-record or change it. Remember that whatever you don’t edit now will be present on your album forever.

Editing gives you the freedom to virtually save any number of takes and overdubs. Multiple takes can now be easily copied, pasted and moved around anywhere without affecting the any of the original recorded takes. With drum editing, for example, you can match a kick drum and a snare drum to perfect click time. With a guitar or vocal solo, you can move and change pitch and timing to your liking until you achieve the sound you prefer. While others debate that copious editing sometimes removes the live feel from the recording, other artists use this technology to create art that goes beyond the boundaries of what is usually done in acoustic or live settings. The kind of editing you will do will be dependent on the quality of your recordings. The better your recordings come out, the less editing work you will need to put in. Editing can be done section per section. Here are some samples of how the editing process may look for you in a song setting.

Edit Process 1: General Edit

This kind involves figuring out what will work best as you evaluate the song in a general perspective. Determine which are the top recorded takes. This is where you build your editing. Let’s say you’ve blocked off and chosen the best two takes. Verse one and Chorus one of Take 2 are good; the rest of the sections in Take 1 are good. You can pick the best parts of both takes and combine them to make your Best Take. Listen again and assess. Listen to the song as a whole and see whether the newest take is clear and is the best there is.

Edit Process 2: Moderate Edit

If you need some portions or sections, phrases or lyrics that need some attention, take note of all of these and fix each section a step at at time. You can highlight entire phrases. Assess the quality of the recording and see whether correction is possible on the phrase as a whole. You can also grab a good take on a particular word, for example, and copy and paste it to a new section that needs a little help. Check on the overall feel of the phrase and the timing and see whether it won’t sound unnatural after the pasting is done. This can work but be careful that everything matches and the feel is not compromised. Try not to copy-paste entire phrases or sections and repeat them. You still want the song to sound like a live performance of sorts, so be discerning about the copying. You don’t want people to notice a robotic delivery. You can actually address that issue by possibly grabbing some other alternate recording on another take. We all want something as close to real as it can be.

Edit Process 3: Fine Edit

There is a universe of possibility to edit in this phase. Technology has provided us every single way to change and fix any part of your recording. As you listen over again, try to do it focusing on the big and the small at the same time. Listen to the small but understanding where it contributes to the big picture. There is a danger to get too engrossed with the tiny bits and pieces that you forget what is it you are actually trying to communicate through the song as an entire piece. Try hard not to get caught up in the small stuff that you miss the main thing. Keep in mind that it is one complete song telling us one message. Remember that there are imperfections that are allowable.

Though editing can reach the most meticulous of levels, keep the main message of the song in mind. The editing should support what the song is trying to say and make you feel.

Now that you’ve gone through the editing process, you have clean and well-recorded takes in your hands. This will help you find your way into our next phase of production.

Mixing

Mixing follows after recording and editing. This is where you bring all the individual tracks and form it into a cohesive whole, as a song.

Mixing is the process where the sound engineer applies processing to these tracks (e.g. vocals, guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, etc) and several factors are adjusted and balanced. Elements such as volume levels, panning, compression, equalization (EQ), reverb are applied to the material for it to result in the best possible sound. The mix must fit the song and the style of music.

In a mix with many sounds, no sound stands alone. Mixing utilizes all timbres creatively and technically so that these elements coexist within the stereo soundscape of your song.

The mix is like a 3D piece of work, similar to other works of art. Photography and painting, for example, deal with depth and the way colors interact and are composed together. The sound engineer does something like that with sounds, both vocal and instrumental.

Individual tracks will now be “mixed down” to a two-track whole which is called the “stereo mix.”

This is where everyone ought to say that the songs sound good, and that everything is more or less the way they’re supposed to be.

Some notes on mixing

You may want to take a day or two off before mixing starts, if at all possible, so you can approach listening to the material with a fresh pair of ears.

Give the engineer time to make some kind of rough mix for each of the songs. Keep your mind and ears open to give the sound engineer his expertise space. The sound engineer would do well to closely coordinate with one or two main people – the producer or band spokesperson. If there are too many people involved giving their own opinions left and right, this will only result in chaos and wasted time and effort. The producer and band team head can come in when the rough mixes are ready for a listen. Here is where you can start giving your comments. If listening to the entire mix seems a little bit off, you can also work with the sound engineer and listen to particular recorded tracks one by one and analyzing what could be going on.

Your band can meet separately. They can listen and give comments about the rough mixes before proceeding to the final mix. Changes agreed upon here can be applied.

You can probably burn onto a CD whatever’s been initially mixed. Give a listen to the mixes on different places like your car stereo or another player.

Assess

Give yourself ear breaks during the recording and editing stages. Try to assess your project from the external and see whether you have done justice to the songs. Pretend you are an outsider. How do you think everything sounds? What elements can you add, subtract or change?

You can use several aspects for assessment.

  • Melody (clarity of melody lines, in the song proper or melody lines performed on the recording for solo parts, etc)
  • Lyrics (clarity and understandability)
  • Rhythm (consistency)
  • Harmony (right chords for the right portions)
  • Density (number of sounds in the song at one time)
  • Song structure (good flow from verse to chorus/bridge, etc)
  • Instrumentation (right use of instruments and number of instruments for each song)
  • Performance (power in the delivery of the material, whether song is fast or slow)
  • Dynamics (appropriate use of dynamics for the song concept)
  • Recording quality and Mix (not painful to the ears, no drops in the quality, not too loud or soft; right impact for the listener)

After you’ve gone through the recording and editing stages, and mixed your material well, you have reached part one in the finalization of the CD.

But wait, there’s more.

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