PHASES OF THE RECORDING PROCESS
Following are the typical phases of the recording process:
During this stage, all the initial decisions are made regarding the recording. What is the purpose of the recording (i.e., demo for shopping or submission, indie release, song for download sales, just for fun, etc.)? What style of music will you be recording? Who will be playing what instruments, or what sounds will you use for the recording? Where will you record, mix and master the recording? Where is the budget coming from, and/or how will you raise the money for the project? How many songs will you be recording, and who will be involved in the writing? Will you need to hire musicians to play on the recording or will you and/or your band perform everything? When do you need to complete the recording by?
SOUND SOURCE SELECTION
This does not have to be a ‘formal’ process, but is nonetheless an important part of the project recording process. Everything that happens down the line in terms of the quality of the recording will be influenced by the sound source selection. Sound sources include the brand and model of instruments, the quality of the samples, and the caliber of the soft synths and virtual instruments. Of course, the vocals are an important sound source, so the quality of the vocalist counts as well. Use sound sources of low quality, and you will be paying the price the rest of the way. Great sounding sound sources (performed and recorded well, of course) will make it much easier to mix the songs later on.
SELECTION OF PERFORMERS
Naturally, if you are either in a band or performing as a solo artist, you will most likely pick yourself or your band members to play all the instruments and handle all the performances. The selection of the performers is the next most important thing after the sound source selection. Great sounding (high-quality and well maintained) instruments played with passion by great performers can overcome even a bad recording. Therefore, put your ego aside and get the best performers to perform on the recording. If you consider yourself the best performer by virtue of the fact that it is your music and you a unique passion for the performance and understand the songs the best, then that can also be a valid argument for performing the songs yourself.
Once the pre-production is complete, the writing process can proceed efficiently. Time isn’t wasted trying to figure out all the things that have already been covered in the pre-production stage, and instead everyone can focus on writing the best songs they can possibly come up with for the recording.
Not all bands have the time or patience to rehearse prior to their recording. Nevertheless, it is a crucial part of the process because this is where you can discover different ways to perform the song; including what the right key is, how the tempo feels, etc. Often, this part is combined with the writing process. Some performers use the recording process to rehearse, which is a waste of time and money.
This is the stage where the actual recording happens. Important decisions will be made regarding the best ways to capture the sounds. This is where an experienced and/or knowledgeable engineer plays a crucial role. Unless you already have the sounds in your computer, or on tape (e.g., from samples, soft synths, and/or virtual instruments), there are only three ways to record a sound; either by microphone, or via direct injection (DI), or a combination of the two. The quality of your microphones and DI boxes are extremely important to the final results, along with the mic-pres, additional processors (e.g., compressor, de-esser, EQ, etc.), and A/D converter. Of additional importance is ‘sound’ of the room in which you are recording, the maintenance of the equipment being recorded, along with mic placement, the quality and length of mic cables, the techniques used by the recording engineer, among other things. Along with great sound sources and great performers (and performances), getting the recording right will carry you into a great sounding mix and master.
Once everything is recorded, additional editing can be done in order to get the recording to sound perfect (if perfection is what you are after) and get the tracks ready for mixing. Some musicians prefer to leave the recording exactly as it was recorded for a more authentic and natural sound. For others, additional work is needed in order to piece together the perfect lead vocal take, create a powerful guitar solo, tune a voice or instrument, fix drum timing, apply time stretching to a track, adjust an early or late take, cut and paste background vocals from one chorus to another or replace a word sung in the wrong place, and so on. Editing the tracks into their final form allows the mixing process to be just about mixing, instead of spending valuable time editing.
The mixing stage is the stage where you take all the individual tracks that have been recorded (e.g., vocals, guitars, bass, kick, snare, keyboard, flute, violin, samples, etc.) and apply processing (e.g., volume levels, panning, compression, EQ, reverb, chorus, delay, flange, phaser, gating, etc.) in order to make everything sound as good as possible. This stage allows the most flexibility in manipulating the sounds, since processing can be applied to each individual track as necessary. Bad decisions made here will negatively affect the next stage (mastering). Any problems you have with the mix should be taken care of at this stage, and not left to be addressed later during the mastering stage where it becomes much more difficult, if not impossible to fix things. It is infinitely easier to focus in on a problem area, whether it is volume, tone, or character, and manipulate it using volume and panning as well as processing like compression, EQ, expansion, chorus, gating, etc., during the mixing stage. The final result of the mix is that all the individual tracks are mixed from multiple tracks ‘down’ to two (2) tracks as a stereo mix.
The mastering stage is the stage where you take the mixed 2-track source and apply any additional processing that might be necessary and create a master suitable for replication. It can be said that good mastering creates a more ‘finished’ product that appears to have more sheen, heft, depth, punch, and clarity than the mix alone. Generally speaking, the processing applied during mastering is mainly high-quality equalization, compression, the occasional multi-band processing (compression, expansion) if necessary, stereo enhancement/correction, noise removal, and volume maximizing (limiting). All processing applied during mastering will affect the entire mix, unlike during mixing, where each track is processed individually. Some processes typically applied during the mixing stage (e.g., chorus, delay, flange, phaser, etc.) are not normally applied during the mastering stage, unless in moderate amounts for special effect.
In addition to signal processing, some other important things take place during mastering; like sequencing the songs into the correct order, selecting the correct length of space (silence or room noise) in between each song, inserting metadata (ISRC, UPC, title, artist, copyright info, etc.), assuring no errors are on the final master, supplying a master (or more accurately, a pre-master) to the replicating plant suitable for replication, etc. Mastering will almost always make the mix sound better. However, the quality of the mix will greatly affect the quality of the master. Some things cannot be fixed in the mastering stage, and should more suitably be dealt with at the mixing stage (or even further back, depending on the issue).
This is a general description of the different phases of the recording process, from conception to completion. The important thing to remember is that the more attention you pay to each phase in the process, the better (more professional) the final master will sound. Do not wait until the very final stage to try and correct all the mistakes made or shortcuts taken along the way.