“What does the recording process involve?” or “What should we expect in the recording studio?”
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.
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 the 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.. 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 ensure 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 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 as 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 multitrack into a pleasant sounding stereo track. 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 of 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.
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.. Mastering can be done in the original recording studio or in a specialized mastering studio.
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 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 duplication.
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 pre-production process. If you will need specialized equipment, such as a special microphone or guitar, then arrangement to buy or rent such equipment should make 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.