The Vast And Elusive Art Of Recording Music
If you take into account the available methods, gear, musicians and processes, you could say that there are infinite ways to record music. So if you’re interested in the recording process and all the elements that can go into it, we’ve prepared a comprehensive guide. Not only will it cover the 5 main stages of a recording (music generation, production, recording, mixing and mastering) but we’ll also talk about how each of these processes differ depending on the type of artists.
The thing is, the way that an independent rock band tackles a recording is quite different from what a teen pop idol would do. So for each of these we’ll look into how the process usually is for Bands, Solo Artists, Popstars, and Composers.
Now, I know those categories may overlap each other in some cases. You could argue that an artist like George Michael qualifies as a solo artist, a popstar and also a composer if he’s doing sheet music for a band or orchestra to play. So let’s clarify…
Types Of Musical Acts
Band means any ensemble of musicians that exercises a collective creative approach to generating music. Even if one person writes the songs and the band executes them, if the emphasis on sound is how the band plays each song together, other band members add parts and arrangements, there are multiple songwriters, and the live act is presented as a group; it’s a band. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rock band, a jazz band, a French house duo, a hip hop trio, etc.
Solo Artist means that the same artist who is presenting the music is also doing most of the writing. This is either completely by himself (see Tame Impala) or with an interchangeable cast of collaborators, some of which may be in the live band as well, but are really not that involved in the creative direction of the act. This category is where someone like George Michael would fit. Also a Lady Gaga, most singer songwriters, jazz men like Miles Davis, solo rappers, DJ’s and even one-man rock acts that use band names like Queens Of The Stone Age or Nine Inch Nails.
Pop Star means that there is a person who is the face of the act and performs the music on tours, but mainly does not write the music. It’s the type of act where there is a big record label and a team behind the artist or “talent”. Usually, a cast of songwriters do the songs, a big-name producer chooses the musicians and prepares the tracks, then the artist, whose record label bought those songs, sings over those tracks and puts his or her pretty face on the album cover. These are your Rihanna’s, Katy Perry’s, most Boy Bands, etc.
By Composers I mean most recording situations where a performer, or group of performers. Are adhering to the music written by one or various individuals almost exactly. This would cover any works that were created by a deceased composer, as with much of the best-known classical music, but also most film scores, some musicals and even some types of experimental or avant garde music.
So those are, in a very broad sense, the musical categories where most sound recording situations fall into. Now we’ll see how the stages we outlined above look like for each of these.
Some “jam bands” or improvisation groups/individuals may be the exception. But for the most part, there has to be written music before recording is even an option. Don’t you agree? So let’s take a look at the way each of our artists types (in general terms) goes about the difficult and sometimes elusive task of creating music out of thin air.
With bands, in general terms, a given band member will present the rest of the band with a musical idea and they’ll develop that either through live playing or in little units before going to the rest of the band to finish the song. The beauty about this is that there can be a lot of different ways of doing it. Pink Floyd, with such a long history, illustrates several of these.
In the beginnings, lead singer Syd Barrett wrote the vast majority of the songs and then had the band play them. Naturally, he also sang most of them. This arrangement, of having a chief songwriter, is repeated in numerous other groups, like The Strokes, Pulp and The Smashing Pumpkins, to name a few.
After Syd went a bit crazy with LSD, the other band members had to step into the songwriting role. Most notably Roger Waters and David Gilmour. The band would finish most songs collaboratively and they would also sing each other’s songs. The best known Pink Floyd albums credit all the music to simply “Pink Floyd” and the lyrics to either one, but mostly Waters. This is also the case with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Interpol and many, many others.
Now Solo Artists, apart from the occasional collaboration, are usually completely alone in this process. Most of them will finish complete songs on their own, and even demo them to try out the arrangement and structural ideas that they will present to a producer afterwards. For example, American indie folk songwriter Justin Vernon famously wrote and recorded most of Bon Iver’s debut album while living in isolation in a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin.
In the case of Pop Stars, a producer will usually look to a bunch of professional songwriters for songs that he or she wants for a certain artist. The songwriters, for their part, will sometimes write on their own, in partnerships or even attend “songwriting camps” where they share ideas with other songwriters. Songs are then sold to the highest bidder. A song that could have been intended for, say, Britney Spears, can end up being bought by another team of producers/songwriters and end up being sung by Rihanna (see Umbrella).
And finally there are composers. Methods vary but it’s also commonly an individual labor. These minds will usually write sheet music for other performers to play and, at least in earlier days, use little more than a piano to do it. Mozart for example, would compose anywhere, just singing each instrument’s parts and writing them down. Today, a lot of composers will use MIDI technology to craft everything in a computer before replicating it with a full fledged orchestra. This, sometimes, is the case with people like Hans Zimmer and many other composers for film and television.
Technically, everything that happens between having a musical idea and bringing it into a finished recording could count as production. The thing is, production is the overall process of making a musical recording happen. This involves choosing the recording methods, facilities, additional musicians, engineers, and in some cases, even songwriting and playing. The approach of producers varies from individual to individual, but it also depends greatly on the type of artist as well. Let’s see how producers work on each of the artist types we outlined for this guide.
With bands, producers mainly act as a liaison between the musicians and engineers. The band, being a collective entity of several brains, will probably have a very clear and autonomous vision of what kind of sound they want for themselves before stepping into the studio. Once they do that, the producer is there to facilitate the process.
In the words of Steve Albini (who has produced albums by bands such as Nirvana, The Stooges and Mogwai), “my role [as a producer] is subordinate to the band…while you’re working on a record it’s imperative, if you’re operating on a technical capacity, that you suspend your aesthetics about what kind of music you want to listen to.”
That may be a similar case with solo musicians. Entire folk or rap albums, for example, are done with the solo artist and the producer playing the vast majority of the instruments. The producer is usually a guide for what gear or additional musicians to turn to when the artist isn’t sure.
Electronic Music Producers, on the other hand, will rarely go to a producer since they are handling most of the decisions themselves. In a lot of cases with electronic acts, they will produce, mix, and master themselves. Sometimes even from the comfort of their own homes.
With the case of Pop Stars, they tend to follow the traditional model of music production. This means that the aesthetics of the producer are much more important and he is usually employed by the label rather than by the artist. In some cases, he or she will even co-write and propose changes to the structure or arrangements of the songs while recording.
As you may imagine, that rarely happens with composers. Producers in this realm tend to operate with a much more passive attitude, simply being there to bring the composer’s vision to reality through recording resources and carefully selected personnel.
All of that music generation and production has its moment of truth when it’s time to hit record. Another facet of production, and audio engineering as well, is about deciding how exactly that will be done.
It is very common for bands and orchestras to record live. This may present the producer and engineers with an additional challenge, but a lot of people still prefer it to this day due to the emotion and honesty that is captured when the musicians are actually performing together.
With the challenge of recording live, comes the task of selecting one or several rooms for the musicians to play in. Big studios such as Abbey Road have massive live rooms to house entire orchestras. Others can very well fit smaller ensembles or rock bands. With the latter, several rooms may be used to prevent what you call “bleed”; which is when the sound of other instruments infiltrates the recording of others. In other terms, like if the drums are audible on the guitar microphones or vice versa.
That’s why some producers prefer to put the drummer on a room, the bass guitar amp on a different room, and have some elements of the live takes only as a guide. This last thing is common with vocals and guitar solos, which are usually overdubbed (recorded on top of the other things).
With the case of Solo Artists and Pop Stars, recording separately is usually the weapon of choice. Typically, a beat or a drum track will be laid down to a metronome and maybe a vocal guide. Then everything will be added on top sequentially. It’s usually the bass after the drums, then keyboards and synths, then guitars, then main vocals, then backup vocals; but each producer has his or her own particular way of doing things.
Some solo acts, including electronic ones, may prefer to record the basis of each track as a live take. A recent example is the latest Father John Misty album “Pure Comedy”. He’s a singer songwriter and, as most solo artists, he records everything himself or has few guest musicians record certain parts here and there. But on that last album, he and producer Jonathan Wilson wrote every song and handed the sheet music to a full band. They then recorded live takes of each song with Father John Misty singing over them. You can check that out here.
After all the music has been produced and committed to tape (in the case of analog recording) or a DAW (which stands for Digital Audio Workstation) it’s time for mixing and mastering. These processes are also known as “Post-Production” and are more or less similar regardless of the type of artists we’re talking about.
Imagine that you are standing inside a big sphere. There is nothing in it besides you and your favorite song. If that song was unmixed, all the elements would be clustered in the center, kind of around your belly. You wouldn’t be able to make out most of it and it would all sound meshed together. To put it differently, your favorite song would be nearly unrecognizable.
But if you could arrange every separate element somewhere inside your bubble, you might start to make sense of it. You could put the bass and bass drum close to your feet, you could put the snare higher up, but in the center as well, and you could play with throwing some guitar to the right, keyboard to the left. You could play not only with height and left or right, but also with depth. Suddenly, you could arrange all the elements of your favorite song so everything becomes audible to a certain extent. More than that though, it’s about making it sound good.
In essence, this is what the mixing process is about. After recording, producers are left with all the instruments and elements in different tracks and it is up to a mixing engineer to throw it all together into one cohesive sounding track.
The bubble is metaphorical of a sound image because the idea is for that image to be able to emulate an actual room where the music is existing. That’s where tools like frequency content, dynamic, panoramic position and effects come into play.
In most cases, the producer or artist will give what you call “reference mixes” to the mixing engineer so that he or she can produce something in accordance. Then comes a back and forth process with the parties involved suggesting little tweaks here and there that result in the near-final version of the music.
Once most parties involved are ok with the mixes, then comes the time to master. This is about transferring the final mix to a data storage service (referred to as the master) from which all copies will be reproduced. In earlier days, these were usually tapes but nowadays most mastering houses (places were Mastering engineers work) deliver several formats. The most common are CD pressings, webmasters (.wav files ready to be uploaded to the internet) MFit (Itunes has its own master standards) and Vinyl pre-masters.
As you may imagine, this process dictates the way the music will finally sound. Mastering engineers work on professional equipment and specially-treated rooms that allow them to listen to the music exactly as it is recorded. That is, without any frequency enhancement like most home audio equipments do.
This, in turn, let’s them prepare music for mass consumption, ensuring that the final mix will sound ok whether it’s on a high-fidelity system, a car stereo or a couple of iPhone ear buds.
In a nutshell, that’s how most music is made. Remember that this is a quick overview and a lot of generalizations were made. Hopefully you now have a much stronger grasp of what the recording process can be about.
If you’d like to know more, I’d recommend researching your favorite albums and finding out how they were recorded. In some cases you’ll find that they adhere very closely to some of the things described here. On other cases, you are bound to be surprised.
And that’s the beauty of recorded music. It’s an art where the technology and the people involved are ever changing. There’s not one way of doing it, so the possibilities are infinite.
That may sound overwhelming, but at the end of the day, it’s all about whether it sounds good or not.