If it’s your first time in the studio, you might be wondering how you get from the song that’s in your head to a finished product ready to send out to the world.
I’ve encountered a few people over the years who assume that we just hit the record button, roll the tape for a while, and then immediately hand over the finished product. It came as a surprise to those people that there’s much more to it than that, and it takes more than a matter of minutes - that is, assuming you want it to sound good!
So, if you're not sure how the process works, we’re going to demystify the basics here.
If you already have your hit song written and arranged ready for the studio, you’re about to begin a four-step process to produce it - which includes Recording, Editing, Mixing, and Mastering.
Step 1: Recording
This is the step most people understand, because it’s fairly self-explanatory. We set up microphones in the studio and we capture your performance with them! The performance is recorded (or ‘tracked’) into a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) on a computer. This can either be done ‘live’, where a solo multi-instrumentalist or a band will play the piece together like they were at a gig, or in a layered way, where individual instruments are recorded one by one to build the song up. How you go about this is largely up to you - but your sound engineer may make recommendations based on the genre of your music and the outcome you want to achieve.
Step 2: Editing
You may have wondered why every song you hear on the radio (or the majority at least) sounds so nicely in time and in tune. Well, the answer is either great musicians or great editing… or a combination of both. The editing process takes the tracks you’ve just recorded and lines them up nice and tight in time with each other. It’s also the step where we tune vocals - and yes, almost every singer you hear on the radio or on Spotify has been tuned to the max.
You might assume we tune vocals with ‘autotune’ - the plugin that automatically snaps each vocal note to the closest note in the key of the song. However, unless it’s a pop song that needs that exaggerated robotic sound, what we’re actually doing is an intensive manual process to select and individually correct each note that needs help, while keeping the vocals sounding natural overall. In Melodyne, the industry-standard tuning software, we can even control things like vibrato amounts, and how each note transitions into the next one.
Step 3: Mixing
Mixing is when your songs take shape into beautiful productions by combining each individual track (or ‘stem’) in a cohesive way. It brings the best out of each part and breathes life, energy and emotion into the song.
There are too many different processes involved in mixing to properly explain here - we’ll cover some of them in more detail in a future blog post - but arguably the most common ones are balancing levels, panning, equalisation (EQ), compression, parallel compression, saturation, delay, reverb, creating busses and sends, and automation. The more you experiment and research about the recording process, the sooner you’ll become familiar with them.
Some studios mix 100% ‘in the box’, which means completely digital. Other studios (like Island) have a hybrid setup of digital and outboard analogue gear. Then there’s a small number of studios around the world that mix entirely with old-school outboard analogue gear.
Once a song is mixed, it is ‘bounced down’ (exported or ‘mixed down’) as a stereo file in the same high resolution that it was recorded in. Typically this is a WAV file that is 24 bit and has a sample rate (individual audio samples captured per second) of between 44.1kHz and 96kHz.
Step 4: Mastering
The final step of the music production process is probably the most mysterious. It’s common to hear someone saying that mastering is the final polish of the song, or the icing on the cake - and we’ll have more on that one soon… stay tuned.
But for now, what’s the point of mastering? Well, essentially it’s about balancing everything that you can hear in the mix of a song, and finding the sweet spot that sounds good across a wide variety of sound systems. A mastering engineer will also account for the desired release format (e.g. digital, CD, vinyl etc), and if there’s more than one song on the record, the process will make sure the overall sound is consistent.
Remember how mixing ended with a stereo WAV file? Well, that file is what the mastering engineer will be working with - they cannot go in and alter individual elements in the mix, like turning the guitars up or the drums down. Whatever the mastering engineer does will be applied to the whole mix. This includes compression, EQ, limiting, stereo enhancement, and sometimes some subtle effects like distortion and reverb. All in all, mastering is the essential final step of the audio production process to ensure your music will sound as good as it possibly can.
As always, I hope this was helpful for you, especially if you’re just starting out and looking to get into the studio for the first time. And I f that’s the case, best of luck and we hope you make some great music!