All the steps. Here’s the process:
Overachievers read on. Underachievers go back to your Instagram feed.
**Prerequisite for everything: write a really good song that is worth recording.
1. What is your goal? Why are you recording this song? Who is it for? What is it for?
Yourself and everyone involved in the process may very well get headaches if you don’t have an answer to these questions. Your goals should dictate the process. Don’t let the process dictate your goals and compromise your vision. What is your vision? Map it out before getting into the studio.
Here are some examples:
2. Build your team.
Making music alone is hard and lonely and much less fun than making music with friends. I believe all artists need creative feedback loops with people they trust. More and better music is made with collaboration and teams.
What do you specifically need help with? We are all at different stages. Maybe you do some self-production but need a space / gear to track live drums. Maybe you have the raw material of a great song but need a producer to help work out the arrangement. Maybe you play every instrument yourself but need an engineer to get the best sounds possible. Maybe you only need help mixing and mastering.
Here are some examples of folks you might find helpful to have on the team:
Assemble your team!!!
You’ve got your team. You’ve got your songs. Now it’s time to use all that creative energy from you and your team to determine how do to make the best possible version of these songs.
Here’s what my pre-production process looks like for one song:
Me and the artist get together in the studio and I have them play through the song we are going to record. I want to hear it. I want to feel it. I want to understand the origins of this song; where it came from. This helps me determine where to go next. I want to see the lyrics.
I will have a session pulled up in Pro Tools (my digital audio work station of choice a.k.a. the software I use to record). I will perhaps be tapping out the tempo of the tune as the artist performs. If you really want to be prepared go ahead and have a tempo you feel comfortable performing the song at - whatever is normal to you. Once we’ve agreed on a tempo (I may suggest speeding up or slowing down your song) I will then have you go over the form of the tune during which time I will be creating markers in my session so I know when each section begins and ends.
Most artists I work with write on guitar or piano. I’ll have mics set up ready to go to record a scratch track for piano or guitar. Scratch track = a placeholder, something that will be rerecorded later with more intention.
I’l have the artist setup in the live room. Likely on an uncomfortable stool that doesn’t squeak. I will place the mic or mics where I want them on their instrument of choice. I will hand the artist a pair of headphones through which I will be able to speak to them from the separate control room. I also have a nice little window between my rooms so the artist and I can stare into each others eyes as they perform. I find this helps capture the best tone. Just kidding. I don’t do that cuz that’d be weird.
We will then set the EVER SUPER DUPER IMPORTANT CUE MIX. This is the balance of whatever audio you will be hearing in your headphones whilst performing. On pre-production day this is usually just a click track. Unless I feel like overachieving and programming a drum part out so the artist can get into the groove more. Many singer-songwriters are not very used to playing with a click track. Pro tip: if you practice playing to a click track you will save time in the studio.
I will usually say something like, “alright I’m going to blend in some click track in your ears. Once it is loud enough say Squidward or Pikachu or something”. It’s important that I get a verbal cue from the artist that they are hearing whatever audio I am sending at an optimum level. I usually ask them to say something ridiculous and funny. It lightens the mood and maybe relieves some tension because recording can be stressful to some. And I chuckle…
IMPORTANT NOTE: Dear artists, don’t you lie to me about your cue mix being good. It needs to be good. Don’t say it’s good then do 10 takes and complain later about how you couldn’t hear yourself or the drums or whatever. The better your cue mix the better you will be able to perform. If you are a session musician never let a producer or engineer start before your cue mix is freakin’ on point. Unless of course you don’t give a shit about capturing the best possible performance. In which case, why are you in the studio? Get out. Just kidding. Or am I?
Now we get to record the first thing ever for the project. Woot woot!! I will give two bars pre-roll or 8 clicks in your ear then go (depends on the time signature). I generally have the artist perform the whole song sans singing. If we have an oopsy / the artist messes up we’ll either start over or punch from a section of the song that makes sense. This is a scratch track and not important. I often use scratch tracks to experiment with different mics and mic’ing techniques.
Now I generally try to abide by this principle: make it sound as good as possible as fast as possible. Everyone playing on the track later on is going to play better if your scratch tracks don’t suck. So I may have you do a couple takes. We’ll get it right. We’ll make sure the timing is good so it doesn’t throw off everything that comes after.
Next up after getting the scratch instrument track I’ll setup a vocal mic and have the artist sing through the song. I usually use a full vocal pass of the song and don’t bother with comping (sifting through multiple performances / takes and splicing together the best of the best) unless we hear something in real-time we want to replace. I will do my same ask for “Squidward” or “Pikachu” or something when now blending in the recorded guitar or piano track so the artist can hear it while they are singing.
Don’t you lie to me about that cue mix!!!!!!! I kid I kid. But seriously. Don’t. :)
Now as we are recording I might ask you to do a practice run or two. While you’re singing I will be tweaking and process the sound to make it awesome. I may throw some reverb in your ears if you want as you’re singing. Anything that makes the artist feel more in the track.
Once we finish the main rhythm instrument’s scratch track and the vocal I will spend a little time in the control room making things sound better and balanced. I may throw some verb or other effect on your vocal or guitar if I deem it a positive addition / it fits the vibe.
We will then convene and discuss why you have a 16 bar / 30 second acoustic guitar intro to your song. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-intro. They can be cool. But often this is the first place to trim some fat off of a song. If it’s important to you, we keep it. If you say “well I just always play it that way”, then I will likely advise to shorten it or nix it unless we come up with a cool idea to make it more awesome.
We’ll give the track some listens and brainstorm the different pieces of the song we want to highlight. Maybe there are lyrics that beg to have a cool production element to highlight them. We may also be discussing what studio musicians to bring in and what additional instruments we want on the track. I’m there to help. I’m giving feedback. I’m spitting rhythms. Sometimes… *face palm emoji”
Usually, we track drums and bass next. If we’re live tracking I like doing drums and bass at the same time. We’ll talk about what to get and when to get them. I’ll often go ahead and reach out once we know we want to bring them in. Or you want programmed drums and I may start building a sickkkkk beat right there in front you. Now I am not a drummer. But I can get a decent scratch drum part down that we may revisit later on.
To wrap up our first pre-production day we’ll talk about the next dates we’ll need to get together and we’ll be following up with whatever musicians we need. I will bounce you a progress bounce (mp3) of the song and share it in a Dropbox folder with you. I will do a new bounce after every session. This way the artist can measure the progress we’ve made and be listening and coming up with ideas. This is not an actual mix of your song. This is a quick and dirty here’s what we’ve got. I do not sit down to do a final mix until everything has been recorded.
All this likely took between two and four hours.
4. The tracking & overdub stage.
We’ve got our session setup. We’ve got our scratch tracks. We’ve discussed who we want to play on the track. We’ve discussed the artists vision for the song. Now we build.
During the tracking stage we track (record) all the instruments and parts. I’ll say again: we are building. We’re making decisions like:
I like getting down drums and bass ASAP. It’s way easier to build out a track with drums and bass present. I’ll start contacting go-to drummers & bass players and lining it up so we can get them in the same room together to record. I like recording drums and bass at the same time. I do play bass but am not a bass master. I could play bass on your track if it’s not a crazy part.
After tracking drums and bass I will spend some time editing the drums so they line up with the grid. When I do this I am looking for any nonmusical sounding inconsistencies in the performance and doing my best to correct them. I don’t always make the drums “perfect” to the grid because I want them to feel natural but also in the pocket! As we build I will make sure everything feels good timing wise relative to the drums. I’ll nudge bass notes around if they feel rushed or late but I won’t worry so much about “the grid” after the drums feel right. If all the parts feel good with the edited drums from this point on it doesn’t matter so much that each instrument be chopped, spliced, and edited to the grid.
Tracking drums and bass will likely take between 2-4 hrs for one song. It could take as much as 90 minutes or more to do setup for drum tracking and “getting sounds”. It depends how rushed we are and if we want to have fun auditioning half a dozen snares, several different kick beaters, bright or dark cymbals, etc… Then the bass player sits there for an hour ready to go being like gahhhh you high maintenance drummers. The artist is usually with me in the control room. The drummer and bass player are often actually writing their parts to the song in the studio as we are recording. They do come in with ideas but sometimes right off the back myself or the artist will provide feedback that changes the part or idea. The artist and I will be communicating in the control room talking about what we like & what we don’t like. You don’t have to be a drum expert to weigh in, but you will be asked to have a preference. We may have the drummer play a couple different options and I will ask you what you think of each. So be prepared to have an opinion at times. I will always express what I think, but I won’t shove my opinions down your throat. I don’t want to be the biggest advocate for something the artist hates. Ultimately, you the artist gets to decide how you want your record to sound.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I do not want us to defer to the future on important arrangement decisions. I see this happen often in the studio. An artist will say we’ll just get some options and decide later. No. You are never better equipped to decide then right smack dab in the middle of focusing and concentrating on that specific thing. Mindfulness. Be present with the current task. Making decisions requires mental bandwidth and energy. I do not want us to spend our mental energy talking about drum arrangement decisions on our electric guitar tracking day or whenever is the next time we are able to get together. You are giving your future-self decision fatigue. The more decisions you give your future-self, the harder it will be down the road. This is like downing a box of a dozen donuts and saying, “to hell with tomorrow me, today me wants a dozen donuts”. Then tomorrow you are miserable. So let’s commit to committing early. Of course we can be flexible if we need, but we will not be lazy!
After we’ve got drums and bass it becomes easier to plan and schedule out what’s next. We may record electric guitar or keys next. We can start laying different percussive parts. For example, let’s say we add a shaker to verse two and the bridge and then tambourine one-shots over every other snare hit to the last chorus. What does the song suggest? Where does the energy need to flow? There’s always going to be some experimenting throughout the tracking process. We don’t need to have totally mapped out exactly what we want. We are being creative.
After each tracking day we get together, I will continue to provide progress bounces uploaded to our shared Dropbox folder. Along the way we’ll engage with our Braintrust (our feedback folks). We need feedback - early and often. I will challenge you to maintain & hold onto your vision for the song. I don’t want us to go so far down one path and realize you lost that vision somewhere along the way.
Everyone’s different schedules often will dictate how long we are in the tracking stage. Lots of folks have day jobs or are only available on weekends or for short chunks of time. Ideally we can get a crew together and knock out large swaths of tracking in a single 48 hour window but this is rarely the case. It might be that we need to get together on different days for each element. Drums & bass on one day, electric guitar on another, keys & synths on another, etc… This can drag on for weeks or sometimes months depending on how reliable the people are we’ve asked to be on the project. In general, if you have asked someone to play on your song for free they will not be as forthcoming with their time. It is almost always harder to nail down a time with these folks and they are more likely to flake the day of.
Most session players charge per song. You will likely need to pay them as we go usually payment is due on the day of tracking. Most folks use Venmo, Paypal, or Cashapp. Another note, lots of musicians play better if you pay them. Also, lots of musicians play even better if you buy them lunch or provide snacks.
Throughout the tracking stage we’re asking ourselves do any sections of this song call for added energy? Does it feel good? Do these choruses hit hard enough? Is the dynamic right? Does this verse need to have a differentiator from previous like sections?
Arranging and being in the thick of tracking for a song is like driving through a tunnel. Eventually you get far enough in to where you can’t see the light from where you started, and you also can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. All creative endeavors require some amount of trust. Trust that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We’ll know when we get there. Keep moving forward.
Not always the case but often you can approximate that any element that needs to be tracked will take somewhere between 2-4 hours. Rarely anything gets done in the studio in under an hour. No really we won’t be able to track your song in 30 minutes.
As we process I will continue to be editing, correcting timing, nudging, comping all the different parts and performance so they mesh and feel good.
I generally like working on the final lead vocals last. There are a few exceptions to this, but it really depends on the song. Many artists I work with aren’t very comfortable singing with headphones on. It’s uncomfortable and not normal for them. If you can find a way to practice hearing yourself sing in headphones and get more used to this it will improve your performance greatly. Here’s what tracking lead vocals often looks like:
The vocal is pretty much the most important part of every song. We’re looking to capture some “soul” in the vocal performance. Anything you can do or think of to be more comfortable singing in the studio will help capture some sweet sweet soulful moments. If you are super nervous and uptight it will come through in the recording.
I typically tune every lead vocal on songs I produce. If you are against vocal tuning let me know and I won’t do it. In most cases, the vocal tuning is very transparent and subtle. Hard tuning can be used as a cool effect.
I like to do all the background vocals and harmonies after having recorded the lead vocal. BGVs are underrated. They are often forgotten or left out of more amateur productions. Now it can be intentional to not have harmonies or BGV parts in your song. It’s not an absolute. However, some of the coolest songs out there would be less cool without all the different vocal layers and BGVs. Give some of your favorite tunes a listen and try to note all the vocal layers and BGVs arrangements. Pretty cool huh?
At this point we are very very close to being ready for mixing. There may be some miscellaneous editing I need to do to some of the tracks before mixing. I may get together with the artist and we’ll do a final listen through and ask: How can we make this better? Do we have any other ideas? How’s it feel? Does it sound like a song?
It’s very rewarding listening back to all that hard work and realizing, “oh wow this is a song now”. Pat yourself on the back. Celebrate. Dance a jig or something.
I do think it’s important that the artist be present at every tracking session. However, once we finish tracking and are ready for the next stage (mixing) the artist does not need to be in the room for this stage.
We’ve got a song. The tracks sound awesome. The parts are well written and our arrangement is quite pleasing to to the ears. Now we’re ready for the mix.
Mixing is the overall balance of level, sonics (frequency), dynamics, and perceived space in a track. I’m turning things up. I’m turning things down. I’m asking what is the best representation of all these pieces put together. I’m making sure the moments feel like Moments! I’m making sure the vocal and lyrics are presented in the best possible way. I’m making the drums sound tight and punchy or warm and round - whatever the song calls for. I’m sculpting the tone of the track and individual elements within the track. Mix engineers use all the tools at their disposal to creatively process the captured sounds. Here are some of the tools each with their own creative applications:
Compressors / Limiters:
Reverbs / Delays:
Saturation / Distortion:
These are just some of the tools and applications available. There are an infinite amount of ways to mix a song. It’s all subjective. The primary goal remains the same = make it sound really good.
I like getting feedback on my mixes ASAP. I may send you an unfinished mix. A general representation of what I’m picturing withholding maybe some smaller tweaks I intend to make later. I do this so I can get feedback. I don’t want to mix an entire song one way and then realize the artist hates it and I have to start over.
I offer unlimited mix revisions so long as they are requested within 30 days of me sending you the first mix bounce. A revision is any change you ask me to make to your mix. Here are some examples:
Here are some bad examples of mix revision requests:
Some revision requests are way too specific. I generally would prefer you express the outcome you want and leave me freedom to choose whatever method I deem optimal to achieve that outcome. Some revision requests are not specific enough and require that I follow up for further explanation. Some revision requests are difficult for me to address without a time stamp of where it happens in the song. As a rule: be specific, add time-stamps, don’t write me a manual of how to do it, don’t use this as an opportunity to brag about how you went to music school by using fancy words like “diminuendo” or “sforzando” or “pikachu”.
I will upload all mix bounces to the same Dropbox folder we’ve been using throughout the entire process. I bounce my mixes at this resolution: 24b 48k. I can provide alternate mixes upon request (i.e. instrumental only, vocal up, vocal down, etc…).
I require that all mix revisions be sent to me via email and through one point person (if you are in a band). I don’t want to receive text messages at 11:30pm from different bandmates asking for different things. Make sure you the artist and your bandmates / constituents agree on the changes you want me to make before requesting a revision. If you are having trouble communicating what you want via email we may schedule a call to sort it out. Please be respectful of my time. I don’t need you to call me to tell me simply to turn the vocal down in the third chorus. Email first.
The first mix may sound pretty different than the final revision. Every revision should be inching your song closer to your desired outcome. Ideally your revisions actually make the mix sound better, but this is not always the case.
It’s important that you listen in different environments, at different volumes, and through different speakers. Listen on headphones, air pods, ear buds, monitors, car stereos, bluetooth speakers, etc… Always listen on whatever you are the most familiar with. For some people this is in the car or on apple ear buds. Your mix may sound great in headphones but too bass heavy in the car. Listening in different places helps you to triangulate any problems that need to be addressed.
I will almost always deliver an initial mix on the same day I start mixing. The mix stage usually only takes a long time if there are a lot of revisions. Every bounce I make the artist must critically listen to. Sometimes life gets in the way and it’s hard to listen to all the bounces coming your way. That’s fine. If you request a revision at the beginning of the day I should have it to you same day. If you request it later in the day it will likely be coming the following day. We could have a final mix in a couple days or a couple weeks.
One more step. One more step. We are almost there. You almost have a finished product of a song. You will shortly be charting on Billboard’s top 100 and going viral on Spotify. I mean it’s possible right?
I do not master songs that I have mixed. I have a few folks I recommend for mastering to all my clients. Those folks do great work and all are good options. It’s important that you partner with a mastering engineer who actually does work in your genre. If you just cut a folk record maybe don’t send it to the guy who masters exclusively for Cardi B. I may also recommend that you do some research and figure out who has mastered all your favorite records. How cool would it be to have your record mastered by the same person who mastered your favorite music idol?
Mastering is the final step of the recording process. It is the mastering engineer’s job to have the final say and stamp of approval. The mastering engineer only has the final mix .WAV file that we send over. So they cannot adjust the volume of or process individual elements / tracks of a mix (i.e. turning the vocal down). Any processing the mastering engineer applies is done globally and effects the entire track.
Things the mastering engineer does:
A very very small percentage of the world’s population has ever recorded a song. Probably well under 1%. Even less for all of human history. You’ve entered into a very small and accomplished group of folks and having completed your recording project you best be celebrating. A wise friend once told me to celebrate the small victories. This is a big victory. Therefore, you are allowed to go downtown to Broadway and dance on the third floor of Crazy Town into the wee hours of the night. Or you can buy a fine bottle of wine and invite a few close friends over to fellowship and dine while listening to the beautiful art you just created. Either way, a celebration is due.
Zach Hughes is the founder of Lost Harbor Music. Zach is an independent music producer & recording engineer based out of Nashville, TN.