“Miraculous and magic and it pulls you through somehow”
Meant To Be | Emma Dykes
https://www.xsnoise.com.au/emmadykes

Entering a recording studio for the first time is awesome. Infact – every recording session is always awesome. But there are many tasks that need to be completed before you walk in. These tasks are extremely important as the more prepared you are the more likely you will have a great end result.

You have completed writing your song. The next step is to prepare an arrangement of the song. This arrangement help decide what instruments you need in the studio and how much time you will need for your recording session.

Arranging

When you are arranging a song there are some very specific ‘important’ parts to a song.

We have travelled quite a lot as a family and we are often looking for interesting activities to do with the kids while travelling. After listen to Hi-5 and Patsy Biscoe way too many times, we came up with an activity that is great for the memory. It can be played for a long time and has something interesting about songs that we discovered.

We use the random shuffle on an iPod and have a competition to guess the name of a song and the name of the artist.

What is really interesting is that there is a collection of songs that within the first two seconds or even one second, you can name the song and the artist. Interestingly, these songs are often from the 70’s and 80’s. But just as interesting is that these songs are the songs that made it on the charts. There are so many great songs, with great lyrics, but the songs that tend to stick around have something unique right at the start that makes it obvious that it is that particular song.

A few examples, Sweet Child of Mine by Guns and Roses just needs the first four notes and most people know what the song is.

Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, the first four words. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, first four chords and Under the Bridge by Red Hot Chilli Peppers, the first bar.

The importance of how you start the arrangement of your song can be the difference between people pressing skip on the iPod or computer before they even realise that it is your brilliant tune.

So the first most important part of your song, when it comes to arranging, is the introduction. Make it stand out, make it blatantly obvious what song it is they are listening to right from the beginning. 

The next most important part of the song from an arranging point of view is the chorus. The chorus of a song is the part that people hear the most and is often lyrically the part that people recognise and relate to. It’s like the reason why the song exists.

Making your chorus melodic and singable can make your song more appealing.  As a chorus is often repeated at least three or more time in a song, you should really make sure that it is something that people can sing along to.

The next most important part of the song is the end. You hope that the listener has an emotional connection to your song and by the end of the song you have the power to leave them feeling a certain way. How you leave someone feeling at the end of your song can change how they feel about listening to the song again or listening to more of your songs.

Bruno Mars is a great example of someone whose songs both at the beginning and end make you feel good, even if the lyrics are emotional or sad.

How do you go about this? Listen to lots of songs and  notice how it makes you feel. Try your songs with different people, asking not just, ‘do you like the song?’, but ask, ‘how does it make you feel?’.

Remember that your are providing an experience and at the end of the experience you want people to feel something. Hopefully they feel like they want to hear more of you and your music.

Other important characteristics that you need to consider are key, tempo, instrumentation and many other areas that we will cover in this chapter.

The process

Once you are in the studio, the process is reasonably consistent.

You start with bed tracks or guide tracks. These tracks are usually recorded in time with a click track. Hence the importance of everyone rehearsing to the guide track. This track usually consists of the lead vocal and one other instrument, traditionally a guitar or a piano/keyboard. The guide tracks will be replaced with the proper tracks as the recording session progresses. The reason for the guide tracks is so each track has a guide to make sure the form of the song is how the writer intended and the tempo is consistent. Having a vocal track makes it easier to work out which verse or chorus you are up to. Most musicians find it easier if they have the lyrics and melody to play along to.

Depending on the song, you would normally record the rhythm section, drums, percussion, bass and rhythm guitars followed by keyboards, piano and synths, all recorded one at a time.

In some situations, and if you have enough isolated rooms, you could record drums, bass and guitars all at the same time.

Generally you would then record melody line instruments like lead guitars, saxophones, flutes and other instruments that add colour to your recording.

Finally lead and backing vocals. Sometimes backing vocals can be recorded around one microphone or on separate tracks but that would be part of the decisions to make with the recording engineer.

The process can and will change depending on when musicians are available and how the studio is setup so don’t expect it to always follow exactly the same formula.

Be well organised but flexible as things progress, keep everyone informed and trust the recording engineer as this is what they do every day.

Expectations

There is a saying that an old studio guy once told me and it’s something that has always stuck in my mind. Probably because I think in pictures.

I was in a private recording studio with carpeted walls that reeked like cigarette smoke. You could have put a laser light show in there and the cigarette smoke would have shown up all the laser lights. The engineer was chatting about some of his work and a one liner gem came out between all the cursing and expletives. “You know, there’s some tracks you just can’t fix. No matter how hard you try, you can’t polish a turd”.

And he is right, the biggest expectation I hear from people when they go into a studio is that it is like magic. Even the worst singers can go into a studio and the end result is they sound like Celine Dion or Michael Bublé.

Let me set you straight right now, it doesn’t work that way Ok?

If you want or expect to produce a great recording, you need to have every track sounding exactly how you want it to sound. Pitch must be correct. The tone, the timing and the feel of each part has to be right and has to work.

I’ve often heard the comment “it’ll be right in the mix’. Well it ain’t going to be right in the mix if it ain’t right on its own.

The other common expectation that many people have to start with is that the engineer and producer are mind readers.

I have worked with a few musicians that have become so used to how each other plays, that when we play live, they seem to know what each other is going to do.

In the studio, usually the engineer will be trying to understand what it is you want. You must be explicitly clear with what you are asking.

The engineer may have just been recording a string quartet the day before and now you come in with your Marshall amp, five guitars, a massive drum kit, your p-bass and Warwick double 12’ boxes and assume the engineer knows exactly what you want.

Assume that the engineer needs to know everything and be very patient while everyone sorts out what you expect from the recording.

There is also the expectation that the studio session will be full-on, exciting and exhausting.

All of this is correct, but just like travelling on a long car trip can be tiring, when you are just sitting there, a studio session can sometimes feel the same way. When you are in a studio there can be a lot of time waiting around for your turn. Expect that other musicians will need time to prepare, set up mics, check the sound and run through rehearsal checks as well as record as many takes as is needed to get it right. Sometimes this may mean you are waiting for hours before you get to participate in the recording session. If you plan things out well, you should stagger the times when musicians arrive so that there is less time spent waiting around and more time spent being productive.

The is not always possible, but be prepared and have a book to read or something you can do that is not distracting so that everyone else can keep on with the task of recording.

Let’s record

This is how a typical recording session goes.

To start with there is no typical recording session.

But this is how it could go.

You walk into the studio and meet the engineer, take a quick tour of the studio if you haven’t been there before.

To save time you get the drummer to bring in the drum kit and start setting up. Meanwhile the guitarist just realised he forgot one of his guitars and has to drive back home to pick it up.

Meanwhile you are confirming the program for the day that you have already discussed with the producer and the engineer prior to the recording day. Now everyone knows what is expected to complete this session and who will be doing what. You also know how many tracks you hope to record and what songs they are for.

After what seems to take forever the drums are ready and mics in place. After another eternity the desk is ready with all mics checked and you are now ready to record the kit.

Your guide track is loaded into Pro-tools and you’re nearly ready to go.

The engineer decided that you should record the bass track at the same time so the bass player is organised and everything is right to go. You’ve now been in the studio for a few hours and just about to record the first take. Depending on the kit it can be a lot more than a few hours to get things organised.

So let’s go, take one.

After a few hours of drum and bass tracks you listen back through and decide that it’s a take.

You wake up the guitarist and start trying out the different guitars. After trying 16 guitars, go back to the first one that the guitarist actually owns, because it sounds right.

Guitar tracks down now it’s up to the vocalist to add some killer vocals to the songs.

By now you may be thinking it is tiring, and it is, but it is also a lot of fun and exciting to hear your song that you wrote taking shape. Hearing a rough mix of the song as it evolves is so exciting that often you can forget how long it has taken.

By then end of the day the engineer looks like he is about to fall asleep yet you’re still energised, listen back to different takes and taking notes on what may need changing or might need an extra part added here or there.

Aside from how tired you might feel, the experience can become addictive and you may want to live in the studio. But remember to give the engineer some time to rest, sleep and have a life too.

The stories and experiences that happen in the studio don’t have to stay in the studio. Take photos and videos where possible if the studio policy allows you to and enjoy the experience.

Every time you go into the studio there will be new and different things that happen as you work with different musicians, engineers and songs.

Don’t assume anything except that you should get plenty of sleep before you record in a studio to make sure you can last the distance.

Another tick to add to your growing list of musical firsts.

Mix down

This is the process that generally an engineer will do, with your assistance or the assistance of the producer.

What you are doing now is taking the final recorded tracks and mixing them all together down to a stereo left and right audio track.

Before you can start the mix down process the engineer will need to go through every individual track and clean up an noises, pops or sounds that are not needed. This process is very important as each track must sound it’s best before you start to create the mix.

This process can be extremely involved. Setting the levels of each instrument to suit how you want the song to sound. Setting the tone of each sound using equalisation and generally making all the tracks work together to make a your song sound how you want it to sound.

Everyone has a different idea on what they like, so with mixdown, you are deciding how you want your songs to sound.

It often helps to use a reference track. A reference track is a recording of another song that has the ‘tonal’ sound that you would like yours to be similar too. This way you can listen to the balance of different instruments in the reference track and make your track similar.

The engineer can then also use the reference track to understand what type of tone you are looking for in the different instruments in your recording.

You don’t want to sound exactly like the reference track, and you won’t because this is your song, but at least you have a guide as to what your song could sound like.

During mix down it is important to not just listen to what levels need to go up, but also listen to what is too loud and needs to go down.

There as so many different ways to mix a song that it is important that you like the way an engineer mixes. Often artists will want a specific person to mix their tracks, usually because they have either worked on a previous recording with them or because they have heard other recordings mixed by this engineer.

There are many techniques used to make a mix work and you can try different ones out and see what works the best.

Try not to look at the screen or be distracted by all the studio gear. Instead listen with the least amount of distractions, listen with a critical ear.

One way to make it easier for yourself is to separate the recording session from the mix down session. Often your ears get used to a certain sound during the recording process. Having a few days break before mixdown gives you a new perspective and allows you to listen to the music without all the concerns or influence of how the previous recording session went.

During mix down you will usually have the opportunity to use automation. Automation allows you to automation parts of the mixing process. Automation allows you to change the mix automatically as the song plays through. If you have ever noticed a mixing desk where the level controls move automatically without touching them, that is automation. You can adjust the levels of a track and record the level changes so that they change automatically as the song is played back.

Mixdown is a massive topic, hopefully this basic introduction has given you a better idea of what happens in the studio mix down process.

Mastering

Mastering is the final stage that your recording must go through.

This process is completed using the final stereo mix.

When your music is released, it could be played on many different devices. On iPads, laptops, home stereos, in the car, in a restaurant or at high volume in a dance club. There are so many different systems that your music must be playable on.

The mastering process is designed to make your music sound its best on as many of these different devices as possible.

Mastering is also used to make each of your tracks sound like they belong on the same album together. Often when you record tracks, you may end up with some very different sounding tracks. When you release them all together as an album, you generally want the songs to sound like they belong together.

To do this, a mastering engineer listens to the sound of each track and changes the overall tone of the tracks so that they sound consistent.

One of my early recordings with a local band was completed in a small studio in a country town. We used the songs as a demo for the band, and although it sounded good then, listening back, the songs really should have been mastered. After chasing up the original stereo recording we took it into a mastering studio. Apart from the original recording being recorded on an eight track ADat recorder, the re-mastered or in this case the first time mastered recording actually sounded pretty good. Moral of the story, always make sure you master your music, the difference in the end result is like the difference between painting your car with a paint brush or having it professionally spray painted. There is no excuse for not having your music that you have spent all this time and money on sounding its best.

The final result from mastering should be a recording that has the desired overall sound that you are looking for. Mastering will also give more clarity, punch and depth to your track.

What next?

The next step is to take your master recordings and release them either digitally or as a physical product.

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