In the bleak mid-winter nothing can cheer up (or frustrate) a budding singer/songwriter or musician more than spending time recording. Not only is recording practical for nearly every musician, hobbyist or not, it can be a great way to objectively hear how you and/or your band sound.
With the advent of better, easier to use software, recording has never been simpler or more affordable. YouTube is rife with excellent recordings using little more than an iPhone. But besides gimmicky smartphone masterpieces, a traditional recording environment has always been and will always remain the most likely place to capture your creative flow in the best ways possible.
Whether you choose the bedroom route, or one of the area’s four or five full time studios, there are a few tips worth considering as you plan to spend a few hundred (or more) on this most fun and rewarding endeavor.
Plan. Decide why you want to record. Maybe you’re recording just for the fun of it, and that’s fine. Maybe you’re recording a demo to garner attention of the A&R department at Capitol Records? Also fine. Maybe you’re needing an EP (extended play) CD to sell, or a full-length LP (long play) of 10 or more songs. Regardless, decide why you want to record and be clear on it before you spend a minute, or spend a dime.
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Prepare. Let’s say you decide a five-song EP is what you need for sale at your gigs, or to blast across social media, or use as a demo to try to get new gigs. Make notes about how you hear the song in your head. What kind of tracks should accompany the vocal? Multiple guitars? Keyboards? How will you handle percussion? Etc. If you’re a soloist singer/songwriter type, maybe the stripped-down Jack Johnson approach will work best? If you’re part of band, than “prepare” means “practice.” Especially if you’re spending money in the studio, which charges by the hour, don’t wait to rehearse once the metaphorical tape is rolling. Like a good Boy Scout, be prepared.
Produce. Producers can take an average song and make it a masterpiece. (I’m talking to you George Martin, Phil Spector, Rick Rubin, Mutt Lang, Brian Eno, Quincy Jones, Brian Wilson, and Usher). This is their job. Even if you can’t afford to hire a producer, you can self-produce. How? Consider the song, and then consider how you hear it in your head, then find a recording of an artist that has a similar sound and style to your ideal, and use it as a reference. This is done all the time. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Make the song your own, but build on the success of those artists who came before you. Using reference tracks is industry standard. A good engineer will be able to closely mimic the tone, sound and style of any part of the recording. What kind of reverb, compression or delay is used? Where do the instruments “sit” within the track? You can learn a lot by studying a song you really like, and then try your best to copy the style elements.
Mix, Master and Move on. Once your five songs are recorded, you’ll have a multi-track version of your song, where each individual instrument and vocal may be manipulated to create the best possible “mix.” Fist fights and probably murders have occurred during this process, with egos coming into play because the “guitar isn’t loud enough,” or the “drums are too loud,” etc. You may have to compromise if you’re in a democratic band setting and sharing the costs, but often an objective, trustworthy outsider (your producer) should make the final call on the mix. Once everybody is relatively happy comes “mastering,” – this is where the rough edges are cleaned up, the peaks and lows are matched to other tracks on the same recording, and the magic sheen is placed over the mix as the tracks are moved from the raw storage to the final “master,” the source from which all future copies will come.
Finally you’re done. If it’s your first recording, congrats! You may learn to hate it, or, if you’re really lucky, it may grow sweeter with time. Anyway, it’s a learning process and like everything else will get better the more you do it.
As the gray skies and cold of winter keep us from our outdoor pursuits, get off the couch, away from ESPN, and make good use of your time and talents. Good luck!
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