Song Recording and Production : A Helpful Beginner Guide


song recording

So you’ve got a great song.  You’ve put a lot of effort into crafting it.  You’ve got a great melody, an interesting progression, and some fantastically introspective lyrics.  You want to record it and make millions!  Problem is… you’re a “starving artist” and you do have tens of thousands to spend on a professional recording, where budgets can escalate in a hurry.

In today’s world of technological innovation, that doesn’t even matter!  So what are your options?

  • You could collaborate with a friend with some technical savvy.
  • You could book some time with a professional studio engineer (as discussed, probably not likely).

Is there a right and a wrong? Not really. It just depends on the quality you’re looking for, what you hope to achieve with the song, and how much money you have to spend.

For the purpose of this guide, I’ll assume you have a laptop or a desktop computer, and you’re going to record the song yourself. Here’s what you need to know, and what you need to do to get started.

What You Need To Start Recording?

In today’s advanced market, you have unlimited options to buy gear for your first home studio or update your current setup and these choices sometimes tends to overwhelm you.

This is an era that has created gear for great sounding in vast quantities and easily affordable for people. While this is excellent news for the public but on another hand, it also makes it really difficult to make the right choice that fits our expectations.

I want to help point you in the right direction and so I have done a separate dedicated guide on gears and you can check it later from here: Guide on Gears.

1.Audio Interface

This is going to be the core of your studio. In which you will find your microphone preamps, DIs, line inputs, speaker/headphone outputs, and converters. It is the middle-man between the instruments and your computer or laptop. Just make sure it fulfills your requirements (computer connection, number of inputs), and it will depend on the type of recording you are concerned with.

2.Microphones

After you’ve selected an audio interface, the gear you choose next is your microphone. You will be astonished to find many great brands and models out there along with different microphone types: condenser, dynamic, ribbon, etc.

For starters, many home studio owners can easily create an entire record with just one microphone. Afterward, you can expand your collection by adding a different kind of sounding mics to enhance your already set sounding system.

Important Notes: Every microphone sounds different from another one. They can be brighter, darker, or sensitive from one another’s. In the end, though they all have satisfying results.

You can refer to our post on different types of microphones so that you can choose the right one.

3.Studio Monitors (Speakers)

After you record and mix your music, you’ll need some means to hear it too. Studio speakers (also known as monitors) helps you to “monitor” or analyze your audio critically. They are of much higher quality than your inbuilt computer or laptop speakers, and you can get it all at quite an affordable price.

It would be best if you remembered that audio sounding is dependent on monitors and mostly depends on the speaker’s position in your room. Also, instead of speakers, if you want to use headphones, then have a read of my recommendation article as well!

4.Recording And Mixing Software (“Digital Audio Workstation”)

Now, let’s get to the exciting part – your DAW( Digital Audio Workstation), which is basically your recording and mixing software. It is an essential feature of your studio as you will spend a lot of time looking and playing with it. This is the software that will help you create something amazing or your next big thing.

A vital tip to remember, Your software is essential but not as important where your sound quality is concerned.  Your audio equipment (microphones, audio interface) is the one that determines your sound and not your software.

In my opinion, any software will do a splendid job.

There are people in the industry who use almost every platform out there that is available in a professional setting, so you’ve unlimited options and legitimate choices for your studio. Still! Here are a few recommendations for you to find the right kind of software.

Recommended DAW For Mac Users

GarageBand (Free) – If you have Mac, then already you can control recording and mixing software which is called GarageBand. Its functions are loaded with loops, virtual instruments, and the ability to easily record, mix, and release your music. With its help, anyone can easily compose music and songs.

Logic Pro X ($199) – Do you want more advanced software than GarageBand? Then  Logic Pro X is highly recommended for you. It provides an excellent opportunity for composing, recording, and mixing. It is one of the best deals around. It even offers virtual musical organs and amps.

Recommended DAW for Mac + PC Users

Studio One Professional ($399) –  Studio One is another legitimate contender for the home studio. They have created some great audio interfaces and preamps. The most favorite features of this DAW is how it’s linked with its mastering suite. Its totally slick and most used DAW.

If you don’t think it’s ideal, then you can get Studio One Artist for only $99.

Avid Pro Tools ($599 or $299 if you’re a student) – Touted as the “industry standard”, There are many countries that use Pro Tools in recording studios. The main reason behind this is because of its one of the original DAWs in the market and provides an excellent stage for both recording and mixing. Many people have used Pro Tools alongside DAWs like studio one, and they find Pro Tools is easily manageable everywhere. Before you switch ships and decide to try Pro Tools, you should know they even have a free version called Pro Tools First

How to Setup Your Home Studio?

It isn’t much fun when you’re following along with an instructional manual and you suddenly realize that you don’t have a necessary piece of studio equipment to complete the process. Let’s try and avoid that here.

Don’t worry; you’re not going to have to spend thousands of dollars just to get up and running (unless you want to invest in higher quality gear). Here’s what you’re going to need to record your first song.  Follow this simple four-step process to get your gear set up and ready to go.

Step 1: Install Your DAW

Install your DAW of choice on your machine. As long as it’s compatible with your machine, this should be a straightforward process. If you’re using GarageBand, move onto step two!

Step 2: Connect Your Audio Interface

More than likely, there are only two cables you’ll need to connect to get your audio interface up and running. One is an AC power cable (wall plug), and the other is a USB cable. That much should be pretty easy to figure out. Some older interfaces run on FireWire instead of USB, but the process is the same and is relatively simple either way.

Whether or not your computer immediately recognizes your device depends on your machine as well as the interface. You may have to install drivers, which typically come from the manufacturer’s website, or for older hardware, come loaded on a CD.  Don’t forget to restart your machine after installing the software and/or drivers!

Step 3: Connect Your Microphone

Connect your microphone to the audio interface with an XLR cable. One end goes in your microphone, and the other goes into your audio interface.

Your cable has a male end and a female end. You should be able to figure out what goes where. ;o)

Step 4: Check For Levels

If you’ve done everything correctly, and your software and hardware are cooperating, then you should be able to check for levels on your mic. The exact procedure depends on the software you’re using.

In Studio One, for example, you would simply record-enable the track (by clicking the little button with the gray circle on it above your track fader, and you should see the meter bouncing up and down as you talk or sing into the mic. Oh, and don’t forget to turn the gain up on your audio interface!  If that’s sitting at zero, you’re not going to get any volume out of the mic. One other consideration would be whether or not to activate 48-volt phantom power.  Some mics need it, while others do not. Read your mic’s instruction manual to find out what you need to do in your particular situation.

Now get recording!

You’re all set up and ready to go, and the only thing you need to do now is to hit record, play and capture a great take!

Recording Process

In general, I like to record this way:

  • Create a guide or “scratch” track to work from. This is where I’ll choose the tempo of my song, enter it into my DAW and use the internal metronome to provide a “click” pulse in my headphones to keep me on tempo while I record.  I’ll usually record a guide track of just me playing the acoustic guitar and singing, all the way through.  This helps me create a “roadmap” to follow so that when I lay down each instrument, it’s easy to follow along.  I’ll also usually create song section markers in my DAW so I can navigate through it easily and see where I am at all times.
  • Lay down drums, if they are in the arrangement. If my song has drums, I like to record these first.  I have a friend who comes over and plays drums to songs I record for myself, so I get a great professional sound that way.  If you’re not a drummer or if you don’t have access to a real drummer, there are some amazing drum plugins available like EZ Drummer or BFD that will allow you to get some amazing drum sounds.  The key is, do the drums first; they are the building block for everything else.  Then add bass guitar, then acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, etc.  Flesh out your arrangement one instrument at a time.
  • Once all the instruments have been recorded, do your vocals. I like to do the lead vocal first, then I can double and/or triple it, and add harmonies and things like that.  One at a time, keeping in mind that doing what the song NEEDS is most important.  Stay focused and don’t just add things willy-nilly.
  • “Sweetening”. Once all main instruments and vocal parts have been recorded, I like to add what I call “sweetening” parts, that can let certain sections pop, or add different textures.  These can be anything really, from synth pads to percussion instruments like tambourines or claves, to even weird special effects and dramatic reverse cymbal swells.  The main goal here is to keep the listener interested by making sure every section is distinct from the one before it.  Adding and subtracting instruments you’ve already recorded by muting and unmuting them in different sections can help a lot here as well.

Tips I learned from Other Sources Which Improved My Recording

1 – Mic Placement Is Everything.

Appropriate Mic placing is more important during recording than the kind of Mic you use. This can create a massive difference during recording. Do you know that even by moving your Mic a few inches or so can change the sound of your music and instruments? Or if you change a mic angel by 90 degrees, you can change the brightness?

You don’t need to stick with a single mic position. Experiment and tweak as much you want until you are pleased with its sounding results. These four ways will help you to get more out of your current microphones.

2 – Recording Too Loud Is A Problem.

The most common mistake among people in their home studios is that their sound is usually too loud and hot, which is a terrible thing to do.

If you want to get a cleaner and more musical recording, then take the gain or volume button on your audio interface or preamp and turn it down so that it sits around 50% to 75% of the total. Now it’s no louder so your recordings will sound much cleaner and clear than before.

3 – You Must Think Like A Producer.

A recording session usually needs a recording engineer and a producer who produces this session. And what is the job of the producer? He has a perception of exactly how the recording should sound like. While the engineering job is to choose the right mic, placement, and preamp level, the producer would plan details over what kind of sound everyone was shooting for.

For your own home studio, YOU are not just the engineer but the producer too. You have to perform both duties. And that job means is you must handle details over what you want from the song(s) to sound like before you start recording.

You must ask these questions like “What do good instruments sound like?” to asking “What do I want these instruments to sound like?”

First, create a mental image of sound/vibe in and then proceed with recording.

You will be successful if your recording sessions follow these three truths. If you take care of details like arranging with the mic placement until you are satisfied and get the stable sound you want, record at a nice traditional volume, and have a producer’s mindset in everything you do – trust your instincts and your song will sound great.

It will be hard first – but after some time you will gain experience which in turn will make you better.

The best factor about recording is that it’s an art and not a science. You can learn as you go and improve over time.

After you recorded a few tracks and selected your favorite, you need to proceed into the next part of recording to polish your songs.

If you want to find out more about how you would record a song over background music, read my article here.

Editing

Now you need to clean up and fix up the recording tracks. It doesn’t matter how good or careful you are while recording, you will always end up making mistakes that need attention.

And these are the main steps or task you need to follow through – Arrangement, Comping, Noise Reduction, Time Editing, Pitch Editing

1. Arrangement

In this, you can evaluate everything you’ve done so far, and edit what you prefer and cross out what you don’t like. For example, you could delete whole tracks that don’t sound pleasant to you.

Cut out harsh sounding tracks that disrupt the mix. Arrange sections into new parts before adding in your mix. Delete unwanted part of the song altogether.  The are many choices and you should be wary of the choices you make as they can have great effects.

2. Comping

Comping also known as  Compositing is the process in which you compare between the original and duplicate sounds of each track, choosing parts from each to “comp” together with the best final results.

3. Noise Reduction

In noise reduction, you delete sounds that are before, after, and in-between each section of audio where the instruments are played, your main goal is of making sure you remove all background noises, amp hiss, footsteps, chair squeaks, etc. and other similar disturbances.

Another way to further delete that extra noise is to add a high-pass filter beneath the lower frequency range of vocal tracks or instruments, this way you will cut unpleasant sounds.

4. Time Editing

Time editing will help you fix off-beat notes through the following ways and you must have come across from other sources too and nothing too big or complicated.

  • Cut and Paste Method for percussive instruments.
  • Time Stretching Method for most of the instruments.

5. Pitch Editing

Through this method, you can replace any sour note back on-pitch using software like Auto-tune. It’s usually known to use on vocals, but it can also work well on most melodic instruments.

Mixing

After the tracks are arranged precisely as expected, the next step is to mix them as one working unit, which is also known as mixing

There are few techniques through which you can do mixing; it includes specific tasks that everyone needs to perform, namely – panning, balancing faders, reverb, equalization, compression, automation in no particular order

I like to go through the below steps in order to create my mix.  My workflow is this:

STEP 1 – Create a Static Mix

Loop around the busiest and biggest section of your song and get a solid sounding mix using only your volume faders and pan knobs. No plugins, no nothing.

Be sure to leave plenty of headroom on your master fader (if in doubt, pull all your tracks down a few dB).  If you like, go ahead and apply a small amount of master bus compression to your mix.

STEP 2 – EQ And Compress In Mono

Once you have a great static mix in place, it’s time to flip to mono and get your EQ and compression settings in place.

Start with the most important instrument (sonically) listening only to it. Then one by one, bring in the rest of the tracks and continue to the EQ and compression process. Never make critical decisions like this in solo. Remember to use a high pass filter often, and to reach for subtractive EQ before a boost whenever possible (giving you greater clarity and headroom).

The goal here is to get a great sounding mix with clarity (you can hear each instrument) and punch all while listening in mono. If it doesn’t sound good yet, then you’re not finished with this step.

STEP 3 – Enhance Your Mix With Busses And Effects

Once your mono mix is sounding great with just EQ and compression, pop things back out to stereo and then route your instruments (drums, guitars, vocals, keys, etc) to their own stereo buss or group track.

At the very least this can give you more global volume control of your instruments in the mix, much like subgroups would on a live mixing console. But if you want you can tweak your tracks further on the group level with added compression, parallel processing, or saturation.

Create at least one buss for reverb and a second one for the delay. Use sends to control how much of each track is “sent” to those effects.

STEP 4 – Sweeten Your Mix

At this point, it’s time to make sure every moment of your mix sounds amazing and engaging. Go from the intro to the final note and listen like a listener, not an engineer.

If transitions seem underwhelming, make adjustments to the arrangement through mutes or edits. Add one time effects or virtual instruments to the mix. Whatever it takes. Skip this step at your own peril. A perfectly polished static mix means nothing if the listener gets bored after one verse and chorus.

STEP 5 – Automation

Much like sweetening, automation is that final icing on the cake that will give your mix life and character.

Systematically go through each moment of the song and make any volume or pan changes needed through the use of automation.

Also, this is where I like to do any vocal “riding” by automating the volume fader so that each word and phrase is heard perfectly.

STEP 6 – Premastering

You’re at the end! You should have a great sounding mix that you love at this point. Our final step is to simply get the volume up to commercial standards and do any final tonal balance tweaks.

Use a brick wall limiter on the master fader, set the max ceiling at ­.5db or so, and then simply bring the threshold down until you start to see ­3db to ­5db of gain reduction on the biggest peaks (usually snare or kick drum).

Also, consider bringing in a reference track of a pro mix and comparing its tonal balance to yours. If you need to make any slight adjustments consider using an EQ on your master fader and doing subtle changes (1.5db or so) to open up the top end or carve out some mud for example.

If bouncing down to a 16-bit wave file or MP3, be sure to insert a dither plugin as the final insert.

Once you’ve used these tools to craft your mix, and it sounds great, it’s time for the final step.

Mastering

Now you need to go through the mixing down or bouncing process, which is a type of process to re-record all the tracks to a single stereo file. This is an easy step where you just need to choose the format or do some customizations and you are all set for processing it to the format you want.

After it’s done, you can add the finishing touches and polish your song with different types of mastering techniques to make it even better. Some of the common techniques used are Stereo widening, Balancing faders, maximizing loudness, etc.

Once you are happy with the final product, don’t forget to convert them to their appropriate formats. (sample rate, bit depth)

DIY OR OUTSOURCE?

Mastering is not an easy job to do. You are going to mess it up and make it worse if you don’t know what you are doing. If you don’t like to do it then, you can just outsource it.

Yes, it will cost you money outsourcing to a mastering engineer. However, you can cut down your cost by going online, rather than offline.. nowadays, there are a lot of freelancers which you can find at a cheaper rate in places like Fiverr, Upwork and Facebook groups.

Facebook Groups is one of the best ways to get the job done too. Don’t underestimate it. On the other hand, you can try it out yourself too if you want. But it will take time to get good at it. 

But, It will all come down to – whom are you making the song or music for!!?? If it’s for the general public then you need to master it. Or is it for your own and family members only… then, it’s not a must. Something like this.

Whatever you do just keep learning and keep on improving. Good luck!

authoradam

Author: Adam Coolong has been playing with his band Wild Colonial Bhoys full-time for over fifteen years and has recorded dozens of albums through his studio business, Varsity Audio Recording Services.

Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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