Updated: Nov 10, 2022
If you've written a song you're proud of, one thing's for sure: you want it to be produced, mixed, and mastered in a way that your audience can enjoy. A bad recording can be distracting—instead of drawing attention to how good your song is, listeners might pay more attention to hisses, clicks, and volume imbalances. This being said, it's essential to learn, practice, and master the steps of recording a song from scratch. At the end of the day, you want to create a record that you're proud of sharing, promoting, and selling.
There are three general stages of recording a song from scratch: pre-production, production, and post-production. In this article, we'll go over each of these in detail and discuss the logistics and technical skills you'll need to achieve your vision.
The pre-production stage is where you tackle logistics and gather the information needed before the recording session. This stage can be time-consuming since it contains many tasks. Here is a general breakdown below:
Choosing the material to record
Finalizing and implementing a budget
Deciding which recording methods, tracking, and software to use
Choosing musicians for the recorded performance
Arranging music for the final recording
Gathering reference tracks
Securing permission for any music not composed by you
Finding graphic designers, photographers, and videographers to create artwork and content for your recording
If you decide to use a recording studio, you'll also have to do research on finding a good fit
In the pre-production stage, the goal is to be prepared enough to handle anything that comes up during the recording session.
Choosing a Mixing Software
If you are recording and producing your song at a home studio, you will have to choose a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). A DAW is application software used for recording, editing and producing audio files. There are several ones to choose from—here are a few examples below:
MOTO Digital Performer
Mixcraft Pro Studio
When producing and mixing, it's important to know your DAW software extremely well. This will help you streamline your workflow and maximize the program's features.
Other Equipment You'll Need
Desktop or laptop computer
Audio interface unit. This device allows you to play audio or MIDI signals through your computer.
A microphone for vocals or acoustic instruments
Audio cables for guitars, keyboards, or other electric instruments
MIDI cables for any virtual instruments
While in the early stages of recording, you'll want to bring the most character out of your sounds. Decide what space and atmosphere you want to create and adjust your sounds accordingly. When recording, it's important to think about the big picture and make decisions based on achieving that goal. This will give you an early sense of where your final mixdown is heading. When you enter the official mixing stage, you'll have a foundation of good sounds.
Find a Place to Record
Whether you are recording at home or in a recording studio, it's important to keep in mind that every studio is different. Each location's physical characteristics, equipment, and personnel will affect the end result of your recording.
If you are on the search for a recording studio, it is essential to check that the equipment is well-maintained and fulfills your needs. You can visit different studios, ask questions while you're there, and listen to the recordings that were made there to see if the studio is a good fit. If possible, see if you can sit in on an actual session.
A good strategy is to record more songs than you are planning to feature on your album or EP. When all is said and done, you'll have different recordings to choose from and prioritize.
Production workflow is different for everyone, but most people start with laying basic rhythm section tracks and using "placeholder" tracks—such as vocals and other instrument sections—as guides. The final vocal and instrumental tracks will replace these placeholder tracks later in the process. Once the basic tracks are recorded, it's time to overdub vocals (if any) and edit the different instrument sections. The mixing process consists of adjusting the levels, panning, and effects.
Tip: Keep Everything In Your DAW Organized
Though this seems like general knowledge, labeling your tracks properly becomes essential when you're working with multiple instruments and tracks. Another way to stay organized is to color-code your tracks. This can save you time later on when you need to go back and make adjustments.
Mixing is the process of taking different recorded tracks and blending them together seamlessly. This involves the usage of various effects and processes such as EQ, compression, and reverb.
Before we delve into the mixing process, let's go over two important terms:
Multitrack recording: a recording with more than one individual track or "stems". A recording can have as many tracks as needed—there is no right or wrong number of tracks.
Mixdown: the final output of a multitrack recording. This is the final step before mastering.
There are many decisions to be made during the mixing process—and each one can significantly impact the sound of the final recording. It is helpful to work with a mixing engineer who is an expert at the technical side of production: volume levels, panning, timbre, vocal mixing, and more.
The ultimate goal of mixing is to create a sound that is pleasing to as many people as possible. A good mix emphasizes the most important parts of the recording. Each adjustment to levels, panning, and time-based audio effects (such as chorus, reverb, and delay) contributes to how each track complements the other.
Keeping a goal in mind during the mixing process is a useful way to analyze how you want each track to fit together. As you get deeper into the mixing process, your rough ideas will start to smooth out.
Tip: Use a Reference Track When Mixing
One way to see how your mix compares to other recordings is to use a reference track. Throw a track you want to model your mix after into your session. While you're mixing, go back and forth between your mix and the reference track to see how your mix compares.
The process after mixing is mastering—the final step of audio post-production. Mixing and mastering are often confused because they share similar techniques and tools. However, mixing refers to a multitrack recording whereas mastering is the final polish of a mixdown.
Mastering is usually done by an engineer who specializes in this area. The mastering engineer finalizes the overall volume and dynamic range of a recording, which ensures the optimization of playback across all systems and media formats. Typically, mastering involves equalization, compression, limiting, and stereo enhancement.
Mastering is the step that glues the entire recording together and establishes cohesion. It polishes the recording so that it sounds great on all devices—from your phone to loudspeakers. All duplications of the audio come from the master and are distributed on various formats such as streaming services, vinyl, and CDs. Mastering is also the stage where any mistakes missed in the final mix are edited.
Once your recording is mastered, it should sound complete, professional, and well-balanced. At this stage, you'll be able to release your work with confidence.
After your recording is mixed and mastered, it's time to get it to your audience. This may include duplicating vinyl or CD copies if you are choosing to release physical products, finalizing design and artwork, and preparing promotional materials surrounding your release.
With each recording process, you learn something new that can be applied to your next recording. Persistence is key: a good recording often takes several versions before it's just right. In addition, remember that recording is a combination of technical skills, instincts, and creativity. So when you're ready, remember to have fun and be creative too.
If you need additional assistance in polishing your recordings, working with experienced mixing and mastering engineers can be an effective way to take your work to the next level. Mixing and mastering professionals can fill the technical gaps in your recording—bringing out the best and most important parts of your music. If you would like to work with our team at Mike's Mix & Master to perfect your recording, visit our website and/or contact us to learn more.