It’s been a very busy year for me at Gray spark audio, and this holiday season has been particularly rewarding. As a studio we’ve built up to a point where we have a steady clientele of established studio musicians, up and coming artists, as well as new musicians taking their first steps towards a career in music by being resourceful and dedicated to their craft. Being in the studio, I get a lot of questions from a lot of people about how to go about how to build songs, how recording works and what my process is. Today’s blog post is the first of many that will help you understand the recording process, from my perspective as a music producer and engineer. Let’s dive in.
We’ve come a long way from the early days of audio recording. What started off with a handful of studios with just a few tape machines and mics and driven recording engineers experimenting with electronics for the next big breakthrough, has now morphed into a multibillion dollar industry, with millions of studios operating worldwide, using a wide variety of microphones, fancy AD converters and even fancier analog equipment like EQ’s, compressors, reverb units, rackmount units that are more expensive than some Indian cars and all of this operated by ‘audiophiles’ who claim these units will change your music and your life by taking them both to the ‘next level’.
While there might be some degree of truth to that, all you need to know is that the act of recording is as simple as taking your guitar (or a mic if you’re a singer), plugging it into an audio interface and hitting the record button on your music production software (also called a DAW which stands for digital audio workstation). Once recorded, you’ll see your performance as an audio file, and will be able to play it back. That’s it. While there is a lot more that goes into capturing a performance and making it sound like all the music you love listening to, being able to record yourself is enough to turn that musical idea in your head into a song.
When I’m engineering for artists, I follow a certain process that I’ve learnt and polished up over the years.
It all starts with the demo.
What is a demo?
A demo is the basic recording of your song that you just made. Most of the things that are on the demo usually make it to the final cut of the song. A good demo consists of a melody that works with the lyrics that will be almost done, being sung (or played) on top of the rhythm section and the music (also called the harmonic section), conveying a sense of beginning, middle and end in the context of a song. When all these things are in place, everyone involved from the engineer to the performers know what where goes in the song, as well as the tempo and feel of the song.
Let’s build a house
The final recording of song is much like building a house. The demo is the digging before the foundation is put in place, the rhythm section (in most cases drums and bass) is the foundation, the music forms the walls, the vocal is the roof and the cleanup and painting is like the mix and master process.
As with building a house, you first need a solid foundation. Make sure to have the grooves for your song figured out, and if you have a good drummer (or programming skills, I’m looking at you dance music folk), getting a good sound is a piece of cake. Next, you get your bass in place, preferably something that ties the drums and the music together and is the right amount of busy or sparse depending on your song. These days a good bassline or lack thereof makes or breaks a song, so always remember, bassline is king.
The music section comes next. Coming back to the house analogy, your music forms the walls that hold up your roof. A well written music section supports and elevates the vocal (or solo instrument), As one of my clients says, ‘melody moves the person, harmony moves the soul’. Your walls can be made of glass or can be thick stone walls. Lorde’s “royals” is a good example of glass walls, while a song like MJ’s “earth song” is an example of a dense one. One is minimal, the other intricate, but they both serve the same purpose. This is also the part of the recording process where you get to set the tone and aesthetic of the song, so figure out what kind of instrumentation & chords you like best for your song before building your walls.
– The roof
This is the centerpiece of your song and what your listener is going to connect with at their first listen. Your job is to write the catchiest melody for your song, and perform it in a way that is moving to a listener. I’ve seen a lot of artists come into the studio, and they all have unique approach to this. The important thing is to write something well and practice it well before you get to the studio (sometime artists enter the studio on their bad days too).
The contractor (I’m sick of using the house analogy repeatedly but this is the last bit, promise)
In everything we’ve covered so far, you are the architect and designer of this house, but a house also needs someone who’ll guide you through the process. The engineer is the contractor and the studio minions the labor that are the last pieces of the process. A good engineer is going to make sure your performances are well recorded by using the right mics for the job, and once the recording is done mix and master all the elements so that they have the maximum impact. In theory you could do all of this yourself, but having a dedicated engineer taking care of all of these aspects helps you focus on what’s important, which is your performance and your song.
In the second part of this series, we will talk about what happens after the recording process. I hope this post gives you some clarity about the process, and helps you plot and plan your upcoming musical projects.