So… your song is written, you know you’re coming in to do your first EP so you know it’s going to take a little extra time to “record.” What does that word mean anyway? Recording in our digital age breaks down into 3 basic parts: 1) tracking; 2) editing; 3) and mixing.
Tracking is when the mics come out and the amps get turned on and the singer sings. You get the idea. It’s what we typically think of when we talk about recording. However, even tracking isn’t always as straight-forward as you think. Most often, drums are tracked first and any other instrument that’s playing along is really not the focus and is considered a “scratch” track. Why? Unless you have a team of engineers and several tracking rooms you can’t give the same attention to detail to all the instruments. So most often over-dubbing is how you accomplish great sounding recordings. So you focus on one instrument at a time. So tracking can get stretched out as every individual player comes in and plays their part and their instruments can be honed in on and fine-tuned and focused.
Again, this isn’t always the case. You can never say never. I have had the odd time where recording everyone at once – “live off the floor” – has worked but often these days it’s just not done because of mic bleed or players messing up their parts, etc.
Here is likely the most misunderstood part of the recording process. Everyone knows you have to hit the record button. Everyone knows you have to move those sliders on the sound board to change the volume of instruments and make the song sound good. But what’s editing?
Typical editing session… the band has left and all the tracking is done. I’ve actually remembered to take notes which is good because it gets confusing. I’m using the 5th take from the drummer except in the 2nd chorus where the 4th take was better. The 2nd rhythm guitar take was fine until the bridge and then I have to use the 3rd one. I’m piecing together the lead singers “take” using bits from takes 3, 4, 6, and 9. Once that’s all sorted I actually have to “comp” each of these takes so they actually sound like they’re from the same take. With the vocal I’m also stripping out all the noise in between her parts in the verse and chorus. The little coughs, and foot shuffles, and clearing of the throat.
This is a critical part of making a mix go from good to great but most bands aren’t thrilled when you tell them the good news that you spent 4 hours editing their song to get it ready for mix. It doesn’t seem like you’re any further ahead and now this money hungry engineer is milking you for more. Trust me, most engineers I know, myself included, don’t actually charge what they should for all the time it takes, especially when it comes to editing. But it’s necessary. At some point the tracks need to be edited before they can be mixed.
Tracking and mixing are my 2 favourite parts of the recording process. I love interacting and engaging with musicians to help them give the best performance they can for the take. Creative ideas are flying around. Editing is the necessary evil to get to the mix stage. But mixing takes on a life of its own.
Mixing is the chance to put all these sometimes seemingly odd pieces together and bring to reality what the artist has been dreaming about and hearing in their head sometimes literally for years. It is moving those strange faders up and down (whether virtual or on a real board) but it also involves using special pieces of gear (most often virtual in our day and age) to help bring out the sound of the guitar or vocal or drums or piano or… in an inspiring way. Through the use of compressors and equalizers and reverbs and delays and a million and a half other toys the song comes together.
Young bands get impatient at this point and see the dollars flying away because to their ear good enough is good enough. However, this generally translates into uninspiring songs. A friend of mine played me a song he’d recorded at a local commercial studio. I’ve been in it. The tracking rooms are amazing. And I could tell it was well-tracked. The song had all the right parts, and it was a solid arrangement but I was uninspired. The mix engineer had failed. It’s a fine line but settling for good enough isn’t the way to go. If the goal was a great CD quality song but you’re riding the engineer to hurry up during tracking, editing (yes you can poorly edit), and mixing will result in a lot of disappointment for everyone. That goes back to knowing your goal for the production.
For example, when a band tells me they want a demo then I know they’re wanting a quick tracking session, quick edit, and a quick mix. It will not be radio worthy. I explain this all to them so there’s no surprises. It’s critical to talk about all this with the engineer BEFORE you start recording. It’s ok to change your mind but that also needs to be clearly communicated.