So… you want to make a record? You can hear all the parts in your head?
And after several attempts of playing with either Logic, Ableton or otherwise, you realise that it may take you another 10 or so years for your song to actually come to fruition after realising that producing a song, is no easy feat. Well, you wouldn’t be wrong!
Songwriting is a craft in itself but when it comes to the technical aspects of music production, a seasoned pro behind the desk could save you roughly, well… about 10 years.
There are so many aspects when it comes to writing a song that sometimes as an artist, it can be more beneficial to just focus on the art of writing a great song. By no means am I discouraging anyone who has the ambition to song-write and produce up his or her own works, however be prepared for quite the marathon as it’s certainly no easy sprint.
I’d like to share with you the most important stages of the recording process and what some of that may entail but first things first… choosing the right music producer will get you halfway there!
So what does that mean exactly?
The right music producer is not just somebody who obtains the necessary skills within your genre to produce a fire track (although bloody important) they’re also someone who you can connect with on a creative and emotional level. You will be spending a large portion of your creative time with them and you most must feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable and honest to ensure you get a fantastic and desired end result, as well as a truthful performance. The soul purpose of a music producer is to be able to help guide, understand and bring your ideas to life!
STEP 1: Pre Prod. (Or Pre Production)
Sharing the main ideas, melodies, rhythms, style & feel, chords, beat, lyrics and any music in any stage of the song that has been completed to give the music producer an idea of where the song could end up.
This can also be called a demo and depending on what stage you’re at can be a full and rough arrangement of the song.
Gives you time to play and open up the song whilst possibly re-working melodies, chords, bass lines & arrangement
A strong melody is key; everything else is just the foundation.
STEP 2: Recording & Sound Design
Sound design is one of the most important elements! What makes a song sound 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 2000 or today? The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind… Maybe not, but based on the sounds and processing of plugins (Reverb, EQ, Delay) helps create a specific sound for that genre. Like an 80’s snare drum with lots of reverb. Or a 90’s STAB hit of a synth, or the Timbaland, Pharrell beats of 2000 and the trap hi hat phase of 2016 to now!
No need to stress, this is why you hired a producer! A good producer will ask you for reference tracks to help them understand better what your influences are. It is then our job, much like a painter, to pick the appropriate colours for the canvas before getting to work. You could like a bass line from Stevie Wonder - Superstitious. The Drums from Khalid – Better and the futuristic synth sounds of Flume.
Based on all the above, the producer will then start to select sounds that match your tastes all while crafting a unique and individual sound for you as an emerging artist. This is super important! Within the first few seconds of a song from artists you look up to, you can already tell who it is! Mainly because they have established a unique sound! This is where the 10 years+ of production comes in handy!
Don’t worry, you’ve picked the right producer, so now give them your trust and enjoy the process!
The producer now starts to build a vibe; it can be from the chorus, or verse or anywhere in the song. Now that you have the right colours, it’s now time to throw them down on that canvas!
STEP 3: Arranging & Editing
After that second session you now have a vibe of the song and start fleshing out the arrangement. Making sure you can see the verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge ect. I like to call this either, “the frame” or the “puzzle perimeter.” Remember when mum or dad use to get you to put the outer pieces of the puzzle together? Same concept.
Now you can see a full song in front of you, it makes it much easier to work with. Sometimes during this process we may play with the arrangement depending how much we covered during step 1.
Is the arrangement interesting? Does it keep the listener involved?
The main time spent in this process is building up the sections and then gutting them out. The best answer to the question, “How do you know when a songs finished?” that I heard was, “When there’s nothing else left to delete.” The more room you make on your instrumental bed, the easier it is for those vocals to stand front and centre!
Making sure that everything is aligned with your BPM (Beats per minute), which is the general timing of the song, and DAW (Digital Audio Workstation, Logic, Ableton etc.)
Once everything is built up and sounding good, the music producer glues all the transitions together by using sounds like sweeps or instruments crossing over sections. Such as, the verse to the pre-chorus and making sure they transition smoothly. Then the pre-chorus to the chorus and so on and so forth.
STEP 4: VOCALS, VOCALS, VOCALS.
For me, this is the most important session of all. It is the mother of all sessions. Your vocals. It doesn’t matter how great your instrumental sounds, if these aren’t done well and done properly, the song ain’t going nowhere.
Make sure you know your lyrics and melodies like the back of your hand. If you’re rocking up to the studio and just winging it, then you can’t be too serious. You want to spend more time trying to evoke emotion into your lyrics and less time worrying about, how do I sound?
The way you sound is important but best practiced at home prior to your vocal session. When a listener hears the track for the first time, how will it make them feel? You might have one chance only and one chance could mean 10 seconds or less before they switch over to the next song! Let ‘em hear your soul!!!!!
Once vocals are recorded along with doubles (two vocals recorded over each other) and stacked up chorus vocals and harmonies, the producer then does the appropriate processing to make your vocals stick out! Tuning, Saturation, EQ, Compression, More EQ, aligning etc…
STEP 5: Mixing – Post Production
This is where you get to sit back and relax and let your music producer or mixing engineer do the hard yards. A mix is where all the parts or stems are then mixed and processed into a stereo track and then bounced into what we know as an MP3, WAV or AIF file. WAV being the highest quality but also the largest.
The sole job of mixing the track is to provide all the parts with space in the mix, cutting all the unnecessary frequencies and taming the dynamic range so you have a cohesive sounding mix. Things like reverb and echoes are used to put the sound into a room. A great example of this is the song, “Take Me To Church” by Hozier. Notice how all the sounds have been pushed into a church like room to give it big spacious sound. Most likely using reverbs that have taken samples from actual church spaces! Mind blown!!!
A great mix will not make a bad song great but a great song with a bad mix is still a great song! I cannot stress enough the importance of the song first before the mix. If we have that sorted, so imagine a great song with a great mix! That’s what we’re aiming for.
At any stage, the mixers job is to enhance all the parts and create a 3 dimensional sounding track. One of the most important aspects of creating a mix is using reference tracks within the same style to make sure that your mix is on the money! Everything is fine tuned until the producer and artist are happy with their final mix.