Your band has written, arranged and rehearsed a new collection of songs that are now ready to record. What next? If you have not experienced a live recording session, entering the studio can be both exciting and daunting. Whether you have chosen to tackle the entire process yourself, or are tracking, mixing and mastering with a staff of studio engineers, the process of making records has the same basic steps.
Pre-production is an often overlooked, but crucial, element to any successful recording. Map out as many details as possible before you start. When, where and with whom are you looking to record? How many songs do you want on your record? What is your budget? What are your deadlines?
Pittsburgh has a collection of great studios, but not all of them will be the best fit for you. Call and ask to take a tour, and see spaces for yourself. Many studios book weeks or months out, so schedule in advance and stick with those days. Offer the engineer demos to get an idea of your sound, even if they were recorded on your phone. If you are recording in a non-studio setting (i.e. your basement or garage), track a few demos to make sure everyone is comfortable with the sounds of the recording environment. Use this time to make sure all music is well rehearsed.
The term "tracking" means recording your songs. Take ample time in setup to make sure you feel confident about the sound of your tracks. Experiment with different microphones and signal processors to see what gear best suits your music. If you are not satisfied, speak up! Some bands choose to record live — meaning all instruments are playing together at once just as they would a live show — and some choose to record in stages starting with drums and guitar or bass. It's common for bands to record many takes of each song before deciding on one performance, so never hesitate to take a break if you are tired or frustrated.
Once tracks are recorded, mixing begins. This process entails editing, sculpting and blending all the individual tracks into one cohesive entity. The mixer will incorporate tools like panning, EQ and compression to help the tracks fit seamlessly with each another. Reference bands whose production or sound you admire. It will help you maintain focus on your sonic goals.
Mastering is the last stop before duplication. Mastering engineers work with one stereo audio file, as opposed to many individual tracks. These days, many albums are recorded in five different places with five different engineers. Mastering helps ensure that your songs will sound uniform in volume, frequency response and dynamic range, and will usually make your songs louder. If your mixes have undesirable or extraneous pops, clicks or noises, most mastering engineers are equipped to remove them. Mastering engineers may handle mixes differently for vinyl or cassette versus digital download, so let them know how you intend to release your songs.
Keep in mind there is no right or wrong way to make a record, and every recording environment is different. After all, experimentation is how recording technology has advanced so far in such a short time.
Madeleine Campbell is a recording and mix engineer at Treelady Studios.