You’ve learned how to play your instrument, you’ve collaborated with other musicians, you’ve performed live and the next natural step is to make a studio recording.
The recording industry has changed beyond recognition in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, you probably would have found yourself trying to get record company executives to listen to your demo tapes, while paying as many live venues as possible in the hope that you might just be spotted by a talent scout.
Advances in technology and affordability of equipment have brought about the fall of the rock star as we knew it, along with their jet setting agents, managers and producers. Superstars still exist, of course, only their lifestyles are now funded by sponsorships, ticket sales and merchandising, as opposed to record sales (major artists would often make a loss on their world tours in order to rake in a fortune in the resultant record sales). The rise of home and independent production has put an end to all of that. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not possible to make it big from your bedroom – just consider the earnings of YouTubers who have made a go of it by themselves – Felix Kjellberg, for example, pulled in over $12 million just by recording himself play computer games.
Of course, that is all of little concern to you, as your passion is the music itself and you couldn’t really care less whether you make any money from it or not. You will, of course, need to spend some money, though.
For solo performances and recordings which require a very ‘live’ feel, you can still get away with recording the whole piece in a single take. Aside from each performer being able to perform to a high standard, the key to success here is recording the sound from each instrument correctly. Different microphones have different uses and it is worth reading up on the types best suited to your ensemble at somewhere like Microphone Geeks.
This method of recording has a distinctive feel to it which sounds dated for contemporary rock, pop and electronic recordings. It’s more likely that you’ll be recording the piece in separate tracks (for each instrument, section and so on) and then digitally manipulating them at a later stage. In this style of recording, quite often each instrument is recorded separately from the others, allowing the sound of only that instrument to be captured, without backing noise. This allows for more effective mixing and mastering. It also allows incompetent musicians to record over flaws, as if they hadn’t made them in the first place. For this type of recording, you will need a computer and some music production software such as Cubase, Reason, Ableton Live, Avid Pro Tools etc.
For the initial recordings, musicians may require a metronome to keep time, if the track has a steady tempo. In a typical pop song, you’ll record the percussion or bass sections first, then any rhythm and harmonic elements. This will be followed usually by the vocal tracks. Most samples and effects will be recorded separately and manipulated on the computer.
The tracks will need to be cleaned up in terms of how you want them to sound in the final product – a ‘dry’ sound will typically require more noise reduction and compression, than a damper sound. Vocalists who aren’t particularly good need not fear, as software can be used to correct and edit their pitch, timbre and dynamism at this point. These are all skills which you can pick up through practice – most easily by working with a qualified person, or by self-tutoring and rigorous self-analysis.
Once this is done, you need to arrange your piece using the software provided. For many amateurs, this is simply a case of drag and drop – on the screen their music will look like a wall of Lego, and it will sound extremely predictable and tedious. Don’t let the software take over. Try to approach arrangement in a creative manner – look at the approaches of Michael Jackson and David Bowie and ask yourself if you are really trying hard enough.
The final stages of mixing and mastering should also be approached with great care – they are, after all, professions in their own right. The mix you aim for should sound excellent whether it is listened to through headphones or through the sound system at Madison Square Garden.