Formation of a Song (Recording)

As industry insiders, we sometimes forget that when discussing the recording process, the rest of the world really has no idea what we are talking about. Hopefully this will provide an explanation of the song formation process in layman's terms so that there may be less disconnect between the professional and the consumer.

As with any creative process, there is no absolute hard and fast procedure that must be followed stringently, but there is a logical development that all recordings must go through, which includes:

Composition
Arrangement
Recording
Editing
Mixing
Mastering

That being said, this is an explanation of that general process and what takes place during each of these steps.

Composition

Composition is really where a song or piece is born. Preceding this step may be brainstorming and idea formation, but the song actually begins to take a real form and become an entity in itself during this stage.

This is what separates ideas and melodies floating around in the air from actual well-formed songs. There isn't a whole lot to be said concerning Composition, other than it consists of forming a melody (and often basic accompaniment) that flows chronologically from a start to a finish. Lyrics (if applicable) will also likely be written at this time.

Arrangement

Arranging is taking the Composition that has been created and determining what instruments will be used for the recording, writing the parts that those instruments will play, and the tempo (speed, beats per minute) that the song will be played in.

To best illustrate this point, think of the song "What a Wonderful World." The most famous version of this song is arguably the one sung by the great Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Compare this to the Ramones version of the same song. Both are based on the same Composition, but with entirely different results based on the fact that they are Arranged differently using very contrasting instrumentation and are at vastly different tempos. (You can use any number of examples to illustrate this principle; "Yesterday", "Happy Birthday", etc.). Arrangement, as with Composition, may range anywhere from informally assigning parts to instruments to drafting the parts using musical notation, all dependent on the preferences of the arranger and the formality of the project.

Recording

Now we start to get a little more technical.

The term Recording is often used to refer to this and the following three steps as a whole, but for simplicity's sake, the term Recording is used here to mean "putting performances to tape" (or as is the case now, a digital format). This is also referred to as Tracking, Cutting Tracks, etc.

Recording Studios have long been somewhat of a mystery to industry outsiders, but basically what takes place during Recording is microphones and various (expensive) sound altering equipment are used to capture a sound being produced in an acoustically tuned room or environment and storing that sound information onto some sort of media (be it magnetic tape, a computer hard drive, or, in the old days, acetate discs).

Generally, a process called Multi-Tracking is used for commercial recordings in which each microphone (and hence, each sound, be it vocals, guitar, or cello) is printed discretely to the storage media to be manipulated at a later time.

To simplify it a bit, the 'normal' stereo recording that a consumer would hear is comprised of two tracks or channels, the Right and the Left. During the Recording or Multi-Tracking stage, there are virtually innumerable quantities of tracks or channels that can each be controlled separately from the other tracks. For instance if you have recorded a vocal part on one track and a guitar part on another, because they were recorded discretely in a Multi-Track setting, the volume of the vocals can be increased or decreased without affecting the sound or volume of the guitar track whatsoever.

In a typical session, what you would be left with after completing the Recording stage is any number of discrete tracks each containing an instrument. An example of a track listing for a rock song might be:

Track 1: Kick Drum
Track 2: Snare Drum
Track 3: High Tom
Track 4: Low Tom
Track 5: Overhead Left
Track 6: Overhead Right
Track 7: Bass Guitar
Track 8: Electric Guitar
Track 9: Acoustic Guitar
Track 10: Keyboard Left
Track 11: Keyboard Right
Track 12: Lead Vocals
Track 13: Background Vocals

Meaning that each of these tracks had a microphone assigned to it for the specific purpose of recording the desired source. (Notice that tracks 1-6 are for various parts of a typical drum set).

Also (not to complicate things further, but?) these instruments need not be recorded at the same time. The bass guitar player could record his/her part on Thursday, and the vocalist might lay down tracks a week later. Basically, because they are on separate tracks, the musicians do not have to be playing at the same time or even in the same place to create a finished product that sounds like they were looking right at each other. This also enables a multi-instrumentalist to record all the instruments themselves and create their own 'virtual' band where they are the only member.

Editing

Had this exercise been written 15 years ago, I would not have included Editing as its own section as it generally takes place during Recording and Mixing on an 'as needed' basis. But with the evolution and general industry acceptance of digital and non-linear recording formats, Editing has become a much more important and functional stage in the creation of a musical work.

Simply put, Editing consists of changing the original recording by way of altering the timing, pitch, or speed of an individual track, or tracks to change the performance. One such common practice is referred to as "comping." Comping is the idea of recording multiple takes of one instrument with the intent of compiling all of the takes into one cohesive take for the purpose of eliminating errors or creating a 'perfect' take.

For instance, a vocalist may sing the same part over and over again making mistakes in different parts on each take. Rather than continuing to search for a complete perfect take, or settling for the best take and having to live with the mistakes, the recording engineer (the guy turning all the knobs ?) will choose the best take and then after identifying each mistake within that take, pull the line, phrase, word, or even syllable from another take where the mistake did not occur and paste that into the correct spot on the best take essentially eliminating the mistake and making it sound like it was performed and recorded without it.

Digitally, this process is simple and can be completed with just a couple of mouse clicks. Using analog tape, it becomes much more cumbersome and requires a series of meticulous tasks to record to a third track while muting and un-muting the source tracks, or pulling out the old razor blade and slicing away.

This is just one example of the use and purpose of Editing. To go into the virtually infinite uses would be long and redundant as the editing limits in the digital domain are nearly limitless.

Mixing

The Mixing stage is necessitated by the differences in the format that is used in the Recording stage and the format that the end consumer is able to use. If you recall, when we finished the Recording stage, we were left with (for example) 13 different tracks, each with it's own instrument. Each of these tracks by now has been edited to contain the best possible performance during the Editing stage, but they are still individual tracks and not one cohesive song that a consumer can pop in the CD player. For argument's sake, we will only discuss Mixing down to stereo and not touch upon surround sound, 5.1, 7.1, 9.1, or any other format as stereo is currently the most generally accepted format (for now?). Mixing is the process of taking all of these individual tracks (in our example, 13) and by way of using sound altering effects, changing volumes, and manipulating perceived position Left and Right (panning), creating a stereo (two track) recording. Think of it in terms of a funnel. The individual tracks are the wide end, and they must be brought together to form two tracks (the narrow end).

Again, we will not go into the intricacies of Mixing in practice, but in order for all of the tracks to sound good together (play nice kids?), they must be twisted, manipulated, affected, squashed, and combed so that they sound just right and like they are all playing together in one space just for the listener instead of all separately and in padded booths like they actually were.

Once this is accomplished, we are left with a stereo (two track) recording with all the instruments sounding great together and the song is nearly finished.

Mastering

This is the final and most often overlooked step in the song creation process. In fact, if you were to ask a group of musicians what mastering is, chances are a good portion would not be able to tell you what it is and why it is so important.

Essentially, Mastering is preparing the final stereo recording for commercial consumption by pumping it up to a usable volume and making sure that the song will sound good on any sound system it plays on, from a home theater system that costs thousands of dollars, to your little tiny, terrible laptop speakers.

Mastering is most important if you have multiple songs and are creating an album or if you are preparing your recording for commercial release. This is because when the Mixing stage is complete, the stereo recordings you are left with were mixed to sound good on the speakers that they were mixed on regardless of how that sound translates to other spaces and speakers. Also, in the case of making an album, you don't want Song #1 to be a whole lot louder than Song #2 or even Song #15. Have you ever listened to a CD where you were constantly adjusting the volume just to maintain a consistent pleasant playback level? This is a CD that has not been mastered (or was mastered poorly). The same applies for making the songs sound like they belong together in that you don't want one song to sound 'tinny' (a.k.a. too much high end equalization) and another 'boomy' (a.k.a. too much low end).

So that explains why Mastering is important for album, but what about commercial releases? Imagine if your un-mastered song were on the radio between two wonderfully mastered songs. You would get swallowed up. Your song may be too quiet, or have too much low end and basically just sound unprofessional by comparison.

As mentioned before, Mastering will also make sure the final product sounds good no matter where it is played or what system it is played on. When making a presentation of your final product to a client, record label, or even friend, you don't want to say, "Sorry, I can only play this through Yamaha NS-10 speakers." And you certainly don't want to be taken by surprise and find out that it sounds bad everywhere but in the studio.

So there you have it. The real deal on how a song is created from Composition to Mastering and now the final product. No more mystery and technical jargon. So now that the cat is out of the bag, everyone can do it all on his/her own right? Wrong. Just knowing an automobile works on an internal combustion engine doesn't mean you can start building your own cars. Audio professionals have spent years learning what to listen for and how to make things sound 'right.' Not information that can be gained in a four-page discourse. Contact your local audio professional to get your project started, but at least now, you'll know what you're in for.

Ben Blakesley is the Chief Engineer for Philadelphia based Javboy Records, which specializes in creating custom music solutions for production. Visit them at http://www.javboyrecords.com

How to Buy an Electric Guitar Online

With the increased proliferation of online guitar and musical equipment stores, as well as the... Read More

Arpeggios and New Age Piano Playing

Chopin used them extensively. So did Beethoven and Mozart. Arpeggios are beautiful and are perfect... Read More

How To Play Piano Using Chord Symbols

Chord symbols (for example, Fm7, Cmaj7 or G6) are a type of notation used frequently... Read More

People are Turning to Meaningful Songs for Emotional and Spiritual Relief:

A New Breed of Aspiring Songwriters Is In The Making. What are the Sacrifices of... Read More

Guide to Finding Music Online

Are you frustrated because finding your favorite songs on the net has become more of... Read More

Learn to Play the Piano

Rocket Piano is a very professionally done piano lesson package. It includes a number of... Read More

Win Friends & Influence People Through Music -- Is It Possible?

The idea that studying music improves the social development of a child is not a... Read More

A Guitar Lesson to Help You Develop Your Vision

Have you ever done any of the following?1. Made excuses for not practicing because you... Read More

Micing a Kick Drum

This months tip deals with micing kick drums.You wouldn't believe how many people ask me... Read More

Taking iPod Culture into Clubs as Well as Cyberspace: Jonny Rocket Interviewed by The G-Man

Already making plenty of noise in the marketplace is a new concept called Playlist, which... Read More

Solid-Bodied Gretsch Corvette Guitar

The Solid-bodied Corvette (not to be confused with the Corvette hollow-body arch-top electric, produced from... Read More

Lori Nuic Sparkles

A soulful vibe along with an amazing voice is what Lori Nuic is gifted with,... Read More

How Many Songs Are In Your Pocket?

The portable MP3 player continues to be the hot item for those who want music... Read More

Everything I Play Sounds the Same

Many students want to create music that has a certain emotional quality. For example, I... Read More

What is Music?

That's a fair question!Basically, you can call music any noise that is set to either... Read More

Guitar Facts: A Glossary of Terms

It is said that the forerunner of the guitar, the lute, was created by the... Read More

Review: The Dissociatives - Self Titled

In 1994 Daniel Johns and his group Silverchair were catapulted into the mainstream by winning... Read More

Music and Emotion

The Age-old Puzzle of Human ResponseIf you've listened to more than a little music, you've... Read More

The Piano Parent Trap!

"My 6 year old daughter really loves the piano and wants to learn to play,... Read More

Establishing Your Mix

Now that you've spent hours and days and weeks and months recording your musical masterpieces... Read More

Polychords and the Jazz Improviser: How to Practice & Apply Polychords to Improv

In the world of music, many Jazz improvisers and Classical composers eventually venture into exploring... Read More

Play Too Loud And Well Cut The Power!

"Turn it down!"How often have you heard that command in your musical lifetime? It's a... Read More

3 Secrets To Understanding What Makes Music Tick

It's no secret that virtually everyone loves music in some form or other. After all,... Read More

An Interview with Angus Young of ACDC - Why He Plays a Gibson SG

Steven: Maybe more than any other guitarist ever, you're inextricably linked to the Gibson SG?... Read More

Piano Lessons Can be Fun!

There are essentially two ways to learn piano - note reading or chords. For those... Read More

Is Rhapsody Music Downloads Service Getting A Good Rhap?

Rhapsody music, from RealNetworks is one of several reputable legal digital services for legal music... Read More

Living Life Loud

Change is good. Just ask the millions of unsigned artists worldwide trying to get their... Read More

How to Compose Using ABA Form

ABA form is like a musical sandwich. You have the 2 slices of bread with... Read More

Health and Beauty Tips for Your Brass: Keep It Shiny!

Did you know that the health and beauty of your brass instruments require extra special... Read More

Music for Corporate Entertainment

For many years I have supplied music for and played in bands that provide music... Read More

Surf Waves With Jack Johnson

Lately I've been listening to some pretty cool music by some beach bum named Jack... Read More

What Works Best in New Age Piano Improvisation

Many students want to know how to improvise. What they really want to know is... Read More

Review: Medications - All Your Favorite People In One Place

One of the most intriguing aspects of music is how easily it can transform one's... Read More

Five Secrets to Playing in the New Age Style

1. Learn how to ImproviseLearning how to improvise is the key to playing in this... Read More

How to Buy an Electric Guitar

For most of us, making any major purchase, such as a new refrigerator, or a... Read More

Play The Piano Like A Pro

Meet the 12 Major Notes:1. C (do)2. C# - Db (do sharp or re flat)... Read More

Music Industry Secrets Revealed - How To Become Succesful The Music Industry Without A Record Deal

Before the internet, unsigned music artists couldnt make a living, off the thing they love... Read More

Formal Highland Attire: The Correct Wearing of the Kilt; the National Dress of Scotland

We don't simply wear a theatrical costume; we wear the national dress of Scotland. While... Read More

Jealous Again - Jealousy Among Musicians

Jealousy ? do you feel it? Do you sense it in others? Does it hinder... Read More

Common Thoughts That Kill Inspiration

Do you sit down at the piano and feel anxiety or peace? Are you anxious... Read More

One Way to Improve Your Music Journalist Relationship

Boy, I really detest how some people do websites. Bands are some of the worst.... Read More

Six Reasons to Play New Age Piano

Here are six very good reasons to learn how to play piano in the New... Read More

Structure Of A Successful Music Website

Ideally each page of your website should serve a specific purpose. The main purpose of... Read More

Bluegrass Music - Alive and Well in the Appalachians

One of the Appalachian Mountain region's greatest contributions to the world is Bluegrass music. Born... Read More

Beginning Clarinet: The Very Start

Like starting with any instrument, beginning clarinet is a process of learning that involves both... Read More

Right Hand Guitar Playing Tip

This lesson can open for you a secret of high-speed guitar playing. If take the... Read More

Jazz Yatra

Jazz is arguably the most argumentative form of music (even has diminished and argumented chords).... Read More

Throat Singing In Inuit Culture

Originally, Inuit throat singing was a form of entertainment among Inuit women while the men... Read More

Radio - What?s Happened To It?

Remember when radio stations played great music?OK, before you accuse me of sounding like your... Read More

Origin of Erik Saties Gnossiennes

The 'trois Gnossiennes' (1890) is a set of dance-like pieces of similar character, like the... Read More