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

1973 Interview with Paul McCartney - Forming Wings

July 6, 1973 Birmingham EnglandSteven: Has it been difficult for you putting together a new... Read More

Your First Guitar

Congratulations, you just bought you first guitar! Now that you've met the love of your... Read More

Be An Organized Church Pianist

Playing in front of a congregation each Sunday is no easy feat. Make sure you... Read More

Greg Koch Fender Guitar History

The Greg Koch Fender guitar began to take shape all the way back when Greg... Read More

Sheet Music ? Violin and Other String Instruments

The violin is a bowed stringed instrument and is the highest pitched member of the... Read More

Liberate your iPod

When Akio Morita came up with the idea of the Sony Walkman all of his... Read More

Building Your Digital Music Collection

The previous two Tech Tips took a look at eight basic features of portable MP3... Read More

Legal Free Music Downloads - Songs You Want at No Cost

It's all over the news these days. Download music from the Internet and you could... Read More

Origins of the Mathers Family

Eminem's roots can be found in Scandinavia through his mother Debbie Nelson and in South... Read More

Guitar Practice (Part 2) - Does Practice Make Perfect?

You've probably heard the saying "practice makes perfect" and it sounds true enough, but is... Read More

Born into musical family, Michael Jackson is as big as ever today

Michael Jackson was born Michael Joseph Jackson on August 29, 1958 (making him 47 as... Read More

How To Dress Up Naked Music On The Piano

What in the world is "naked music?"You know it when you hear it, but the... 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

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

3 Quick & Easy Steps To Playing Music by Ear

Playing by ear is the ability to play a piece of music (or, eventually, learn... Read More

Jazz Yatra

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

How To Play Guitar Like a Pro!

Having taught the guitar for many years, I see the majority of beginners experiencing the... Read More

Guitarists...Are You A Victim and A Loser?

I was thinking today about THE most dangerous enemy of musical progress?the victim mentality. What... Read More

Setting Up In-House Retail Sales

Now, that you are familiar and likely connected with online music sales sites, such as... Read More

Buying a Violin

"How do I buy a violin, (or fiddle)?"That question has risen to the top of... Read More

Piano Chords and New Age Music

There are basically two ways you can compose a piece of music. The first and... Read More

Growing and Keeping Loyal Fan Support

Fan support for musicians is a two way street. You make the music, release the... Read More

Music, the Spiritual Connection

All through the age's music and spirituality as served hand in hand. As for instruments,... Read More

Right-Hand Techniques for New Age Piano

Recently, I had a student ask me to offer some techniques for using the right... Read More

Born to sing, Britney Spears is as big as ever today

Britney Spears was born December 2 1981 as Britney Jean Spears in Kentwood, Louisiana, USA.Many... Read More

Taps; Piping Military Honors: A Ceremonial Guide for Highland Bagpipers

It has become increasingly popular for U.S. military veterans and their families to specifically request... Read More

New M3 with Competition Package

The new competition package available for the BMW M3 is almost sad as it is... Read More

Music to Echo Your Mood

In what way do the kinds of music (rock, rap, classical, instrumental, etc.) change or... Read More

5 Ways to Enjoy Your Music Files

OK, say you've got one thousand of your favorite MP3 songs sitting in your hard... Read More

Guitar Buying - The Pros and Cons of Vintage vs. Reissue

To most people, owning the "genuine article" is the only thing that will suffice. As... Read More

How to Become a Filthy Rich Record Label Mogul

Let me guess, you love music and would do anything to be able to enter... Read More

How to Play What you Feel

Many students think that being able to play what you feel is difficult. They believe... Read More

Hip Hop Clothing

Celebrities now such as Outkast, a fashion wear can be a must have. Likewise gainful... Read More

The Various Countries - A Rant About Country Music

It is no secret that over the past couple decades country music has struggled with... Read More

Play Piano in the New Age Style

It's not what you play, it's how you play it. These words summarize the art... 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

Reasons to Ditch Your Guitar Pick

Lately, I haven't been using my guitar pick all that much. I got this tab... Read More

How to Be in the Moment when Playing Piano

Your best music will always come when you are in the moment and just playing... Read More

How to Construct Chords and Improvise

How To Construct Basic Chords on the PianoThe easiest way to start learning how to... Read More

Flaming Guitars! Minarik Fuels The Excitement of a New Generation of Musicians

From the Telecaster to the Flying V to the Iceman to the Warlock, some guitar... Read More

Guitar Humidification

Problems with humidity can lead to heartbreak for the classical (or other) guitarist. Excessive humidity... Read More

Karaoke Singing

This article is designed to help anyone to enjoy karaoke and improve their singing performance... Read More

How To Make Money On A Music Website Through Pay-Per-Click?

Interested in making money while you're asleep, or making money while you're not even on... Read More

Piano Playing For Adults: More Fun Than Sex And Not Nearly As Dangerous!

OK, so I lied about the fun part.Maybe piano playing is the just 2nd most... Read More

Improvising On The Piano: Jazz Musicians Do It -- Why Not Other Styles?

Why jazz piano improvisation?Why not gospel piano improvisation?Is it not possible to improvise classical music,... Read More

The Didjeridu

In Northern Australia the Didjeridu is seen as a phallic symbol and therefore a male... Read More

Automatic Control of Chords

CORRECT PRACTICE IS INDISPENSABLE!Your success or failure at the keyboard may well hinge on how... Read More

Music Mini Course: Learn The Basics Of Reading Music On A Keyboard Instrument

Welcome to the wonderful world of music. As you begin reading this Music Mini Course... Read More

Choosing a Jazz Band for Your Party

In many years of arranging jazz bands for all sorts of events I am struck... Read More

All About Eminem

Marshall Mathers, was born October 17, 72, and could be by far the most notorious... Read More