A Music Production Guide by Song Like A Pro for all singer-songwriters who want to approach the music industry Like A Pro. What music production is? How many steps and roles are involved? The aim this Music Production Guide is to answer all these questions and more.
During my music production lessons with Logic Pro X I always start describing the most common professional profiles which we can be classified in three main categories:
Creative roles may include:
- Songwriter (Lyricist, Top Line Writer);
- Performer (Artist or Session);
- Sound Designer;
- Light Designer.
Organisational roles may include:
- Artist Manager;
- Production Manager;
- Logistic Manager;
- Tour Manager;
- Executive Producer;
- Booking Agent;
- Recording Studio Manager;
- Rehearsal Room Manager;
Technical roles may include:
- Mixing Engineer;
- Mastering Engineer;
- Assistant Engineer;
- Live Engineers (FOH , Monitors);
The Release Production Process
1. No song, no party: the songwriting step
Good songwriting skills are necessary to produce a successful release. What we basically do is telling an interesting story to your ideal audience, which represents your main target.
Keep the process simple
You should always keep the songwriting process simple: avoid to focus on production or technical issues. The songwriting/composing process involves only writing good lyrics and melodies, nothing more.
Talking about love is different than facing politics or death subjects. Further, it affects the choice of particular instruments, tempo, groove and then the result of the overall sound of your release.
The song message is a combination of lyrics and melody within a specific key: choosing a major or a minor scale not reflecting the lyrics itself might confuse your audience and make your message undeliverable or hardly processed by common human brains. So, it’s up to you deciding how much your approach should be direct rather than being more cryptic and mysterious.
Energy levels: effective patterns to delivery the message
The energy level and its changes within a song depend on the message. If your song starts with a low energy level ending up with a huge final, that’s probably the case where your message is supported by a gradual build-up leading to a huge emphasis at the end. Or Maybe you might decide to start with a big explosion of sounds, then insert a breakdown as a preparation for a further development and ending up with a higher energy level again. Everything is about keeping the attention of the listener and what’s the best strategy to achieve it.
A traditional pattern may include a verse (story introduction), a chorus (problem reveal), a bridge or a breakdown (solution) and an outro (depending on the end of the story). Generally speaking, this method works very well in most of cases.
Make your sound visual
Before synthesis, all sounds we could heard were related to particular object, even those ones we couldn’t see. This human brain mechanism belongs to us since ages, that’s why we try to visualise every sound we heard. Sounds from a well structured song help us to create images and feelings included in the message. The more visual they are, the more effective your song will be.
Get the feelings of your listeners
Getting a first feedback is important in order to figure out whether you are in the right direction or not. You should ask for a feedback to trusty people or who they can revail truly how they feel listening to your song: if it’s long and boring rather than too short and cheating.
Don’t forget the copyright
Registering the ownership of your song is vital for protecting your intellectual property. There are many services, even online, using different technology (for example check Safe Creative).
Join also any trusted royalties collection society to monetise from your live performances and from the usage of your music in several medias(for example check Soundreef)
2. Pre-Production: it’s time for a demo
After the songwriting/composing step, you should go ahead with a very important experimenting step: making a demo of your song.
Recording a demo is useful to figure out potential issues of a song. It doesn’t need to be perfect in tune or in time, but it will help to check the balance of all elements and if the energy transitions among different sections work as expected.
You will still in time to make mistakes or experiments before spending money in a studio. Doing errors later would cost you more and, worse, might lead your project to a failure.
Recording with other people
It’s important to have a direction when recording a demo. Most likely, when presenting your idea to your bandmates, you might find musicians thinking in the same way like yours or people who really disagree with your ideas, which might be a cause of conflict.
At that point you should ask yourself if you are willing to share the creative process with a good grade of collaboration with other musicians who have a different vision; or, if you have a very strong personality, you might decide to pay sessions musicians instead.
There is also another category of artists who are not so much focused on organisational or production aspects. What they want is just singing their song without thinking too much about the rest.
Recording a demo on your own in the digital era
Nowadays the advantages of the digital technology are endless, especially for those artists who have a defined idea of what they want to do musically speaking. Samples libraries, online DAW tutorials for free, cheap decent audio cards and affordable low-level microphones give you the chance to record a demo and satisfy your own creativity.
Keep an ‘eye’ to your first listeners
However, the risk of listening over and over again the same song might you lose objectivity when evaluating your music. That’s why most of producers ask other people for an immediate feedback at first listen. Rather than asking them what they think, keep an eye of their body language and natural reactions like tapping their feet, moving or singing the melody. If that happens those are good signals that your doing a good job.
3. Pre-Production: the Rehearsal Step
There are two main reasons why rehearsing is important: it prepares for Live performances and it’s tremendously useful before studio recording sessions.
It’s a way to make all performers and musicians know what and how they are doing it.
You can consider it also as a test for artists and producers to understand what they are going to keep or drop before booking a recording studio.
Other reasons for rehearsing:
- Learn song arrangement;
- Figure out the right tempo;
- Decide the most appropriate instrument and tone for each arrangement part;
- Enhance the song with new ideas, even from other musicians;
- Fix issues identified while listening to the demo;
- Identify further useful resources for the recording phase;
- Get rid of some parts which don’t fit the song well;
- Identify musicians with a better feeling than others while playing specific song parts;
- Record an updated demo version from rehearsals.
A more efficient approach to rehearsals
Be acknowledged: all musicians should listen to the demo before rehearsing.
Rehearsal Scheduling: involve only musicians who really need to attend that particular session in order to avoid getting other musicians bored (rehearsing rhythm section musicians first, then add the others)
Record Engineer Meeting: Invite the recording engineer to one rehearsal before going to the recording studio in order to get some improvement tips
Rehearsing Vocals: find the key that best fits the vocal range of the singer and record a rough demo as a reference also for other musicians. Later on the producer will have the chance to focus on the emotion expressed by vocals, which will make the difference to the listener in the process of purchasing the song.
What if musicians can’t rehearse?
Skype Sessions or alternative video calls could help to take some important decisions, while musicians will work on their individual part on their own pace and send over the network music ideas recorded by their own personal setup.
If you are stuck on a song, try to change to another one in order to come back to it with a fresh attitude later.
Use backing tracks for rehearsing vocals repeatedly (instead of bother other musicians) or additional instruments.
Performing live before recording can be a very good idea after many rehearsals. You and the other band members could raise motivation and bring even more life into your songs.
Professional vs Amateur Production
The main difference between a professional and an amateur production are for sure preparation and attention to details. Working deeply on every song gives the chance to improve your demo. Or perhaps you will realise that the final release will not so different than your first idea. Anyway, the most important thing is deciding with intention and awareness.
4. Music production core: the Recording Step
In this phase, all those aspects that were not so important during the demo step (being in tune, in time, expressivity) become fundamental.
What and how you are going to track during this step will be important both for the mixing and mastering processes, where engineers can’t always do miracles.
That’s why choosing the right recording studio is crucial for the final result of your production.
The digital revolution have given us the chance to record a song at home (home recording) with just the need of an external audio card plugged into our laptop for tracking the audio source with one of the most decent and cheap microphones available on the market. Obviously a £300 condenser mic will never sound like a £5000 tube microphone, but your decision will depend also on the instrument to track and the sound you want to achieve.
Recording Studio Types
Apart from these technical considerations, nowadays you have basically three options:
- Traditional Professional Recording Studio:
- Home Recording Studio
- Small Professional Recording Studio
Traditional Professional Recording Studio
A traditional recording studio generally provides a Control Room (probably with an expensive console, specific preamps affecting your sound, other hardware like external compressors or EQ and different types of speakers) and a separate Live Room (checking the tone of vocals, drums or other instruments recorded by other artists/bands at the same studio may help), with a plenty of different price range available microphones, guitar and bass amps, stands, one or more isolation booths and an audio engineer at your disposal.
If you are a band this may be your first choice, considering that you need a live room with a good sound for your drums and large enough for catch the groove of a band playing simultaneously (at least the rhythm section). An engineer will be included or provided as additional option, depending on the service. Average prices in London are between £20 and £50 per hour.
Small Professional Recording Studio
A Small Recording Studio generally differs from a larger traditional studio in size, gear availability and price. Control area and Live area generally will share the same room which is acoustically treated for both the purposes. You will find at least one vocal booth and the space for recording also other acoustic instruments suitable for a small space.
You will not make advantage of the room sound, as the goal of the engineer here is to remove all reverb sources from the recording area in order to simulate a “live” environment later in post (mixing phase). An engineer may be included in the price, depending on the booking agreement. Average prices in London are between £15 and £30 per hour.
Home Recording Studio
In a Home Recording Studio you will track your songs most likely in a rectangular room, often dealing with room modes issues, annoying short reverbs, microphone of your choice most likely on budget, perhaps with the help of a friend as an assistant if you are lucky enough. Definitely the cheapest way to record vocals, perhaps tracking even some acoustic instruments using available gobos besides electric instruments in D.I. Recording quality is not guaranteed in this case, as it depends on the level of knowledge, experience and place you have at your disposal.
Recording Settings and Techniques
Starting from drums, the goal here is to move the drum kick along the wall and get it facing the center of the room. Then you should hit it until its sound becomes stronger, without being muddy or too much resonant though. Once you have found the right spot you can add the other parts of the drum kit making sure that there is enough space between the wall and the drummer for a comfortable playing.
Regarding bass and guitar amps, the closer they are to the wall the fuller and up-front their sound will be, the closer to the center of the room they will be, the thinner they will be perceived.
Drums miking: Overheads are generally tracked using a match pair of condenser microphones and give us a true stereo image of the cymbals, kick, snare and toms from a room. The higher the OH are placed the more roomy the overall sound will be. The closer will be the kick mic, the punchier that sound will be. Additional microphones can add more detail of that particular instrument, like for example the hi-hat, especially pointing the mic on the bell rather than the body of the cymbal. Or You might decide to use also a farther mic on the snare, one on the top and another one on the bottom (which can help for a snappier sound).
Placing several microphones too close one each other can generate phase issues though (the sound becomes thinner). That’s why engineer invert the phase of some of them. For example, they invert the phase of one of the two mics tracking the snare. Mic techniques are important also for getting the sound of guitar amps. Placing them close to the edge will generate a darker sound. On the contrary, a mic closer to the center of the cone will result in a brighter sound.
Minimise bleeding with Gobos
Gobos are acoustic panels used to isolate two or more audio signal sources and avoid the so called “bleeding” effect of an instrument into the mic of another one. What does it mean? Bleeding is generally good if you want to catch the glue of instruments playing together. However, recording engineers nowadays tend quite often to separate instruments in order to edit some parts or get rid of eventual mistakes in post production.
Headroom and Levels
It’s very important to keep an eye on the level of each instruments. During the sound check, asking musicians to play the loudest part could be a good reference to adjust the gain/trim (even though they generally play louder during the real recording phase)
Sound settings and Tempo
It’s good practise to use shorter sounds (and reverbs) with faster tempo song and viceversa. It’s also preferable starting recording songs with a similar speed, maybe from the slowest to the fastest and editing the tone of instruments accordingly.
Communication and monitors
Having the chance to see musicians over the glass window and communicating with them easily (console provides talkback button to open a communication channel) will make the recording process smoother and more effective.
5. Music Production Core: the Overdubbing Step
The Overdubbing step is related to all recordings made by an artist or a band on top of a previous recording. For example, if you record a rhythmic section first, tracking all the other instruments later (vocals, horns or other lead instruments) while running an existing playback is technically an overdubbing process.
From the engineer perspective, you have to re-open your previous session (Pro Tools, Logic Pro X or other DAWs), add the required additional tracks and create one or more playlists (or takes) depending on the experience of session musicians.
You might want also to provide also an hearback device for each musicians in order to create their own mix during the overdubbing process (depending on the number of hearback channels you can control the volume of each instrument playback ). This further step requires the creation of specific Pre AUX channels (Drums, Bass, Guitar and so on) routed into the input of each hearback channel.
6. Music Production Core: the Editing Step
The Editing step can often be necessary to fix some recording issues when there is no more chance for overdubbing. The amount of work of the Editing Step depends on the performance of musicians during the recording session. It also depends on the genre and the producers choice/expectations.
Talking about pop music, vocals must be perfectly in tune and in time. No crackles, clicks or pops or other unpleasant sounds are tolerated. A very careful editor (depending on the budget) will pay attention also to sibilance and breaths level (sometimes moved to dedicated tracks for a better result).
there are many softwares nowadays that help the editor with some automated tools. However, these tools should be used with caution and can be considered complementary to an editor rather than a replacement.
Editing can save the life of many artists and producers, but sometimes could not be enough to fix serious mistakes during the recording session. That’s why paying attention to the reputation of a studio or being prepared before going through the recording process is so important to avoid waste of money.
7. Music Production Core: the Mixing Step
Mixing is a crucial part of music production and can definitely decree the success of a song and is provided in a mixing studio by a mixing engineer. They generally received a reference track in order to figure out the type of sound a specific producer want to achieve (although we start building the sound from the recording phase).
Mixing doesn’t mean just combining or “blending” two or more instruments together.
When we mix a song there are some important aspects you should care about:
- Creating bi-dimensional contrast: which instrument should be in front of the audience?
- Shaping tones adding more harmonics
- Creating tridimensional contrast using reverbs and delays
- Giving each instrument its own space in the frequency spectrum
- Removing muddiness
- Adjusting issues generated during the recording phase using surgical EQ
- Creating glue between instruments
- Leave enough headroom for the mastering phase
Although the art of blending and contrasting elements is considered a technical skill, it is one of my favourite creative disciplines.
8. Music Production Core: the Mastering Step
The Mastering section is another important part of our music production guide and is a service provided by the master engineer (generally a different person from the mixing engineer). The aim of this process is to refine the song as a whole for the following reasons:
- Loudness: use of limiters to increase the volume perceived by the listener
- Dynamics: it’s a further step to raise glue between instruments. You can use a compressor or more likely a multiband compressor also called Dynamic EQ also for fixing some issues.
- Refine the EQ: for this purpose they suggest to use a Linear EQ, which avoids phase issues (using static EQ for the full mix is not ideal and would cause several delay issues)
- Stereo enhancement: you might decide to spread the stereo image of a track from a specific frequency
- Advanced technique:: Mid Side is one of the most popular techniques in Mastering
If the music will be distributed digitally you will need also the ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) code to apply as metadata on the master track (embeddable even on wav and AIFF files). If you are resident in The UK, ask your ISRC here: https://www.ppluk.com/membership/more-information/isrc/
9. Music Production Packaging: Artwork design
Generally the artwork is provided by an artist chosen for the CD/Digital Release Cover.
10. Music Production Packaging: Printing
Although most of artists use to distribute their works on digital platforms (streaming services or digital stores), there are still some of them who invest in physical support printing (CDs and for the vintage lovers even Vinyl).
11. Music Production Next Steps: Distribution
CD Baby, Band Camp, SoundcloudGo, TuneCore, Ditto Music and many other are the most common digital distributors. They will make your work available on any platform |(Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, Deezer, Tidal) in exchange of an annual or monthly fee. At the moment, Streaming services are the most popular and some digital stores like Google Play or Itunes are gradually closing.
12. Music Production Next Steps: Promotion
Promotion involves several activities including:
- Building awareness creating content during the recording phase (making selfie at the studio, publishing some posts on social media in order to make people start talking and raise their interest);
- Managing social media using automation tools;
- Creating and managing online and offline advertisement campaigns.
13. Music Production Next Steps: Booking
Booking agencies are responsible to book live performances on behalf of the artist in a short or long term, depending on their contract. They include concerts, gigs, tours and radio and TV performances.
14. Music Production Next Steps: Touring
The main purpose of a tour is generally to promote a new album release. A tour itself is actually another production (Live Production) and involves other roles and people such as the tour manager (responsible for budgeting, accomodation, equipment, transports, crew management) . On larger productions this role can be played by multiple persons like tour manager, production manager, production assistant and a tour accountant. Another important role is the lights manager, the person who is in charge for the lights system and its automations/sync with images on the screen.