Music 265b Week 01 Intro
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It often takes a small army of skilled people to turn a musical idea in someone’s head into a finished song on an album. Because of this, music production can be a long process, with lots of complicated moving parts. So before we dive in to the world of recording and mixing, we need to understand what the big picture looks like. In this first lesson, we will break down how the overall process works, who the important players are, what they contribute, and what the result of this entire process looks like. With each lesson, we will expand on these topics from start to finish, allowing you to assist with a session and eventually complete your own studio projects. This is the music production process in its most formal and regimented workflow. It’s the same process we will explore throughout the rest of this course.
The first step is music creation: before the band can record in the studio, somebody needs to come up with a musical idea. This can happen in any number of ways.
Composers and songwriters write original music and lyrics. There is often little difference between these two titles, but in order to make a formal distinction, a songwriter usually writes popular music with lyrics (like Top 40 or Broadway tunes), while a composer typically writes instrumental music for film or an orchestra. In both cases, their music at this stage can be a simple original melody with chords, or it could be a fully orchestrated piece.
Arrangers and Orchestrators take an existing piece of music, like a standard or a cover, and rework it in order to fit a specific genre or group of instruments. Arrangers often work with songwriters to “flesh-out” the songwriter’s ideas. Whenever a band performs a cover of a song, they usually rearrange it in some way to fit their group and style, rather than directly imitate the original standard.
A beat maker, in its most basic form, assembles a backing track using loops & samples of existing music. In this situation, a songwriter like a singer or rapper may buy and use this backing track to support their original melody & lyrics. In modern music production, people who do this often refer to themselves as producers. In the more formal world of music production, a “real” producer fills a much different and highly specialized role: we will discuss them in a moment.
Rather than write music purely for art’s sake, songwriters and other creative professionals often consider what their expected piece of work will ultimately be. They could be writing a full-length musical concept album, a score for film & television, a radio-friendly pop song, a club dance track, a commercial jingle, or a marketable demo. Having some sort of defined goal helps guide the project in a manageable direction: some productions require more time, effort, quality control, and money than others.
When the song is written, the artist or music Label (the record company that represents an artist) may consult with or hire a record Producer to guide and manage the rest of the production process. Because producers (should) have experience with the creative and technical aspects of music production, a typical producer is able to communicate with the talent (artists & musicians) and crew (engineers and technicians) in order to turn the songwriter’s idea into a finished master recording. Producers usually have authority over the creative direction of a project in the same way that film directors have authority over how a film gets made. Even though producers have such a dominant role in the process, an artist or label may be able to keep the producer in check, or even fire a producer from the project.
At this point, the creative team makes all the necessary logistical preparations to get their material recorded. They may Transcribe (write out) their musical ideas into a form that musicians can read: a notated score with individual parts, tablature, or a simple set of lyrics & chords. Some tech-savvy people may even create an audio or MIDI demo version of their piece, which may serve as a guide for the master recording. From there, the team determines which parts need to be recorded: what musicians are needed, along with how much time, space, and equipment are needed to record everything. When they are ready, they schedule time at a recording studio.
The Recording Session
The Recording Studio is a facility designed to turn our prepared song into a finished product. It has an acoustically treated Tracking Room, which is large enough to accommodate a band’s performance. The studio also has one or more Isolation Booths (Iso Booth), which are smaller, acoustically neutral spaces built to handle a solo player. A master Control Room connects these rooms: it contains a mixing console, multi-track recording devices, computers, and lots of expensive gear designed to capture and alter the sound of the band.
In the studio, Recording Engineers (the technicians responsible for recording the band), consult with the producer & artists in order to determine the best way to record the project. Once the 1st Engineer (the one in charge) decides on a plan, the engineers & their Assistants prepare the studio for the recording session. Before the band arrives, the crew arranges chairs, music stands, microphone stands, microphones, and other pieces of studio equipment in a way that allows each microphone to pick up the isolated sound of each instrument, while allowing the band members to see and hear one another.
The band usually consists of hired Session Players: skilled musicians who specialize in studio recording. These musicians are typically skilled sight-readers, capable of playing a great performance in one or two attempts. They may even have their own support crew: drum & guitar techs to set up and maintain their equipment, or vocal coaches and conductors who guide the talent into giving their best performance. On top of this, the studio usually provides various Interns & Studio Runners (people who run errands for the studio) to cater to the talent’s needs.
When the studio is prepared and the band is ready, the band usually starts by recording Scratch Tracks: a demo or guide track used to support a more detailed recording. At this point, the band plays with some kind of timekeeper: a conductor, a Metronome, or the songwriter’s MIDI demo. Rather than try to capture a perfect performance, the band and producer attempt to capture the performance with the best overall emotion and energy, while still staying in sync with the metronome). The engineer and producer may even sift through several different Takes (individual recorded performances or attempts) so they can cut and splice the best parts of each piece into one complete performance.
With the scratch track in place, the crew moves on to Overdubs: detailed and isolated recordings of each solo instrument, which are layered on top of the scratch track. When recording overdubs, the soloists record multiple takes until they give a sonically and musically flawless performance, or at least until they record enough useable material that can be cut and edited into a great performance.
At some point during and after the session, the producer and engineers get together and edit the recorded material. Their goal at this point is to fix any serious mistakes, and combine the best parts of each performance together. This could be as simple as choosing one good take and hoping for the best, but it often involves hours of painstaking editing, long after the artist leaves the studio. Editors might go so far as to make sure every isolated note is Quantized: chopped up and rhythmically aligned to a musical grid. Pitch Correction may be used to fix an out-of-tune vocal track.
Once all of the recorded material has been edited, the producer gets together with the Mix Engineer. Together, they shape the timbre of each isolated instrument by filtering out unwanted noise and enhancing the better qualities of each sound. They blend and balance the volume of each instrument against the others, making sure every musical part can be heard clearly, and singers or featured soloists can be heard above everybody else without overpowering the rest of the band.
When the mix is complete, the project is sent to a Mastering Engineer. The Mastering process prepares the mixed piece of music for distribution and sale in any given format, from physical copies of CD’s and vinyl in record stores, to digital streams on social media. While the mixer is more concerned with balancing instruments against the rest of the band, the mastering engineer tries to balance overall low, mid, and high-frequencies are balanced within the track, and that each song’s playback volume transitions smoothly when jumping from track to track. Once this new Master copy is finished, it is sent off to get published, pressed, duplicated, distributed for sale, and sometimes placed into film & television.
Even at this early stage, there are already some legal concerns that need to be sorted out in order to avoid problems later on. While the legal aspects of the music business are beyond the scope of this book, everybody involved with the music production process needs to figure out two things: who owns the song, and how should they be compensated? To address these questions, the people who wrote the song sign and fill out a Songwriter Split Sheet. This is a legal document that defines who the writer or co-writers are, who owns the music, the lyrics, and what percentage of any potential money from Royalties or Publishing rights they are entitled to for this song or audio recording. While everybody involved in the process is entitled to have their names credited on the project, not everybody is entitled to royalties & publishing. Many of the people described here serve as hired hands, in which case they may sign onto the project under a Work for Hire contract. In this situation, people working under a Work for Hire contract are paid a set rate or fee in order to forfeit any claim of ownership to the material. Everyone involved, from the songwriter to the interns also signs a Non-Disclosure Agreement: a document that threatens legal action if anybody leaks unsanctioned information or material relating to the project before it is released. The legal side of the music business can be confusing, but contracts and roles should be defined ahead of time in order to avoid a legal nightmare in the future. Even though these contracts define who should get paid, that doesn’t guarantee anybody will get paid. The crew and other hired personnel keep Work Orders and Time Sheets on hand to document what kind of work was done, when it happened, how long it took, and how much it cost.
Studio Politics & Etiquette
Whether the project takes a day or a month to complete, recording sessions can be extremely expensive: the studio facility, crew, and other hired personnel all expect to be paid a set rate for their time (regardless of what progress is made in the studio); the label expects to see a finished product delivered on time and under-budget. As a result, the producer is under extreme pressure to get things done as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, the talent needs a healthy creative atmosphere to do their work, and the engineers need to have their undivided attention focused on the quality of the recording. Any minor delay, interruption, or poor recording can easily cost thousands, or even millions of dollars in wasted time. Anybody responsible for that wasted time could get fired, and anybody who violates the non-disclosure agreement can get sued.
Even though some may try to foster a friendly and creative atmosphere, everyone involved is expected to be a professional: from the interns and crew to the producers and label representatives, everyone has a role to play, and they are expected to do their job without hindering anybody else. This can be applied in many different ways: musicians noodling on their instruments or talking during the recording will ruin a take. Interns chatting in the control room may distract the producer & engineers from focusing on the recording. The disgruntled sound guy who leaks a track online can get sued, as can the shady producer who tries to leave the studio without paying everybody.
The Moral of the Story
If any of this seems complex, confusing, or overwhelming at first, don’t worry, it is. We can’t transform you into a hit songwriter or a talented musician, but we can prepare you for the work you will have to do in the studio. Whether you want to be a studio musician, recording artist, engineer, producer, or all of the above, these coming lessons will demonstrate how to record, edit, mix, and master a project for a large musical ensemble from start to finish.