Steps to the Round BarnLast week I asked what YOUR steps are for recording a song. Thanks to everyone who chimed in. There were a lot of great responses (and yes, I read every one of them). 🙂

Over the next week or so, I want to share with you the steps that I take to record a song from start to finish. This may seem very elementary to you, but I’m convinced that taking a big picture approach to recording is one of the best ways to make sure you actually finish your projects.

I get lots of email from a lot of great home studio folks like yourself. One common theme comes up. People love tinkering with studio toys, but the vast majority don’t actually finish their songs. 

This makes me sad, because finishing a project is one of the BEST learning experiences out there. If you’re not finishing, you’re probably not learning a whole lot.

That’s why I want to take several days to really get back to the basics and focus on the 5 steps to recording a song.

Here they are:

  1. Pre-Production
  2. Recording
  3. Editing
  4. Mixing
  5. Mastering

Nothing earth-shattering, right? Maybe you though the list would be longer? Shorter? The point here is that everything you do when recording a song can be placed in one of these 5 categories.

Working on the arrangement? Pre-production. Playing around with MIDI parts? Recording (or maybe Editing). You may only barely do some of these steps in the process, but generally EVERY song you work on will need to touch each of these steps before you can call it done.

Why list them out like this? Because I know how easy it is to become overwhelmed. David O., one of my long-time readers here on HSC, put it this way in his comment on last week’s blog post:

My biggest hurdle to the recording process is that I get lazy halfway through. I currently have about 10 songs in various stages of completion.

He goes on to mention how he needs to be motivated to go through his step-by-step process.

THAT’S what I’m trying to tap into here. Do your recording projects seem like insurmountable piles of work? Are you overwhelmed by all the stuff you need to do to complete just one song? I get it. I’ve been there, too.

And when I’m in that state of holy-crap-there-so-much-to-do-I-don’t-even-know-where-to-start-so-I’ll-just-go-watch-TV — it helps me to remember that even on the most complex sessions, I’m never more than 5 steps away from finishing.

Sure, there might be 50 sub-steps under each major step, but there IS an end in site, and if you don’t give yourself some sort of yardstick to measure your progress, you’ll remain in a constant state of overwhelm.

Where are you in the process?

Ask yourself that question. Are you at Step 2? Great. Now ask yourself what you have to do to get to Step 3. Record vocals and lead guitar? Great! Now you have a game plan. Do nothing else until those two things are done.

I know it’s easy to jump from recording to editing to mixing BACK to recording, but if you’re struggling with getting anything done, then I strongly urge you to take it one step at a time. Don’t let yourself get lost in mixing if the tracks aren’t even completely recorded yet. You can’t make great mix decisions until you have all the pieces in place.

It’s the same with editing. Don’t edit the daylights out of a guitar track until everything else has been recorded. You may find (and I’ve done this a LOT) that once all the other parts are recorded, the seemingly obvious mistakes on the guitar track are nearly impossible to hear. You could’ve saved yourself a couple hours of work by just saving the editing until ALL the recording was done.

You can see where I’m going with this. If you have a 21-step process to recording, that’s great, but maybe that’s too much. Slim it down to these 5 steps, then work your way through them.

Not sure how to work your way through them? In the next 5 blog posts, I’ll dive into each one and spell it out for you, and hopefully give you some tips you can apply to that song you’re working on right now.

Production Club 2.0 is coming!

If you’ve hung around HSC for a few years, then you may remember my very first class I ever ran. It was over two years ago (can you believe that?). It was called the Production Club, and in it I walked through the entire production process on a song from start to finish.

Well, it’s time for me to launch another class. But this time, it’s 16 weeks, brand new material, and more in-depth than ever.

I’ll be sharing more here on the blog, but if you want to be the first to hear about it (and be the first to have access to it), join the early-bird list here:

16 Responses to “MY Steps for Recording a Song (plus a BIG announcement)”

  1. yalleda

    Hi why don’t you show us a video of recording a complete song and lets say a simple pop or soft rock song from 70s or 80s.

  2. Keith Handy

    “My biggest hurdle to the recording process is that I get lazy halfway through. I currently have about 10 songs in various stages of completion.”

    …only 10? Amateur!! 😉

  3. alan stewart

    Da Steps:

    1. I get an idea.( Usually it is something that I have seen happen, or is personal to me, I try to envision it in a movie)

    2. I work on some chord progressions for the idea, trying to catch the “mood”.

    3. I record either by guitar or keyboard, that progression.

    4. I try out some guitar leads for future use on it.

    5 I decide (usually on the fly) what instruments to have in the song.

    6. I re-record the backing chords, for a final record.

    7. I program with software, how I want the drums to be.

    8. Then, (I know this is prob backwards) I start thinking of the lyrics.

    9. I come up with the final lyrics, and hope I can pull it off by singing them.

    10. I then step away for a few days.

    11 I come back and listen to what I have recorded so far.

    12 Either change what I have or then do the lyrics.

    13. After it is all recorded, I step away again for a couple of days.

    14 Then I mix it… and mix it … and mix it… and mix it… till I am close to happy with it.

    15. I wait a few days, then try to master it.

    16 Re mix it… cuz the mastering did not work out.

    17. Master it again.

    I do not set a time limit, I know you feel one should, but I suffer from post perfection syndrome… meaning after it is all done, I pick at it, and wonder what the heck I was thinking about…lol

  4. mgjr73

    I keep it simple. I never start a new project until I finish the current one. I just record my song ideas with my acoustic guitar on an old voice tape recorder to capture the idea(s).

    • Joe Gilder

      I like the idea of an old tape recorder. It keeps you from getting too “caught up” in the recording process and lets you just lay down the idea and move on.

      • mgjr73

        Yeah. One of my main motivations for using ye olde tape recorder is that I hate to throw away “new” stuff. I still have a big box of unused Sony 90-minute tapes. It’s also green… not the tapes but less junk going to the landfill.

  5. Felipe

    Planning is huge!
    I´ve been messing with recording since march 2010, so 1.7 years. In the begining, I could finish just a couple songs. One of them took exactly 1 year to get done! After searching the web, I then found out about this very straightforward process: preproduction, recording, editing, mixing, mastering. It really helps to focus at the right activities at the right time, and that´s huge. In my inexperience, I can say that the great benefit of all this is : to avoid rework. I´ve been through a great challenge since september: to record a 5 track CD. It all started in September 8th, and I delivered the master in October 27th, and made 200 copies of the work, and the copies were delivered last weekend at a church. So, 49 days of hard work since the first demo recording until the final master. I have a full time job at a Bank, so I worked at night and weekends. Did it turn out ok? Yes, awesome! Some of the tracks are not as great as others, but the band is satisfied with the results. And all I got is one preamp and one mic! Had to program drums. If I didn´t know about this process, this could never have been possible. I hope the band will post the songs on SoundCloud so you can hear for yourself and judge the quality of the final result.
    I would like to thank Joe for this website. I applied everything I read here in this project and I´m sure you´ll be delivering high quality content, as usual.

  6. gary

    Okay Joe,

    I’m walking through the steps. When stuff starts sounding good, it’s hard not to sit and mix. however, I have resolved to finish recording BEFORE I mix.

    One question? I can arrange the songs status quo. I have lots of experience playing verse/chorus songs, but I love lots of instrumentation. As I add instrumentation, the songs seem to change and take on a life of their own (it’s fun too).

    Is this just part of the recording step? Or should I consider keeping original arrangements a priority. I know there are no rules to this, but new licks, chord progressions, rhythms seem to emerge causing songs to tweak ever so much 🙂

    Thanks for any advice!

    • Joe Gilder

      GREAT question, Gary. If you asked me this a few years ago, I would tell you to plan the whole thing out beforehand, but I realize this is kind of naive and even takes the fun out of the process.

      Sometimes songs take on a completely different “feel” once you get talented musicians playing on them. ALWAYS go with the version that FEELS better.

      I still like to plan things and have a direction, but I always am open to course-correcting as we go.

  7. Jordan

    Here was my long winded response, but I figure there’s got to be some people who love reading other people’s experiences regarding this process.

    “Depends where you’re starting from. My process starts with rough stuff. Plug everything in. Kit set up with four mics, Bass direct in, throw a small amp in a closet. Basically get yourself set up to have everything accessible. This is really important for guys like me who during the writing will play every instrument. Start with your drums. Don’t worry about mistakes, samples etc. Do it to a click. Lay down everything. Don’t labor over the mix and listen to what you have. Preproduction stuff is the most important part. Stuff like key, tempo, melodies, arrangement can all be changed here, maximize everything you can here. Repeat this with the changes. At this stage the song should sell itself without any polish. You’re ready to start fussing over the small stuff. Hire a drum tech and get a solid kit. My house kit is an Ayotte Custom so I never worry about the former part of that but a good tech matters, unless you are a wizard at tuning and I am not, that kit needs to be tuned well with new heads. Room matters, but like a lot of guys, I work in a small room. Make sure it’s trapped well and not boxy sounding. Ever seen country players come in with BC Rich guitars? Make sure everything you’re doing as an engineer is going to support the end goal. In fact, sit the band down and talk to them about what the end goal is. Operationalize the term finished product because if you don’t you will be up shit creek when the death metal drummer says after mixdown he wanted an “organic” sound (another term that will need to operationalized cause my definition of organic is probably not yours and it probably isn’t someone elses so talk it over) after laying SSD across every hit and locking it to a grid. Talk to everyone and make sure everyones talking and noone is going to raise their eyebrows over anything at mixdown. People who don’t do this end up with a shitty record at the end of it and NOONE wants that, Not the band, not the manager and sure as hell not me. I’m a believer that you’re as good as your last piece of work and if it sucks then you suck. Sometimes I need to accept that because I’m not well versed in death metal that I really shouldn’t be working with it but the phone is ringing and I have tuition to pay. Anyways, back to our drum kit that is WELL TUNED by someone (no shame in not being able to do it, just accept that it needs to be tuned one way or another) with NEW HEADS in an acceptable room. Try to nail the kit sound with as little as possible. I’m not saying this is the final product but nothing beats it as a starting point to be able to push a trio of faders up and have something workable. Three stellar, in phase tracks of well played drumming on a kick ass kit is better than 24 out of phase tracks on that same scenario. Sometimes knowing that “this is it” can force some creativity out of you as opposed to fucking with the 3rd kick drum mic. Assuming we’ve sussed everything out, all the squeaks, rattles and phase shit are in check and the mics are there track the drums. Ask the drummer what he wants in his cans (and then give him just hihats and brass. HA). Sometimes having a guitarist and a vocalist to guide him along helps with the energy of the track. Have the drummer explore all the possibilities. I get three full takes of the track and then go back and do verses, choruses, bridges. Explore the possibilities, don’t be afraid to do a verse on the ride, crash, tight hat, loose hat and settle on that later (I lock everything to a grid so flying this in is a breeze). Take samples of the kit, before the tracking starts and after the tracking starts. I don’t use drumagog, so I take lots of everything and save them in their own folder. I also will sometimes go back and track choruses 3BPM faster, you never know when that can be the game changer you need. Not always, but sometimes. Drums tracked, all of it needs to be editted and locked. Make sure there aren’t any pops and clicks. Don’t worry about editting everything little take you did (I’ve done songs where I’ve had 50 takes of drums only two one or two of the other verses) just make sure you have something to track guitars to. Don’t edit drums after the guitars have been laid down. After the drums have been laid down it’s time for guitars. Guitars need to be a) the right guitars for the song b) set up properly for the specific tuning with new strings and c) played well. I don’t get too crazy with mic scenarios. SM57/421 close mic arrangement with an LDC few feet back. Place one mic with the guitarist playing a riff from the track. Read Slippermans Distorted Guitars From Hell and then follow his instructions. Hopefully the guitarist has an attention span. Take a clean signal of the guitar in case you wish to reamp. I like split amp scenarios. One cleaner, one dirty or whatever supports the end goal. I also prefer different scenarios per side and sometimes played differently which gives the appearance of a rock band on stage. The tighter the player the better. If there’s two guitarists having one do the left side and one on the right is cool but often it works to dial in an additional rythm track for the last chorus on a different rig. For example, say you have a pop/rock song with a basic progression of D,A,B,G in the chorus and the left guitarist is doing natural chords and the right guitarist is doing power chords, something I’ll likely be looking to do in this scenario is bring in a pair of rythm guitar tracks in Drop D tuning on the last chorus or maybe all of them on a different guitar rig. Big wide open possibilities at this stage. After guitars I do bass, I follow the Neal Avron school of thought which to summarize states that the fundemental of the bass is sometimes too low to hear and is easier to detect against the guitars. THAT and the fact that matching a bass tone up to support the guitars is a lot easier. Use what you have as always but the Sansamp is a no brainer. Love cabs but you need a good room for it. Sometimes I split with a guitar amp to dial the snarl into a Pbass. At this point you have the music and should be able to move faders make a headphone mix and get a vocalist in there and cut some of the vocals. I typically like to bounce and commit to some of the stuff before this happens. The guitar mics particularly, it starts to pile up a lot and it’s easier to manage a single fader per performance. Most home guys have one or two LDC’s to pick from so it’s not like we’re shooting out much to make this decision. I asked Eric Valentine a question on the forums how he gets such a solid effort out of his clients a while back and a technique he uses is to ask his clients to think about how they felt when they wrote the song and then perform. Great trick and can really bring the mood into the song. That’s the key right there. Vocals typically go through a comping section. I usually make three comps of the lead vocal. The best is my lead and the 2nd and 3rd become my doubles. I don’t like the sound of sung double and prefer to create them from the lead vocal takes. Then it’s off to mix. I prefer faders up and not soloing. Use a reference track and giver. Much has been written about the topic ad nauseum so going there won’t be anything new anyways. One thing I do at mix which may be a little different is pull up those direct guitars and reamp if I’m pushing/pulling the eq on what I have too much. Same with the bass. Hope this isn’t too long. Cheers.”

  8. Dipendra Bagchee

    Production Club = Awesome. Joe, my band has set a deadline for Nov 25th to get our mixing done for our new CD that we started pre-production for in July 2010. We’ve had a lot of stops and starts and plenty of the “oh I’ll just watch TV tonight”. Breaking it down to small milestones is what it’s all about. Also letting some of the little things go so that you can call it done. I have 5 songs left to mix (out of 12) and I can vouch for getting over that “hump” and seeing that finish line provides a lot of motivation to actually getting there. Once it’s done we can start working on new material and a new recording and I know it will sound better than this one. Instead of dwelling on what could’ve been better on this CD I’m looking forward to what will be better on the next. I highly recommend the Production Club for any one looking for a simple but effective process to follow to get their recordings done.



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