We’ll assume that your confidence level is so high (or your bankbook so low) that you’ve decided to produce these sessions yourself. Let’s say you’ve decided to record your great new original song “My Great New Original Song.” You plan to play the rhythm guitar, and do the lead vocal. You’ve decided your two sisters will sing harmony, your dentist is on bass, your plumber is on drums and you’ve saved your money and hired a real professional clarinet player for the solo in the middle of the song. Great. You’ve rehearsed with everyone both individually, and also as a group. They all know the song, they’ve helped you with the arrangement and you figure this is a one-take wonder.
Well, maybe. If your band hasn’t recorded before, you better have discussed the process. Going to be playing with headphones on? Doing it in one big room with everyone, or are you going to record your guitar, then your vocal, and add everything else one piece at a time? These are decisions that need to be made well in advance of shelling out your hard earned dough. Even the most accomplished performer may not be comfortable recording, so you need to be sure that you have not hindered your project with a hot shot player who freezes up in the studio. And for that matter, a hot shot player that is demanding, rude or too emotional for the circumstances is a detriment, not an asset to the process. It’s impossible to leave your ego at the studio door, but why bring in a musician that is difficult to deal with?
If possible, do some “pre-production” work in a garage studio, or dig out your old cassette 4 track recorder and at least “play studio” to get an idea of sounds and textures. And although I’ve warned about being prepared, remember to keep a little loose in the process too. If the dentist – excuse me – the bass player, comes up with a new idea for a great bass line, don’t shut it down just because it’s not on the spreadsheet.
It’s very subjective how you approach the process. Some folks like to get all their “basic tracks” recorded for all the songs, and then go back and “fill in the blanks.” Others like to take it one song at a time, complete it, and then move on.
So once you’ve made all these decisions, at some point your recording will be complete. This could be because you got all the tracks recorded for all the songs you wanted to record, or something more artistic may drive the decision, like running out of money to fund recording.
So once you have recorded, you have to mix. How loud should the plumber’s drums be in comparison to the professional clarinetist? Is it based on who got paid the most, or who you like best? Well, it could be, but ideally you decide what instruments and vocals will be on the recording, and how loud these instruments and vocals should be. Most often, the lead vocal is loudest, followed by the various rhythm instruments and harmony vocals. Lead instruments get turned up a bit during their solos. The finished product is supposed to sound like band on stage. Hopefully a very good band on the stage. And the finished recording is supposed to sound like a SONG, not a bunch of people playing music. The best rule to use in mixing is “does this support the song?” If the answer is no, then it really doesn’t belong there. Tough decisions have to be made. The only musician that you paid may end up doing a part that just doesn’t fit. Don’t worry about hurting feelings of professional musicians. They may have had some of their best work “left on the cutting room floor.” It’s tougher to have to cut your older sister’s harmonies because she could never quite hit those high notes. When you’re making these potentially tough decisions, you may look back on the decision not to hire a producer and have a bit of regret. It’s a lot easier to have that producer tactfully tell your older sister that her harmony part is not going to be used…
Finally, the recording process is truly not complete until your recording has been mastered. A wise man once said “It’s extremely important to find someone to go a good job on mastering your finished recorded project. It’s the difference between a cloudy and a sunny day.” Good advice. Your second cousin has a new computer recording mastering program and wants to try it out on your project. Well, let him, but also hire a professional as well and then listen to the results, and let your second cousin hear the difference as well. If your intention is to have a professional sounding product, then it is wise to use professionals. I didn’t have any of my projects mastered until the 1990s, and I’ve learned from my mistakes. There is a difference between raw and uncooked.
Recording your own music can be as fulfilling as anything we do here on this planet. It can be very expensive, but it can be so much fun that you forget that part. But while you’re having fun, it’s wise to keep track of what your recording goals may be, keep an eye on that budget, and don’t be afraid to make tough decisions in order to get the best result you can obtain. Folk on.