How To Produce A Record In 5 Steps:
A lot of beginning artists and producers, including myself when I started out, have a burning desire to make a record but are unclear of the path between the musical ideas they have and the final finished song that can be shown to the world.
Making records (and by records I mean any recorded song) is really just a sequence of steps that, despite all of the new technology developed for the process, has changed very little since multitrack recording was developed in the 1960’s. Thus, a pop record released in 2018 will essentially follow the same steps of production that the Beatles used over 50 years ago when they recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.
A Bit of History:
Originally when multi track recording was in its infancy in the 1950’s, record producers were generally men (in those days, unfortunately, they pretty much all were) who worked for record labels and were responsible for choosing the artist’s songs, finding an arranger for the music, finding a studio, hiring the musicians, overseeing the recording and then the mixing and mastering process. One of the most famous producers of this period was John H. Hammond II who worked for Columbia Records and signed and oversaw the recordings of artists like Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen among others. But these producers were not considered artists, although many were very musical, and generally didn’t get involved in the creative process.
By the early 1960’s, as artists became more familiar with the possibilities of multi track recording, producers began to treat the studio as an “instrument” which they could use to create a signature sound. Producers like Phil Spector and George Martin used the latest technologies to create sonic worlds that could never really be replicated live. Producers began to be recognized as of equal importance to recording artists and superstar producers like Quincy Jones, Nile Rodgers, Rick Rubin, Dr. Dre and Robert John “Mutt” Lange made fortunes from creating hit records for artists with their unique sounds.
In the 60’s artists themselves recognized the power of being able to use the studio as an instrument. In the mid-60’s, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys began producing the group’s records and in 1966 created and produced the masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds.’ By the 1980’s Prince created a whole catalog of hits that he both wrote and produced – and produced hits for other artists.
Today all of the steps of making a record can be done on a single laptop computer running a program like Ableton Live. In the world of electronic music, the laptop is the writing tool and studio of many producers and in today’s music industry, producers are stars, but even a laptop producer has to follow the same path that Brian Wilson or Quincy Jones used to make a record decades ago.
A record starts with a phase known as pre-production. Pre-production basically means writing and choosing songs. If you are producing just a single track and releasing it, it means that you write the basic melodies, beat and chords to the music and the words to the song.
Typically bands or artists making an E.P. or record will ‘demo’ a bunch of songs – just recording the basic chords, melodies and lyrics and a producer will often help the band choose the best songs for the record. Pop artists during this phase are often shown hundreds of songs written by others and choose the ones they think will be the biggest hits.
In an interview with Deadmau5, he told the interviewer that he spends 75 percent of the time on his tracks in pre-production – working on melodies, chords and bass lines and doesn’t even think of the sound of his drums or the track.
I think even if you’re a laptop producer – if you are an artist/producer then you’re a composer and it’s up to you to first make the best song you can before adding all the cool sounds you have on your computer. What makes a song in pretty much any genre truly memorable in the end is the melody – no matter how great your sound design is.
STEP 2: Recording and Sound Design
Once you know what songs you want to put on the record, it’s time to gather the sounds for the recording. Here a producer’s role is different depending on the style of music.
If you are producing an indie band, for example, a producer will often find a studio, an engineer and then oversee the recording session – making sure all the necessary songs are recorded in the time the studio’s been booked for. Often the producer will sit with the engineer and keep track of the takes that will be useful.
The most important session a producer oversees is often the vocal session. If a record has vocals, generally they will be the most important part of the song. Here a producer makes sure the singer’s comfortable and takes notes of which takes seem to really work.
If you are a laptop producer, then this is the time to gather the best sounds you have and design what you need for the track. In dance music, for example, the kick absolutely has to be right and this is when you will make sure it measures up to the sound of other tracks.
Many laptop producers use vocals in their music as well and a laptop producer should also know how to run vocal session as well. This means getting the best performance from the vocalist and using proper mics and understanding the importance of pre-amps, compression and EQs in the process. I personally do vocal sessions in my production room in Brooklyn and personally find the whole art of getting a singer to share his or her energy so that it can find a place on your recording fascinating. (On February 10 – 11, I will be giving special 10 hour workshop on vocal production at DJLAB in San Jose, Costa Rica)
STEP 3: Arranging and Editing
Once all the parts are recorded and the sounds are designed, the arranging and editing part of the production process is for me where production made or broken. I don’t think it’s any accident that arguably the greatest record producer of all-time, Quincy Jones, (he did produce the best-selling record in history) is an arranger.
Arranging means how do we make sure that the song takes us somewhere – on a journey that will keep the listener interested from the beginning to the end of the song. Also, how do we make sure that in each part of the song the most important three elements are clearly heard without being buried by unimportant elements.
For both a producer working with a band and a laptop producer, often the “mute” button is your best friend. A producer will recommend to band, for example, that parts are dropped and silenced so that the vocals or lead synth lines can be louder.
For a dance music producer – your instrument is really your speakers and moving club speakers in the right way often means simple elements, like the kick and snare have to be unimpeded by other frequencies and instruments if you’re going to have the dancefloor moving.
During this stage parts are usually edited – another incredibly important part of the process. If you’ve recorded live instruments, you will often fix timing or correct mistakes.
The most important editing skill a producer can have is vocal editing. In today’s musical world timing and pitch mistakes are hardly ever heard in most professional recordings, especially in pop. (It’s a seperate debate whether this artistically makes sense). A producer either has to hire someone skilled at correcting and editing vocal takes (in the American pop industry, there are vocal producers who specialize in this) or learn how to utilize software like Melodyne that is designed to correct vocal pitch and timing issues.
The last step of this process is the all important “bounce” process where all of the final tracks are prepared for a mix and in the process, any last mistakes are taken care of.
One important piece of advice I’ve learned in my career is to always make a bounce of what the production sounds like prior to a mix. This is really useful to compare to the mix – because in some cases the mix will sound much worse than your unmixed production and in that case, even though you want to yell swear words at the mix engineer, you’ve got to write them a polite message explaining how their mix can be improved and made better.
STEP 4: Mixing (Post-Production)
The mix describes the process in which the tracks or “stems” of a production are “summed” into a single stereo track that will eventually find its way on a record, CD or as a WAV, AIF or MP3 file that can be streamed or downloaded. During this process producers working with bands will often form close collaborations with mix engineers and will deliver the tracks of the production or “stems” to the mix engineer and sometimes sit in the mix room.
A mix engineer takes the production and makes it sound stronger and clearer – often by bringing out the most important elements in the production and using the 5 fundamental tools of production and mixing: saturation, EQ, compression, reverb and delay.
A mix engineer will also create space in a mix – the wonderful illusion that is possible with a stereo system, that the sound exists in a 3D world where certain parts like the vocals live in the front and others like keys or pads exist in the back.
A mix can’t save a bad song, recording or production, but it can make something OK sound good and something good sound great.
As I’ve said earlier, a bad mix can absolutely ruin a production.
It is the job of a producer working with a band/artist to oversee the mix and make sure that the final outcome enhances the production.
Many laptop producers often mix themselves (I personally prefer not to – it’s hard for me to listen to a production honestly if I’m the producer). If that’s the case, again, it’s really important to constantly compare your production before the mix to the result and always reference.
STEP 5: Mastering (Post-Production)
Mastering is the final step in the process of making a record. Mastering was born as process in which engineers would take the final master tape and EQ it to prepare it to go to record printing plants. Since the production and mix should take place at 6 decibels below the clipping point, the first job of a mastering engineer is to bring up the volume of the entire production closer to 0 decibels. The mastering engineer will also adjust the stereo width, compress the final mix, EQ it and if mastering an entire record, make sure that the songs are in order, and playing at the same volume throughout the record. A mastering engineer also has to apply dither. This refers to a hiss that is added to the recording when a digital file is reduced from 24 bits (which is what audio is typically worked on in a program like Ableton Live) to 16 bits which is CD quality.
With a band, a producer will also have a relationship with a mastering engineer who specializes in this type of thing. Here in NYC we have facilities like Sterling Sound (although sadly they are moving across the river to New Jersey) which master the big pop records.
Many laptop producers have taken on the job of mastering themselves using software such as izoTope’s Ozone 8. You can absolutely do all of the jobs of a mastering engineer with Ozone, however, having had the fortune of working with mastering engineers at places like Sterling Sound, what matter is often the speakers the engineer is using and the room the mastering is being done in. You can pay someone $50 to do it online, but for all you know, they could be doing it on bad headphones in front of their laptop, even though they have a picture up online of their beautiful mastering facility. Since the mastering is the absolute final stage of the process before you have your record, for me personally, it’s really important that it’s done well, by a professional with a great set of speakers and room.
I hope this helps explain the process of what a music producer does and the basic steps of making a record. Good luck making tracks!
Dan Freeman (CØm1x) is a bassist/producer/Ableton Certified Trainer based in Brooklyn, NY. He’s the Director of the Brooklyn Digital Conservatory and on the faculty of New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.