Recording (also called tracking) is essentially the process of recording songs. The name comes from the fact that each instrument is recorded individually and given it’s own “track” in the mix, so that the balance and sound of each can be controlled later. Originally, “track” referred to a thin width of analogue tape, today it usually means a file on a hard drive. Performances can be “live”, with all the musicans playing at once; one instrument at a time; or a mixture of the two.
The most important goals of tracking include:
Record in a great space – often a recording studio
Get the best sound for each instrument or voice via a good choice of microphone and it’s placement
Avoid “spill”, ie. get good separation between the instruments to allow plenty of control in the mix
Most importantly – get a great performance!
~The Recording Process~
Preproduction is everything that takes place before entering the studio. From an administrative viewpoint this may include hiring a producer. Most of the time the producer is responsible for hiring a recording studio and engineer and lining up session musicians, if needed. Sometimes a producer is used only to help with tracking and mixing. If you will be producing your own CD, then these jobs will be handled by you or a designated member of your band.
Acquiring funding or lining up financial backers may be part of your preproduction process. If you will need specialized equipment, such as a special microphone or guitar, then arrangement to buy or rent such equipment should made during this time. Someone needs to make arrangement to acquire new strings, drum heads, and other items that will be needed during the tracking session.
From a musical viewpoint you need to decide on what songs to include on the album. If you are short a song or two, you may need to include songwriting as a part of preproduction. Once you have your song list the band needs to get together and work out arrangements for each song. Then they should rehearse every song until they have them down pat. It is a good idea to prepare one or two songs more than you need. You never know when a song or two just won't work.
There are as many ways to record a project as there are recording engineers. One choice is to record everything live. That is, each instrumentalist and vocalists is recorded at the same time with each instrument/voice being recorded on separate tracks. The advantage is that you tend to get more spontaneity when everyone is playing together. However, there are a number of disadvantages. You have to contend with bleed, which can create significant problems when it comes time to mix these tracks. You can overcome some of the bleed by isolating each performer in separate rooms. There will still be bleed between the instrument and vocal mikes if the vocalist is playing an instrument. Once you isolate each performer, you tend to lose some of the spontaneity.
Another problem with live recordings is that punching in can be more difficult. Sometimes the only way to fix an error is to re-record the song until you get it right.
The more common way of tracking today is by using overdubs. Typically a scratch track is recorded. This can be anything from the vocalist and his or her guitar to the whole band. The scratch track is commonly recorded using a click track. Choosing the correct tempo and timing is important at this stage as it will be the basis for all the overdubs. Once a good scratch track has been laid down, each person comes in and overdubs his part. Usually drums and bass are tracked first, followed by each of the remaining instruments. The vocals are usually tracked last, so that the vocalist has the whole arrangement to sing over.
Sometimes keyboards and synthesizers are used to create the rhythm track. In this case, these tracks will be used instead of a scratch track, although sometimes a scratch track is used in conjunction with a synthesized rhythm track.
Once the all the overdubs have been completed, the tracks are edited. This is when things get fixed, and many things may need fixing. For example, this is when you remove all unwanted sounds and noises. From snap, crackle, and pops to lip smacks, coughs, and heavy breathing, any undesired sound should be edited out. In the digital age, this is much easier to do than it was with analog tape. There are a number of ways of removing such noises. You can simply highlight the noise and erase it or you can use automation to drop the level or mute the signal when the noise is present.
Editing may be the time when comping takes place. While this procedure is done most commonly with vocals, it can be applied to any instrument that has multiple takes. Sometimes comping takes place during the tracking process to insure that a complete take can be accomplished before moving on to the next overdub.
Another thing to fix is timing issues. While it is possible to quantize tracks so that every note occurs on the beat, this often produces an unnatural mechanized sound. The goal should be to make sure that no instrument or vocal note is obviously out of sync. With careful listening you will hear an occasional instrument that is slightly out of sync with the rest of the band. That note or notes can be shifted in time to bring it back into sync.
If the vocalist occasionally hits a note that is flat or sharp, this is the time to correct it using pitch shifting software such Autotune or Melodyne. While Autotune can be used to the extreme to create the so-called “Cher effect” that is so popular in today's hip-hop, it can be used more judiciously to subtly correct the occasional missed note in other genres of music.