Technology has changed music production for good.
Today, it's not even necessary to leave your bedroom to record a song, let alone the need to impress a prominent producer to get noticed by music fans. Recording, editing, mixing, mastering, and virtual instruments are accessible to nearly anyone, some tools provide a great variety of loops and samples, AI can split a track into stems, significantly streamlining music production.
In this piece, we'll cover the basics of song recording, as well as the necessary equipment, recording stages, editing, mixing, and a bit of mastering.
Steps to Take Before Recording a Song
It goes without saying that a song should have a catchy tune and captivating lyrics, so we assume that if you're reading this article, you already have these. This is why we start right from the studio setup and equipment.
If you already have a recording studio at home and all the necessary gear, you can skip this part. But if you're a complete novice to music production, check this list before heading right to the production steps.
Set Up a Home Recording Studio
It's a lot easier than it sounds. As opposed to a common misconception, you won't even need the most expensive and professional gearbox for your bedroom production studio.
To put it briefly, here's the list of setup pieces you'll need in your home studio:
- Desktop computer or laptop.
- Pop filters to eliminate plosives, i.e., popping sounds made when we pronounce 'p,' 'k,' and 't' consonants.
- Amplifiers (amps) are paired with electric guitars, basses, and keyboards and make them sound loud enough to compete with high sound pressure level sounds such as drums and other loud instruments.
- Studio monitors speakers accurately reflect any flaws in your mixing.
- A digital audio workstation (DAW) records, processes, and plays back your sounds. DAW is your ultimate gearbox when it comes to sound, as anything you can imagine can be done in it.
- Virtual instruments are software that can create or emulate musical instruments.
- The audio interface converts a digital sound to analog and vice versa, connecting your mic or an instrument to the computer when recording. During playback, though, the audio interface acts as a bridge between your laptop and headphones.
- External hard drives store external files, such as recorded audio, to keep your laptop running smoothly, not overloaded with large files.
We've already covered the equipment in one of our previous articles on how to set up a home recording studio, so we won't pay special attention to this now. Make sure you check our previous piece as well. In that guide, we cover in detail how to treat your home studio acoustically and which equipment to use.
Choose Your Perfect DAW
If you're a Mac user, Garageband comes preinstalled on your device, but if your laptop runs on Windows or you'd rather consider alternatives, here are a few: Audacity, Ableton Live, Logic Pro, Avid Pro Tools, and alike.
Organize the Recording Order
Song recording is like baking a layer cake as it typically goes with multiple tracks, meaning that initially, you record a base track, then rhythm, lead instruments, vocals, and finally, background vocals and harmonies. Each stage acts as a base for the next one. To organize the tracking order properly, the song should be already written, and you should know how you want it to sound. However, this list can be different depending on the song.
Let's see the most common steps of recording a song on your own.
Steps of Making a Song: #1. Recording
🟡 Record a Scratch Track
Now that you know the order of tracks you're going to record, create a scratch track first. This track sets a tempo and is sort of a guide for other instruments to follow along with.
A scratch track means you record a demo version of an instrument that you can overdub on top of. It establishes the tempo and structure of the song and helps the rest of the instruments, as well as vocals, to layer on top of it. Then you just get rid of it when recording the next 'layers'. A scratch track can be rough, so it doesn't have to sound perfect.
When recording the scratch track, start with the drums or bass as they act like a metronome that helps you stay on time and emphasize the rhythm.
🟡 Record the Rhythm Section
The rhythm section is the base of any song, as all the instruments follow the rhythm. When recording the rhythm section, you should start with drums and bass. If you created the scratch track with pre-recorded drum loops, record bass as the rhythm section. If you created the scratch track with bass, acoustic guitar, or another instrument, the rhythm section should be recorded with drums. For that, you can use a pre-recorded drum loop or record the drums yourself.
If you want to use free pre-recorded drum loops that you can customize for your song, check these sites: Big Fish Loops, Looperman, and The Loop Loft.
If your song doesn't have any drums or bass in it, another instrument can act as the rhythm section, such as a piano or an acoustic guitar.
🟡 Record the Lead Instruments or Melodies
Lead instruments you use in a song build the melody, a tune people will sing along with. Melody is born with the help of the instruments you typically when you write a song. After you've recorded the rhythm section, add lead instrumental lines. Lead guitar, synths, keyboards, and other instruments can be laid down on this stage.
If you're going to record the melody with an electronic instrument, such as a keyboard or guitar, plug it in to your audio interface. If this is an acoustic instrument, place a mic about 6-12 inches from the instrument, pointed at about the 12th fret, but ideally, you should find the perfect spot for the microphone that works best for you. Then just plug in the mic cable in to the audio interface.
🟡 Record the Vocals
When the melodies are recorded, you can jump to the most interesting part: recording the lead vocal of the song. Arm with a microphone and a pop filter to sing along with the melody and the rhythm section.
Here's are the tips to make sure the voice sounds flawless:
- Position the microphone to face the lower part of your mouth for optimal performance.
- To improve the sound quality, attach the pop filter to the microphone and make sure it's at a distance of six inches. Then, position your mouth at a distance of six inches from the pop filter.
- To avoid any distortion in your vocals, it's important to test the gain levels. While singing the loudest part of the song, make sure that the gain level is in the green and not hitting the red. This will ensure that you can focus on your performance without worrying about being too loud during your vocal takes.
🟡 Record Background Vocals or Harmonies
Last but not least are the background vocals. This part is optional, since not all songs have any.
🟡 Add Finishing Touches
To make your song sound more polished and complete, you can add some little nuances that add color to it and highlight the main track. These finishing touches include percussion fills, piano fills, sampled sound effects, background vocals, and virtual instruments, such as ambient synths, a horn section, etc.
Steps of Making a Song: #2. Editing
Recording all tracks is just a part of the work; significant, however. So when all tracks are recorded, it's time to polish them. Here are the most common editing techniques you can leverage.
Arrangement implies you evaluate the entire track and see what works and what doesn't. During the arrangement stage, you can eliminate entire tracks from the song, cut out some sections, move them, or delete the entire sections from a song.
Comping means the comparison between the duplicate takes of each track and selecting the best one.
Noise reduction means you remove all sounds before, after, and during each section of audio when the instrument is playing. Typically, it implies that you remove background voices, amp hissing, footsteps, breaths, dead air, or any other unwanted sounds.
Timing editing allows you to fix the off-beat notes.
Pitch correction lets you make sure notes fit within the key of the song. For that, you can use Auto-Tune, Melodyne, or similar tools.
Steps of Making a Song: #3. Mixing
Mixing is combining all tracks you get from the multitrack recording together and balance them. But it's not as simple as it sounds if you're just a beginner.
Here are the mixing techniques you can leverage when mixing a song:
Fader balancing ensures no instrument sounds too loud or too quiet in comparison to others.
Panning gives each instrument its own space in the stereo image.
Equalization (EQ) gives each instrument its own space in the frequency spectrum, ensuring that no two sounds compete for the same band of frequencies.
Compression levels out the dynamic range of an instrument and reduces the difference in volume between the loudest and softest parts.
Reverb creates three-dimensional space for the mix, giving the mix depth.
Automation lets you change settings at different points in the song, thus giving you more control over the mix.
Steps of Making a Song: #4. Mastering
Song mastering is the final step in the music production process before a song is ready for distribution or release. It involves applying various techniques and processes to optimize the audio quality, balance, and overall sonic characteristics of a song. The primary goal of mastering is to ensure that the song sounds polished, cohesive, and consistent across different playback systems.
Before you start mastering the mix, prepare it for mastering first.
This stage implies a combination of equalization (EQ), compression, and other audio processing tools to enhance the tonal balance, clarity, and depth of the song. Compression and limiting are used to control the dynamic range of the song, ensuring that the softer and louder sections are balanced and that no parts of the audio are too quiet or too loud. This helps to achieve a more consistent and commercially viable sound.
Mastering prepares the final audio files for distribution by ensuring they meet the technical requirements of the chosen format (such as CD, digital download, or streaming). During this stage, you can also add metadata, such as a song title and the artist's name, which helps in organizing and identifying the song in various media players and streaming platforms.
Mastering might be difficult to perform without a tech-savvy engineer, deep knowledge of mastering techniques, and tools like iZotope or Multimedia T-RackS.
How to Record a Song: FAQ
Here are some frequently asked questions about recording a song and music in general. Hopefully, our answers will help you deeply understand the process.
Can I Record a Song for Free?
You can as long as you have all the necessary equipment, like DAW, mic, audio interface, and other setup pieces. Professionally sounding songs are hardly made fully free of charge.
How Much Does It Cost to Professionally Record a Song?
Songs that are recorded professionally in special studios can cost anywhere from $100 to thousands of dollars. The cost depends on the studio's equipment, rates, engineers' experience, and how complex your song is.
Can You Record Music with Your Phone?
You can, but it won't sound as good as a professionally-recorded song. But you should remember that the level of quality you want to achieve depends on where you're going to distribute your song. For some directions, the quality of a phone-recorded song will be sufficient.
Which Is the Best App to Record Songs?
Plenty of software allows you to record songs, such as GarageBand or PocketBand. Which is the best depends on your level of music production technology, personal preference, and needs.
How Long Does It Take to Record a Song?
It depends on the song, how complex it is, and which equipment you have at your disposal. The more tracks, vocals, and harmonies you need to record and the more mixing/mastering needs to be done, the longer it takes to give the final result. Song recording can take hours to several days, depending on the song's complexity.
Remember that it's the ear, not the gear that made all the greatest songs of our time, so never stop creating, and happy recording!