If you ask 5 different recording engineers how to record a song, you're going to get 5 different answers. It's almost impossible to answer the question, "what's the BEST way?" There are many things that factor in to how you decide the best way to record a song. It's like deciding the best way to drive from point A to point B, or the best way paint a picture, or the best way to eat a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup. We all know the answer, there's more than one way.
In this scenario I'm going to go through the basic steps of recording a CD of 12 songs with various instruments and vocals. Because I'm not writing about how to write, arrange or record a hit single, we're just going to assume that you've already written your song, rehearsed your musicians, and are ready to begin recording. The first step is "Recording Basics". This is what I refer to as the foundation for the song. It could be a five piece band or it could be just a piano. In any case it's the part of the song that provides most of the harmonic and rhythmic structure. These instruments will serve as the bed for all the other instruments to lie on top. Your producer will know which will be the best instruments to serve as the bed track. Most of the time he will also want the musicians to record the basics with a click track. This is the metronome that will be fed into the headphones for the musicians to keep a perfect tempo. Your producer will also know when it's best NOT to use a metronome and when the song will sound better with a more human feel. Sometimes it's necessary to record a "Guide Vocal" at the same time. This often helps the musicians get a better feel for the song and it will also give them cues to different sections of the song. Even though the basic tracks are recorded all at one time, each instrument should be recorded on a separate track of the recorder or multi-track so that you will have control of them in the final mix. This is also known as "Multitracking". Recording basics for 12 songs can be done in one day or it might take several days, but once you've finished recording a few takes of each song, it is time to decide which take you want to use for the overdubs. I always suggest living with the basics for a few days or more so that you can make the best decision on which version of the song feels the best. You can always edit different versions together but remember that it takes time and there's still plenty to do. Sometimes the minor things that may bother you in the basic tracks might not even be heard once you've done all your overdubs.
O.K. so now you're ready for "Overdubs". This is the part of the recording where we get to have fun and add all your favorite toppings. Hmm, I'm starting to crave some Ben & Jerry's. Anyway, some people like to record all the overdubs for one song at a time. It is actually more common and more cost effective to record one instrument on as many songs on the project that call for that instrument. For example, if I knew that we were going to have percussion on 5 of the songs, then we would book a session with a percussionist and record those 5 songs on the same day. A little planning will go a long way. It's all too often that the percussionist has to come back on 3 different occasions because the arrangements were not completed beforehand. This is extremely important as budgets can skyrocket when clients wait until the studio musician is in the studio before thinking about what part he or she should play. There will always be room for creative changes and fresh ideas, but be prepared.
The most common overdubs these days are "Midi Overdubs". This refers to non-acoustic instruments such as keyboards, synthesizers, samplers, or even pre-recorded loops of anything under the sun. Midi is one the most commonly used terms in the recording process, it stands for M.usical I.nstrument D.igital I.nterface. In fact, there are many studios that are known as Midi Studios. This basically means that they have a focus on electronic music. Over the last 15 years technology has changed so much that electronic music doesn't necessarily mean fake instruments or synthesized sounds. Midi keyboards that have Sampling capability can actually replay recordings of wonderfully recorded instruments. You might choose to use a small portion of a pre-recorded performance, better known as a "sample loop", or you might play each note on the sampling keyboard yourself to get just the performance you want. The possibilities now are almost endless.
Now that most of your song is in place it's time to "Record Vocals". There are many questions that come up at this time. Do I record the lead or background vocals first? How many songs should I record in one session? How many singers should I use for backing vocals? There are definitely different answers for different projects but here are a few things to think about.
A great way to record a lead vocal (when the budget allows) is to do what is called a "Scratch Vocal", not to be confused with the "Guide Vocal" we talked about earlier. At this session the artist and the producer can work out exactly how the song should be sung by trying different variations of the melodies, or riffs, and deciding where to breathe, etc. This is a great time to experiment and work out every aspect of the lead vocal without the pressure of having to sing it perfectly. Some people use the guide vocal to serve this purpose. A tape of the scratch vocal session can be made with two versions of the song: one with the vocal & one without, to practice with. Now the artist can perfect that performance at their leisure and off the clock in their own home. When it comes time to record the final vocal there won't be any stress or time eaten up by not being prepared. The producer will probably still want to take a number of passes in order to get that perfect track, but it sure is a joy to have 3 great performances to choose from rather than having to look for one good take out of 3 rough vocal tracks.
"Background Vocals", in my opinion, are one of the hardest things to do well. It takes experienced singers and they must have great intonation in order to achieve a quality track. Almost anyone can sing, so it's easy to take the cheap way out and use the first person who can hold a note and volunteer their services in order to get an album credit. You'll be sorry in the end. Using a computer to fix pitch on a single vocal track is easy but pitch correction on 2 or more singers is a different story. When recording background vocal parts it is common to record each part multiple times; this is known as doubling or tripling. It's a great way to take 4 singers and make them sound like 8 or twelve. Other times you'll want a simpler sound like a single harmony which is what I refer to as a duet part. Different voices work better for different styles of tunes, so again some planning here will go a long way. Recording 1 to 3 songs worth of backing vocals in one session is typical.
Now comes the fun part, "Editing and Comping". This is done after everything has been recorded and is ready to be edited. Remember those 3 great vocal performances you recorded? Well, it's now time to choose exactly which portions of each track you want to use in the final mix. Editing the 3 tracks and creating a final composite lead vocal track is called comping. You also might decide at this point that the song is too long and cutting out the 7th verse isn't such a bad idea after all. There will be plenty of other things that need to be edited at this point as well, so allow ample time. This is especially true if, during multi-tracking, your Producer often used the phrase, "we can fix it in the mix". Once you are finished editing, it is time for the rough mix.
Creating a "Rough Mix" of your final edited tracks is very important. It is at this point that you can listen to your songs and make the final decision (again, off the clock) on whether they're ready to be mixed or not. You might decide at this point that the agogo bell track on song number two just isn't cutting it.
Let's assume that everyone is happy--the artist, the producer, the executive producer--and we're ready to do the "Final Mix". This is when all the tracks on the multitrack will be combined, aka, mixed down to what we call the "two-track master". Well, after spending all this time on these 12 songs we need to decide what kind of final mix production we're going for. If you want to compete with other songs that are on the radio today, then it's very typical for the mix engineer to spend 1-2 days on a single mix. I'm often challenged with the fact that at this point many artists have blown most of the budget and they want all 12 songs to be mixed to their satisfaction in 1 day. Well, it ain't gonna happen. The more elements there are in the song, the longer it takes to mix. A simple piano, guitar and vocal might take an hour or two, while a full band track with a lot of overdubs will take much more. This step is crucial to the quality of the final sound and it can typically take 25% of the budget.
Now that all 12 songs are mixed the process is almost over. The only thing left is to make the Final Master that the manufacturer will use to create the millions of CDs you'll be selling. "Mastering" is a process where an engineer will take all of your mixes and perform some very fine adjustments to the overall mix ("two-track master"). He might make slight changes to the treble on one track and/or eliminate a bit of the low frequencies from another track. The mastering engineer will know just what your mixes need depending on the genre of music you're releasing. He will also put your songs in order, create the perfect space between each song and create the best quality "Final Master" tape or CD for use in the duplication process. This all can be done on the same day.
Congratulations, you've just made it through the recording process. Most people find the process extremely challenging but at the same time very rewarding. Again, there are so many different ways to record a song and you need to find what works best for you. I've watched people sing an a cappella vocal on one track without a click and then build an arrangement around it. It's not typical but it worked for them. Don't just dive in, talk it through with someone who has recording experience and you'll be able to create great music in the studio while having a blast doing it.