Recording Methodology

Many musicians, even experienced and accomplished musicians, come to a studio for the first time and have no idea what to expect, or expect it to be similar to a live performance. It's not like that at all. This article provides a general outline of the recording process for folks who are new to it. When you're done, or if you already have some recording experience, have a look at our recording tips.

The best way to understand how studio recording works is to get your mind around the idea of multi-track recording. If you've ever recorded your band's performance with a portable stereo recorder or a video camera, you know that you have no control over which instruments are loud and which are quiet because everything is recorded together. But in multi-track recording, each part is recorded separately (onto its own track), even if the whole band plays at once. The tracks are synchronized for playback. As you can imagine, this allows for a great deal more control and flexibility. If a piano part is too quiet, for example, you can turn it up without turning up everything else. Also, you can add additional material on a new track while listening to and playing along with previously recorded parts on the other tracks. Understanding these simple facts about multi-track recording is key to knowing what to expect, and is key to having a positive experience.

But isn't recording notoriously tedious, time-consuming, and therefore expensive? The single best way to be successful and have fun in the studio is to plan very carefully. Make sure you have finalized your arrangements. You'll have selected and prepared your keyboard patches. You'll know the type of tone you want from the guitars and bass, and you'll know how to get those tones with the gear you have. Everybody must be well-rehearsed. You should also resolve technical issues with the equipment you bring to the studio. Your instruments should be in good condition and be ready to record. See our instrument-by-instrument checklist for a complete rundown on preparing instruments to be recorded.

Assuming everything and everyone is otherwise prepared, you should decide on how you'll approach your recording: "live" or overdubbed. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, though some amount of overdubbing almost always takes place.

In recording, "live" doesn't mean in front of an audience; it means that several instrumentalists are recorded individually while they perform simultaneously. In live recording of rock and pop music; drums, rhythm guitar, keyboards, and/or bass are typically recorded together while vocals and instrumental solos are overdubbed later. The big advantage of live recording is that the comfort level of the musicians is greater because of the ability to share visual cues. This can result in a performance which is tighter and allows for greater subtlety in changes of tempo and dynamics. The biggest disadvantage of live recording is that each musician has to do a fairly clean performance on the same take. Also, because North Shore Recorders is a single-room facility, the ability to record live is somewhat limited to the acoustic separation which can be achieved. There is a often a workaround, so it is important to schedule a consultation to discuss the specifics of your recording project. (The consultation is free.)

An overdubbed recording typically begins with some sort of reference track. This might be a sequenced keyboard part, a drum machine track, a scratch rhythm guitar and vocal track, or even just a click track. Then each part is added one at a time with the musician listening to and playing along with the previously recorded parts. This approach allows for the greatest flexibility because the musicians aren't dependent on each other to get the take right, the same musician can perform multiple parts, and there is never any "bleed" between the performances. (Bleed refers to sounds from one track also appearing on another, which happens when acoustic instruments are recorded in the same space and at the same time.)

Regardless of how you approach the process, the engineer will want to record your performance at a solid sound level. However, if the sound levels are too high, the equipment is overloaded and the recording is spoiled. So one of the engineer's most important jobs is placing microphones and setting levels in such a way that the instruments sound natural and bleed is minimized. This is done instrument by instrument before you start playing. Sometimes, a bit of trial and error is needed to get the levels right, especially when the whole ensemble plays together.

Then, you play. As you record each take, the engineer can play back what you've recorded. If you are happy with it, you move on. If not, you rerecord.

As the various tracks are recorded, editing can take place. Nothing beats a flawless performance, but, in digital recording, it is often very easy to fix minor flaws. For example, if the drummer misses a hit on the crash cymbal, a sample of a good hit from elsewhere in the recording can be copied into the spot where the drummer missed. Coughs and throat-clearing can be removed from the vocal tracks if they occur between passages. If there are multiple takes, "the good parts" of each can often be combined to create a whole take which is better than any one of the originals.

When all the parts are recorded and edited, mixdown begins. In this all-important step, all of the tracks are mixed together into a stereo recording. This is the last chance to alter the tracks individually. There are many important factors to consider. Among the most important are the relative volume levels of each track and the position of each track in the stereo spectrum. Also, EQ settings, dynamics processors, and effects such as reverb are applied to improve the tone, to even out the volume level, and to add ambience. Each of these can be varied during a song to achieve the desired results. The equipment at North Shore Recorders supports automated mixdown, which means that a computer can control the settings and any changes which occur during the recording. The advantage is that you can test your mixing changes against an otherwise consistent backdrop. Allow a lot of time for mixdown since you'll probably listen to the mix (and each track individually) many times.

Before your recording can be duplicated, a master recording of the final mix needs to be prepared. This process is called mastering. There is considerably more to a professional mastering job than simply burning a CD of your final mix. Much needs to be considered. You need to decide the running order of the tracks, balance the perceived differences in loudness between them, and, especially in pop and rock music, make the overall level of the recording as loud as possible (like a commercial CD).

North Shore Recorders is capable of mastering your work and doing all the jobs listed above. If we do your mastering, you leave with a CD which you can have duplicated.

Optionally, you can take the work you've done at North Shore Records to a mastering studio which specializes in this type of service. In this case, NSR simply burns your final mixes to CD without additional processing. The result is a CD which seems quieter compared to commercially available CDs. Mastering studios have more options in treating your work if it is brought to them in this way. To complete the process, they deliver the master CD. The advantage of using a mastering studio is the specialized equipment, expertise, and objectivity they employ to render fantastic results. Your budget should be a consideration in this decision.

Either way, the master CD we make at North Shore Recorders or the master CD you have made at a mastering studio is the copy from which you can have duplicates produced. North Shore Recorders can help you find a reputable mastering studio and/or duplication service bureau. Duplication services can help you with all the packaging, including such services as printing on the CD, artwork and text in the jacket, choosing a case, and shrink-wrapping. North Shore Recorders can also refer you to photographers and graphics artists who are familiar with such work.