Description of Recording Terms & Timeline of a Record
Okay, I'm sorry, I forget everyone else doesn't work in my own industry! Here's a general run-down of the steps it takes to make an album (for pretty much everyone), and the terms used.
2. Demos: an upscale version of a worktape, with instruments, echo etc. Sometimes we make them because the singer we're pitching the song to needs to hear it with full instrumentation to "get it". Sometimes it's to work out ideas before spending the money in the studio. Which brings me to:
3. Tracking sessions: going into a recording studio with musicians, putting the songs on tape or in a computer, trying to get as complete a version as possible (so you don't have to spend time and money on...)
4. Overdubs: Recordings, usually one instrument or vocal at a time, done AFTER the tracking sessions. Overdubs can include anything from adding some cymbals to doing the final vocals. Some reasons might be:
- You notice that the cymbals just aren't "speaking" loudly enough in relation to the regular drum kit; maybe the drummer wasn't playing them hard enough, maybe the room acoustics affected it, maybe a mic slipped. So you overdub new cymbals to match the old ones, only louder. You could just hope to turn up the original cymbals, but there's usually too much leakage from the other parts of the drum kit for that to be effective. (Leakage = when a microphone picks up sounds in addition to the main sound you want.)
- You notice your guitar part as played on the session is really out of time, or not the part you wanted to play in the end. This happens to me a lot, because during a session I'm functioning as artist, singer, writer, producer, guitarist, copyist, conductor -- so I don't worry much about my guitar parts while it's going down, I worry about all the other musicians getting THEIR parts correct. Then, later on, I'd overdub a new guitar part. That's one of the reasons our live album says over and over again "recorded live to two track", because there are NO overdubs or fixes on it.
- You listen back to "Paris In Your Eyes" and wander over to the keyboard, playing a mallet part. Everyone in the room says "YEAH! That's what it's missing!" so you add that part. A key part of making good records is to add only what's necessary, and to delete whatever's unnecessary. Sometimes you add something to set the mood, or to make a statement, or to help it "swing." Sometimes you delete something because it's not working with the rest of the track, or because it interferes with the vocal.
5. Editing. For instance:
- You notice the bass is a little flat in one spot. You might overdub those notes, if the player is available, or use an auto-tuner to (literally) re-tune those notes.
- You hear a fantastic guitar lick in the take before the one you chose as the "final take", and you grab it from there (don't ask, it's all the mysteries of Pro Tools editing capabilities) and put it into the track you're using. We don't customarily do this, but sometimes a lick is too good to pass up.
6. Rough mixes: Assembling all the parts in a very rough manner during the project, but before the final mixing. For instance, when we finished the tracking sessions we did "Ruff ruffs 1" on the 13 songs. Then Philip, Marc and I sat around going through each track, making notes on what needed to be done over the next few weeks (or not done!). Some of those things might be:
- Playing back "Matthew", we all agreed that the take we're going to use is the very first one. I began playing it just to set the time - in other words, I started playing to get comfortable, so the drummer could get the correct beat for the "click track" (see below). Richard Davis joined in, the drummer joined in, and we cut it without a click. That take was so good that we decided to keep it just as it is.
- Playing back "I Hear You Sing Again", Marc noted that the "scratch vocal" (see below) was "about as true as you could get", and we decided that was indeed the final vocal. This is a big deal, because as noted above, I wear a lot of hats when I go into the studio, so I'm never concentrating on the vocals. But on this song, a perfect vocal is less important than a vocal with a lot of heart.
- Playing back "Dead Men Walking" I noticed that the bass's A string had gone flat around the third verse of the song. This happens because we have to turn off the air conditioning during takes, so as not to pick up the noise on tape. We'd auto-tune those few bars to make it match, or take the notes from other in tune bars and put them there.
7. A click track is literally that - an entire track of a noise clicking away, in time. We've used them since the 1960's, when we just put a microphone in front of a metronome and fed it into everyone's headphones. Why? Well, you would think everyone could play in time together with no problems - and we all can (I use clicks on about half the songs on each album). But sometimes you get so excited that you start rushing, and it's a terrible thing when the bass starts rushing first (and becomes out of time with the drums), then the guitar starts rushing (and becomes out of time with the bass and drums), and so on and so forth. So we use a click to kind of hold everyone together.
8. Scratch vocal: A vocal that's not intended to be the final vocal, usually recorded during the tracking sessions. On an album like Hunger, there were no scratch vocals - we did them all live. This works sometimes, with some kinds of songs, but it doesn't work on a song like "At 17". (FYI, the vocal on At 17 took a full three days to do, because I was still learning how to interpret and sing on mic.)
9. Final vocal: just that - the final vocal. It can be anything from the vocal recorded during the session, to a composite vocal assembled from 2-3 different readings (in my case) or even up to 40-50 readings (I've heard stories....) Some artists want their vocals to be perfect. I want mine to have heart. I figure, if I can't nail it in 3 readings - even if it takes my two days to get those three readings out to my satisfaction - then I'm no kind of singer. But it takes all kinds.
10. More editing from the rough mixes: From the last rough mixes we begin fine tuning, using all of the above to create the finished piece. I try not to get crazy with this - as a friend of mine said once, "Perfection is for pigs." Meaning, only an animal with very little brain can hope to achieve perfection, because their standard is so low. Rather, we try to keep the heart, without sacrificing the feel and the technological and musical excellence.
Once the overdubs, editing, and final vocals are done, we go to the...
11. Final mixes. This is where everything you hear in the final product is determined. Are the drums all on the left? or are they (normally) bass drum and snare in the center, high hat a little to one side, tom toms spread across from hard left to hard right? Are the vocal harmonies in the center, right behind the main vocal? Do you want the guitars all together, or split? More important, do we need to "roll off" a little of the bass from the percussion instrument because it's clouding the bass part and making the bass hard to hear? Does the vocal come right through, or do we need to "clear out" (through judicious use of equalization) some space for it? If you don't clear out the space (which fortunately is not an issue on this record, since all four musicians asked for worktape copies, and organized their parts so the vocals could be heard clearly), you have to make the vocal way too loud in relation to the track.
Listen to the old 60's records, particularly Motown. You'll notice there's nothing playing in the same area (in terms of equalization, or EQ) than the vocal. There are tambourines, guitars, high hats above the vocal, and basses, bass drums etc below, but nothing right in that space.
Do we want echo? how much? how long? on everything? on the drums alone? on the vocal? Listen to Streisand's echo, which is long and suits her voice. Listen to Whitney Houston's, which is shorter and sharper.
And finally we come to:
12. Sequencing. Deciding what comes after what. You're second-guessing here; you want to lead off with something the regular fans will like, but it also has to be something the reviewers will like, since they'll probably only listen to one song before deciding whether to hear the rest (or perhaps only one verse). And when that's done:
13: Mastering. The final step, that makes the whole thing ready for reproduction. Mastering does everything from "Pull the vocal out a bit, it's not loud enough" (which is when you haven't done your job right in the first place) to "I think we need a heartbeat longer between those two songs."
After mastering, we go to:
14. Refs. These are reference CD's; usually, there's a "first ref" and a "second ref". They get expensive, anywhere from $100 - $250 each, so you try to be cautious. But it's essential that you take the finished, mastered product away with you, and you listen to it on a lot of different players. I listen in my car as I drive, seeing if there's anything that jars me. (Too long between songs, too short, one cut is suddenly a lot louder or softer than the others.) Then I call the mastering person and say "I need another half second between this song and that" or the like.
After that it's on to:
15. Reproduction copies, at this point PMCD copies - which are CD's that play on a regular player, but also have encoded all the other information - titles, artist, label, times etc. Then you send the whole thing off to the manufacturer and hope they don't screw it up!!!
Hope this helps...