A Beginners Guide to Producing a Song

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Cocofromscotland, long time HRC member and moderator, shares his method of tracking, mixing and producing a song.

Part 1: Tracking

I hope by the end of this article you will have an understanding into the basic process I use for tracking a song, which you can hopefully apply to your own sequencing/recording software and use as a basis to get started in the wonderful world of Home Recording.

OK, I'd like to start by saying that there is no right and wrong way to do anything when it comes to Sound Engineering (which is what you are effectively doing every time you track, mix or master any piece of audio). There are good practices and some general do's & don'ts but their can never be any fixed rules which are totally unbreakable! After all, every rule that CAN be broken and probably HAS been broken, often to dramatic effect. It all started when the Beatles ripped up the music scene with their studio sessions - cutting up audio, splicing it together, looping it backwards/forwards and most anything and everything else you can think off!! Nobody would doubt the influence the Beatles have had on today's music so the point here is - EXPERIMENT! If it fails there is always the UNDO feature, something the fab 4 never had.

My basic process for tracking a song always starts with sparking up Cubase (these principles apply to any recording app), setting up my tracks and routing my inputs i.e. choosing which input source is linked to which track and getting the arrangement ready to receive your performance.

I always set up my Drums, Bass, Guitars (I usually have 2 Rhythm Guitars and 1 Lead Guitar) and Vocal (Lead & Backing) Tracks before I record anything. When you do this, set up any other tracks you may need for the song i.e. keys, additional instruments, etc. Now you have the app ready, all your tracks set-up and ready to receive your performance and hopefully, the idea in your head ready to make your first hit!

Let me state a golden rule once to be applied throughout your project - ensure ALL audio you record is at an acceptable level. Ensure you have NO CLIPS. This involves monitoring your levels on your indicators to ensure the red lights are never hit or there is no indication of "clipping". This occurs when audio exceeds 0db in volume. Digital audio that exceeds 0db and clips is NASTY!! Ensure this does NOT happen and you're good to move on to the next track.

I always start by recording the Drums. Drums are the backbeat of any song so it makes sense to do these first. It also keeps you in time and means your rhythm section can be rock solid. Record your Drum parts until you are happy - its imperative these parts are spot on - they will be the basis for the whole song's beat and timing so you want to get this right - NEVER RUSH IT!! When you're done and happy with the Drum track, move on (don't add any effects, pan or anything yet).

Next up, I record the Rhythm Guitars. I normally have 2 so I record both tracks now. Again, don't add any effects and only make minor alterations to the mix to allow you add the next track - ensure you can hear drums and guitars clearly and that's it!!

Now we have Drums and Rhythm Guitars. I now add the Bass to the mix - this rounds out your rhythm section and gives you a nice "bed" to lay the rest of your tracks on. By this stage everything should be rock solid with drums, bass and guitar and ready to take the Vocals & Lead Instruments (Guitars in my case). Again, add NO effects to bass yet and again only make minor changes to the mix to allow you to hear Drums, Rhythm Guitars and Bass clearly.

OK, so now we have a nice solid rhythm section. This is the basis for your song so make sure it's all in time, sounding good and you're happy with the structure etc. From here, I ALWAYS record my vocals. I leave the spaces in the song for the guitar solos as these are ALWAYS done last in my method. You may want to do this the opposite way depending on how you prefer to work but I find this way the easiest personally. At this point, I record all Lead Vocals and then any Backing Vocals as required. You know by now - add NO effects and only adjust the mix so you can hear what you want to hear for the final bit of tracking which is...

LEAD GUITAR (substitute for any lead instrument you may play!) - add your lead parts, record till your happy then smile - you have now tracked up a basic song ala Coco Style (and most rock / pop / standard arrangement type songs!!).

Now you are ready to move on to the next stage of producing your song - Mixing and applying effects.

Part 2: Mixing

I'd now like to share my methods of mixing a song and the process of applying effects to enhance your music and turn your composition into a number one hit - ahem, maybe not but it should help you get a good mix all the same!!

OK, again I'd say there are NO RULES when it comes to audio engineering. You must experiment to find what works well for you. To find the good you must first find the bad. Every extreme has an opposite and remember the afternoon knows what the morning never expected!! What I'm saying is - you can apply these basic principles, and then mould them to your own way of working. See what works for your voice, guitar playing, anything else in your song and create your own unique style and sound. The best bands, singers, performers etc all have a sound and this comes down to their music being mixed and produced in their own unique ways....

Picking up from last time, you should now have a tracked up song with all parts recorded at an acceptable volume level, no clips and a fresh canvas on which to set about the task of mixing your tracked masterpiece.

I start my mixes by returning all sliders to zero. The mix you create depends on the type of music you play and what you want the sound to be. I play straight on ROCK so I'll tell you about my mixes which tend to be guitar orientated with a solid backline. You can change accordingly to suit yourself.

I usually start with my Drums, setting the volume to an acceptable level and I usually pan these straight down the middle of the mix. I usually add compression to all my drum tracks and I sometimes add reverb...do this as required but experiment here. NOTE: Be careful when compressing - over compression can suck the life out of any track to the point of making it sterile which is HIGHLY undesirable!

Next up I set the Rhythm Guitars in my mix. I pan one left and one right (anywhere between 50-75) usually and adjust volumes to ensure I can hear both guitars in the mix. I don't add any effects to my Rhythm Guitars as I use the VAMP for this purpose, recorded with amp simulation and effects. I also keep my guitars to the front of the mix and fairly loud due to the rock music I usually produce.

Now, I set the level of the bass and I pan this down the middle of the mix too. I always compress my bass but again this is optional. Experiment, add any effects you want, adjust the volume when you add the effects etc and ensure you can hear your drums and bass clearly, with the guitars accompanying this. Ensure at this stage your rhythm section is clearly defined and not muddy. A good mix will allow all instruments a space on the sonic stage i.e. you can listen and hear each instrument clearly.

After all this is done, I move on to vocals. I almost always compress my vocals to smooth out the volume and I also add reverb and EQ to set the vocals back in the mix and take away the flat sound. I like to mix the Lead Vocal first and then mix in the Backing Vocals around this. A nice wee trick is to use a double tracked backing vocal (copy and paste the same track if necessary) and add different effects, EQ and compression settings on each track, panned left and right so the backing track "surrounds" the main vocal without touching it. This takes experimentation but practice and it will start to become clear when it's been done properly.

Finally, I add my guitar solos to the mix adjusting the levels as required. Again, I NEVER add effects or compression (or EQ) to my guitar solos. I simply adjust the volume. If you record a clean solo and have enough effects within your app, you COULD add effects etc here. I don't as I use the VAMP but again, it comes down to what you are producing and the sound your want to achieve.

Now I listen, listen, listen. I spend a while making tweaks, and then listen again. Repeat ALL the above as necessary until you can hear EVERY Track in the song clearly, use EQ wisely so each track COMPLIMENTS the others rather than sitting on "top" of the mix, they are all blended together. Finally, ensure your master output meter (usually a VU meter) is NOT clipping. Lower this accordingly and you're now ready for FINAL MIXDOWN!!!!

Congratulations...you have now tracked and mixed a song. This is now referred to as a "Pre-Master" (as it's not mastered funnily enough) and is often the basis of a demo for bands, etc.

This is all subjective. The main thing you are trying to achieve is a good "mix". All this means is, you have a song where you can hear all the instruments and volume levels that compliment each other. No one track is too loud/quiet and nothing sits on "top" of the song. Everything sits in the mix and when you reach this, you can be sure it's a good mix!!

Have fun and ROCK ON!

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User-submitted comments

carpathian
Feb 26, 2009 05:07 am
nice work
thanks for this article man...just what I needed being a total newbie to all this, worrying about how to mix was hampering me from being creative and creating a song in the first place, now I have read this I can get on with the creative process knowing I have the basics mapped out for me when it comes to the mixing. thanks again....paul


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