This is part 2 of our series of blog posts with simple explanations for the most common terms in audio, as well as features and functions found on recording studio equipment. The resource to end the confusion and help you focus on creating amazing music!
Fellow audio nerds, please note:
The explanations are as non-technical and simple, as possible. I want it to be practical and useful and I don’t care if everything is 100% scientifically correct. All that matters to me are the results that the people who read this will hopefully get.
It’s not meant to be an academic piece of work on audio technology and if you are an experienced engineer who thinks this is stupid, then I’m really sorry, but this is not for you then. And I can definitely understand your desire for accuracy and your love for nerdy discussions, because I’m a total freak in this regard, myself (just ask my wife). I just think inflating our egos by throwing around complicated terms and definitions is not going to help anyone trying to capture a great song.
The Music Production Process:
The writing phase is the first step. You write the melody, basic chords and lyrics for your song
In this step you decide
- which instruments will play which part
- how many elements/instruments you want to add to each part of the arrangement
- which elements are the “lead” parts, that will be upfront, as opposed to the complementing “rhythm” parts, background melodies, harmonies, or “pads” that will be more in the background
Producing (& Pre-Production)
The term “producing” is often used as a synonym for “recording”, but in fact, it specifically describes the creative part of making a record. The producer is the one who makes the creative decisions. That could be changes in the arrangement, cutting or adding parts, adding harmonies, coming up with a sonic vision and an overall idea of how things are supposed to sound.
In many cases these days, the band is the producer, or the recording engineer is also the producer. But especially with bigger budget label productions, there are still classic “creative producers” involved in making records. In that scenario the producer is hired to bring his taste, creativity and musical expertise to the table and keep track of the creative vision throughout the process. He/she needs to bring musicians, engineers, etc. together to bring it to life. The engineers are the ones who then execute and actually turn the knobs.
During pre-production, those creative decisions are made and tested before actually going to the studio to record the final thing. The vision is being created, ideas are being tested and demos are being recorded, so that there is no unpleasant surprises in the studio and everybody has a clear picture of what the songs are, how the elements work together and how everything is supposed to sound. In the studio the engineers and musicians then have to execute and the producer has to make sure everybody follows that vision.
The recording process is the actual capturing of the material. It involves dialing in the right tones, capturing the best takes, making sure that everything sounds the best it possibly can and that it can also be further processed during the next steps.
In the editing phase, the recorded audio will be cleaned up and prepared for mixing. Unwanted noise will be removed, multiple takes will be comped together (the best parts of each take will be combined to create one perfect take) and mistakes will be corrected. This involves timing correction and pitch correction. This can be done in a very subtle, organic sounding way or everything can be edited to near perfection, depending on the taste of the artist or producer and the style of music that is being produced.
This involves all the steps between recording and mixing: Editing, adding additional sounds, special effects or samples after the fact and basically everything that needs to be done in order to have a finished song that is ready to be mixed.
This is the part of the process where all the individual elements are mixed together and exported as one exciting, cohesive and impactful song. This involves processing the individual elements, processing certain groups of instruments together, adding effects, optimizing the dynamics and the frequency balance within the song, etc. In this phase the final sonic decisions are made and the mixer has to make sure to bring the producer’s and bands vision to life.
This is probably the part that has the biggest impact on the overall sound. Although the source sounds have to be good and the recordings definitely need to meet a certain standard in order to get an exciting result, you can still do a whole lot in mixing to save a mediocre recording, or you can completely fuck up a decent recording, if you make the wrong mixing moves.
Mastering is the last step before a record gets manufactured, or distributed digitally.
What most people call “mastering” is actually “pre-mastering”, because mastering originally meant transferring the mix from tape to the final medium (vinyl or later CD), while optimizing it for that medium. Pre-mastering is one step before that, where a finished mix is processed one final time to make sure it sounds great on all kinds of different listening devices, to make final, small adjustments to the overall balance and dynamics of the songs and to create a nice balance in between the songs. But I’ll just stick to “mastering” cause that’s what we all call that process now.
Mastering these days is often done as part of the mixing process, but it is widely recommended to make it a separate process and have a dedicated mastering engineer do it. But, as always with music, whatever leads to the desired results is the right way to do it. The only thing that’s for sure is that it definitely has to be done. Someone has to give it that final touch and make sure it works, no matter where people will listen to it.
The revision process follows the mixing and mastering stages and describes the process of going back and forth between the engineers, producers and artists, answering questions and revision requests and then making final adjustments until everybody is happy.
CDs are being manufactured in pressing plants. The CD manufacturers need the audio files and info on breaks between songs, transitions and meta data, like codes and song titles. The mastering engineer usually creates and delivers a “DDP image”, which is a folder that contains all that information in a certain format, so that the manufacturer can easily read it and press the CDs correctly.
Vinyl Cutting / Vinyl Mastering
When making vinyl records, there is a certain process involved to make sure the audio is transferred to vinyl in a way that it sounds as good as possible afterwards. It’s not relatively “simple” data storage, as with CDs, where the sound doesn’t change at all. There’s a human involved who has to make decisions and basically perform the “original form of mastering”. He/she takes the pre-mastered files, converts them to analog and makes adjustments to make it sound as good as possible on vinyl. Then he creates a “template” that can be used to press records. The sound will be different after the vinyl cutting/mastering process, that’s why you should get test pressings that you have to approve before the actual pressing of the records begins. Once approved, that “template” will be used to press all the records.
Digital distribution means releasing the songs through the various streaming/download services, like Apple Music or Spotify. This is usually done through a digital distributor where you upload your songs and they make them available on all the platforms. There are usually the same master files used, as for CDs, but some mastering engineers will deliver dedicated “high res” files because with some of the streaming and download services you are not limited to CD specifications. And there’s also special formats, like “Apple Digital Masters” (formerly known as “Mastered for iTunes”)