Many people would identify with the following statement: “Though I’m not a musician, I love music and have a passion for discovering artists, curating playlists, and returning to favorite albums that have driven my life forward.”
Instruments can be expensive, music theory is complicated, playing consistently is time-consuming, and producing good electronic music is damn near impossible; it’s a hard hobby, so if you’d rather listen, musicians understand.
However, understanding the process can give you a better appreciation for the product. What is the experience of recording live music and processing the final product with DAWs (digital audio workstations) actually like? Making tracks is a bit more onerous than it is sexy. Try it once and you’ll discover that musicians sacrifice their sanity for their love of music.
Live recording is immensely expensive. DIY basement setups use a minimum of seven microphones for the drum kit alone: two mics for the top and bottom of the snare, one for the kick drum, a mic on the hi-hat, another mic on toms, and two overhead mics that point left and right to provide a wide stereo image in the final track.
Additionally, a quality electric guitar or bass tone costs at least a couple grand – guitar pedals color the sound with distortion (fuzz and overdrive) and delay effects, the head mixes volume, gain, treble, mids, and bass, and the cabinet (a large, black, felt-covered speaker) delivers the sound.
Finally, a mic must be placed inches from the cabinet to record the sound. Placing the mic center or offset on the cabinet results in an immense difference in tone. Decisions are never-ending the whole way through. Here, perfectionism is the worst trait one could have: there’s no right way to make music, just endless choices. Competence, experience, and creativity, however, are necessary.
With the advent of cheap music software, individuals can now record their own music with less equipment, fewer instrumentalists/instruments, and no engineers. $200 software can imitate a $5,000 guitar amp setup with surprising accuracy. $300 drum software can outsource a drum kit and a drummer, allowing notes to be clicked in on a digital grid and “humanized” with algorithms that randomize note velocity. Also, bassists can even be hired over the internet to record and send their files without ever convening in studio.
Artists like Tame Impala, Sithu Aye, and Periphery started – and some continue – with one individual coordinating the entire orchestra of instruments, often with digital workarounds. These artists are thoroughly impressive for their talents with both instruments and software.
Recording as an instrumentalist requires a precision that jamming and practice do not. In the final product, each track can be heard independently with a clarity you can’t achieve in a live performance. Therefore, elements like ach flub, sharp notes, and off-rhythms are glaring in a way that they wouldn’t be live. A challenging riff will often be recorded 50 times before it makes the cut.
Then, the instrumentalist must re-record that same exact riff with the same precision to double-track the riff. This stacking of sound gives a beefy, satisfying size and breadth to the instrument, but it makes recording take twice as long. A certain insanity takes hold when a musician listens to the same five seconds of a song 50 times in a row (which is why sobriety in studios is uncommon).
Once the tracks are recorded, the process moves entirely to the computer on DAWs. Each individual instrument is processed separately. Snares, lead guitars, bass, vocals, and kick drums are often processed first because they’re the most important elements of the song. All of the other instruments and sounds are mixed around the primary instruments, filling up the spaces left over.
Equalizers carve out the low artifact hums on guitars, heighten the lows of a kick drum, and boost the 3kHz range on vocals for clarity. Compressors, by a complex transformation of the dynamics of the waveform, make tracks feel louder than they actually are. And saturators add harmonic content to the sound, giving a fat, warm feeling — think of subs in trap music that you can feel vibrating in your ribcage.
Mastering is the final process. Rather than processing individual tracks, mastering processes the entirety of the sound. For example, multiband compressors are added to maximize the volume so that your song is louder (or just not more quiet) than other songs on the radio. Mastering engineers who work on top 40 tracks are more like wizards than artists, using arcane software and magic to polish off songs.
Like any art, in music production there are no obvious answers. There are conventions to follow, theories to study, experiences to gain, and techniques to nail. But all of these rules are broken all the time, and that’s where innovation comes in. Try making a song without using any conventions or experience and you will come out with nothing. Music demands creativity, talent, and work.