My Recording Process
Today I created a new original song called “You’ll See My Love Will Never Die”. Listen below:
After I completed the song, I thought it would be good to write about my process and how I go about creating music. To start things off, I typically begin with drums as my foundation. Since I live in an apartment and although my neighbor is in a band and has a drum kit in his place, I’ve decided not to be “that guy”. With that said, I am forced to work quietly and use drum programs / software — of course I am still able to program my own drums. One of my favorite drum programs is Addictive Drums. I use it in almost every track. I’ve also used BFD and Superior Drummer, although I enjoy the simplicity and sound quality of Addictive Drums over the others. Stick to what you know…
Initially, I don’t arrange the drums. I generally start off by tweaking the sound of the kit — I prefer not to use the preset sounds, instead I start from a blank kit inside Addictive Drums. Then I add one kit piece at a time, starting first with the kick drum. After I’ve established my kit pieces, I then route the individual drum tracks to auxiliary channels to isolate each kit piece. By routing my kit this way, I am able to add my own plugins to each individual track. Why would I want to do this you ask? Well, I have become a huge fan of Waves plugins and Fab Filter. For 99% of my compression and EQ I use Fab Filter plugins to help shape my ideal sound.
Once my kit is sounding the way I want it, I take things a step further by routing the drums to a parallel bus. Today I started doing this twice in my mix. Wait what? Twice? Yes, I started using parallel compression twice on each instrument. By adding multiple parallel processes, you gain the ability to blend your sound between multiple dynamic processors. You just get a fatter sound overall that can be blended into the dry signal.
After my drums are setup and routed, I’ll go through and work on some gain staging and adjust my input and output levels. I like to keep my meters below -10dbfs on each track. Once my overall drum balance is established and my levels appear to be accurate, I’ll move on to the next instrument.
Depending on what sound I’m going for, I’ll often setup three guitar tracks, a bass track, and a few synth tracks. Lately I’ve been using a lot of guitar pedals. In my latest track I used this guitar pedal configuration: Tech 21 SansAmp Para Driver DI > Fulltone OCD > TC Electronic Spark Booster > TC Electronic Flashback Delay > TC Electronic Hall Of Fame Reverb > Fireface UFX Audio Interface (Line Level).
You may be wondering why three guitar tracks? Well, I often use a hard panned left + hard panned right + center panned or slightly offset lead guitar track. For choruses, I’ll often introduce several other guitar tracks to fatten up the stereo imaging and tone of the overall track. I should also mention that I record most instruments in mono. I also toggle between mono and stereo throughout my recording process to make sure that there are no phase issues.
Once the other tracks are setup, I will route them to aux tracks for parallel processing, similarly to the drum track routing I mentioned above. Parallel compression is a great concept and it works on nearly every instrument. I highly recommend using this technique to fatten up your tracks.
Now that the routing is complete, it’s time to start making some sounds. I am not musically trained so I often reference the internet for music theory concerns if I become stuck on a section of a song. I typically just play what sounds good to me and shape it with theory once the song starts to shape up.
Now is a good time to discuss arrangements. I typically follow this arrangement — intro (8–16 bars) verse (8–16 bars) chorus (8–16 bars) verse (8–16 bars) chorus (8–16 bars) middle (8–16 bars) chorus (8–16 bars) chorus (8–16 bars) outro (8 bars) , however in my latest track, this is not the arrangement. Sometimes, you have to just do what sounds best to you.
The song is now taking shape. Now I can focus on each section and tweak the sounds of each instrument to find sounds that compliment each other. Perhaps the guitar track on the left is distorted and the right is clean with a huge church reverb. Perhaps the drums cut out in one section while the rest of the music continues. I really respond well to dynamics. Loud, soft, loud, soft.. stuff like that.
Okay, now the song is coming together but I think I should start listening to the track in multiple monitors. I’ll often toggle between my Adam A7X’s and my Avantone Mix Cubes and of course a headphone reference check is needed. I use three pairs of headphones. Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro (two sets different OHMS) and my good old Apple Headphones…since everyone is listening to these if you’re alive and have ears today. After I check my multiple monitors, I tweak the sound accordingly. Tweaking the sound is a continual process throughout tracking. I approach every song differently so for me there isn’t a template or setting I keep at all times. Think of it like a painting, you wouldn’t paint over another painting, you’d start with a blank canvas.
There’s something missing in my stereo image. So now will be a good time to add some delay and reverbs to the tracks that need to be shifted around in the overall stereo image. I could bring things closer or further away. Adding reverb will push the instrument back and wider in most cases. Delay’s can add depth as well.
When it comes to reverb on everything, most people will tell you no no. However, in my personal experience adding a little reverb to the entire mix can smooth the sound out quite a bit. Of course you’d want to do this on an Auxiliary track or using a mix/blend control. I encourage you to experiment with pre-delay settings on your entire mix bus to glue things together.
Speaking of glue, let’s get back to our compressors. In my early days I would over compress the sh*t out of my tracks. These days I use it very sparingly, like 1–6db’s of gain reduction on most instruments. Typically with a ratio of 2:1–6:1. The trick I use is add a little compression on each track (if it needs it) instead of adding more compression on your mix bus. A little compression goes a long way when you map it out correctly.
Let’s examine the EQ now. I’m a fan of adding EQ’s after compressors to lift up the compressed / dull / lifeless sound compressors can create. Of course this is entirely up to you to decide if EQ goes before or after a compressor. Experiment and find your sound.
Let’s carve out the frequencies that each instrument DOESN’T produce. Let’s start with the kick drum first. Grab your Fab Filter Pro Q2 or your favorite EQ and isolate the frequencies by clicking on the “headphone icon” and now sweep until you don’t hear any sound or low sounds that are below ~50db’s. Then cut them out once you find them. I often use a high and low pass filter first, then save the actual EQing for later in my mix.
Now that we have our individual tracks “cleaned up” through EQ, we can focus more on songwriting. This is your time to go cray and do what you do.
Now that the song is sounding “vocal ready” it’s time to start singing. Route your lead vocal track to multiple aux tracks again and route them to parallel channels for dynamic processing. Treat the vocals similarly to the other tracks we created above. I like to carve out everything below ~90hz or so by adding a high-pass filter. I then add some lift to the top end if needed. I use a Sure SM7B Mic. It’s been a really great mic for me lately; extremely versatile. I’ll often add a noise gate and a de-esser to my vocal tracks as well, but before I do the de-essing, I try to notch out the annoying frequencies by using an EQ. Sweep around in your EQ and cut the ugly tones. Don’t forget to apply some make-up gain if you end up cutting too much.
Go ahead and rebalance your tracks. Check for proper levels, gain stage your plugins to make sure you’re feeding them the right signal for them to work properly. Check your mix bus, are you clipping? Are your levels hot enough? It’s not production ready yet, so try to leave enough headroom. You should use a gain plugin if your DAW doesn’t have one built in. I love using Klanghelm’s VUMT VU Meter to get the right levels. I like to leave around 12db’s of headroom on my mix bus throughout my recording process. If it’s too quiet, just turn up your speakers. You’ll crush the master volume once you have a good sounding mix and are ready to export/bounce your track.
What should your overall loudness be? Well, for me, I like to shoot for -12.4LUFS in my final mix. This is subjective, but for me this is what I have been aiming for in my mixes.
Bounce your track and listen on your other devices. Laptop, iPhone, car, etc. Make notes about what needs to be corrected. Is the volume too low? Is the bass too boomy? Is the left / right channels balanced properly? Once you make your notes, take a break and revisit the song to add the corrections. Then bounce it down and share your work! Congrats! You wrote, produced, mixed, engineered, and mastered a song.
In my years as a home recording enthusiast, I’ve made several mistakes. I encourage you to make them often. Tweak your sound, reference your mixes with other mastered tracks from other artists, share your music, receive feedback, change your sound, repeat. Most of all, have fun and continue to create music. We live in a world where everyone can make recordings. You can even record and mix on your phone. The world we live in is incredible!
Originally published at www.erictherobot.com on August 31, 2016.