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The Basics of Home Recording: The Production Process

From Edison’s invention of the phonograph in the late 19th century, the field recordings of Alan Lomax in the 1940s, to the multi-million dollar productions of some of the biggest acts of the late '80s and '90s, today’s technology has evolved to the place where anyone with an interest in producing music can now create professional-sounding recordings at home at a fraction of the cost that a professional studio would charge.

Remember, it’s not just aspiring professionals who are recording their music. Music making hobbyists are recording their work as a practice aid, to create a digital family heirloom, or as a fascinating extension of their music-making hobby.

Once you’ve decided on the tools you’re going to use to record you music (e.g., a home computer and choice of music production software), the next step in the home recording process is to figure out how you want to evolve your raw musical idea into a complete, finished song. This is the music production process.

Scaling Down

To properly appreciate the production process, it helps to consider the work of some of the most accomplished producers of the last 50 years. Certainly George Martin – “the fifth Beatle” - would appear on most top 10 lists of great music producers. If you’re a jazz fan, you would likely be familiar with Orrin Keepnews, and his production work on records by Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Wes Montgomery. And one of the most important producers of the last 20 years, Rick Rubin, has helped to create career-defining records by Run-DMC, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer and most recently, Neil Diamond.

It’s important to understand what makes these professional producers successful, because when it all boils down, they employ exactly the same techniques and creative analysis that you will use, but on a larger scale.

Five Easy Pieces

How does a musical idea evolve from your imagination to a CD or an MP3? Berkleemusic’s online extension school course, Desktop Music Production, by Michael Bierylo and David Mash, teaches this concept in five practical steps:

Musical idea: This is the song (s) you are going to produce and the instruments you’ll use in the arrangement. As a producer, you’ll decide the parts that will be recorded and who will play them.

Recording: Musical arrangements are recorded to any of a variety of audio and MIDI recording hardware devises and software.

Editing: Recorded Digital audio and MIDI sequences that have been recorded can be edited in a variety of ways to either change the individual performances or the entire arrangement.

Mixing: Once the music is recorded, the sound is sent to a mixing board where the individual tracks that make up a multi-track recording are combined and processed to create the final stereo recording.

Mastering: This is the last stage of the production process where the project is prepared as a finished stereo mix for distribution as either an audio CD, or an MP3 file, by making final adjustments to the overall sound of the recording. How the final product sounds has a great deal to do with musical arrangement and the tools used to produce it.

Into The Mix

Mixing is often where a producer’s artistry comes in. The 2004 film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music gives a fascinating peek into Dowd’s work and helps explain the mysteries of his craft. Dowd was a master mixer. Through mixing, he was able to create evocative sound portraits, most notable on the Eric Clapton/Duane Allman masterpiece “Layla.”

Dowd’s’ mixing process on “Layla” is exactly the same process you will use. A mix engineer paints a sound picture by adjusting three mains aspects of the recording – volume (the level), tone quality (the equalizer, or EQ), and positioning (the pan) – to create the desired overall sound (the mix),

Levels, EQ, and panning? Let’s break it down. The volume for each member of the band is set at a certain level. Some instruments will be louder and featured in the recording, others will be softer, playing supporting roles. The EQ for each instrument is set to adjust the high, midrange, and low frequencies of an instruments sound (similar to setting the EQ on your home stereo to listen to music). Panning allows you to position each member of the band in his or her own audible space from left to right in a stereo set-up.

So, how can you get started? Many home recording enthusiasts find that studying online at Berkleemusic with like-minded musicians is the most direct and fulfilling path to take. The following are suggested online courses that will help you on your way to recording and producing your own music at home, for practice, posterity, or fun: Desktop Music Production for Mac or PC; MIDI Sequencing Basics; Recording and Producing in the Home Studio; and Critical Listening.

Just like learning an instrument, mastering the home recording process takes patience, practice, and professional advice. Accomplished producers are always researching the techniques of their favorite producers as well as staying up to date with the most recent software and hardware developments. The last hundred years have brought explosive growth to the evolution of recorded music. Who knows what the future will bring?

This article first appeared in Making Music magazine.

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Published: 07/23/2006