So far, the posts in this series have been fairly systematic. This is a much more random — and important based on my experience — set of thoughts about recording your album.
The bottom line? If you've never recorded before, don't assume that you can do it. Spend some time mentoring with a recording engineer, take some online courses, or at least view a few free tutorial videos about the recording process. Even the basic standards and techniques are not intuitive. This is a craft that you learn. Here are some thoughts on recording, mixing, and mastering.
If you're hiring time in a studio, don't even book the time until you have the songs ready to go. That means you've practiced all your parts and could perform them (or have performed them) all live. Obviously, if you have created virtual tracks, you'll need to find out from the studio how those can be imported into the studio session.
On the other hand, you may have the good fortune (as I did) of recording in your own studio. You've already budgeted for — and probably purchased — any software or hardware you'll need, so you're ready to go.
Your arrangement may determine how your recording will start. If you have an acoustic-focused track, you may want to start with a scratch track. Typically, this will just be the singer and one instrument (perhaps a guitar, piano, or banjo). The focus will be on tempo, rhythm, and style rather than on a perfect performance. You may have a band that wants (or needs) to perform the song as close to “live” as possible in order to get the right feel. That's a completely valid approach, too. It requires thorough preparation as well.
A fully orchestrated arrangement (whether multiple live instruments or a mix of virtual and/or live recordings) will require that the tracks be laid down in sequence (unless they've already been provided to you by an orchestrator). The details of this process are beyond the scope of this post. (But let me know if you're interested in the comments and I'll provide that detail in a later post.)
When estimating times until your release, be sure to factor in longer than expected times for completing the mixing and mastering. Because my earlier releases tended to be just a few tracks, I underestimated the time on this highly multi-tracked album.
If you hire someone to do the engineering (mixing and mastering), ask them how long it will take them. If they complete their work early, that will become a bonus in your timeline.
If you don’t have experience mixing and want to do it yourself, you will need to take a class or hire an engineer. It's not just about the fader on each track. It's about mix (channel “soundstage” and frequency) separation and so much more.
If you have limited experience with mastering, start learning the details before you begin the recordings. (It's best to know about this process even if you don't do it yourself.) Also, unless your control room and speakers are tuned perfectly and your mastering templates are fully tested, be prepared to mix and master multiple times in order to get the best sound possible on a wide range of playback systems.
Obviously, you can also hire out the mastering to a professional. Recently, there have been several online mastering companies that have started advertising and collaborating with distributors. Because I enjoy the full control of doing my mixing and mastering, I have only done test runs with these services. If you've had excellent experiences with one of them, let me know.
Here are some of my favorite mixing/mastering plugins. (I don't get anything for sharing these with you. They are simply plugins I appreciate and use regularly.)
- Audified MixChecker is a helpful starting point for making sure your mix/master sound reasonable on all types of speakers and headphones. Though this plugin is quite good at what it does, I still recommend playing your recordings on several different sound systems for a real-world test that the sound can stand up to all the places it will be played.
- iZotope Ozone is my main plugin for mastering. There are lots of tutorial videos on how to use it in a professional manner and you can use some of the mastering templates provided as a starting point. Need help with setting the EQ for mixing or mastering? Add Neutron for some helpful automated suggestions for these settings.
- For vocals, I frequently turn to Waves Maserati VX1. In addition to compression and EQ tuned for vocal tracks, VX1 has its own delay & reverb. Most parameters are tweakable with presets for useful starting points.