The best recording order: a crash-course on studio recording

The best recording order? It’s a smart question. You have a Digital Audio Workstation, a great song and all your instruments. But in what order should you record them? Here’s a crash course to get you good to go.

     Step One: Programmed Beats (or a click-track)

The very first thing laid down in professional studios are programmed beats.

If you’re recording hip hop, EDM, electronica or some other genre using digital drums and percussion, programming these beats will be your first step. Other instruments and vocalists will use these beats to keep time.

If you’re recording a traditional band or other form of analog music, your drummer will need a click-track to help keep time.

A click-track is just a metronome.

Most modern recording software has a click-track setting somewhere. Set the tempo to the speed of your song and you’re ready to lay down drums.

     Step Two: Drums and Percussion (skip this step if you programmed beats)

The drummer should play right on top of all the sounds the click-track makes. If you can hear the click-track as the drummer plays, it means the drummer is playing between the intended beats and has to do it over.

When you’re happy with the drums you’ve recorded, take out the click-track so just the real drums are left. If the percussion section has done their job, you shouldn’t need it, anymore. Everyone else is going to use the drums to keep time.

Note: some music groups have a “live” feeling. Their sound fluctuates in a way fans like. A drummer may have a hard time playing to a click-track, and forcing him or her to play to the click can result in a forced, mechanical-sounding album or single. Consider setting up mics around a room and recording the band playing together. The result will be much more messy and hard to mix, but you’ll preserve that spirit which a click-track can kill dead.

Step Three: Bass Instruments

Bass instruments should come after drums. Often this means electric bass guitar, but it can also mean cello, tuba, double bass (stand-up bass) or even saxophone.

Traditionally the bass should follow the bass drum so the bassist times notes to land on the kick of the drummer.

However, the recording engineer should not instruct instrumentalists in how to perform on their own recording. (That’s the producer’s job…).

Step Four: Melody Instruments (Body Instruments)

Once you have bass lines recorded, lay down the instruments which play out the main chord progression of the song.

Often this means the so-called “rhythm” guitar, the one playing the body structure of the song.

In hip hop it may be a loop of synth chords, or a sample taken from somewhere with a chain of notes.

In Latin music it’s often a duo or trio of trumpets.

Other common instruments used to form the body over the bass lines include keyboard, some violins, or a chorus of singers.

Lead guitarist Karl Caleb of Caveman Voicebox

Step Five: Harmony Instruments (“Lead,” Head or Solo Instruments)

Home stretch!

By the time you get to leads and heads, recording sequence matters much less.

Traditionally solo instruments which play harmonies — nearly always using single notes — are recorded before vocals or other finishing touches. This is not a concrete rule. If the lead singer or lead guitarist is having a baby the day of recording, feel confident swapping dates.

Lead instruments can include electric guitar, clarinet, violin, flute, trumpet, runs on the piano, or really pretty much anything.

G Funk Supreme at Rec Your Mind Studios, Long Beach (Photo by Stephen Carr / Daily Breeze)

Step Six: Vocals

Usually by the time the engineer and producer call for the vocalist, everyone wants to go home.

That’s OK, though, because when the producer says, “That’s it! I think that’s good,” the musicians can go home.

Of course, the lead vocalist quite often provides vocal harmonies, too. Record these right after the lead vocals go down.

From here on out, the engineer and producer will often steer everything else — unless…

Step Seven: Knick-Knacks, Bells-n-Whistles, Other Finishing Touches

The producer may decide to throw in some surprises at this point.

Hip hop often throws in a few additional samples for style or laughs. Other forms of music may lay down some tambourines, castanets, maracas, “egg” shakers, or sound effects like breaking glass, doors slamming, or any other cool, creative thing.

Step Eight: Mixing, Mastering and Distribution!

After the recording artists go home, the engineer and producer get all the levels audible.

That’s mixing.

Mastering is done by professionals.

And so is distribution!


That’s all for this week’s MondoBlog. Be sure to check in next time for more how-to’s from the crew who help you do you.





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