3: Recording

Once the song has taken shape, it’s time to start recording. It's okay if the lyrics aren't finished, those can be edited easily later. If your band has a drummer, you are all set and can dive right in. If you are like me and don’t have a drummer in the studio during this process, you really need to start with a click track and a beat of some kind before recording any other instrument. This can be a drum machine, drum loops, or even just use the click track if that’s your thing (it's not mine!). It’s important to have something solid here though, so if you want to add a drummer later it will be easy for them. Lately I’ve opted for drum loops from a professional session drummer, they usually come with about 10 variations per “song” in a specific tempo. Once I have selected loops that work with my guitar parts, I start the song and make sure to set that tempo in the DAW (Pro Tools, Logic, Garageband etc.) before recording the first instrument. Next, I lay out the drum arrangement using those different loops and move on to the first instrument. Sometimes I find the drum arrangement doesn’t quite work, so I might adjust that and redo the first instrument. You don’t want to go too far until you are really happy with the drums and the first instrument. For me the first instrument is usually guitar, but it could be bass or keyboards as well.

If the first instrument was guitar or keyboards, I’ll probably do two tracks of those while the playing is fresh in my mind. Next I move onto a vocal track. For me this will always be just a “scratch track”, but I find it’s super important to have the basic vocals down before moving on to the other instruments. Nothing is more important than the vocals, so you want to build the song around that, otherwise the vocal might be drowned out by too many other voices or just won’t sound like it quite fits. I made this mistake many times, and the end result isn't ideal, so I've learned to start the vocal earlier in the process. Next, I'll add a bass track. I don't spent a ton of time on this since as it's just a “scratch” track for the drummer, but it's important have a solid track that showcases the groove here. If there is an instrumental part, I'll also record a “scratch” lead guitar so the drummer will know what's going on there. Occasionally I end up keeping this lead guitar, but usually it gets replaced toward the end of the process.

For me, this is where I send the song to a drummer. The drummer on my last album has a studio down the street, but we never actually met in person. Instead, I engaged him online and sent him the “stem” tracks of my song. He uploaded those into his system and that way has control over the volume of guitar, bass, vocal etc. and can mute the drum loop that I was playing to. He then sent me back about 20 “stem” tracks of his drumming. Yes, 20! At minimum you want about five tracks - kick, snare, overhead left, overhead right and toms. My drummer, Eyal Satat, had two mics on the snare, two on the kick, four overheads (in different configurations), a room mic, mics on all three toms a couple others I'm forgetting and then he added percussion overdubs (shakers, tambourines, bongos etc.). I would upload those back into my mix and make sure it aligned to my instruments and the performance sounded good. If not, I'd ask for a revision. 

Next I send the song to a bass player. I play bass, but I'm not a bass player. I realized during the recording of this album that the songs were missing great bass lines, and that to have the same bass player on the whole album would really help glue the album together. So, I sent the “stem” tracks to a pro and he sent back three versions to choose from. On the last album I had the pleasure of working with one of the best bass players in the world, Tim Lefebvre. He played on David Bowie's “Blackstar” (Grammy winning album) and countless other awesome accomplishments. Tim's bass lines elevated my songs like I did not expect. People don't often notice the impact of bass, but it's importance should not be understated. After seeing how Tim and Eyal's additions changed my songs, I realized I needed to dive deep into the vocals and try to raise them to the level of this tremendous rhythm section. Most people love music, but vocals are very subjective. Songs that get skipped the most are ones where the vocal didn’t sit well with the listener. Of course there is also genre preference (I personally might skip a track because it sounds like thrash metal or country, or country metal!! if that’s a thing), but even if you hear something in a genre that you don’t like that doesn’t have vocals at all, you’d be much more likely to listen further. For this reason I feel it’s important to focus on making the vocals the best they can be.

Most DAWs allow you to record and save many takes of a track during recording. This is SUPER important if you aren’t a perfect singer. You do NOT need to perform a perfect take all the way through for it to sound good. Instead, do your best on 10 takes and later you can piece those together into the best performance. As long as you did all the takes in the same session it will still sound like it was the same take. It’s much harder to come back a month (or even a day) later to fix a bad part. Part of this is just the vibe of the singer, but often it has to do with physical settings of hardware or software. Maybe the compressor was lower, or the preamp higher, but the new vocal might sound just different enough from the original take to be noticeable, which would distract from the song itself.

This process of piecing together the vocal takes into one super take is called “comping” (I believe because you compare each take and select the best parts). You can outsource this if you aren’t comfortable and honestly that might yield the best results because the neutral party will have fresh ears and can more easily identify the best takes. I don’t have this in my budget, so I comp myself. If possible I try to keep the same take for at least a whole verse/chorus as it can start sounding a bit odd if you use different takes for each phrase or word. It's important for me to step away and listen to it a day or week later, because it gives me a much more realistic view of whether it is working or not. Occasionally I'll be working on a song and even with all the best comping, it doesn't sound right. Maybe the rhythm was off, or the pitch, or the melody. In this case, I just start over with a new track and hide the one that doesn't work. That way I can still do the comping method, but not mix the better new takes with the older ones that didn't work at all.

If you don't have perfect pitch, you might need to do some tuning with Auto-tune or Melodyne. I only recently accepted this. I do not like vocals that sound tuned. However, if I'm having a rough time with hitting the right pitches, I'll use one take and crank up the Auto-tune unnaturally just so the notes stand out. Then I record a new track listening to the corrected notes from that first track while I sing. Then I mute the Auto-tune one and hopefully I've hit the pitch better on the natural one. It doesn't always work and is a bit wierd, but it's a cool trick. If I just need to correct a couple notes that are just a semi-tone off, I use Melodyne. It lets you drag the notes up to the correct pitch, and it's non-destructive, so if at the end you don't like it you just disable the plugin and your original performance is intact. Again this is something you can outsource to a professional and that would most likely yield the best results, but if your budget is tight you can learn this program with a few hours of free tutorials. That's what I did in the middle of my last album. Not for every song, and mostly just on choruses where I was singing along with a backing singer that has perfect pitch, but this tool really did wonders. If can also RUIN your music, so you need to be careful as you go and edit more with your ears then eyes. That's why I don't like Auto-tune, because it just moves notes so they look to be inline with the key. Sometimes it sounds cool to be a little bit off-key. Some folks call that a “blue note”. It can really express emotion if done in a cool way. Also, a slightly off key note can sometimes sound better then a corrected one that sounds unnatural. That's my opinion anyway!