When you visit a studio for the first time you might ask about fees or the services offered and the quality of the gear. While they are all respectable and valid questions I can tell you they are not enough to give you a proper insight as to what really happens when going thru the recording process. The main problem is that, in most cases, songwriters/bands are completely unaware of what the recording process is. It can be very helpful to know the steps that a song has to follow in order to go from being a simple idea all the way to a finished product ready for distribution.
During the following paragraphs you will get insider knowledge as to what the recording process is. By breaking it all down to 4 major steps I will try and make you feel more confident and relaxed about a process that should be nothing but a great journey.
If you have a song, or group of songs, and are convinced that they are ready to be recorded, then it's time to get into the studio. But if you have a bit of doubt (which is completely normal), then the pre-production stage is the perfect time to sort things out. While there is no problem with being your own producer, in most cases it is best to get some outside help.
A producer can take over your project and guide you all the way to the end or he might only need to make a quick assessment and help you realize that you and your songs are more than ready to step into the studio.
A good producer must be a music oriented person, someone who knows when to leave things untouched and when to break down and analyze every part of a song under a microscope. He should be able to analyze lyrics, instrumentation, tempo and overall musical ensemble and make changes, but only if they are completely necessary. A producer should help you achieve your end goal in a fun and professional way. He should be like a friend with objectivity and good vibe who is willing to be present during your rehearsals and be part of your musical experience.
During the pre-production stage talk with your producer and create a "plan of attack" in which, based on your needs, time and budget, you will decide things like whether or not you must hire session musicians, if you will record an EP (2, 3, 5 songs) or a full album and who will be the recording engineer for your project.
The "time and money" you invest in this first step will help to greatly reduce "time and money" spent in the future steps of the recording process. Based on my experiences working on many records, I can say that investing wisely at the beginning of this process produces much better results than spending larger amounts of "money and time" correcting errors in the final steps. Errors that could have easily been resolved and/or recognized with the help of a good pre-production.
In some cases, just one person can serve as the producer and as the recording, mixing and mastering engineer of a single project. It depends on the qualifications/expertise of the person and the budget available. In an ideal world it is recommended to hire different people to cover every one of the 4 steps mentioned here. In either case the producer, along with the artists or the artist alone, should have already decided the "sound" that they are going for. This way they can tell if the recording engineer is achieving what is desired for their production. A good recording engineer is efficient, friendly and willing to give his life to get a killer guitar tone or a snare sound that blows your mind away. A good engineer will have the expertise necessary to help achieve the artistic vision for the project.
Avoid at all costs the dreaded: "WE WILL FIX IT IN THE MIX." Your target, while in the recording studio, is to get as close as possible to the finished result without having to do damage control during mixing and/or mastering. Stepping into the studio with this mentality ensures a productive and enjoyable session.
The best music is made when everyone is happy. The producer, along with the engineer, should be able to make a session flow easily by knowing when and how to motivate the musicians. For example: If a singer is having problems delivering a performance, the producer must know how to coach his singer and the engineer should have techniques to help out as well. Techniques as simple as changing a headphone mix can heavily influence a musician’s performance.
While in the studio focus on delivering a great performance and rely on your recording engineer to do a great job at capturing it.
Before starting the mixing process, I recommend to take care of all the "editing." For example: if you have multiple guitar, vocal or piano takes and still don't know which one to use, it is best to make a decision before sending the sessions off to mix. Also, if there are noisy tracks it is wise to clean those tracks beforehand. Get as much editing done and out of the way before having your songs mixed.
The reason to do this is to prevent the project from becoming a "data management task" for the mixing engineer. It is better to deliver a project in which the mixing engineer can spend more time manipulating our sessions in an artistic and creative way instead of quantifying and categorizing our music.
During this step of the process the mixing engineer, using his EQ, compression, effects and panning skills, will blend all of the tracks you previously recorded, in a way that meets the balance and harmony that the project requires.
A mixing engineer cannot read your mind. It is the responsibility of the artist and the producer to let the mixing engineer know what sound they are going for. Talk about genres, songs and albums similar to what you are trying to achieve.
Listen and analyze the work of your mixing engineer as a whole, the song as a single entity. If, like in most cases, you have limited time and budget for mixing then I recommend focusing on and adjusting things like overall tone, groove and feeling because they make a bigger impact on the final outcome of a mix than say, for example, tweaking a 1/4dB (dB=decibel) on the volume of a single guitar note that only lasts a fraction of a second. Expand your vision of the mix.
I recommend you ask your mix engineer to print instrumental versions of your songs besides the full versions. You never know when they may be required for movie or TV placement.
This is the last step, after which your songs will be ready for distribution. The mastering engineer is responsible for polishing the final mix and making it shine as much as possible. He gives uniformity to all the songs, making your EP or album sound like a single collection of songs.
One of the few details you have to discuss with your mastering engineer is the question of "loudness." Based on things like the genre and dynamics of your songs, it may be recommended to master at more conservative levels. Read a little about the "loudness war" to help you understand how it can affect your music.
For reasons of budget, time, etc. it is increasingly common for a single person to be in charge of everything from production all the way to mastering. At the risk of affecting my own business, I still have to recommend that, whenever possible, it is worth making the effort to hire a separate mastering engineer, someone who can bring a pair of "fresh ears" to the project. And quoting producer/engineer Ronan Chris Murphy: "When looking to get mastering work done, don't choose a studio, choose an engineer."
I hope I helped to dissipate the "mystery" that is the recording process, and that you will be able to make decisions that will ultimately help your music reach its full potential. Remember to always try and keep tedious and boring tasks away from the creative process. Also, don't let the lack of money stop you. If your budget is realistic enough for just one song then go ahead and make the best recording possible of that one song. It just might be "the one.” Have fun!