The lights are dimmed, the microphones are set up and the engineer has nodded and hit the record button. For any musician, few feelings compare to the thrill of listening to a a recorded piece of their own work. To achieve this thrill, artists take a trip to the recording studio, where they can record their musical masterpieces and, thanks to today’s technology, produce high-quality work.
The opening stages
The process of transferring an artist’s song onto a recording doesn’t take as long as most may think. “Honestly, it is possible to do the whole thing in a couple of weeks,” said David Lau, the owner of Ann Arbor-based Brookstone Studio, Inc.which specializes in classical and jazz music.
At Brookstone, the musician and the musical engineers meet in a preproduction meeting to discuss the type of project, as well as other factors such as the project’s budget and the amount of control the musicians have in the final edition of the work.
“Some bands want to overdub every part,” said Lau, describing a process where the musicians play their instruments over a piece of already recorded music.
“It’s a balancing act between time, money and goals,” he added.
Some bands bring along a producer, who serves as an intermediary between the musicians and the engineer. However Lau, who has had over 25 years of experience with sound engineering, has developed a keen ear for how the music should sound.
“The producer is the person who says to the artist: ‘That’s perfect. Now do it again,’ “ said Lau, quoting a favorite saying from one of his friends.
Interestingly, as technology has changed, so has the methods used to learn to record music. Lau said that when he first learned his craft, sound engineering was not taught in schools; rather, he learned by apprenticeship.
Laying it down
There are two main formats used in recording music: digital and analog. While some artists like the analog format, which enables the artist to create some unique distortion sounds, digital allows for perfect quality each and every time it is used and it is easier to store. According to Lau, digital is the way to go.
“It is, quite simply, a lot more accurate. You can make it as accurate as you want,” he said.
When the time comes to record, the musicians either head into the studio or just perform live. When the latter option is chosen, engineers pack up their mixers (the electronic consoles used to balance the sounds of all the differrent instruments) and head over to the venue. Microphones are positioned in order to pick up each instrument’s unique sound, even the low rumble of a bass.
During and after a recording, it’s the engineer’s job to make sure the sounds of all the instruments are at the proper levels. Of course, errors do occur, so sometimes, the artists will head back to the studio to re-record tracks. Drums or horns are recorded in a separate room in order not to interfere with the other instruments, According to Lau, it’s at this point in the process when’s it’s important to mix the live and studio tracks to ensure that the listener can’t tell the difference between the two.
The University marching band knows what it’s like to to have their work recorded, as each year, they do recordings, both live and in the studio. According to Music Prof. Jamie Nix, who is also the director of the marching band, the musicians record every year in Crisler Arena, setting up instruments both on the court and in the bleachers.
“Once I begin editing, I listen to all the raw material for many hours and select bits and pieces that I want to put together. (Lau and I) try to make it as perfect as we can, and together, we have made some almost impossible things happen,” Nix said.
“It wasn’t that long ago when cut and splice literally meant cutting reel-to-reel tape and taping it together. Now, it seems you can just push a button, click and drag to do what used to be exhausting work,” he added.
Nix also said that the marching band usually records their music at the end of the semester. With intense, four-hour recording sessions, some of the musicians can end up losing some of their initial excitement, but the end result is well worth it.
“We end up with sometimes 40 or 50 takes for one two minute song, depending on the level of difficulty. I think they feel like it’s worth it when the CD comes out and the finished product sounds great,” Nix said.