What is Music Production? Want to be a music producer?
If you want to produce a music track or even cut an EP or album, then it is necessary to learn (at least a little) about music production, what is is music producers do and the music industry in general. This article is designed as a quick introduction to these concepts, aimed at complete newbies.
So what is music production? Music production or audio production, broadly speaking, is the process of producing a recorded piece of music, usually designed for commercial distribution and entertainment, and always intended for the listening, and hopefully enjoyment, of an audience.
Music production spans all musical genres and can be broken down into three distinct phases: recording, mixing and mastering. A music producer takes responsibility for all 3 of these phases, ensuring continuity in the overall sound of the final musical product and acting as the gel that binds the production team (consisting primarily of musicans and sound engineers) together. Music producers work very hard through each of these stages to ensure that the original musical vision is realized to the best of the team's ability.
After the mastering is completed, the business aspects of music production take over as the finished product is distributed as CDs or records via the various retail routes (increasingly this is a digital only process with the majority of music sold online in 2013: however, (mostly) the bigger record labels still distribute music for physical retail in real high street stores).
Recording is the phase where the basic musical elements that will comprise the final product are captured as the band play the songs they want to include on the track listing. Recording generally takes place in a recording studio for the best acoustic results, which are usually laden with all kinds of music production equipment - from mixing desks to microphones and the musical instruments themselves - from guitars and bass guitars to a drum kit, keyboard, piano right through to a couple of tambourines and triangles.
The recording part, where the musicians get to do their thing (overseen by the producer), is often seen as the most creative part of the music production process - but this is not always true, with a great deal of creativity often going into the mixing aspect too. However, there is no denying that the recording is the most glamorous part of music production, especially if the artists involved are well known. Fans and "groupies" are well known for trying to get a glimpse of their favourite bands as they lay down tracks in the studio for an upcoming album.
It's not all glamour, though. Recording music in the studio is hard work, with many, many takes usually required to get the "right" track captured (a band often has to play each song hundreds of times before they can "wrap" it). And, of course, most bands take time to create demo tapes and usually rehearse new material for many months before the recording phase even begins.
During the recording phase, most instrument tracks - guitars, bass, vocals, drums, keyboards, etc. - are captured individually, even though the band plays the songs as a whole. Each musician stands behind a special screens to minimize the "wash" of other instruments into their recording feed (you can't avoid this completely but it can be improved in post production).
Once all the required isolated tracks have been captured, including additional guitar and keyboard parts (or "overdubs") then it's time to mix everything together. This is increasingly done digitally using an high-end application installed on a computer (either a PC or a Mac, even at home), but many recording studios and producers prefer the traditional mixing desk approach.
Whichever technique is used, the principle is the same: the tracks need to be combined in a way that makes them sound balanced and interesting. This means fading in and fading out instruments and vocals at certain points in each track, and adding overdubs to beef the sound up. Although many rock bands prefer to work the lo-fi approach to studio recording (much to the chagrin of many a rock music producer), with minimal overdubs to recreate on record the live sound they produce on stage, even they will tend to use some overdubs to enhance the energy of the music.
Some rock bands, particularly the prog rock bands of the 60s, 70s and 80s such as Pink Floyd and the Who, would use as many as 12 guitar overdub tracks for their most ambitious and rich sounding albums. These are almost always recorded by the same guitarist, who plays against the "base" recording of the track performed by the entire band. Although not a recent or new technique, and in fact very commonplace today, these techniques were milestones in sound engineering back in the golden age of popular music.
The goal of music mixing is to retain the essence of the performance, but enhance it and correct or edit out any mistakes that were made during recording. Often, the guitar parts of a song are actually an edited combination of various takes, and this is all managed via the music mixing process.
Music mixing as the term applies to dance and electronic music, also follows the same principle albeit with slightly varied techniques. The primary difference is, most of the sound elements are not captured in a recording studio but electronically generated or sourced from pre-existing sound libraries. It is still conducted by a producer with the same goals - to bring out the best in the musical components and create something bigger and better than the sum of its parts.
The goal of music mixing is to incrementally refine the working mix until a final mix can be produced, which all key stakeholders like and sign off on. The final mix contains the ideal balance of all the component sounds, ready to be listened to and enjoyed (hopefully) by the end audience.
Once the final mix edit has been assembled and no further changes are needed, then the music mastering, or audio mastering, can take place. Whatever method has been used to produce the final mix, be it digitally or through traditional tape and a mixing desk, the data must be transferred to a data storage device which will be the "master" recording from which all copies will be made from.
Digital masters are very common nowadays, however analog methods are still widely used; generally this means transferring the final mix information to a magnetic tape reel which will be stored in special conditions.
Music mastering demands a number of skills from the personnel that undertake this role, not least of which is the ability to ensure the equalization of the sound elements is properly retained when played back on different sound system configurations (not just popular configurations such as stereo headphones but also complex, audiophile multi-speaker set-ups).
There are professional tools available that can assist in this engineering process, however it is mostly something that comes from instinct and experience. A good music masterer engineer, who has had a career in the industry for a good number of years, will just know when the music is properly balanced. A good sound engineer is worth his or her weight in gold.
The environment in which the mastering takes place must be free from noise pollution and the equipment used must be accurate.
Once the mastering is complete, then the album or track is ready for distribution to the masses, via routes to market both traditional (physical media records sold in bricks and wood stores) and modern (digital distribution direct to the end customer via download).
We hope this article has been of some help. Here on Tradebit we have much more than just this crash course article on music production. If you enjoyed this guide then check out some of the insightful eBooks we have, packed with information on music production, right here for instant download in ePub and Mobi formats, and can be read on your PC, Mac, tablet or eReader.
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You'll soon be well on your way to becoming the next George Martin !