Small Brown Birds inches toward completion. All the tracks are “engineering/mix complete” and are in the process of being mastered, which is the last step before going to manufacturing. Zoe is also busy finishing up the album art.
The path to an album is more complicated than one might expect. Consider the many stages:
- Writing the song!
Zoe usually describes this as a process of discovery. Songs “find her” or she “finds them”. A lot happens while walking. But we can describe the essence of song writing as the creation of a melody and associated lyrics, if any.
- Arranging the song.
(Bits of this happen at stages 1, 3, and 4. It’s not typically a discrete stage.) This is the process of deciding how the song is to be performed. Deciding what instrument(s) will be played, what singers, harmony, where to pitch it and in what key all are part of arranging, the tempo, etc.
- Recording the arrangement.
While this list makes all this seem like a highly linearly staged process (first you write the song, then you arrange it, then you record that arrangement like a performance), it doesn’t have to work that way and often doesn’t. You might have the tune and a basic version with just voice and guitar that you record. With that in hand, you might start thinking about what other lines and instruments would be interesting. Or you might experiment with another instrumental line against the basic track. Or you bring in a session musician to add some texture. Mostly, you try to build up a mass of material representing a number of possible final arrangements.
- Mixing the recording.
This is where you finalize the arrangement and the recording thereof. It might be as simple as slapping through recorded tracks together and adjusting the balance and positioning. Or it might be as complex as pulling individual notes from separate attempts to make one you really like.
- (Repeat 1-4 for all the other songs.)
- Mastering the songs.
Mastering is a sort of mixing/engineering, but instead of being for the purpose of getting the arrangement it aims at a holistic texturing of the song (and of the songs relative to the whole album). This is closer to the sort of thing you do with your own stereo when you adjust the volume or play with EQ. Probably the most important (and often controversial) modification applied during mastering is applying compression. Essentially, compression is a reduction in the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a recording (i.e., the dynamic range). Radio (and other typically ambient playing) is a big driver and is why you generally don’t have to fiddle with the volume knob very much. Without compression, if you set your overall volume high, you run the risk of distortion (and other unpleasantness) on the really loud bits. If you set it low, then you run the risk of not hearing the soft bit.
Of course, volume dynamics is part of what makes music interesting! It’s a critical tool in the composer and performer toolkit. Appropriate compression tries to preserve the…dynamic flow? dynamic structure?…of the performance while restricting the dynamic range. But this is tricky, eh? There’s a tendency to just make things louder (to get the “excitement”) just like there’s a tendency to push things faster.
- Making the discs/uploading the songs!
I still find that there’s a mastering stage a bit weird, esp. as it is typically done by specialised engineers after all the recording and mixing is done (at least, in my experience).