The Stages of Music Production: From Noodling to Mastering

People involved in music production bat around the terms mixing and mastering a lot. What do they mean, and how do they fit into the overall process of producing a song?

As an independent or self-produced musician, can you take some liberty and consolidate or be more efficient in any of the stages of music production?

A Total N00b

Soon after I started college in the early 2000’s, I worked part-time as a custodian, and began buying cheap stuff to build my first home studio set-up.

I produced some awful sounding recordings, even though my ideas were pretty good. At one point I sent some of my tracks to a guy I connected to back home in Atlanta who was really starting to gain traction as an audio engineer.

“Hey, man, could you tell me how much it would cost for you to mix/master my songs?”, I innocently asked.

“You need to get your terminology straight,” he said. “Mixing and mastering are two different things!”

My bad!

When I was a noob, I didn’t know that there were discrete and sacred stages to producing a song.

The Process

Traditionally, these are the stages of music production:

  • Jam and Writing Sessions
  • Pre-production demoing
  • Meetings to discuss which tracks made the cut
  • Recording Sessions
  • Editing or Mix Prep
  • Mixing
  • Mastering
  • Pressing
  • Distribution

For the home studio musician or independent artist in the modern music era, it may look more like this:

  • Recording while writing
  • Mixing + Mastering
  • Upload to Soundcloud and/or Bandcamp

What benefit is there to breaking the process up into stages?

Let’s look at the production process’s most essential steps.

The Creative Phase

Giving birth to new ideas and riding the waves of inspiration are what makes this music thing worth doing. Too bad the fun is short-lived!

Many of your favorite tracks probably started with an impromptu jam session, a happy accident of discovering a great riff while watching TV and noodling on the guitar, or a lyric that sailed to you out of the ether.

The process of creation, of being totally swept away by your inner force and your art, is by far the most enjoyable stage in the process of musical genesis.

A single seed—a gnarly riff, a thundering drum pattern, an atmospheric chord progession on a synth—is all it takes to catalyze a rush of magic.

When I am really hit with inspiration, I experience a strange sort of timelessness—the music begins to come effortlessly and is really kicking ass. This experience is some thing the writer and physicist Alan Lightman calls “planing”:

“If you’re a sailor and you have a round-bottom boat you know that there’s a phenomenon called planing, in which the boat, if the wind is strong, the boat can get on top of the water and suddenly all of the water resistance vanishes and you feel like you’re skimming across the water like a stone; it feels like this giant hand has taken hold of the mast of your boat and just yanked you forward.”

-Alan Lightman in this article by Nautilus

The creative phase, to me, is something exciting, preternatural, maybe even transcendent.

An artist must use this phase to freely experiment and to roam wherever the inner artistic force steers.

During this stage, I like to record rough audio sketches of these free-flowing moments of highly focused, trance-like states of creation. Many of the best ideas I have had come from this, and far less so from calculating, theorizing or contriving.

Regardless of how you view the creative phase, this is where all of the substance, emotion and spirit of your music comes into being.

The Tracking Phase

Get it right at the source!

The recording phase is game time!

This is where you are laying down the final performances that will be heard by millions (hopefully)!

This is also the stage where ya gotta get it right, in terms of both performance and sound quality.

There are actually recording engineers who work in studios and specialize in the art of recording. Sometimes this person is also the producer and/or mix engineer. Regardless, this person knows how to mic guitar cabinets, vocalists and drum kits, as well as select the best microphones, pre-amps and other doo-dads for the job.

Tracking has to be taken on with great care and increased attention to the quality of the sound you’re capturing, and so the recording engineer knows and swears by the sacred code of GIGO.

I constantly cite the term GIGO, which stands for garbage in, garbage out.

Dial the guitar tone in to at least 98% of how it should sound on the release.

Capture the vocals with the right energy.

Keep the bass in tune, for god’s sake!

It’s impossible to create high-quality characteristics in a sound after it’s captured if they aren’t there in the first place.

You can’t record garbage or do a garbage job of recording, and expect anything other than garbage to come out the other end.

Trying to record something low-quality like a 10-Watt pawn shop guitar amp with a Death Metal Distortion pedal and expecting it to sound like a Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier half-stack with Celestion V-30’s is futile (unless you’re Ola Englund).

No, you don’t need high-end music gear, as I argue in this article, but you do need good essential gear to capture in the recording stage.

Don’t rely on mixing to fix bad recordings.

The Mixing Phase

Mixing music is all about getting the individual components to mesh well together.

Once you have some good, solid tracks recorded, all of the instrument tracks (kick, snare, bass, rhythm guitars, didgeridoo, etc.) are bounced down to their own files and reassembled in a mixing project.

Having these multi-track stems allows for individual control and sculpting of each instrument constituting the song.

The mix engineer is tasked with editing, leveling, shaping and balancing the song from the inside out. He or she will work to control the dynamics of each instrument using Compression, and make sure frequencies belonging to the instruments are not fighting or under/over-emphasized by utilizing EQ.

The mixing stage is also where a lot of the perceived loudness, the energy and the cohesiveness of the track begins to emerge.

Additionally, mixing features lots of subtle touches (e.g. fades, sub-bass enhancement, parallel compression, sample replacement, quantizing), an aspect of creativity, and even some arranging and sound design.

A well-mixed song is more than 95% of the way to its final sound.

As with tracking, don’t leave things to the Mastering Phase that are better dealt with during the mix when you have complete control of every individual instrument or sound.

The Mastering Phase

You want your music to sound respectable and enjoyable across different listening devices, from earbuds to audiophile speakers.

You’d really like your songs to sound good no matter what devices your fans are listening through, right?

Mastering music ensures a balance within your track, as well as a balance between tracks in an album. A good master will also translate well to any audio source (headphones, car stereo, laptop speakers, hi-fi audiophile systems) without breaking up.

A mastering engineer will focus on controlling or enhancing levels at both the smaller-scale of a single song section (micro-dynamics) and how song sections relate to one another (macro-dynamics).

An example of macro-dynamics would be having a slight boost on the limiter’s output to drive the volume of the song only during the chorus, or conversely to subtly pull the limiter’s output down on a softer passage. This can easily be achieved using automation (subject of a future Tech Tip).

A mastering house or mastering engineer will typically have very sensitive, specialty studio monitors (that are also very expensive), an acoustically-treated and calibrated room, and extraordinary super powers (actually, they just know what they’re doing and have a lot of experience).

To use a video game analogy, the mastering engineer is the final boss your music must face before it can escape the development dungeon and go out into the world.

I think of mastering as sort of the quality control phase, which is a nod to the days when a mastering house was the last stop before the label spent thousands on pressing the song or album to physical media like records, cassettes, CD’s.

While those kinds of physical media are not quite so relevant anymore, the mastering phase is an important step in checking the overall level and frequency curve of a song, the interrelationship between song sections, and the balance between the different songs that make up a album.

Streamlining My Own Process

After many, many years of making music on my own, my production process now looks like this:

  1. Creating
  2. Arranging Scratch Tracks
  3. Final Tracking
  4. Mixing + Mastering
  5. Critical Listening Sessions (Revisit Steps 3 or 4 if needed)
  6. Release

Because my drums, synths, strings, pianos etc. are all from sample packs or VST’s, all I need to do during Final Tracking usually is re-track live guitars and bass.

From there I move to the stage of Mixing + Mastering (yes, at the same time! Future post on this!). I make sure individual tracks in the song are not fighting each other or fluctuating too much in volume (check out my posts on the fundamentals of EQ and Compression).

Finally, after making sure I have ironed out every snag and enhanced the music to the best of my abilities (see 5 Tips for Finishing Your Music Projects), I release the track or album!

Every artist/producer has their own process, but hopefully this article gives an overview of the commonplace process which has its roots in the early days of music production.

Feel free to leave any questions or comments below!

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. SMW-OnOne says:

    Reblogged this on OnOneOnlinesBlog and commented:
    well done!


  2. Love your article, Keith! I hope you write more. Definitely going to check out your other ones, too. It is just so strange how a song can sound so amazing and clear on studio headphones and then when mixed down to a single track without any tweaks can seem to lose so much of its magic. Mixing and mastering music is definitely an art form that I am still trying to grasp. Anyway, thanks!


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