In the next few posts, I want to walk you through “The Process”, “The Gear”, and “The Technical” aspects of recording worship. I have put these items in this order for a reason and I want to take them in this order so that you can make sure you are thinking about the most important thing at the most important time. Make sense? In this post we will tackle The Process. There are so many great resources for learning the “How?” it seems quite redundant to cover that stuff here. I will simply point you to the BEST resources out there for DIY recording.
Here we go!
I recently read in the Jesus Calling devotional by Sarah Young, “If you try to carry tomorrow’s burdens today, you will stagger under the load and eventually fall flat”. This is true with the burdens of life yes, but it’s also true with the “burdens” of a recording project’s life. Recording projects can sometimes feel like lifetimes unto themselves and they can consume every aspect of your thought-life. I know this because it happens to me. This is why the focusing on the right thing at the right time is so crucial. It will help you start your project but more importantly it will ensure that you finish your project. It’s easy to get so overwhelmed and bogged down that you simply loose focus and eventually burnout from it and quit. I have found it best to worry about what needs to happen today and leave what needs to happen tomorrow where it is. I will get there eventually. It’s important that you understand the entire scope of your project while at the same time focusing on the task at hand. In my opinion things should be done in an orderly fashion. If you get burned out and give up, not a single person will get to hear your project and we all lose out on hearing your art. If a painter never finishes his masterpiece it’s not really a masterpiece, it’s just paint on a canvas! Let’s not forget we are writing and/or recording these songs as an act of worship to our Living God.
So the process is this:
So many times when I write with folks, I quickly realize that they have never actually completed the writing phase of songwriting. Nobody wants to hear your half finished song. I am not judging…it’s cool if the song is not done. Take your time and finish it, BUT set a deadline so that you don’t procrastinate. Get it finished. If you don’t finish the song you can’t record it. Your song does not have to be the best song ever written, it just needs to be complete. If you need help finishing it, ask someone you trust to help you. More often than not, they are going to have great insight to offer and likely make your song better. If you write with a worship team and you are stuck, admit that you are stuck and ask for outside help. The same outcome is likely. You will have a better song AND it will be finished.
Have you finished writing songs? Great! Now it’s time to make sure those songs are the best they can be. In this phase you are going to look as objectively as possible at your finished songs. This means that you need to look at the arrangement, the tempo, the key, etc., and make sure they are the best for the song and vocalist singing the song. At this point I will often start referencing other material that my song resembles. If there are things that inspired the song in question go ahead and learn from everything that went into that song. How long is it? Does it suit a congregation? Does it need to suit a congregation? How many choruses are there? It’s ok to copy song structure. It’s true what they say that there is nothing new under the sun. What is the instrumentation? Will that instrumentation fit your song? That’s a lot of questions to answer and you have not even started to record it yet. Don’t be scared…that’s why we are taking things one-step at a time.
When you decide to record your own project you have to assume all the different roles for the project. That means you are the artist, the writer, the producer, the engineer, and the mixer. Each job has different functions and requires different skill sets. I believe you can do it! Just be methodical in each phase and try to keep them as separate as possible if you are in charge of the project unless it is a situation where the blending of producer, engineer and mixer is required which will happen from time to time in the project. So the next thing in preproduction is to make a scratch recording of the song(s) you are planning on recording. By scratch I mean that this needs to be the tempo and key you picked for the song and you need to do a rough recording of it in the finished structure. This is so that you can familiarize yourself with the song for the final recording. We also want to make sure that we have solidified as many of the parts as possible. The reason I mention this is not that they can’t be changed when you do the final recording but so that you can change them come recording time. If you know what the part is supposed to be, it gives you freedom to try something different. You are quickly going to figure out if the part is just different, or truly better.
Whew! We got all that prep stuff finished and now is the time for you to start recording final tracks for your project. Obviously, for the sake of time I have left out some of the more mundane details in the previous sections, that are too lengthy to discuss. I will do the same in this section as well. Honestly, I don’t know your individual engineering abilities. I like to put it on a scale of 1-10 as far as experience and abilities are concerned. 1, meaning you have never touched a recording interface or worked with recording software, to 10, meaning you are a professional engineer and have done REAL recording work on well-known recordings and artists. If you are a 10…thanks for reading this article, though I am not sure why you would waste your time with it! If you are a 1-7 I think that you will benefit from learning “The Process”.
Once you learn how to use your DAW (recording software) and understand your audio interface and its prospective preamps, you are ready to record. I am only going to tell you 2 things about recording, and they are things I wish someone had shared with me when I started out.
The first thing is: Get it right while you are recording! Yes, it’s true that technology is amazing right now and you can fix or correct most things after it is recorded, BUT I promise you your recording will sound much better and be much easier to mix if you take the time to get good takes and good performances. Note, I did not say “perfect!” That is totally subjective and it is an always-moving target. The goal should be to get the best take possible at the time. This means getting as close to the finished sound you want from the recording up front. That means if you want a crunchy guitar sound, record it that way. If you want a really dynamic vocal, record it that way. If you want a really dry vocal, record it in a smaller more acoustically dead space.
The second thing is this: Stop recording so hot! When recording into your computer you want the levels for your instruments or voice to have plenty of headroom. This allows everything in your system to work together to give you the best possible sound. Record at moderate levels so that you are hitting your “pre-fader” meters at around -18dbfs RMS. That is not an easy thing to figure out, but in my setup, that means I don’t let any of my sources peak at more than -11dbfs. That usually gives me an average of -18dbfs. I know this is a little technical but the idea is that you do not need to record hot into your software. You may think, “when the tracks are not hot enough I can’t hear them.” What this means is that you need to turn your speakers or headphones up until they are at a level that you can hear the parts. I want your recording to be successful and sound great. I am telling you these things because they will make the biggest impact from the start.
As for teaching you how to record properly step by step, I am going to defer to a couple of folks I mentioned in my last post. They have spent so much time and energy offering education and tutorials that I feel that it would be a disservice not to mention them. Please do yourself and your songs a favor and check out all of Graham Cochrane’s stuff at www.TheRecordingRevolution.com. He is a stand up guy and one heck of a teacher! The other person I mentioned before is Dave Pensado over at Pensado’s Place. Both of these sites are completely free and worth every second you spend on them. The other thing I will suggest to you is to use YouTube. It is an amazing resource and there are hundreds of great tutorial videos for the “how to’s” of recording audio.