How to record your first song (song recording for beginners, part #2)

In the previous post, we discussed how to create a lean, low-budget home studio setting. In this article, we will learn song recording for beginners, and get you going as you are preparing to record your first song. Now let’s look at the recording process itself.

song recording for begginers
Photo by cottonbro studio:

Step #1 – find the song’s time signature and bpm

I learned this the hard way – unless you are a pro musician recording a live band session, you need to record your music with a metronome (aka a click/rhythm track). Otherwise, your song will likely sound off, and editing it will be hell. Think for example that you recorded a nice guitar riff on the first verse and you want to quickly try and see if it will sound good on the second verse too. If you recorded with a metronome, you would be able to easily copy and paste the desired part and it will match wherever you put it. If not, things will not sync and will sound off.

Every DAW (even Udacity!) comes with the ability to generate a click track or play a metronome in the background. To use that, you’ll have to specify the bpm and time signature of the song. But how do you find that?

If you are going to play an existing song, such as a cover, you can start by googling the song’s name followed by BPM and time signature.

If you don’t find any results for time signature, or the results feel incorrect, start by listening to the song a few times. Tap your hand or foot on the beat while listening to the song or singing it – sometimes even thinking about the song will do. Make sure to do a stronger tap on the accented beats and count them. Traditional counts will be 1,2,3,4 or 1,2,3 and then you will know that you have a time signature of 4/4, or 3/4. There are many more alternative time signatures, but I suggest that when taking your first steps in recording stick to the most common ones. If you are trying to record a cover of your favorite progressive metal band’s song with a time signature of 5/7 this probably isn’t the blog post for you.

To find bpm (beats per minute) of the song you can use the tap for bpm online tool, and while singing/listening to your song, tap your keyboard on every beat. The web application will record the speed of the keystrokes and display the bpm.

Step #2 – generate a click track

Now that you have the time signature and the bpm, use your audio software to generate a click track (rhythm track). To find out how to do it in your DAW google “how to add a click track in (DAW name).”  In Audacity for example you go to Generate > Rhythm Track, and input the time signature, bpm, and how many measures you want. Choose a number of measures larger than the length of your song to give yourself a buffer before and after the actual recording. The software will then generate the relevant rhythm track that will be your metronome for the recording.

In Studio One you set the time signature and bpm of the song at the bottom of the screen, and click on the metronome icon to activate it (go to metronome settings > render if you want a click track instead of the metronome).

These first two steps are super important! Don’t skip them. Having a well-set rhythm track is the basis of a good recording that is also easy to later edit.

Step #3 – check latency

Depending on which hardware and software you use, you could run into latency issues. Latency is the delay between the time you play the audio and the time your DAW is able to record it to a track. There is always some latency as sound travels through the air and wires, but some level of latency is tolerable and isn’t detected by the human ear.

If you detect latency (you hear yourself with a delay that makes it hard to perform, or when you play back what you recorded you notice that the tracks are not synced, you have latency issues). Google “how to solve latency issues on (your DAW)”.

A quick solution for hearing yourself with a delay when you perform is to use direct monitoring, meaning to hear the audio you create by connecting headphones to the audio interface, instead of hearing it as output from your computer. Some DAWs like Studio One come with built-in latency cancelation features.

Anyway, if this sounds complicated, just skip this section, and if you do come across notable latency, research how to solve it in your software. I will not go into the details of latency correction, because it depends on the software you’re working with, but I will say that it is much simpler than it sounds.

Step #4 – record chords

Now you finally start recording. The first track I suggest that you record is a chord track – a guitar or another instrument playing chords throughout the entire song. That will give you a framework to the song, which you can later delete if you don’t need. As you record the chords pay close attention to the click track and make sure that you are “on it”. Playing with a click track is a skill that takes time to master but is super important. When I was just starting out recording, I often had to record the chords a few times until I was satisfied with the rhythmic alignment.

Step #4.5 – check the sound

If you are playing acoustic guitar to set the chord track (or any other guitar track), here are a few tips on getting good sound.

  1. Connect your guitar to the sound recording system and record a sample recording to check that it sounds good.
  2. If it doesn’t sound good, check the settings on your guitar – many acoustic guitars let you control the bass and treble, play with the knobs until you hear a sound that you like.
  3. Is your pickup battery running low? A common issue that influences guitar pickup sound is battery age. If the battery is too old, you might not get a good sound even if the low battery signal doesn’t light up. Keep a fresh battery for recording, often it will solve the problem of guitar recording sounding low quality.
  4. Then you should also check the settings on your recording system. If the gain on the inputs is too high, there may be clipping and distortion, resulting in a lower-quality sound.
  5. Do you get a static, buzzing noise? If you are recording with a laptop and your laptop is plugged into the electric outlet, you will often get a static buzz. Try to disconnect the computer charger and see what happens.

It might sound complicated now, but once you start recording, you’ll get it in no time.

Step #5 – record other channels

After you have a chord track, you’re ready to record the other channels. You can go ahead and mute the click track, even though some people like to keep the click track as they are recording the other instruments, especially if there is no drum track.

Name the tracks. Especially if you are recording a multitrack song, naming will make your life easier when you need to find something. Give them easy names such as: guitar chords, guitar riff, bass, guitar solo, main vox (vocals), bgv (background vocals), etc.

Step #6 – Edit

If you make a mistake, you don’t have to record the entire track again – you can silence the parts you don’t like and record them again. This is easier done on tracks that have natural breaks in the audio (like vocals), and harder on continuous tracks such as a chords track, in which you have to make clean entries and exits, but still doable and will become a piece of cake as you record more and more.

When it comes to editing your recorded song, the options are endless, and there are entire courses on audio enhancement and mixing. You can start by improving the overall audio with noise removal and normalize effects. You can increase and decrease the volume on specific tracks to improve the mix. You can pan some of the tracks left or right. You can add fade-in and fade-out the song. You can add many more effects to your liking and according to your level of software proficiency.

Step #7 – Share

There is a lot to be gained from seeking feedback on your recorded song. You can send the song to friends or music teachers in your circle, or you can share the song with an online community. I highly recommend the online community option because anonymity opens a space for sincere feedback that you might not get from people who like you.

One such community is the Justin Guitar Community. There is a discussion board in which you can upload an audio or video and get comments from others, and there is also a monthly competition. It is a very friendly community, and if you want to increase the quantity of feedback you get, you can start by providing feedback on songs that other people upload. Even if you feel underqualified to give constructive feedback, you can simply say that you like the song or specify what you liked and what you didn’t like about the recording. Be confident and authentic, it will be appreciated, and others will be motivated to comment on your song.

To sum up

Song recording is an art, a profession, something that takes a lot of time to learn and perfect. Nonetheless, you have to start somewhere! Follow the steps outlined in the post to get going with your initial recordings.

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