Recording Industry, Production Process of

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The process that allows a song, from its inception as a creative seed in the mind of a songwriter, to blossom into a compact disc, cassette, or data file downloaded from a website is a complicated one that includes a wide range of specialized vocations. In general, the recording production process can be broken down into three phases: preproduction, production, and postproduction. Although each genre of music, such as pop, urban, modern rock, or country, has some idiosyncrasies, all typically share similar procedures in the production chain.

In addition to the three production phases a song goes through, the completed work must be manufactured, promoted, and distributed to the public. Although these business functions are not part of the production process, they have a pervasive effect on most production decisions. Therefore, people who work in creative vocations such as songwriter, producer, audio engineer, and performer must understand them.


A song is born, from a legal standpoint, the moment that it is put into some fixed form. The most common fixed form is an audio recording— cassettetape or digital audiotape—which is the rough song demo. Once a song is fixed in this manner, it is protected by federal copyright laws. However, most songwriters go one step further and register their songs with the U.S. Library of Congress. By merely completing and mailing the appropriate copyright registration application (form PA), including a copy of the song demo and a nominal fee, the song becomes registered with the Library of Congress Office of Copyright. That simple procedure activates statutory protection and provides an accurate date of ownership.

An active songwriter, trying to earn a living from creating marketable songs, usually enlists the help of a publisher. The publisher will, for a percentage of future royalties, endeavor to get the song recorded and distributed. A songwriter generally agrees to a 50/50 split of all royalties derived from use of the song. One of the first things that a publisher does with a new song is record a more fully produced demo of the song to present to potential users.

Song pluggers from the publishing company pitch the song to people who are looking for songs for upcoming albums. The people who influence the decision regarding what songs will be included on a recording are the producer, record company staff members, the artist, and the artist's manager. Songs go through several levels of screening before even being seriously considered for the album. However, when the producer asks the publisher to "put the song on hold," it is not pitched to other producers.

The responsibility for signing new artists to a record label falls on the artist and repertoire (A&R) department. After an act is signed to a label, the A&R director works with the artist and the artist's management to select a producer for the album. Once a producer has agreed to take on the project, the A&R administrator and album producer develop a production budget. Odd as it may seem, the production costs are paid by the artist. A label will normally give the artist an advance against future royalties to pay for producing the album. The advance is, however, usually in the form of a production budget that is under the control of the producer.

The producer is responsible for developing the creative concept for each song that is included on the album. The producer might also enlist the assistance of specialized arrangers on one or more songs. A vocal arranger specializes in creating background vocals; a "horn section" arranger orchestrates arrangements for brass and woodwind instruments; and a string section arranger creates orchestrations for violins, violas, and cellos.

A critical part of preproduction is the selection of a recording studio in which to work. A studio not only provides the obvious recording equipment necessary to capture music on tape, it also offers an ambiance to support long and tedious recording sessions. Studios generally offer the option of analog or digital tape recorders. The mix console—or board—is an important factor in the producer's choice of studios.

The last set of choices the producer makes during preproduction concerns personnel who will be hired on an hourly basis. Even if the act being produced is a band, additional instrumentalists and vocalists are hired for the recording sessions. Recordings that are distributed by major labels typically use union performers. Singers fall under the jurisdiction of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), and instrumentalists are most often members of the American Federation of Musicians (AF of M).

Because much of the recording process is dependent on the skills of the audio engineer, a producer often has a preferred engineer (i.e., the first engineer) to work with in studio situations. In turn, first engineers characteristically work with a second engineer of choice. A team that consists of producer and first and second engineers is somewhat common in the industry.


The production phase of a recording normally begins with the in-studio recording of the master recording. A master recording is created using either an analog or a digital tape recorder. The newest generation of recording media, hard-disk recorders, will likely replace magnetic tape in the future. All recording devices that are used for master recordings have one thing in common: multi-track capability.

Multitrack recording evolved as technological advances permitted. The early monophonic (1-track) recording format gradually evolved into the stereophonic (2-track) format. Then the number of tracks available to producers began to increase every few years: 4-track, 8-track, 16-track, and 24-track. Using tape recorders that are locked together offers a producer the option of 48 or more tracks for isolating sound inputs.

The first sounds to get recorded come from the rhythm section: keyboards, rhythm guitar, electric bass, and drum kit. These basic rhythm tracks are recorded using a vocalist to sing the melody and lyrics. This rough vocal track is referred to as a "scratch track" or "guide vocal" because it will, in all likelihood, be replaced with "keeper vocals" at a later time. This phase (i.e., tracking or cutting rhythm tracks) is laborious but critical. If these basic tracks are recorded without correct pitch, tempo, and rhythmic continuity, the entire album will be in jeopardy. The old adage "We'll fix it in the mix" is pure fiction.

In order to lock-in tempos, the producer usually records a click track onto one track of the multitrack tape. The click track acts like a metronome and helps ensure that each new layer of sound retains the rhythmic integrity. A click track is also very helpful in the editing stage, where precise location of the rhythmic pulse is essential. A more sophisticated variation on a click track is a musical instrument digital interface (MIDI) track. A MIDI track is created with the aid of synthesizers, drum machines, and computers.

Each instrument in the rhythm section is recorded in isolation from the other instruments. That way, if the bass player makes a mistake, the bass part can be fixed in isolation; the other parts will not need to be fixed. This is accomplished by using soundproof isolation booths or movable sound-absorbent baffles (i.e., gobos). In addition, each instrument—especially the drum kit—has the option of multiple input devices.

Input devices include microphones and direct boxes. A direct box routes an electronic signal from its source—guitar, electric bass, or keyboard—directly into the console. This eliminates the possibility of any sound from other instruments bleeding into the instrument's signal. Microphones, on the other hand, are placed near the sound source and are susceptible to other studio sounds bleeding into the sound of another instrument or voice being recorded.

It is possible to have the guitar played through an amplifier and speaker cabinet in the studio and then place a microphone in front of the cabinet. In addition, one could also simultaneously take the same guitar signal through a direct box. This range of options—the selection of microphones and/or direct boxes by the engineer—is somewhat like a painter choosing from a pallet of colors.

After basic tracks are recorded, subsequent sessions are used to layer more sounds (i.e., overdubs) onto the existing tracks. The first in a series of over-dub sessions replaces scratch vocals with more precise lead vocals. Often, the lead vocal is recorded several times on different tracks to offer numerous versions from which to choose. This process (i.e., comping or compiling), gives the producer and engineer the ability to piece together selectively the best sections from different vocal tracks.

Because each instrument and voice is isolated on a separate track (or several tracks), "punching in" can be used to fix small mistakes by replacing them without disturbing other sounds. The singer or instrumentalist plays along with the recorded track, and the engineer punches the record button on the tape recorder just prior to the mistake. When done well, a punch-in is imperceptible to most listeners. The use of punch-ins and comping gives the illusion that studio recordings are nearly perfect performances.

After lead vocals are completed, guitar solos and harmony vocals are added to the existing tracks during overdub sessions. The last overdubs are horns and strings, if they are included in the arrangement.


The multitrack master contains many tracks that must now be manipulated and mixed down to a delivery format that might be 2-channel stereo or one of the newer multichannel formats such as 4-or 5.1-channel surround. This process (i.e., mixdown) is done by an audio engineer with input from the producer. It is not uncommon for the mixdown engineer to be different from the tracking engineer.

Each track on the multitrack tape can be electronically processed as it is blended with other tracks in the mixdown process. The most obvious type of signal processing that occurs during mix-down modifies the volume of each signal going to the tape. Slide faders on the console allow the engineer to change the volume of each track, either gradually or quickly. If a console is equipped with memory automation, all changes in volume throughout the recording are stored in memory and replicated during mixdown.

Dynamic range, something related to volume, can also be manipulated through signal processing of each track. If one thinks of dynamics, or volume, on a scale of 1 to 10, an engineer might want to keep certain sounds between 2 and 8. Still others might be electronically limited to between 4 and 6. Electronically limiting or compressing sounds is an important, but often abused, part of mixing tracks.

Another form of signal processing that is used during mixdown is equalization of the tonal quality of a sound. Most of the control knobs or sliders on a recording console are for adjusting the equalization of signals that are going to the tape. The equalization on a console is like a more precise version of the treble and bass controls on a home stereo.

The third type of signal processing manipulates the time domain of recorded sounds. Because recording studios are often nonreverberant by design, the mix engineer must add some type of reverberance (i.e., reverb) and echo to each sound. Echo, the discrete return of a sound after the initial articulation, gives music what some engineers call a third dimension. Reverb, a continuing nondiscrete return of the original sound, adds a sense of space to music. Different types of reverb are sometimes referred to with terms such as "big room," "cathedral," or "concert hall"— named after the types of acoustic space that they are intended to emulate.

Signal processing technology has reached a point where it is now possible to correct the pitch of vocals or instruments automatically or selectively. Some purists find this type of modification to be disturbing. However, the technology exists to correct out-of-tune singers, and many producers use it.

Mixdown of one song might take eight hours or more when the producer and engineer seek perfection. As sounds are blended from the numerous tracks of the multitrack master to the 2-track stereo version, the magic of the recording studio emerges; it sounds as if the singers and instrumentalists simply sat down and performed the song while someone recorded it. In reality, the process may have involved six separate recording sessions over a period of two months. In fact, some of the performers may have never met.

The last step before manufacturing is mastering. This type of mastering, not to be confused with the multitrack master production, is done by a mastering engineer. The mastering engineer puts the songs into the correct sequential order, makes any edits that are needed, and does a macro-mix to balance the overall recording. Mastering prepares the recording to be manufactured into compact discs, cassette tapes, vinyl records, or other configurations.

Variations in the Production Process

Although most commercially released recordings are created in a studio environment, occasionally albums are recorded live during a concert. The rationale is that some performers have an energy when they are interacting with a live audience that cannot be duplicated in the studio. The trade-off is, obviously, accepting the occasional imperfection that is inherent in a concert performance.

In order to record live shows with the same technology of a studio, remote audio recording trucks arrive at the performance venue with what is essentially a studio on wheels. The inside of the truck contains the mobile equivalent of a control room for the producer and engineer. The stage replaces the studio floor, with microphone and direct-box lines split three ways: one set to the on-stage monitors, another set to the audience public address system, and the third set running out to the production truck.

Because mobile production trucks can provide the same multitrack tape formats as found in a studio, it is possible to record the act live to multitrack and later fix mistakes or add overdubs in the studio. This gives the best of both worlds: audience interaction and multitrack isolation of sound inputs.

Another variation on studio multitrack recording is a process of recording directly to the 2-track format. This simple setup has the advantage of being quite portable. It is, therefore, a cost-effective alternative to multitrack remote recordings of live performances. In addition to its simple setup, direct to 2-track leaves more control of the recording in the hands of the performers. Direct to 2-track is more amenable to acoustic ensembles, such as classical and jazz, that do not characteristically depend on the mixdown process for dynamic balance of each instrument.

The development of synthesizers and computer interface software created the new concept of using MIDI in music production. MIDI technology allows a producer to assemble portions of the recording prior to any in-studio performances. It is not uncommon, especially in urban and pop genres, for a producer to employ a "drum programmer" to create the drum sounds in MIDI format. The drum sounds are transferred to the multitrack tape prior to or during the rhythm section sessions.

As the capacity of digital storage media increased since the advent of hard drives on personal computers, the viability of hard-disk recording has emerged. Hard-disk recording systems depend on the same storage media that computers do. Instead of storing audio information on magnetic tape, this new format converts analog sounds to digital information and stores the data on a hard drive or hard disk much like a computer. Therefore, in all likelihood, the cost associated with hard-disk systems will decrease in the future and the technology will become more sophisticated.

A major advantage of digital recording technology is the economy of space that is associated with it. For example, a digital console, MIDI system, and hard-disk recorder might fit neatly into less than one-third of the space that an analog console and tape recorder would require. The low costs that are associated with this type of studio, plus the small amount of space required, make it possible for more producers to have professional home studios. An additional advantage of these types of systems is that the recording process remains totally in the digital domain. No longer does one need to worry about the degradation of audio quality as tracks are mixed or transferred. The world of recorded music is clearly moving in the direction of digital technology.

Sales of Recordings by Genre of Music
Proportion of Total Units SoldGenre
0.5%New Age
*" Other" includes ethnic, standards, big band, swing, Latin, electronic, instrumental, comedy, humor, spoken word, exercise, language, folk, and holiday music.
SOURCE : Recording Industry Association of America (1999).

The Business Environment of Recordings

Even before a song is written, one must consider certain facts of life that will ultimately decide the fate of any recording released to the public. Most music that is produced in a recorded format is intended to be heard by an audience. The audience may hear it broadcast on radio, played on a personal listening device, or in a myriad of other environments. However, the efforts that go into recording a musical work must be matched by equally masterful forms of promotion and distribution, or the production will exist in a vacuum.

Music that is created for aesthetic reasons, as opposed to music that is created to generate income, is most often appreciated during live performances in concert halls rather than in recorded form. On the other hand, most modern genres are created to be broadcast and sold to the general public in the form of compact discs and cassettes. Music producers depend on the sales of these recordings to make a living, so they pay close attention to statistics that indicate which genres of music sell more than the others.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is a trade association that represents the interests of record companies in the United States. It monitors sales of recordings in the United States and presents annual summaries (see Table 1).

In addition to identifying the genres of music that are being sold, record companies (i.e., record labels) also get valuable information about the configurations on which music is recorded for distribution to consumers. As new configurations become more popular, and as others go out of vogue, producers of music must adjust to accommodate the newer technologies. For example, as the digital compact disc configuration began to replace analog recordings such as vinyl records and cassette tapes, producers were able to extend the range of dynamics. One marketing strategy of record labels in the early days of compact discs was to offer recordings with exaggerated dynamic range in order to dramatize their advantage over analog recordings. This is just one example of how people who are involved with the creation of recorded music have had to adjust to innovations in technology.

Record Promotion

The manner in which a recording will be promoted has a significant effect on production decisions. The primary medium for promoting recordings is radio, and a recording must meet certain criteria in order to be broadcast by radio stations. The most obvious, but nonetheless controversial, criterion is the lyric content of the song. Rap and rock music producers occasionally create two or more versions of a song in the studio. One is the "clean" version, also known as the "radio version," which is free of profanity or other lyrics that would prohibit stations from airing it. The other version, complete with explicit lyrics, is created for compact disc and cassette releases. A third mix (i.e., the dance mix or "remix) is a longer version that has strong bass and kick drum.

Another restriction that is placed on music by radio is the length of the completed production. Radio programmers prefer songs that are between 2.5 and 3 minutes in length. Again, producers often create a single version for release to radio and an album version and dance mix that are longer versions. The different lengths of a song are often created in the editing process.

No matter how great a recording is, the public needs to hear it before they can decide whether or not to buy it. In other words, the recording must get airplay on mass media in order to generate potential buyers. Although music videos and reviews in print media help create an awareness for a new record release, radio remains the primary means for promoting recordings.

All major record labels fights tooth-and-nail to obtain radio airplay for their artists. Each broadcast on radio, or "spin" in promotional jargon, ordinarily results in sales of recordings. The process of getting radio stations to play a record is one of the most controversial aspects of record-label operations.

The radio promotion department of a label uses several techniques to get airplay. First, they send information about the artist, along with a copy of a "single" from the album, to radio station program directors and music directors across the country. A single is merely the song that the label wants the radio stations to play first. The next step is the art of promotion—calling the station to persuade them to play the record and play it often.

Occasionally, a label will also enlist the help— for a pretty stiff fee—of an independent record promoter. Some independent promoters have been accused of going beyond legal means to get radio airplay. One illegal technique is the bribing of radio station employees to play the record. This nefarious tactic (i.e., payola) can get both the radio station employee and the promoter in big trouble with the law. Payola is, therefore, not something in which legitimate promoters ever engage.

Assuming that the record starts getting airplay on radio stations throughout the nation, it will appear in trade publications (i.e., the charts). A chart lists the top albums and singles in various radio formats, such as urban, adult contemporary, or country. Some well-known charts are Billboard, Cashbox, The Gavin Report, Monday Morning Quarterback, and Radio and Records.

The information that is used to create the various record charts has become somewhat more scientific than it was in the past. Airplay is monitored by a broadcast detection system operated by the Broadcast Data Systems (BDS) company. When a single is manufactured by a label, an electronic detection code is imbedded in the recording. This detection fingerprint is inaudible to human ears, but it is detected by BDS reception towers located throughout the country. Each detection indicates the code number for the single, what station broadcast it, and the time and date of the broadcast. All detections are transmitted to a central computer, and summaries of air-play are updated daily.

The other criterion for getting a record charted—sales—is also monitored electronically. Bar-coded information that is scanned at the cash register of a record store is transmitted to Sound-Scan, a company that is somewhat like BDS. Sound-Scan captures sales data on all configurations that are sold at cooperating retail outlets and the cumulative data is maintained in their database. Anyone who wishes to access those data files can do so by subscribing to Sound Scan and paying an annual fee.

Both labels and chart publishers watch BDS and Sound Scan results on a daily basis. Some charts also include data from key radio stations in various markets. These stations (i.e., reporting stations) offer information on newly added singles and album cuts plus how often they are being played in program rotation.

Record Distribution

If a promotion staff has been successful in gaining airplay for a single, the next stage is distribution of the product. As fans hear a new single on the radio, many go to a retail store or website to purchase the album from which the single came. The path from the factory where a compact disc is replicated or cassette tape is duplicated to the retail outlet is not as simple as one might think. The channels of distribution, from label to consumer, have evolved into a strange labyrinth of subdistributors.

Although there are hundreds of record labels in the United States, there are relatively few distribution organizations. As major labels began buying independent labels in the consolidation era that began in the 1980s, each created a separate affiliated distribution entity. There are only five major distribution companies and several independent distributors. Oligopoly, which describes the situation where a few companies dominate an industry, is nowhere more apparent than in record distribution. The five major distribution companies account for about 80 percent all of records sold worldwide.

After a recording is manufactured, its marketing plan is created under the watchful eye of the label's product manager. The product manager, somewhat like a traffic cop, directs the recorded product through the distribution network. Working with the label's in-house sales staff and distribution arm, the product manager constantly works to get the product on the streets.

Orders are filled through a system of branch distribution offices. Branch offices, generally located in several large cities around the country, have the difficult balancing act of having adequate inventory in the warehouse but not overstocking any one release. Their goal is to process orders and returns in a timely manner.

Two types of subdistributors have emerged to serve special types of accounts. One such subdistributor, the "one-stop," acquires recordings through major-and independent-label branch offices and sells them to retail accounts. It is appropriately named, because it allows small independent retail stores the opportunity to purchase product from all major labels and many independent labels with only one stop.

A second type of subdistributor is a "rack jobber." A rack jobber supplies a full range of recordings, from all viable labels, to department stores, mass-marketing retail chains, and other retail stores that do not specialize in music. The largest rack jobber in the United States, The Handleman Company, essentially manages the recording sections of chains such as K-Mart and Wal-Mart. Because Handleman services more than twenty thousand retail locations, it is an extremely important account for a major label.

It is important to reiterate that the producers of music for commercial distribution must be cognizant of the preferences—and restrictions—of the marketing system. If a recording does not meet the demands of mass retailers, such as K-Mart or Wal-Mart, it simply will not be made available in their record bins. If a recording does not meet parameters dictated by radio broadcasters, it will not receive the necessary airplay to sell significant numbers to the public. Therefore, people who are involved with the creation of the artistic product must be aware of the business system in addition to the technical and artistic elements.

See also:Copyright; Radio Broadcasting; Radio Industry, Station Programming and; Recording Industry; Recording Industry, Careers in; Recording Industry, History of; Recording Industry, Technology of.


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Richard D. Barnet