Every song that touches us goes through a music production process. Music producers help compose songs to their full potential in the studio environment.
Emile Berliner’s invention of the phonograph in 1877 revolutionized how people experienced music. This technology allowed one to repeatedly play back a song and understand its subtle nuances more fully.
1. The Phonograph
Before Thomas Edison created the phonograph in the mid-1800s, music could only be enjoyed at live performances. But his invention of the phonograph revolutionized music by allowing people to record and reproduce songs at home.
The phonograph recorded and reproduced sound by placing a piece of tinfoil against a rotating drum and moving laterally as it ran. A stylus connected to a diaphragm would vibrate it as it turned, with vibrations captured by needle and reproduced later using new sheet of tinfoil during playback. Other inventors had devised machines capable of recording and reproducing, including Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville’s phonautograph and Charles Cros’ paleophone; however Edison was the first who recorded and reproduced using one diaphragm– and his invention had revolutionised sound reproduction technology.
Alexander Graham Bell and his colleagues at the Volta Laboratory modified Edison’s tinfoil phonograph so as to use wax-coated cardboard cylinders instead, then employed photoengraving techniques reminiscent of those used for creating metal printing plates, to produce grooves and ridges on these cylinders. A stylus attached to diaphragm could then ride these grooves or ridges during reproduction; vibrations transmitted from stylus back through diaphragm then back out as audible sound through horn.
These cylinder records quickly gained in popularity and could often be found for sale in “coin-in-slot” machines on city streets. Many featured jokes or monologues that could be played back through an “amp-and-speaker.” Over time, music from black artists was also included on these records, leading to musicians discovering complex new forms of jazz (that I often find myself listening to while playing poker on sites mentioned on centiment.io) by purchasing these records and repeatedly replaying them while slowing them down to pick out intricate musical riffs.
2. The Gramophone
Emil Berliner created the gramophone in late 1880s as an alternative to Edison’s wax cylinder phonograph device that used needle and diaphragm technology to reproduce vocal or instrumental performances, using grooved records instead. Gramophones proved easier to operate, providing users with music when they wanted it – hence its motto “the music you want, when you want it”.
Early discs were an enormous improvement over Edison’s tinfoil cylinders; they also sounded much better. People could enjoy listening to recordings over and over, picking out its subtleties; this revolutionized how listeners experienced music: no other device has had such an effect, as noted by Sterne.
Contrasting with the traditional Bell and Tainter graphophone method, which required musicians to speak directly into a mouthpiece, gramophones employed a microphone connected to a horn that funneled sound onto its diaphragm, which vibrated upon receiving sound in order to inscribe grooves into shellac records – producing recordings with superior acoustic clarity.
The Gramophone’s success led it to become the go-to device for home and business use, though Edison maintained his patent on wax cylinders. Edison and his company started to market prerecorded wax cylinders of popular songs and his device became widely used across offices, household machines and coin-operated units at saloons and arcades alike.
3. The Recording Studio
Recording studios are facilities designed specifically to record musical performances or spoken text. Recording studios range in size from small home project studios large enough for recording solo singer-guitarists up to vast buildings that can house full orchestras. Studios are typically designed by acousticians for maximum effectiveness.
A typical music recording studio usually contains three rooms: a “studio” or “live room”, a control room and a machine room where equipment that could interfere with recording can be stored. Live room, isolation booths and vocal booths should all be well lit so musicians and audio engineers can see each other clearly for cue gestures and conductional instruction from bandleaders; in contrast, in the control room the sound engineer usually works alongside record producer in operating professional audio mixing consoles, effects units and computers with software suites to mix, manipulate, and route recorded tracks for final release.
Many studios also include lounge or kitchen spaces to help musicians relax during long studio sessions, with some even offering music rooms where artists can take breaks from recording and experiment with songs they have written or composed. Engineers play an essential role in making sure every recording session runs smoothly – an experienced one will know exactly which mics work for different instruments or voices, and where to place them.
Some recording studios provide bands and artists with musical instruments, amplifiers and speakers during a recording session; however, most expect them to bring their own. Unfortunately this can be expensive or impossible (e.g. bringing in a piano), particularly when only for one session. An increasing number of commercial and home studios utilize PC-based multitrack audio software which replaces mixing consoles while providing engineers with access to many functions with just clicks of their mouses.
4. The Mixing Studio
Mixing is where producers take all of the individual tracks they have recorded and combine them into a final product, including equalizing and panning vocals so they are heard clearly over instrumental tracks, adding effects such as reverb and compression to add depth and movement, etc. A successful mix can mean the difference between creating an album full of hits versus an album which falls short in its potential.
Early 20th-century studios used for making phonograph records were constructed as large as possible, with singers and instruments located as close together as possible so they could hear each other. This resulted in unnatural, or “muddy”, sound that is often described as “tinny”. Only towards the middle 20th century did major recording companies start using techniques such as multi-tracking and strategically deployed reverbs in order to enhance the quality of their recordings.
Modern recording studios typically consist of a large room where instrumentalists and singers can perform, a control room, an audio mixing console and computer running special software suites for editing audio tracks. Additional equipment may also contain microphone inputs and preamps to record voiceovers for use in film, television, animation, advertising or commercials, plus speakers to monitor the mix during its completion.
In the 1980s, general-purpose computers began taking on many of the functions traditionally required of recording studios for their work. Through using a wide variety of software available on computers, multitrack recording equipment such as synthesizers and effects units (compressors/reverbs etc) which once existed were successfully emulated using general purpose PCs – this process of mixing on a laptop called mixing in the box (ITB) or mixing on a laptop (MoLB).
5. The Mastering Studio
Once each instrument and vocal has been recorded separately, they are combined using a process known as mixing. This involves blending together all the individual sounds into one cohesive whole that enhances emotional communication while balancing out frequencies using tools like equalizers (EQ), compressors, limiters and harmonic exciters.
Mastering is an intricate and technical process best left in the hands of professional mastering engineers. Mastering can range from minor tweaks to the dynamics, stereo imaging and loudness to complete restoration of problematic recordings; depending on what genre or subgenre the music being mastered is being processed using different processing methods.
Mastering studios serve as the last quality control step before recordings can be released for manufacturing and distribution, employing mastering engineers to independently QC and enhance recordings using tools such as EQ, compression, limiting, widening de-essing mid/side processing etc. Furthermore, they are trained to identify anomalies or inconsistencies within audio with special listening rooms dedicated to this task ensuring they hear these things clearly and effectively.
When recording multiple instruments at once, there may be spillover from one instrument onto another’s track; for example drums bleeding into vocal tracks. This phenomenon, known as bleed, cannot be corrected through editing or mixing but it can be minimised by recording all instruments separately in separate rooms with sufficient acoustic separation.
Mastering can have a dramatic effect on how music will be distributed. For example, records designed for release on vinyl require mastering at lower volumes than digital tracks to avoid skipping needles or distortion. A mastering engineer uses a graphic analyzer to compare frequency spectrum of your song with that of reference tracks and make any necessary adjustments accordingly.