As industry insiders, we sometimes forget that when discussing the recording process, the rest of the world really has no idea what we are talking about. Hopefully this will provide an explanation of the song formation process in layman's terms so that there may be less disconnect between the professional and the consumer.
As with any creative process, there is no absolute hard and fast procedure that must be followed stringently, but there is a logical development that all recordings must go through, which includes:
That being said, this is an explanation of that general process and what takes place during each of these steps.
This is what separates ideas and melodies floating around in the air from actual well-formed songs. There isn't a whole lot to be said concerning Composition, other than it consists of forming a melody (and often basic accompaniment) that flows chronologically from a start to a finish. Lyrics (if applicable) will also likely be written at this time.
Arranging is taking the Composition that has been created and determining what instruments will be used for the recording, writing the parts that those instruments will play, and the tempo (speed, beats per minute) that the song will be played in.
To best illustrate this point, think of the song "What a Wonderful World." The most famous version of this song is arguably the one sung by the great Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Compare this to the Ramones version of the same song. Both are based on the same Composition, but with entirely different results based on the fact that they are Arranged differently using very contrasting instrumentation and are at vastly different tempos. (You can use any number of examples to illustrate this principle; "Yesterday", "Happy Birthday", etc.). Arrangement, as with Composition, may range anywhere from informally assigning parts to instruments to drafting the parts using musical notation, all dependent on the preferences of the arranger and the formality of the project.
Now we start to get a little more technical.
The term Recording is often used to refer to this and the following three steps as a whole, but for simplicity's sake, the term Recording is used here to mean "putting performances to tape" (or as is the case now, a digital format). This is also referred to as Tracking, Cutting Tracks, etc.
Recording Studios have long been somewhat of a mystery to industry outsiders, but basically what takes place during Recording is microphones and various (expensive) sound altering equipment are used to capture a sound being produced in an acoustically tuned room or environment and storing that sound information onto some sort of media (be it magnetic tape, a computer hard drive, or, in the old days, acetate discs).
Generally, a process called Multi-Tracking is used for commercial recordings in which each microphone (and hence, each sound, be it vocals, guitar, or cello) is printed discretely to the storage media to be manipulated at a later time.
To simplify it a bit, the 'normal' stereo recording that a consumer would hear is comprised of two tracks or channels, the Right and the Left. During the Recording or Multi-Tracking stage, there are virtually innumerable quantities of tracks or channels that can each be controlled separately from the other tracks. For instance if you have recorded a vocal part on one track and a guitar part on another, because they were recorded discretely in a Multi-Track setting, the volume of the vocals can be increased or decreased without affecting the sound or volume of the guitar track whatsoever.
In a typical session, what you would be left with after completing the Recording stage is any number of discrete tracks each containing an instrument. An example of a track listing for a rock song might be:
Track 1: Kick Drum
Track 2: Snare Drum
Track 3: High Tom
Track 4: Low Tom
Track 5: Overhead Left
Track 6: Overhead Right
Track 7: Bass Guitar
Track 8: Electric Guitar
Track 9: Acoustic Guitar
Track 10: Keyboard Left
Track 11: Keyboard Right
Track 12: Lead Vocals
Track 13: Background Vocals
Meaning that each of these tracks had a microphone assigned to it for the specific purpose of recording the desired source. (Notice that tracks 1-6 are for various parts of a typical drum set).
Also (not to complicate things further, but...) these instruments need not be recorded at the same time. The bass guitar player could record his/her part on Thursday, and the vocalist might lay down tracks a week later. Basically, because they are on separate tracks, the musicians do not have to be playing at the same time or even in the same place to create a finished product that sounds like they were looking right at each other. This also enables a multi-instrumentalist to record all the instruments themselves and create their own 'virtual' band where they are the only member.
Simply put, Editing consists of changing the original recording by way of altering the timing, pitch, or speed of an individual track, or tracks to change the performance. One such common practice is referred to as "comping." Comping is the idea of recording multiple takes of one instrument with the intent of compiling all of the takes into one cohesive take for the purpose of eliminating errors or creating a 'perfect' take.
For instance, a vocalist may sing the same part over and over again making mistakes in different parts on each take. Rather than continuing to search for a complete perfect take, or settling for the best take and having to live with the mistakes, the recording engineer (the guy turning all the knobs ?) will choose the best take and then after identifying each mistake within that take, pull the line, phrase, word, or even syllable from another take where the mistake did not occur and paste that into the correct spot on the best take essentially eliminating the mistake and making it sound like it was performed and recorded without it.
Digitally, this process is simple and can be completed with just a couple of mouse clicks. Using analog tape, it becomes much more cumbersome and requires a series of meticulous tasks to record to a third track while muting and un-muting the source tracks, or pulling out the old razor blade and slicing away.
This is just one example of the use and purpose of Editing. To go into the virtually infinite uses would be long and redundant as the editing limits in the digital domain are nearly limitless.
The Mixing stage is necessitated by the differences in the format that is used in the Recording stage and the format that the end consumer is able to use. If you recall, when we finished the Recording stage, we were left with (for example) 13 different tracks, each with it's own instrument. Each of these tracks by now has been edited to contain the best possible performance during the Editing stage, but they are still individual tracks and not one cohesive song that a consumer can pop in the CD player. For argument's sake, we will only discuss Mixing down to stereo and not touch upon surround sound, 5.1, 7.1, 9.1, or any other format as stereo is currently the most generally accepted format (for now...). Mixing is the process of taking all of these individual tracks (in our example, 13) and by way of using sound altering effects, changing volumes, and manipulating perceived position Left and Right (panning), creating a stereo (two track) recording. Think of it in terms of a funnel. The individual tracks are the wide end, and they must be brought together to form two tracks (the narrow end).
Again, we will not go into the intricacies of Mixing in practice, but in order for all of the tracks to sound good together (play nice kids...), they must be twisted, manipulated, affected, squashed, and combed so that they sound just right and like they are all playing together in one space just for the listener instead of all separately and in padded booths like they actually were.
Once this is accomplished, we are left with a stereo (two track) recording with all the instruments sounding great together and the song is nearly finished.
Essentially, Mastering is preparing the final stereo recording for commercial consumption by pumping it up to a usable volume and making sure that the song will sound good on any sound system it plays on, from a home theater system that costs thousands of dollars, to your little tiny, terrible laptop speakers.
Mastering is most important if you have multiple songs and are creating an album or if you are preparing your recording for commercial release. This is because when the Mixing stage is complete, the stereo recordings you are left with were mixed to sound good on the speakers that they were mixed on regardless of how that sound translates to other spaces and speakers. Also, in the case of making an album, you don't want Song #1 to be a whole lot louder than Song #2 or even Song #15. Have you ever listened to a CD where you were constantly adjusting the volume just to maintain a consistent pleasant playback level? This is a CD that has not been mastered (or was mastered poorly). The same applies for making the songs sound like they belong together in that you don't want one song to sound 'tinny' (a.k.a. too much high end equalization) and another 'boomy' (a.k.a. too much low end).
So that explains why Mastering is important for album, but what about commercial releases? Imagine if your un-mastered song were on the radio between two wonderfully mastered songs. You would get swallowed up. Your song may be too quiet, or have too much low end and basically just sound unprofessional by comparison.
As mentioned before, Mastering will also make sure the final product sounds good no matter where it is played or what system it is played on. When making a presentation of your final product to a client, record label, or even friend, you don't want to say, "Sorry, I can only play this through Yamaha NS-10 speakers." And you certainly don't want to be taken by surprise and find out that it sounds bad everywhere but in the studio.
So there you have it. The real deal on how a song is created from Composition to Mastering and now the final product. No more mystery and technical jargon. So now that the cat is out of the bag, everyone can do it all on his/her own right? Wrong. Just knowing an automobile works on an internal combustion engine doesn't mean you can start building your own cars. Audio professionals have spent years learning what to listen for and how to make things sound 'right.' Not information that can be gained in a four-page discourse. Contact your local audio professional to get your project started, but at least now, you'll know what you're in for.