So you want to record your new song…but you’ve never actually done that before. What does it take to make that happen?

Well, all you need is some basic recording equipment, a bedroom, and a desire to learn something new.

In this post, I’ll go through the step-by-step process for recording a song from scratch and how to edit your song recording. I’ll assume you have the recording equipment necessary (if you don’t, here’s a post we did on what you need).

Start With The Drums

I like to start with the drums because they act like a beefed-up metronome, something you should always record with. Having a back-beat to whatever you’re going to record not only helps you stay on time, it helps you figure out where you’ll emphasize the rhythm.

Before you create your beat, it’s very important to decide on a BPM. Because once you start recording, changing the tempo can screw up the whole song.

So after you’ve set the tempo, here’s what you can do:

    1. Create a new virtual instrument track.
    2. Select a virtual drum plugin, like DRUM PRO (free) or Addictive Drums (affordable).
    3. Make a simple beat using a MIDI controller, musical typing (may have a delay), or by using the mouse to add the different parts of the beat.
    4. Create four bars of the beat and loop it to the end of the song.

That last step is just for keeping you on time — you can edit the beat later.

Make sure the kick matches what you imagine the bass will be doing and the snare is hitting wherever it fits your song (upbeat/downbeat/etc).

Record Your Main Instrument

Next, you’ll want to record your main instrument — guitar, piano, theremin, whatever. This will probably be the instrument on which you wrote the song. For me, it’s acoustic guitar, so that’s what I typically go to after setting the beat.

Because you’ve already set your rhythm, recording your main instrument shouldn’t be too difficult. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that this part of the process is super important. The rest of the song may rely on your performance and voicing of this instrument, so take your time with this stage.

Here’s how to do this:

    1. Create a new track and arm it for recording.
    2. If it’s a keyboard or an electric guitar, simply plug in the cable that runs from your instrument into the audio interface.
    3. If it’s an acoustic guitar, set up your mic first — the XLR cable goes from the mic into the interface. Place the mic about 6-12 inches away from your guitar, pointed at about the 12th fret. That’s usually where it sounds best, but you can move the mic around to see what you think sounds good for your taste.
    4. Whatever the instrument, keep an eye on the gain (either on the interface or in your DAW) and make sure you’re not peaking (the red part of the input level).

You don’t need to even get close to peaking — you can always boost the sound later. It’s more about the quality of the sound rather than the loudness.

Lay Down The Bass

Now you’ll want to bring in the bass, whether that’s a bass guitar, a bassy synth, or an upright bass. You need something to fill out the lower frequencies and give the song some umph.

The bass needs to be tight with the kick drum — tighter than a pair of Bee Gees jeggings. The kick and bass should be dancing together through the whole song.

Here’s how to track the bass:

  1. Create a new track and arm it for recording.
  2. Plug the cable that runs from the bass into your audio interface. If there’s a Line/Instrument switch on the interface, make sure it’s on Instrument.
  3. Just as you did with your main instrument, keep an eye on the gain to ensure it doesn’t get close to peaking.

See What Virtual Instruments Fit

Now you can see what virtual instruments fit the song. These can be ambient synths, a horn section, or even an orchestra.

Whatever you choose, it’s all MIDI, which is very easy to manipulate and adjust to your song. You can simply drag-and-drop the different notes to where they need to be. You don’t even need to know how to play the piano.

To add a virtual instrument:

  1. Create a new virtual instrument track and arm it for recording.
  2. Go through your virtual instruments and pick a sound that you think fits.
  3. Start adding melodies and chords with a MIDI controller, musical typing, or by adding the notes with your mouse.

Time To Sing

If you’ll be adding vocals, this is when you want to set up your mic for singing. Here’s how to record vocals, from setup to recording:

  1. Position the mic so it’s pointing roughly at the lower part of your mouth.
  2. Attach the pop filter so that it’s about six inches away from the mic, then your mouth should be about six inches away from the pop filter.
  3. Create a new track and arm it for recording.
  4. Test the gain levels to ensure your vocals won’t peak. When doing this, sing the loudest part of the song and make sure you’re gain level isn’t hitting the red — keep it in the green. This will allow you to sing without worrying about being too loud during your vocal takes.
It’s best to have as little natural reverb as possible. The place you record vocals should be dead. It’s better that you have complete control over the reverb when editing and mixing than to have natural reverb in the recording, which you cannot remove.

Don’t Forget The Edit

Now that everything is recorded (congrats!), it’s time to start fine-tuning your production. This is when you triple-check that everything is on time and the arrangement works. DAWs make it super easy to move recorded items around and line them up with each other.

You’ll also want to comp your takes, which means combining the best takes from each part of the song for any given instrument. So you can listen to your vocals line-by-line and pick the best take for each line. And you can do this for any instrument. To do this, you can cut the item wherever there’s a break in the recording.

Let’s use the vocals as an example: you can cut the audio file wherever you take a breath, which will make it easier to blend (aka crossfade) the comp’d takes together. The point is to make a cut and use a crossfade so it sounds natural — the listener shouldn’t know that you used a crossfade.

Mixing And Mastering

Once your track is recorded and edited, you’ll enter the mixing phase and then the mastering phase. I could write a completely separate post on mixing and master individually, so I won’t go into much detail here.

But mixing is where you or your mixing engineer polish up your already well-recorded song. It involves panning, setting the volumes, using EQ, compression, and other effects.

Then the final (and maybe most important) step is mastering. This is one of the main things that separates an amateur-sounding recording from a professional-sounding recording. It will polish up the polished-up mix and make it loud enough to meet industry standards.

It’s the final stage that does your song recording justice.

And if you hire a mastering engineer, you may end up paying $100 per song or more. Fortunately, eMastered can professionally master an unlimited number of your songs for an affordable monthly price.

Automated mastering has saved me loads of money while still giving me songs that stand up tall next to other songs on pretty much any Spotify playlist.

Caleb J. Murphy

Caleb J. Murphy is a songwriter and producer based in Austin, TX.