Updated: Apr 3, 2022
It might surprise you, but it often took a song at least a year to hit the radio, a store shelf (or in today’s world— your streaming source of choice). With very rare exceptions, no one just wrote a song and then it hit the radio, even within a few months. Also, it took literally hundreds of people working to support the growth and development of a song for it to become a hit— which was actually quite rare compared to the number of songs authored and published per year. In some cases, a song was cut by a number of artists, before it became a hit single and so it quite literally may have taken years for it to have found its proper and celebrated place.
Once a song was written and published, a demo of it was recorded and then it was pitched by a publishing company to an array of artists who the marketing team believed might want to cut it. Contrary to what you might believe, artists in some genres of music (like country music, for example) rarely selected a song by themselves unless, of course, they authored it. At a record company, the people who worked in the A&R department were so critical to this process. A&R stands for artists and repertoire— and this is the department which quite literally managed the entirety of the music production process. For example, at Curb Records we literally had one person— one of the sweetest people in the entire music business— who publishing companies would personally deliver songs to, which would be placed into a small mailbox. In fact, she would often meet with representatives from the publishing companies to tell them what types of songs that specific producers and artists for the label were looking to cut. She would listen to them and then pitch them to the production team for an artist, or it would die on its journey in her hands. Once a song was approved by someone like her, then it would go to the production coordinator for their approval, then to the producer and finally, it would make its journey to the artist for approval. At any point in its journey, the song could have been axed. I saw this happen many times because as an assistant engineer there were occasions when I would be called upon to work on songwriting demo sessions. Though working on demo sessions was incredibly enjoyable, the vast majority of the songs that you would engineer for the writers were never actually heard by anyone beyond those sessions. In a rock, pop, jazz, or blues session, there was a stronger likelihood that the artist may have written the song that was being cut, so the approval process would have had fewer steps. For example, Dan Hill wrote almost all of his music, whereas many of the songs that were cut by an artist like Cher, for example, were written by her production team. Today, this process is a bit different, as much of it is entirely electronic— plus, there are also copyright issues which may have to be sorted through, as well, by teams of legal experts for both the record and publishing companies before a song moves into the production phase of its life cycle.
At the point that your favorite song has made it through the approval process, then it would move into the production stage. The production process began with the selection of the session musicians who would perform on the song during the recording sessions. It was not uncommon for the artist to have had very little input in this process, unless, of course, the artist was highly established— think, Cher, for example, or if it was a band like Aerosmith, or Bon Jovi, who actually performed the music that you heard on their songs and may well have had a major hand in writing them, too. In blues, jazz, and rock, session musicians may have played on a song as guest musicians, but normally it was the performers themselves who did so. In country music, in particular, and oftentimes in pop, as well, it was almost always—with a few very notable exceptions— session musicians who played on the songs that you heard on the radio. In country music, it was extremely rare for an artist to play on any of the tracks on their songs. (Hip hop is electronic for the most part and so it is a different situation and artistic process.) Once the session musicians were selected, no producer or artist actually would put this process in motion— this was the job of a production coordinator— who would arrange, well, truly almost everything from this point forward in the process. A production coordinator would arrange all of the teams of musicians, background singers and engineers, as well, plus, this person secured all of the booking arrangements for catering, travel, studio facilities, equipment delivery, the itineraries for the production team and handled all of the paperwork, including the credits for the project— it was a big job. Once this person had made all of the arrangements, then the production process was set into motion.
The production process for a song now reached the engineering phase and it was a four-stage process. For now, I am just going to go through the stages of the process, in a later series of blog posts, I will take you through each of these stages in much more detail. The basic tracks for a song would be recorded in what engineers referred to as a tracking session. Once the basic tracks have been recorded, which may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, then the process would reach its second stage, which were the overdubs, or when the extra or special guest musicians would be called into the recording process and also the background vocalists— this stage could easily take weeks or even months to complete. After each overdub was recorded, normally (now more than ever before) the vocals were edited and (after the mid-1990s were tuned), a process that is referred to in its entirety as comping— I will address this process in more detail in later blog postings, as well. Once all of the tracks have been recorded for each musician, the background vocals and extra session or guest musician tracks have been recorded and the vocals have been comped (edited and tuned), then the song went to the third stage in the process. It was mixed. In the mixing process, all of the tracks (sometimes more than 48 of them) were combined so that you would be able to hear the song in its proper perspective, as it would be heard by eventual listeners. An assistant engineer in my position would have appeared heavily in stages one and two, and on a few rare occasions— but, in an extremely limited role in stage three. The very best and most experienced assistant engineers— often amazing engineers themselves would work the sessions in stage three. This stage was where the best engineers in the world normally appear, because it was where your favorite song that you would listen to on the radio or on your streaming service actually took shape and became what you would listen to and enjoy. The final stage in the production process was the mastering stage— where the song would go to a mastering facility and to an engineer who handled nothing but this stage of the process. In the mastering process, the volume levels of the song were fixed so that you can comfortably listen to it anywhere— in your car, on a smartphone or tablet (today), or on your speaker system at home. Now that your favorite song has been produced, it reached the marketing or truly, the business phase of its life cycle.
In this final stage of the process, a new team became involved that marketed and of course, distributed your favorite song so that it could be heard by you. This phase may have involved an artist playing a showcase event for radio station executives and for promotional teams. But, there were quite literally hundreds of people who were involved in this process, who tried to get your favorite song as much air time as it could possibly receive. Once the song became a hit, the people in the promotions department would be working to get the artist out in the public eye to keep the process going for the success of your favorite song and also for any subsequent songs that may have been released from the album, as a whole. It is this part of the process that most of us are at least somewhat familiar with, as artists began touring and playing concerts or shows, and making appearances on radio and television shows and for events for fans that were dedicated to their success and that of your favorite song.
This is the basic process that your favorite hit song will have made on its journey to be heard by you— the listener and fan of both the song and the artist. This post is the first in our blog series for The Recording Session Vault educational website project. If there is a topic that you want us to address on the blog, please let us know and we will be happy to create a post that will answer your questions about the production of your favorite hit song from the past. Come and visit The Recording Session Vault educational website project and read about the stories of the legendary engineers, recording studio facilities and the technologies that have given us the popular music that we have come to love and to cherish. And to each of you, it is my hope that this post will find you having a wonderful day—