Ye Olde Recording, Mixing & Mastering Thread

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So, we are planning an Album Production Challenge with your finished album due December 1, 2017! Full details are here, http://fiftyninety.fawmers.org/content/album-production-challenge (HUGE THANKS to @tcelliott!)

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Anyone wanna share some tips or horror stories about Recording, Mixing & Mastering? I'll start with a few things I do to start every mix...

- decide on tempo and always record everything to a click track or a backing track

- record everything in mono to better control where I place it in the stereo field

- always record several takes, especially vocals, and then comp them together for one best-of track

- I record my vocals in a homemade, portable recording booth like this, https://i.pinimg.com/originals/3a/7e/a7/3a7ea7d3a5688cfe10e29295656a91d1.jpg

- just add a homemade pop filter to your DIY recording booth using a cheap embroidery hoop with nylon stockings stretched over it

- I always use a pink noise generator (I think mine came with Reaper?) as a reference to set initial volume levels for every track (https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/mixing-pink-noise-reference)

- for simple songs (guy and guitar) I will usually record one strummed track and one picked track and pan them hard left and hard right with vocals up the middle

- for more complex songs I center bass and drums but I have heard some folks pan them each just a little left and right...any thoughts on this?

- also for more complex songs I try and have more tracks in the chorus and make each chorus a tad "bigger" to try and build up...I am rarely happy with my results but I intend to keep working toward this

- always use reference tracks to compare to your mix/master. there used to be a great loudness wars article online with a bunch of recommended albums to use as references for various types of music and I bought a bunch of the recommended albums. I am seeing the site is no longer online but you can still view it using the Wayback Machine here, https://web.archive.org/web/20120414150913/http://www.digido.com/honor-roll.html

- I mix in headphones but that is not ideal. I plan to buy a good set of monitors to complement the headphones.

- check your mix in several places...headphones...cheap earbuds...your car...your home stereo...that one friend's really expensive stereo...I have even walked into the showroom of various electronics stores carrying a freshly burned CD feigning interest in their wares in order to listen on their systems (unfortunately for me, I have also ended up purchasing lots of stuff this way!)

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Below is an overview of the plugins I use on most mixes. Some of these let me be way too lazy as the presets are pretty good but this time I am hoping to use those only as a starting point and customize a lot more before finalizing the songs.

- first, I use Reaper as my DAW because it is powerful and cheap (like me...at least the cheap part!)

- I almost always use Waves Vocal Rider on my vocal tracks to keep them fairly level

- also for vocals I use Izotope Nectar 2 and I am in the bad habit of using their presets (but as I said I hope to break that habit)

- for reverb on any instrument track I also use Nectar's reverb as it is quite good

- for other instrument track processing I sometimes use Izotope Alloy 2

- for mastering I use Izotope Ozone 7 but again rely a bit too much on presets

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A few resources...

- Recording Revolution has some awesome free tutorials and an inexpensive paid set that I actually prefer because it is more comprehensive (and without breaks every five minutes!) https://www.recordingrevolution.com/5minutes/

- even if you don't use Izotope tools check our their free tutorials, https://www.izotope.com/en/learning/music-production.html

- and grab a copy of their free mastering PDF https://www.izotope.com/en/support/support-resources/guides/mastering-with-ozone.html

- I also love the tutorials at Groove 3. they are affordable and usually pretty thorough https://www.groove3.com/
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That is all I can think of right now. I hope other folks add more to this to make it a useful resource for us all!

Lots of good stuff from John here - in particular, using a pop filter really does help your vocals, and it'll make things less painful for your listeners!

A few things to add:

Using eq to boost the highs on your choruses a dB or two will make them stand out, which is what you want choruses to do. Drums in choruses often use more cymbals for the same reason.

If you're recording synths or guitars with effects rigs, you should of course record them in stereo, not mono - but your DAW should have a "mono" button to switch from stereo (if you have a monitor controller like the Mackie Big Knob, it will probably have a dedicated button for this) and this comes in very useful during mixing. Setting your overall mix levels while you're listening in mono will give you a much more accurate final stereo mix (but don't forget to switch back to stereo before you render out!)

Plugins are great, but if you can get your tracks sounding good *before* you have to throw any VSTs at them, you're going to get much better results. Get things right at the source and do an initial mix before you do anything fancy like adding eq or compression. You may find that you don't need to add anything at all.

It's worth grabbing a sound pressure level meter (you can pick one up for twenty bucks or so) so you can check that you're always mixing at the same level. Our ears respond to loudness across the frequency spectrum in different ways (Google "Fletcher-Munson Curves" if you want to go down the rabbit hole) so if your monitor volume levels are up and down, you'll never achieve consistent results.

As for panning, I tend to place the bass and the kick drum in the centre. Anything else might end up anywhere, although cymbals and snares can sound horrendous panned hard left or right.

John mentioned the Recording Revolution website - there are fifty or so free podcasts by Joe and Graham over at the Simply Recording Podcast, and they are all well worth a listen. I highly recommend giving them a shot, because I guarantee that you will learn something:
http://simplyrecordingpodcast.com/

Lots of useful info. From two experienced craftsmen.
I use stereo widening in the master track sometimes. It is also one.of those Reaper add-ins.
There is also a way to alter levels of individual tracks dynamically, but it involves automation. Something I am still working on. Fortunately Reaper has a great support forum.

I am not as experienced as the above, but I have picked up a few tricks:

Rumble lives around 40-60 hz and under. Some sub-bass is good, but other than for the kick drum and the bass, it can help the clarity of your low end if you throw a shelf eq on and roll things off on every track that is not bass. Experiment for what sounds good, but this can help add low end clarity. You can go up to 120 hz or so, depending on where your other instruments are sitting to start rolling off the levels on eq for every non-bass instrument.

Apparently reaper auto-crossfades for you, but Audacity definitely does not. If you use audacity for tracking and comping (combining multiple takes into one "best" take) like me, make sure to crossfade between your clips for smoother transitions.

Melodyne is probably the most natural sounding pitch-correction plugin for vocals. If you sing off key like me, this can be a life-saver. I've tried a few free plugins (kerovee, and gsnap, I think? It's been a while) and the paid pitch correction from the Izotope music production bundle, but I still always come back to Melodyne for ease of use and the quality of the result.

If you record the same instrument with two microphones, say one mic on the guitar and one room mic, they can often be out of phase. This might sound fine in stereo, but can cause weird problems when you collapse down to mono. This is because some parts of the wave phases can cancel out, resulting in a quieter part than intended, or the reverse, where they amplify each other and you end up with a much louder part in mono. Make sure to align the waveforms if you record the same source with different mics before you mix, so that you don't get any nasty surprises when you check your mix in mono. It will sound a little quieter in stereo, but you will have the directionality back to help separate the part out, you can play around to find the right levels.

I know folks mentioned mono above, but WHY mono is important, when you've spent so much time crafting a lovely stereo image, is that most/many people who listen to your music end up hearing it in mono, such as on bar speaker systems, some car stereos, laptops, cell phones, tablets, etc. If your lovely stacked harmonies turn to mush in mono when they lose their location information, it might be worth it to see if you can add clarity using eq, distortion on a few to cut through the mix, or something else.

For quick eq reference, I love this Izotope instrument chart, showing where each instrument (roughly) lives on the sound spectrum: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CuT_2FNWIAAyxqj.jpg

One of many benefits of upgrading from a free tool like Audacity to a real DAW is automation clips. You can set effects to only turn on for certain words or phrases, such as having a long booming held last word of a chorus, with tons of reverb and delay, without having to modify the underlying track.

If you plan on crushing down your track to MP3, try to leave about -1dB of headroom on your mix before export, as some data is lost when compressing down to mp3. This helps prevent some of this data loss. You can use the normalize function of your Daw and set it to -1dB to get the track at that level.

That's all I got for now.

@JamKar One thing to bear in mind with stereo widening effects is that they can cause phase cancellation issues for people listening in mono or on a boombox where the speakers are close together. It's always worth flipping your mix to mono before you master it to make sure that nifty plug-in isn't doing something nasty behind your back, as @siebass suggests.

@siebass I know a lot of people who chuck a high pass filter on everything they record to get rid of any signal below about 60 Hz. As with any approaches, they should be applied where they enhance the source, but not when they take away from it.

Four top tips for improving your recordings:

1. Make sure your recording levels are high enough. Your recording device should have a level meter or display. You don't want the signal going into the red and overloading, but you don't want the meters barely registering, either. Experiment with mic positioning to see if you can improve your results.

2. Most mikes are not unidirectional; they are more sensitive in one direction than others, So make sure the mic is pointing at the thing you want to record, and away from anything in the room that you don't want to hear.

3. Edit your files! Your listeners don't want to hear you clearing your throat before you start, and they don't want to hear you fumbling for the off switch after you're done, either. There are plenty of free programs (Audacity for one) or apps out there you can use to trim your files.

4. If you're recording vocals, don't have the mix too loud in your headphones, as this will make you sing flat. This was the #1 mistake I made as a rookie, believe me. (And having the mix too quiet can make you sing sharp, too...)

re: Levels high enough.
- You don't want them super low, but it's better to be too low than too high. I recommend leaving at least -6db headroom per track but preferably more. The more tracks you mix, the more important this can be. You sum all those tracks together and are bouncing around 0db and risk running in the red. You can always up the fader on the master bus to get it closer to 0 before rendering, or you can use a limiter to get it close to 0 (just don't squash it.)

re: for simple songs (guy and guitar) I will usually record one strummed track and one picked track and pan them hard left and hard right with vocals up the middle
- I often use the haas effect if I record only one guitar, but I, too, like recording the part twice. It can be the same part recorded twice, or two complimentary parts, hard panned L and R. It sounds more full. RC (remember RC?) would do this ALL. THE. TIME. and it always sounded great. You can even do this in full band mixes. I often will record two rhythm electric guitar parts and pan them hard left and right. It makes it sound full and heavy without being too loud. Bonus tip: on those electric guitars, use different pick ups, distortion sounds and EQ ranges for each to get even more separate. This small difference can make a huge difference in the sound of the guitars.

re: for more complex songs I try and have more tracks in the chorus and make each chorus a tad "bigger" to try and build up...
- More isn't always better. But different can be. Adding a single part (say a keyboard part, or a synth pad underneath) can make a big difference. Going from a single guitar to the (just mentioned) doubling and panned guitar technique can add a lot. Going from a steady rock strum to a finger picked part from one part to the other (V to CH or vice versa) can make a big difference. Adding an element of dynamics can be huge (including doubled vox, harmony lines, a short delay effect etc.,. The danger of just adding parts is mudding up the mix. Sometimes a more sparse arrangement but with different sounds can be just the boost you need. Ie, finger picking the electric guitar over the acoustic backing in the verses and then hitting those barre chords on the chorus. Still the same number of tracks, but a bigger sound.

re: always use reference tracks to compare to your mix/master. & Using headphones to mix
- I seldom use reference tracks during 50/90 or FAWM, but it's can make a huge difference. Take a WAV file of good sounding mixes (not necessarily good songs. Nickleback has some great sounding mixes, but not all of their songs are on my favorite list, for instance) and toggle between it and your mix. The idea being you just want an idea of how the bass sits in the mix, or the levels of the drums or the vocal etc.,. Mixing on headphones can be dangerous, but I've heard great mixes on nothing but headphones and no other reference speakers. Reference tracks can be huge for this as well. Learning your headphones and learning your monitors is much easier if you listen to reference tracks.

re: monitors
- I've got a fairly flat set of Kenwood 3way speakers from the 80's. Not a lot of people recommend them for speakers but that makes them better for mixing. Still, it isn't a flat curve compared to monitors. So I've done two things. One, eq'd them a bit more flat. And two, I've used reference tracks just enough to learn how they respond. (Although I still struggle with bass sometimes.)

Regarding number of tracks, I was not suggesting adding a bunch and muddying it up, rather, I was pointing out the benefit of planning your song so it has peaks and valleys. And then, moving tracks in and out at various times for effect.

In fact, one technique I try to use (but do not always succeed at) is building my peak section first. Get everything in there that will be in there, at the highest volume it will be, strategically placed in the stereo field and then start removing stuff to create your "valleys"!

Continuing on regarding having the same guitar part recorded twice, that works a charm for hard left and right panning. In fact, you can sometimes fake the same thing with a single recorded part by making a copy and then shifting it 10-20ms.

@tcelliott, when you say hard left and hard right do you mean panned 100% left and 100% right? I usually back it down to 90% because I had wondered if laying "against the rail" might diminish part of the tracks sound.

Another great tip for recording the same rhythm guitar part twice is to play the chords on guitar #1 in open position but play the same chords with a capo on guitar #2. Obviously, to play the same chords with a capo you will need to play different chord forms and that, along with the sonic differences of playing up the neck will make your two parts more interesting. This also works great for two guitarists in live performances.

RE: LCR or LRC (I forget what they call it) panning is recommended by Graham at the Recording Revolution dot com site. Only pan things 100% one way or the other or leave it in the center. I don't always hold to that, but in my example of the doubled guitars, that's how I do it. It always works very well. The more separation the better. Obviously you have to match levels.

That duplicating the track and shifting one over 10-25 ms is exactly the haas effect I mentioned above. You then have to balance the two sides until they sound about even. It's a great trick. But you can over use it. Basically one part can be used per track (unless it's very low and very high or has some other separation in the mix.) And it's easy to set up. I think there is even a plug in that'll do it for you, but it's become habit and part of my work flow.

The one drawback to the haas effect, as you noted, is you need to tweak it because, as I understand it, sounds that start a bit sooner may be perceived to be louder.

So, what do you do in a more complex mix where you have multiple instruments making up the backing? I always pan main two instruments 90% left and 90% right but then I place other stuff in between 90% and center. Should everything on the left be at 100% (and the right)?

Another point most folks prolly already know, when a solo happens, guitar or fiddle or whatever, it can be placed front and center replacing the vocal.

re: Haas effect - Yup, the delayed track sounds quieter. I tend to reduce the original track in volume until it matches then push both faders back up to balance.

re: complex mix panning: So the idea of LCR panning is that you keep parts clear as possible. If you don't have something to balance out the other side, you typically don't want to pan something (unless it is used for effect.) So in our example of a double tracked rhythm guitar, you obviously have two parts, one on each side for balance. And the reason you are panning is to get a wider spectrum. So the more distinct they are (as long as they parts and sounds don't clash) the better. So there is no real reason to do less than 100% because you are trying to get separation anyway.

My challenge to you would be (and yes, I did a little of this myself) to start with LCR panning (only dead center, hard left and hard right 100% each) and then try backing it off or changing it and see if you really get better results. Different, sometimes, but not better most of the time (at least to my ears.) An exception I can think of is if you are using a choir. Having all four parts of the choir (or just voices if it's a small one) in different spots can really be huge. The more voices, the more places to put them. This works very well when they are behind a lead singer which is dead center. I would also think that a string quartet would benefit from partial panning. Although, separation by EQ might eliminate some of that need. Oh, I've gotta do another post.

Mixing space: Hoops was the first one to explain it such a way that it sounded natural (at least to me) so he gets all the credit for this one. (Damn, I miss that man.)

There are three ways to create space in the mix.
Frequency: Pitched high and low etc., So bass guitar in the bottom end, guitars in the middle, a synth or keyboard or viola a little higher, the vocal generally a bit higher and then high keys, or violin or high trumpet at the top (for instance.) Also, using EQ to accentuate different parts. Ie, the vox and the rhythm guitar are masking each other. So find the sweet spot of the vocal and boos it (slightly, no more than 3db) and then in the same area cut the guitar (again about 3db) giving a 6db separation. So your choice of arrangement (what instruments play when) and your EQ can have a huge effect on the clarity of a mix.

Panning: As we've just been talking about, separating parts from left to right can have a huge effect. The harder you pan the more it is separated. (see above.)

Spacial effects: Reverb and Delay and the like: So the more dry (the less effects on) the track the more it sounds to be immediate or close to you. The more reverb or delay on it the farther away from you it sounds. So the vocal tends to be less effected (because it is often the focus of the song.. at least according to lyricists) but secondary instruments (that second guitar line, backup vox, the synth line in the background etc., ) tend to be further back. You can use more spacial effects on the less prominent instruments.

Of course, all of these are guidelines. If you want to make a dramatic effect then use a HUGE amount of reverb on something.

This is a cool way to jump right into mixing...kinda like a skirmish but for production!

https://www.recordingrevolution.com/the-10-minute-mix-technique-video/

re: Pink Noise. So I read a couple of articles (including the one linked above, thanks much) and watched a youtube video. I guess you can use it a couple of different ways. And last night I experimented with using it in a mix. I wrote and recorded a harder song Saturday night that I didn't get around to mixing as it was late. It's not much of a song, but it has a doubled chorus vox and several guitar parts at the end so I figured it would be a good one to try pink noise out with. I've done two separate mixes and I think I have a way to make this work. Now the test will be how it compares to my "normal" mixing work flow. I need to compare the results I think. But I already see an advantage to using it. I definitely have more headroom using this technique.

A very interesting thread, and there's alot of good info here.

A new thing i'm doing on vocal tracks (and some of those iphone recordings, even) is to add echo rather then reverb- in audacity you can control it well and i'm adding an echo at like 0.11 sec with an intensity of like 0.10 or 0.12-- it helps give some warmth and atmosphere without all that muddiness that reverb sometimes generates.

One other thing I've been doing for a while with acoustic-guitar and vocal recordings (even if other stuff is added later) , if I'm not just doing a quick iPhone live recording is this-- I'll record the guitar as both direct in (using the onboard pickup) and with a mic, then pan those parts about 60% panned left and right. Sometimes, yeah, I put a delay on one side, to get a bit of a chorusing.

Another thing that I've been doing lately, and I think it helps, is to play the mixes in my computer speakers after loading the wav file into audacity, and then doing a further bit of eq and maybe slight compression there- really helps to clean out the 'bottom' and not make more busy mixes too 'bottom heavy'- some of the songs on 'summer of the orange disaster' (see bandcamp link on my page) were more 'rock' songs with fuller arrangements and doing that extra step in audacity really helped.

Wow, so much great stuff here!

1)
One thing one can consider for a very informative content thread like this is to, -- identify the audience.

If it's just for the same half dozen who engage this, well, then that's great! It's fun to read, as-is. Well done!

However since this appears to be an open thread (?) asking for input, for/from all, and apparently subject to vetting as well as personal Production Opinion anyway... well, here's the Keith Richards approach to recording... (so to speak, when he threw a $1 Cassette Recorder Mic into his acoustic guitar and made recording history!) ... amen!

This all appears to jump to being a, -- how to Produce thread, quickly. "New folks, with say, 3 Tracks Maximum... may not "get it"; especially if using Audacity or Reaper in it's most basic provision, sans plug-in's, etc.

2)
What some will read is --to do it all at the same time, when in fact as the content states, (lost?), one does one thing at a time, one:

-- Records, (one sound source), then

-- Mixes, (many single sound sources), then

-- "final mixes, for one last time", Masters

When recording (Recording One Sound Source for a *"Record"*), just like back in the analog days, "I" go for Maximum Saturation. "I" look to tightly average, (as is practical), about -6 on the Sound Meter with Max Peaks close to 0 for my single sound source, -- RECORDING.
-- Your BEST *DRY single track recording, as good as you can get.
(This has nothing to do with the very fine article about Recording Comparisons of +-2... etc. dB concerning "Loudness Wars". (Great stuff!... indeed and it is annoying to listen to a song at #5 on the Radio Vol Dial then have to turn it up to #8 , then back down to #4. The old Simon and Garfunkel albums I can't get loud enough no matter what I do Smile ) )

I "think", "here", if someone does a "person with guitar", "Recording", if even both (vocal/instrument), to one track and then asks for help with, e.g. Drums, Keys from someone else recorded to the same Click and max-saturation, they can then get "help", "here"; as well then concerning L/C/R; and the wonderful Pink Noise Aggregator for Levels (Mixing); then "Mastering" -- pending personalities of FINAL "Production" output.

3)
db Meter, --yes:
On the wonderful suggestion for a dB Meter (--is a phone sized tool used in hand, IRL, to measure air pressure in your room, "loudness") -- don't see that suggestion much if ever... GET ONE. Here's the, IMO, why:
-- Ear Fatigue

(And yes, as an additional "Level" check from a Monitor source; you use all, digital graphics, db Meter and YOUR ears, in YOUR "room")

-- Most here will be lucky to "do" this for one-hour for a session, generally speaking.

Yes, a double check of the Speaker Monitors is a great check for the reason that, --if one listens with "presence" and enthusiasm... 95db + for an hour on the "average"... their ears will get tired an not hear the same at end of the hour. (Not counting hearing health issues).
--Remember there are RECORDED LEVELS and then there are LISTENING LEVELS which are separate.

Also, if "listened" to at 95dB, then they'd NEED to "always" be at 95dB... pick a reasonable level and leave it and then "level" to that. (I think my home stereo when "listening", it only peaks at 95bB; during "dinner" may peak at 50dB ... never checked but is likely that, to make this point.)

4)
* dB, with Head Phones:
How "I" use a hand held dB meter too... I check the dB level in the Studio Monitor Head Phone cup, AT MY EAR, and make sure it's at a consistent level every session; and, well, I'll just say, it's --below 95db peak, easily. That keeps me hearing longer, more accurately, consistently and from session to session. Yes, I then check at "higher" levels, but that's at the "Master" stage and I don't do many of those anymore Smile

Conclusion:
Well, that "looks" longer then was in my head... looked like only a line or two up there Wink What I write is certainly not for the experts here, rather, for the "average" person seeking to take on the wonderful challenge who may not have used 26 sampled tracks from Garage Band and etc.

I think some of the "nicer", IMO, "songs" that may come from around "here", ~~generally speaking~~, will be "like", of the "Power Trio model", guitar/drums/bass, with vocal, or just Guitar/Vocal then with added "help" once sampled/bounced for folks to review (?).

For a "typical" member here, with their -- Two, to Three Tracks, well, one needs to know (learn, gain from this exercise/project as a take away), "their" recording Venu Settings, and have a "set" of "what to do" protocols to "whip out" a decent demo, of not "Album".
-- Unless a Cell Phone Upload as I do, -- I otherwise have (3) three things I do the same to every Vocal/Guitar single track "Demo" for "here". It's all one can do... it's not magic... you sound as you do, there, and that's "it" regardless of tweeks that can ruin a nice Dry-track. As suggested above, --doubling a dry track, out of phase can sound better than ANY plug in affect.

-- I recently watched an old Video of Neil Young, just releasing "Heart of Gold", on stage, live. Vocal, Guitar, Harp... one track, and sounds amazing as-is. All mid-range so, it's not like you can filter out the Guitar to a separate enhancement track, etc. However, if then he got "help" from folks "here", one could Mix in a Bass and Drum Kit and Keys and Strings and etc. However, that's where "EQ" ability within a single track RECORDING is the most valuable "talent". Then, you are recording/mixing and mastering --all at ONE time... (live recording is a separate talent?).

Every "master" "Producer" will walk up to an opinion about recording and --change it. New folks may not be able to distinguish "+- 1 dB of Opinion" unless the experts simplify and do not, -- aggregate it all for them; and many never do. Making a "Record" and making a great "Recording" may be two separate items..., well, it is for me and how I see it.

-- But, then, I'm not an expert either Smile So, do follow the expert advise if none of this above makes sense... Wink

re: Neil Young live recording. I have no idea what recording you are referring to, but remember, even live off the board mixes may be eq'd more than just for simple feedback issues. So even if you are recording live, there are techniques here that will translate.

@johnstaples The recording revolution guy (the 10 minute mix link you posted) has a ton of great material on how to get good mixes out of minimal gear as well, a great web series of videos for someone just starting out with little to no gear that wants to maximize cost/benefit on a beginning rig. I think most of them are linked under the free guides section https://www.recordingrevolution.com/free-guides/

That live Neil Young recording -- it might be interesting to google that particular performance, who knows what the setup was.

In the 70's for a live recording typically there would be a truck parked outside with a mixing board and a 24-track reel to reel tape recorder (the size of a washing machine). On stage there would be a transformer-based splitter sending every mic to both the mixing board for the PA inside the venue and a duplicate signal to the truck outside. Then you can mix the live recording just like you would any 24-track studio recording.

I know a guy who used to do this.

[@nutation] If I'm reading that right, it seems like your point is about not clarifying some basic terms before we all spew out production tips left and right?

I would say generally there are the 3 big steps you listed, but often there is a fourth step in between the first two you listed above, namely editing the audio files/combining takes. I'll try to keep it brief and you can let me know if I nailed what you were going for, which I am thinking was a more beginner glossary of key terms:

1. Recording - the process of setting up your microphones or software to create your music files

(2.) Editing - the process of fixing hiccups, cutting and pasting together in software different takes of your recording to remove unwanted noise and create your best takes for the tracks. This step also involves picking which tracks you want to mix together to form your song e.g. maybe I don't NEED that 7th guitar....

3. Mixing - Get the levels right for each recorded track in the song such that it pleases you, perhaps even your intended listeners, if you are good. Plugins, effects, reverbs, etc. happen here.

4. Mastering - Taking the final mixed track as a single song file exported from your software, and applying song-wide tweaks and changes to give "polish" or to help keep a consistent feel to multiple tracks on an album. In modern pop, this step is where a lot of the "loudness" happens. The difference is that in mixing, you are working with multiple tracks (guitar, bass, kick drum, etc.), while in mastering, you are working with the entire song file as a single track and tweak that. In mixing you're working with the fruit, in mastering you're working with the smoothie, and you can't really get the fruit back out of the smoothie.

I've used Audacity and only a few tracks for years, and you can do everything in those 4 steps with it and some free plugins, but other software makes some of those steps much easier.

Also for what it's worth, I've read that with modern digital recording there's no need to max out your levels. The advice I see is to have signals hitting between -24 and -20 dB on your meters, leaving lots of empty room at the top of the meter. There is no need in current systems to get anywhere near "0".

There is no saturation any more, the signal sounds exactly the same at -32dB and at -1dB. We have a dynamic range greater than human hearing, and noise levels that were impossible back in the analog days.

@siebass That 7th guitar is *always* needed Biggrin

If you want to up your game and get something a little more advanced than a basic audio app like Audacity, it's worth pointing out that the nice people at Tracktion have made version 6 of their DAW software totally free to download. It's not nagware, it's not crippleware, you just download it and start making music.
https://www.tracktion.com/products/t6-daw

And while we're recommending DAWs I'll put a plug in for Reaper! Powerful and popular! Very inexpensive at only $60! A full-featured 60-day trial that never expires! No limitations or hassles on the free trial so you can take your time and learn it before deciding if it is for you!

Your comments on the Haas effect reminded me of another trick I had heard about. Take the guitar and hard pan to one side, take only the wet reverb of the guitar, and hard pan to the other side for another cool widening effect. I forget where I picked that one up, but I certainly don't take credit for it.

@headfirstonly Does Tracktion have any generators in it for creating music, or do you need to bring your own live or MIDI instruments to get going? I downloaded it as it's free and I've heard good things, but I didn't see anything to tinker around with as I didn't have time to sit down and record anything.

@siebass It'll talk to your audio interface and the synth on your sound card, and it plays nicely with almost all of the VSTs I've got. You can record straight into it with audio or MIDI, and you can edit MIDI information on the screen, piano-roll style. It pretty much has all your bases covered.

You need to create a project and then select its "Edit" function to get the main DAW interface to appear. When you first run the program it's in file management mode.

There's a user manual for version 6 on the Tracktion site. It's not great but it will get you up and running.

Thanks, @headfirstonly, I'll check out the manual, see if I can patch my cool VST synths from FL studio into it to give it a test drive.