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How Do You Craft a Top 40 Hit?
June 1, 2011 10:58 AM   Subscribe

What is the recording process like for a typical Top 40 popular song?

I am curious about how a hit song is made. I understand that there are probably a lot of variations and would appreciate information about any of them. For a song's genesis - how does that work? A songwriter makes a demo tape (or mp3), right? Are the demo tapes for popular songs available anywhere? Are songwriters independent contractors or do they typically work for one label? Who exactly is the song pitched to? Does the singer hear it?

During the actual recording process, what happens there? Who is physically in the room? Do they sing the whole song at once or is it recorded in fragments? Do they sing certain parts in a variety of ways and decide later which is the best? Does a "featured" singer have to be around at this time or can they add them in later?

I am interested less in artists that take a lot of control over their work and more interested in Britney Spears-esque songs that are (what I would imagine) more routine and standardized in their creation.

Also: how have the techniques used today changed over the years?
posted by amicamentis to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
This story from NPR, about producer Jerry Wonda and the process of making a song, sounds like what you want.
posted by asterix at 11:19 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Depends on the genre. For hip-hop or dance music, there might not be a studio at all -- everything except the rapping/singing is done in the computer.
posted by empath at 11:19 AM on June 1, 2011


Have you read the KLF's 1988 piece <>The Manual (How to Have a Number One the Easy Way) ? It's less about mechanics and more about...well...you know the KLF?
posted by wenestvedt at 11:30 AM on June 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


You might be interested in this clip from the movie Before The Music Dies.
posted by spilon at 11:40 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Start reading up about songwriters and producers like Linda Perry, Max Martin, Glen Ballard, Jimmy Jam, Bloodshy & Avant, Shellback, Dr. Luke, etc.

Hits come from everywhere. But when you want to create a hit, you turn to people like this.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:41 AM on June 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


On recording, digital has made it very easy for a singer to do X takes and for engineers/producers to make a compilation of the track; she did most of this verse fine on the last take, but let's fly this line in from the third take, and the first take was almost worthless, except that I LOVE the way she hit the note at the end of that line. When my friends and I went in a few months back for a session admittedly unlikely to produce a 'hit,' my friend would usually do a full take, then another, and sometimes a third. Then we'd sit and listen and make notes as to which verses/lines/words we didn't yet quite have. Then we'd punch him in a few bars in advance. Then we'd repeat the process, on a second track, to double that part, with the same multiple takes and overdubs, then we'd move on to his next part, double that ... his final take for each track usually was pretty close to fully usable. I, on the other hand, sang a few lines on one song, and had to do take after take just to allow us to put together two usable lines. (And that was with the vocal distorted!) I tried to do the same on another song and couldn't do what I wanted to do.

The same studio wizardry is available for all instruments, really, except drums, where you need to get creative, because punching in will give you ambient issues. But on the kind of hits you're talking about, I imagine the session guys to be pros enough that almost no overdubs are necessary.
posted by troywestfield at 12:28 PM on June 1, 2011


For a song's genesis - how does that work? A songwriter makes a demo tape (or mp3), right? Are the demo tapes for popular songs available anywhere? Are songwriters independent contractors or do they typically work for one label? Who exactly is the song pitched to? Does the singer hear it?

Whether or not the demo is available anywhere is going to depend on the song. Generally, no, they're not widely available. It's possible that there might be sites that leak them, but I don't know of any.

During the actual recording process, what happens there? Who is physically in the room? Do they sing the whole song at once or is it recorded in fragments? Do they sing certain parts in a variety of ways and decide later which is the best? Does a "featured" singer have to be around at this time or can they add them in later?

Recording/mixing is a lot like cooking - there are general techniques and guidelines to follow, but good chefs or engineers know when and how to bend, spindle, fold and mutilate the rules . A lot of it is experience, combined with personal preference. The engineer's job is to get the sounds that the producer wants.

Since you're not asking about a specific song, the answers are going to be pretty vague and not apply in all cases.

GENERALLY: stuff that's recorded to digital can easily be done in bits and pieces; there's no need for the vocalist to sing the whole song through. How much of each take gets kept is going to depend on what the producer thinks, which is going to depend on how close the vocalist gets to what the producer is imagining.

Who is physically in the room? Well, the vocalist is in front of the microphone... that's usually in a vocal booth, but can also be in the control room... it really depends on the situation and what the producer thinks is required to get a good take. And there's someone pressing record. Usually the engineer.

Whether or not the featured singer is there; usually the track is mostly complete by the time the lead vocal is recorded. There might be overdubs after the main vocal, but the majority of the framework is complete.

How have the techniques changed over the years? Well, digital recording has made editing much faster than splicing analog tape, as well as enabling much larger track counts, which means more things can be recorded in one song. MIDI has meant that not every instrument is played by a human. Digital recording also means that mixing can be done "in the box", rather than with a bunch of people all moving faders up and down on a console and hoping nobody makes a mistake. The amount of power and plugins available to the consumer means that a lot of work can be done in the producer or engineer's home studio, which has reduced the amount of work available for "professional recording facilities". Compression plugins have contributed to the "loudness wars" (meaning songs have a reduced dynamic range), vocals are auto-tuned, either subtly or drastically, and many engineers adjust their mixes with the expectation that it's going to MP3, rather than vinyl, cassette or CD.

Whether or not those changes are good, bad, or the death of music as we knew it depends on who you ask.
posted by dubold at 12:34 PM on June 1, 2011


My favorite Wikipedia article ever addresses this question! It's an entry on the song In A Dream, which charted in a version recorded by no-name pop singer Rockell in 1998. The article was (apparently) written by Randy Taylor-Weber, who originally wrote and produced the song.
posted by bubukaba at 1:14 PM on June 1, 2011


Great question, great thread.
An example of a well-known song demo sung by its composers (though not a pop song, per se).

An interesting example of a song getting released by a different singer than originally intended - Lady Gaga's 'Telephone' was originally written for Britney Spears, but she turned it down - but not before recording a demo which was eventually leaked.
posted by Gordafarin at 1:52 PM on June 1, 2011


You might also check out Perfecting Sound Forever; it's about the history of sound recording more generally (starting with Edison and his wax cylinders), but it goes into some of the issues you're interested in.
posted by asterix at 1:56 PM on June 1, 2011


Here's how Prodigy makes a song:

How to make Voodoo People

Although keep in mind that this software wasn't around when they made the song -- at the time it was all done with hardware samplers and synths -- EDM producers today do it all this way, though.
posted by empath at 2:38 PM on June 1, 2011


A hit song has A MELODY which everyone can sing along to. Writing a good MELODY is really hard for most people. The only way you can do it is to try.

No more, no less, (not counting flukes). The technical stuff is really irrelevant, but there is a special machine which adds all of the special gloss when it goes on the radio, which is money.
posted by ovvl at 8:09 PM on June 1, 2011


The technical stuff is really irrelevant

Wasn't that what the question was about, in part? The other part being, what is the logistical process of songmaking, rather than "hitmaking"?
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:42 AM on June 2, 2011


Planet Money did a half-hour podcast on this very topic. My favorite part? Doves are involved.
posted by HotPatatta at 5:57 PM on July 12, 2011


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