First of all, I don't have a band. The songs are built progressively and often go through several arrangements before they are finalized. Usually I start by recording ("laying down") "scratch tracks" of the basic vocals and guitar or vocals and piano, and the arrangement is built around this. I might have someone else re-record the guitar or piano part for me. As the development of the song progresses, we might add or move around sections, change the chords, change the tempo, change the key of the song.
Each track is usually recorded separately. That means that the producer is playing the scratch tracks or whatever has been recorded by that time through the musician's headphones, and they play their part along to the recording. The producer/recording engineer often needs to adjust what the musician hears through their headphones in order to help them get a good recording. Usually there is a "click track" (like a metronome) that helps the musicians keep in time. Yesterday I was recording a guitar part and was having trouble locking in to the click during certain parts of the song, even though I had been practicing with the metronome. So my genius producer created an electronic drum part, which he played along with my scratch vocals. That helped me to stay in the groove and play in time throughout the song. A good producer knows how to help musicians get a recordable performance if they are having trouble.
After laying down the basic tracks, we might add other instruments, such as bass, drums, other percussion, cello (I am hoping), flute, electronic instruments, etc. That means that I have to find someone who plays that instrument, arrange for them to come into the studio, explain what I want, maybe give them the chart (written musical outline of the song), and of course pay them. I might consult with my producer or with other collaborators about what instruments and players might be the best fit for the song and the sound we are trying to create. I often lean on my producer to explain to the musician what they need to play and how to get the best recording. I don't know how to play all those other instruments, so I don't know how to explain to them what they need to do.
I don't have to be there when the other instrumentalists are recording their parts. If it's someone I know and trust, I can just describe for them what I want and leave it to them to create and record the part. They don't even have to be in the local area. They can go into a recording studio anywhere (or record at home if they have the capability) and play along to an mp3 of what we have recorded so far, and send me or my producer a digital file containing the track or tracks they have recorded. This is one of the best parts of the recording process, getting a wonderful present of a new part for a song, and adding it in to the mix.
Sometimes we try something with a song & it isn't really working, so we need to figure out how to change the song to get the sound and feel we are looking for. On one of my songs I recorded the scratch tracks, and then we decided that it needed to be sped up considerably, so we had to start over. On another, we recorded vocals, guitar, bass, and drums, but it wasn't sounding right. I decided to junk the arrangement and start over from scratch.
One thing that's funny when people listen to my recordings is that, since they think you record everything at the same time with a band, they think all the vocal tracks have to be done by different people. They ask me who is singing with me. They don't understand that in a single song, I might have 10 different vocal tracks layered together, and I'm singing every one of them. As I mentioned before, usually we are recording only one track at a time and layering them on top of each other.
When recording a track, it's rare to sing or play it straight through without any mistakes. Because people will listen to the same recording over and over again, it's important to fix even small glitches and make sure that the musical expression is just right. There are a number of ways that mistakes can be fixed. You can re-record one section of a song. Or you can record several takes and cut and paste sections from the different takes. In some cases the producer/engineer can actually edit the digital file to move a note so that it is played in time, or even correct the pitch. It is important to have a producer/recording engineer with a critical ear, so that he/she will have you fix parts of the recording that are problematic. It is best to fix things on the same day, because otherwise the recording setup might be slightly different and not fit with the track you recorded previously. There are also variations from day to day in the quality of the voice and the tone of instruments.
Depending on how difficult and how long the part is, it usually takes me anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to record a single part, with all the setup, various takes, fixing issues, etc. So when you are listening to a final recording of a 3-minute song with, say, 4 instruments and lead and backup vocals, remember that the recording alone probably took 6-10 hours, and that's assuming we didn't go through various versions of one or more of the parts. And sometimes the fewer parts there are in each song, the longer it takes to record each part, since each part is more exposed and therefore there is less tolerance for irregularities in the recording.
Once all the parts are recorded, the producer goes through a process of mixing and editing the tracks. They will adjust the equalization, add effects that change the quality of the sound, edit out extraneous noises, fix timing and pitch issues, and adjust the balance and placement of the parts. This process can have a big effect on how the music sounds, not just whether it's "good" or "bad," but also whether it sounds big or small, romantic or dry, cheesy and dated or fresh and new.
After the mixing and editing is finalized, there is a process called "mastering," which adjusts the levels of the songs on an album in relation to each other, adds compression, and adjusts the equalization so that the music will sound good whether played on your alarm clock radio or your home stereo.
A word about $$. Another misconception people have is that the investment in making a CD is mostly in the cost of making physical copies of the CD and CD cover. As you now are aware, the process of recording itself is very involved, and every step of the way costs money (unless you are doing everything yourself, in which case it costs time). The bulk of the cost in making an album is actually in the recording and production, more so than the actual physical manufacturing of a CD. Some recordings are more simple than others, and some people record themselves rather than working with producers and engineers. I am not a recording engineer, and I can hear the difference between something I record at home and something I have worked with my producer on, so I prefer to work with a good producer. And if I want other people to play instrumental parts on my songs, which I often do, I usually have to pay them. I have been fortunate to work with excellent producers with very reasonable rates and instrumentalists who have charged me less than they fairly should, but it does add up. As an indie musician, this is all coming out of my own pocket.
So now you hopefully have a better idea of what is going into making my new album. And maybe you'll understand when you ask me when it will be finished, and I say "I don't know." And maybe you'll know why I'm so exhausted after a recording session. And when you hear the final product, you'll have a little better sense of what it took to get those 3 minutes recorded and sounding just right. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed creating it! What a privilege it is to be able to make music, and to collaborate with other talented musicians on a project that is close to my heart, and then to be able to share it with others around the world.