It’s a very common line of thinking that the producer and engineer are not supposed to really influence the sound of the music; that they should mostly be invisible to the process of recording, so that the true identity of the band can really show.
But isn’t that why a particular producer gets hired? In order to provide guidance to the recording process, which in effect influences the sound?
Perhaps the line of thinking that producers should step out of the way comes from a certain era in music where things my have gotten out of hand, and the essence of an artist’s music was hi-jacked by the production and A&R team.
However, I can’t help but notice how often producers get hired because of a certain band they worked with or album they produced, myself included.
When a producer and/or engineer is hired to be a part of a project, to a considerable extent they are being invited into a collaborative process with the artist. There’s going to be a degree of influence on the sound that just comes with the territory.
I’m definitely not advocating that a producer, engineer, or anyone else should step in and change the fundamental musical identity of an artist… quite the opposite, really…
But it is an interesting question worth asking ourselves. Even if for no other reason but to keep ourselves in check, so as to not inadvertently eviscerate the very thing that makes an artist’s music special.
Make a decision.
Not sure if the intro is too long? Cut it in half.
Wondering if the vocal seems to drag? Raise the tempo.
Does the song seem too long? Get rid of all the turn-arounds, and cut the bridge in half.
Does the song seem too monotonous? Change one of the choruses into a bridge, or add a bridge as an extra section to the song.
Every alternative you have tried for the ending does not seem to work? Leave it exactly as the band (or you) wrote it.
It does not matter what you do, just stop debating over what to do and make a decision. Because making a decision and creating a recording sounds way better than a song that is stuck at a dead end, and heard by no one.
When I was an intern at a recording studio in Nashville, there was an assistant engineer on staff that was a huge jerk. He was constantly and loudly running his mouth off about this and that, and trying to spitefully put people in their place.
The thing was, however, that he was legitimately a smart guy. When it came to the technical subject matter of making a record, he was an encyclopedia. And when it came to the topic of the business of recording, he had a lot of valuable experiential knowledge to share as well.
I remember at a particular staff meeting when he was furiously yelling at everyone in the room (as he often did). To paraphrase, is rant went something like this: “It’s never going to be how you want it to be. It’s not even going to be how you want when you become an engineer or producer.” And although he was ranting in order to bully people around… in essence he was right.
The key word I would interject, though, is exactly. Recording music is a collaboration with many people, all of whom bring their own opinions, biases, and life experiences. Each one of these things have played a part in shaping who they are.
So the key takeaway, and the point that my former co-worker would have probably been a little more effective in getting across, had he not been so condescending (note the mild irony here) was…
Don’t let yourself get caught up in the mindset of thinking that everything is always going to go exactly your way, when you’re a big shot who’s got a list of accolades a mile long. Because not only will it be a rude awakening when you get there, this type of mentality is a handicap that will impede your career and your success. The truth is that your ideas will always be edited in some way or another, no matter what status you have attained.
It’s an elusive matter, continually working to humble yourself to the place you need to be to best pay service to the ideas. The most successful record producers and audio engineers understand this, and have taught me through their example.
It’s not about tallying up who’s got the best ideas, and how often they are used. It’s about creating meaning and art that is worth people’s attention – worth remarking on and sharing.
Always have one.
A few scenarios for you:
1) You plan to record vocals using a specific chain of gear, but one piece in that chain is broken completely. It can’t be used until it gets fixed, and no one knows when that will be right now.
2) You’ve done three weeks worth of pre-production with a band, and booked some studio time at a rather pricey studio in town. One week before your scheduled recording date, a member of the band quits.
3) You’re juggling several projects at once. Today you’re recording some publishing demos for a songwriter at his studio, but tomorrow you’re planning to record vocals for a rock band at your own studio. Except you’re going to need to move some gear around for that to happen, and you’ve simply run out of time.
I’d speculate that a majority the time I end up having to come up with some form of a Plan B a few times (at least) on any given recording day.
Sometimes this could be a small Plan B: “Ok, let’s plan to show up to the studio at 10:30am instead of 10am.”
Sometimes this could be a big Plan B: “Well, we’re going to have to come up with our own funding for the project now, because the label just dropped the band.”
Always have a Plan B (and be agile enough to come up with a few on the spot). Because it’s not a matter of if you’re going to need it. It IS going to happen.
Also, be wise enough and brave enough to know when the best Plan B is to call the whole thing off entirely.
If you’re like me, then you probably find yourself wrapped up in this mentality all too often…
You read an article about how someone mixed a record, or you talked with someone about a particular way to record an instrument, and the next time you’re working you begin reflecting on what you read or heard. Then you end up constantly second guessing yourself.
Now you begin to scrutinize every little thing you do in the studio – where you place a mic on an acoustic guitar, how you select gear, or your workflow for making a record in general. I do this all the time, and not with just making records, I catch myself doing this as it relates to all kinds of different daily routines.
The latest is with my mixing workflow. Lately, I’ve been catching a few discussions on blogs about the best way to approach building a mix. I recently found myself trying a couple of these techniques for starting and building a mix. And boy, did I make it hard for myself – this specific advise was not working!
That’s when the lightbulb went off. I asked myself, “Why am I doing this?” There was nothing wrong with the workflow I had been using before. It actually served me quite well. But for some strange reason, I too often get in my head that I need to try something else, just because I happened to read about it a couple days prior.
Making records is a daily learning experience. But there are also a lot of instances when you need to recognize that you already know something, and move on. If you have a technique for accomplishing something that works really well, don’t abandon that approach just because someone else came up with another method.
Record like you record, not someone else. It’s easy to get sucked into the notion that the way someone else does it is better than the way you do it, just because.
If you build great mixes by starting with the drums, then stick with that.
If an EQ inserted before a compressor typically sounds best to you, then it is best.
When trying out new methods, if the new technique does not seem to improve your workflow fairly quickly, then that’s probably your indication that you should stick with your current way of doing things.
Yeah, there’s times when you can learn a better way to do it. But there’s also times when you need to be confident that the technique you already use is sufficient. To do it any other way is not necessarily an improvement (and it could make things worse).
Ever heard the expression, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”?
It will be easier when you graduate college and get an internship at a recording studio.
It will be easier when you complete your internship, and get a job at the recording studio.
It will be easier when you have a lot of label connections, and can get consistent work through them.
It will be easier when you’re able to work with a world-famous artist, who sells a million records.
It will be easier when you’ve won a Grammy, and people will trust you and listen to what you say because you now have authority.
It will be easier when someone gives you a ton of money to capitalize a recording studio that you not only work out of full time, but also own.
Except none of these things are true. It does not simply get easier. In some ways it will, yes. But in many ways, greater success and growth brings more pressure, and higher stakes.
The complexities and challenges of professionally producing, recording, and mixing records will always be a factor in your career-no matter what your status is.
The responsibility of your success is yours, and yours alone. Don’t trick yourself into believing that one day someone is going to come along and hand you success on a silver platter. And Don’t trick yourself into thinking that once you attain a key achievement that the rest is just coasting on Easy Street.
Because then you will cease to continually challenge yourself, you will cease grow, and most importantly, you will cease to truly have fun in a life of making records [because instead of enjoying the fruits of your career now, you will be constantly chasing future contentment]
A very significant percentage of the songs I produce, I drop the click out (mute) within the first four bars of the recording. I’ve found that most of the time this pushes people into a frame of mind that gets them outside their own head – outside the calculations of the song – and into the heart and soul of it all. Granted, there are also a fair amount of recordings in which I don’t drop the click, but it is something I do quite regularly, and even when recording genres that you would think rely heavily on the click (like dance-rock).
Typically, there’s some resistance from the group about this. It’s an initial bump of fear in reaction to someone messing with their comfort zone. But with a little gentle persuasion I can win the confidence of the room. Most of the time, once the musicians try it, it’s a liberating feeling for the band to be cut loose from the click.
But then once we are free from the click, the song’s tempo begins to speed up and slow down constantly throughout the recording. The mere thought of that happening might make you cringe. Look through that initial jab of hesitation.
Tempo fluctuations are one of the most humanizing factors in a recording.
It’s all kind of like getting in tune with the energy of the song, and feeling what will best serve that song (actually, it’s exactly like that).
Pull out some of those old records from the 60′s and 70′s you’ve got in your collection. I bet what you will notice (as I did) is that A) the songs speed up and slow down throughout the recording, and B) the songs don’t always end at the same tempo they began.
There’s a reason we keep going back to these records as reference points and as something to aspire to – those folks were on to something. One of the things they were onto was the humanizing factor of letting the tempo dictate itself.
Don’t be afraid of dropping the click, take advantage of the humanizing factors it creates.
Making records is more about interacting with people than it is about anything else. Great people skills can take you the distance in a career in recording, even when you may not be the most knowledgeable or the definitively most talented person to ever step into the studio. On top of that, it’s very likely that if you have great people skills, clients will choose you over someone else who may know more, or be more “talented” than you.
When I got my first studio job as an intern, there was an assistant engineer who was a huge jerk. He knew everything there was to ever know about being an audio engineer – all the nuances and ultra technical particulars of how every piece of gear worked, the science behind capturing great sounds, how to repair broken gear – everything. But he was a jerk, and a loudmouth with poor work ethic. Clients constantly asked for him to be replaced with someone – anyone! – else.
If you’re cold and stale, do the bare minimum to get the job done, and run you mouth off every minute of the day, you’re going to be asked to leave.
If you treat people kindly, if you’re authentic, honest, and genuine, people will enjoy the work they do with you, and feel good about what you’ve created together.
Technical knowledge and production skills are important. But not nearly as important as treating people right. Of all the skills it’s important to have in the studio, none of them will provide a secure, long-term path to success like having good people skills will.
Doubling a vocal (singer sings a second pass in unison with themselves) is one of the easiest and most straightforward ways you can bring up the intensity to a section of a song in which you’re trying elevate the energy (typically the chorus). The end result is often very subtle to the listener. Most of the time, a doubled vocal is rarely an effect that music fans consciously are aware of-they simply feel the emotional shift of a raised energy level.
A little while back I came across some video interviews on YouTube of Butch Vig breaking down some of the production techniques used to record Nirvana’s Nevermind record.
In one of the videos Butch dissects the song “In Bloom”, and how they doubled Kurt Cobain’s lead vocal, as well as Dave Grohl’s harmony vocal in the choruses. Butch pulls up each part one at a time, so you can clearly hear how this technique filled out the arrangement in a powerful way.
I’m currently in the studio with the band Kink Ador. On Monday we singled out one of the songs we’re working on, and focused on recording some background vocal and additional guitar parts for it. One of the first things we did was double the lead vocal in all the choruses.
But in the middle of recording the vocal double, I began to think back to that Butch Vig interview, and I got inspired with another idea. I liked the approach Butch took of having a different voice sing and double the harmony vocals. So I basically copied the essence of that idea, but with a bit of a spin on it.
Kink Ador is a band made up of one female lead vocalist-Sharon. The rest of the band is guys. Nick, the lead guitar player, also sings background vocals. In the middle of tracking Sharon’s lead vocal double, I got the wild idea to go back and triple the lead vocal in the choruses-but with Nick singing the tripled part.
I was a bit hesitant with the idea, but we tried it and it turned out awesome. It added another layer of just the right amount of texture and intensity to Sharon’s vocal in the choruses. The end result is very subtle-you can’t tell that there’s a male vocal layered underneath. In the end, it simply imparts a sort of gruffness to Sharon’s lead vocal, which is perfect for adding energy to the choruses.
So next time you’re looking for ways to add intensity to certain sections of a song, it may be as simple as doubling the lead vocal, or even tripling the part with another member of the band.
Here’s the Butch Vig interview that inspired this idea in the first place:
Is it that your tacks are totally isolated from each other-no bleed?
Is it that you were extremely meticulous in dialing in sounds?
Is it that every instrument is perfectly in tune?
Is it that you recorded every single part on it’s own track?
Is it that your recording utilizes 100 tracks instead of 4?
Is it because you recorded each part separately-the performance was not live?
Is it because you recorded with Pro Tools-no analog tape?
Is it because you edited every part to be perfect?
Is it because you used playlists, and kept every possible take?
Is it because you used Auto-Tune on all the vocal tracks?
I have worked on records where every track was completely isolated, and while most of the time the fidelity turned out great, there were a few times when the result just sounded kind of lifeless.
I have produced records where I tracked every part individually, and realized by the end of the project that all the parts felt “disconnected” from a performance standpoint.
It’s funny how often times we automatically assume that certain approaches to producing, recording, or mixing yield certain outcomes. Over the years of working along side many different producers and engineers in many different capacities, I’ve seen so many different ways of working. One recording engineer may adhere to a method of working that another recording engineer disregards completely, while both claim their ways to be the only way that you can create a quality product.
Everything in record making is subjective. Even the rules are subjective.
So just what is it, exactly, that dictates that a recording sounds polished?