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The Art Of Music Production – Part 3

This post is part of a series called The Art Of Music Production (Premium).
The Art Of Music Production – Part 2
The Art Of Music Production – Part 4

his series about music production is based around my new book, The Music Producer’s Handbook, where I’ll outline some basic production techniques and hopefully provide some details about the process that takes some of the mystery away. Be aware that this part of the series looks at the relationship between a producer and a band, or a producer with an artist with a backing band or studio musicians. We’ll tackle self-production later in the series.

Also available in this series:

  1. The Art Of Music Production – Part 1
  2. The Art Of Music Production – Part 2
  3. The Art Of Music Production – Part 3
  4. The Art Of Music Production – Part 4
  5. The Art Of Music Production – Part 5
  6. The Art Of Music Production – Part 6

In Part 3, we’ll look at the one of the most critical elements of being a producer - getting the best performances from the artist and musicians.

Working With The Artist

It’s important that a producer properly interfaces with the artist because the success of any project depends upon easy and efficient collaboration. That being said, sometimes singling out just who is the “artist” on a project isn’t as easy as you’d think.

It’s usually pretty obvious who the artist (or musical leader of a band) is when it comes to a record or demo date, but there are many other music production gigs where the artist is a slightly different entity. If it’s a jingle date, for instance, the composer or anyone from the advertising agency can be viewed in the same light as an artist, and if it’s a film or TV date, the director, producer(s), music supervisor(s), studio execs or any of their representatives should be considered an artist too.

Regardless of what kind of project, it’s best to show a quiet, friendly respect to the artist at all times. While recording, you’re a valued asset to their creative and business process, and are usually considered a peer at least and a parental figure or teacher at most. During your time involved in the sphere of activity when making the record, you inhabit the artist’s musical, professional and social universe as a cross between an honored guest and a partner in their musical enterprise.

Once an artist begins to trust you on a musical level, that trust may carry over onto a personal level as well. It’s easy to become a confidant as the intimate bond between you (the producer) and the artist grows, but there may be danger in getting too close. It’s easy for personal issues to get in the way of the music, and while the producer has to deal with them, it’s easy for the focus to drift away from the music if the producer is too personally involved. Many producers are careful to set boundaries that allow them to stay focused on the job at hand, and only become engaged in the artist’s private matters if it has a negative impact on the music.

With respect to all the tangential interactions that may occur on a session, consider anyone associated with the artist (like a spouse, family member, boyfriend or girlfriend, guest, driver, personal assistant or staffer) an “artist” too. While it’s easy to dismiss these people as unimportant to the production process, treating them lightly can bring the scorn of the artist down upon you!

Getting The Best Out Of Musicians

Even if a musician is completely comfortable about his environment, there are things you can do to help him take his performance to another level. Unless they already have a lot of studio experience, most musicians can be very self-conscious about what they’re playing, especially after hearing a playback that uncovers some flaws they were unaware of up until that moment. It’s important that their confidence doesn’t flag and it’s directly up to you to keep that from happening. Here are a few tricks that will help.

  • Stay positive. Regardless of how badly things might be going, how off-key someone is singing, or how out-of-the-pocket someone is playing, never be negative in your body language or your comments. Remarks like, “You suck,” or “That really sounds bad,” never help the situation and can even completely undermine a performance. If something isn’t going as well as you think it should, give the player a reasonable chance, sit him down for a listen in the control room, then firmly but respectfully describe why the part isn’t working.
  • Explain what’s wrong. Players hate it when they’re just told to, “Do it again,” without any explanation as to why you think what they just played wasn’t good enough. If the take wasn’t a keeper for any reason, explain what was wrong in a kind and gentle way. Statements like "I think you have a better one in you," or “I’ve heard you play it with more excitement before,” might work if you can’t put your finger on the problem, but players appreciate it if you can be specific so they can concentrate on that part the next time they play it through. “You’re falling behind the beat every time we come out of the chorus,” or “You’re going flat on the 3rd note of the first phrase, when you sing ‘and’,” are examples of specific statements. If the player continues to get it wrong, make sure you play the part for him so he can hear it clearly and understand what you’re going for.
  • Keep the studio talkback mic on. Communication is one of the most important, yet sometimes overlooked parts of a successful session. Players hate it when they’re speaking to you from the studio and either you’re not aware that they’re trying to get your attention, or you simply can’t hear them. Make sure that the engineer puts up a dedicated talkback mic in the studio and that it’s turned on immediately after every take. It’s important that you don’t miss a single word.
  • Keep the control room talkback mic on. Players also hate when there’s long periods of silence from the control room after a take. They might see a conversation going on, but if they can’t hear it, many players get insecure and feel isolated. You may be having a conversation about what kind of take-out food to order for lunch, but as far as the player can tell, you’re talking about how bad his performance was and how you’d like to replace him. Get rid of the insecurity by latching the control room talkback so he can hear you all the time between takes. Once again, communication is the key to a successful session.
  • If a player asks to play it again, let him. You may think that the player just nailed the ultimate take, but if he feels he can play it better, he usually can. Players inherently know when they’ve messed something up, were late on a chord, mis-fingered or ghosted a note, or slowed down during a roll. Maybe you didn’t hear it, but the player knew it. Let him go again. This is a lot easer decision to make nowadays than it was back in the analog tape days, thanks to digital recording. Back then, you might only have space on tape for a single take and you might loose a take that was great if the next take didn’t work. That kind of pressure on the producer has now been lifted, thanks to your favorite DAW.

Getting The Best Out Of Singers

One of the hardest things in making a record is trying to record a vocalist who is uncomfortable. Even a seasoned pro sometimes can’t do her best unless the conditions are just right. Consider some of these suggestions before and during a vocal session.

  • Make sure the lighting is correct. Most vocalists prefer the lights lower in the studio and control room when singing.
  • A touch of reverb or delay in the headphones can help the singer’s comfort level with the headphones mix.
  • If you need to have the singer sing harder, louder or more aggressively, turn down the vocal track in the phones or turn the backing tracks up.
  • If you need to have the singer sing softer or more intimately, turn the singer's track up in the phones or turn down the backing tracks.
  • Keep talking with the artist between takes. Leave the talkback on if possible. Long periods of silence from the control room are a mood killer.
  • Try lowering the lights in the control room so they can't see you. Some people think that you're in there judging them when you might be talking about something completely different.
  • If the take wasn’t good for whatever reason, explain what was wrong in a kind and gentle way. Something like "That was really good, but I think you can do it even better. The pitch was a little sharp at the end of the phrase," lets the singer know what needs to be improved and makes her feel that you’re on her side.
  • Keep smiling.

The Scratch Vocal

While experienced studio players can cut a great track without a guide or “scratch” vocal, almost every player would prefer to have one to play against. The guide vocal not only acts as a cue for certain sections of the song, but adds to the groove and feel that helps a player perform at his best. One of the other advantages is that the lead singer can also give directions and reminders to the players as the song progresses.

There are no particular rules for a scratch vocal. Some vocalists don’t mind being in a vocal booth while performing a scratch vocal, but almost all vocalists want to be able to see all the players during a song as they dislike feeling disconnected from the rest of the band. As a result, many singers would actually prefer to be out in the room with the other players. The scratch track won’t sound as good in that situation due to the leakage (mostly because of leakage from the drums), but if it helps the performance of the band and vocalist, that’s what you want to do.

Many lead singers, producers and engineers may take a scratch vocal lightly since it will be redone at a latter time under better conditions, but the smart producer is always prepared just in case magic happens that can’t be recaptured again. Treat this vocal seriously because you never know when you might capture lightning in a bottle and it will end up being a keeper.

Getting Sounds

There was a time in the 70’s when a few high budget projects would take an entire week just to get the right snare drum sound. While they might’ve attained musical snare drum nirvana, 99.99999% of sessions have to move faster than that, and they should. The more time you take before recording, the less time you’ll actually spend recording since the attention span of the players decreases proportionately to the time spent getting sounds. Although you want things to sound as good as possible, a poor sounding track with a great vibe is a lot more usable than a well recorded, but musically stale track.

Still, getting sounds is a necessary evil in recording and at least some amount of time has to be allotted for the task. A good producer knows when to move on when it’s taking too long and the engineer is just trying to dial in the final 5% of the sound, or know when to continue when the sound really isn’t working.

The Headphone Mix

Great tracks come from the participant’s focus and the comfort of the players. Although environmental comforts are helpful, a player will play or sing her best when she hears herself well and in the correct proportion to the other players or singers. That’s why the headphone (sometimes called “cue”) mix is so important.

Perhaps the greatest detriment to a session running smoothly is the inability for players to hear themselves comfortably in the headphones. This is one of the reasons that veteran engineers spend so much time and attention to the cue mix and the phones themselves, instead of letting an assistant do it. In fact, a sure sign of a studio neophyte is treating the headphones and cue mix as an afterthought, instead of spending as much time as required to make them sound great. While it’s true that a veteran studio player can shrug off a bad or distorted phone mix and still deliver a fine performance, good “cans” makes a session go faster and easier, and takes a variable that is quite possibly the biggest detriment to a session out of the equation.

To Click Or Not To Click

The click track, or recording while listening to a metronome, has become a fact of life in most sessions these days. Not only does playing at an even tempo sound better, but it makes cut and paste editing between performances in a DAW possible and easy. Having a track based on a click also makes things like delay and reverb timing easier during mixing.

Playing to a click can present a number of problems however, like leakage of the click into the mics, and the fact that some people just can’t play to steady time to save their lives. That being said, most players today are brought up playing with a click or loops, so the problem then becomes one of helping the player hear the click more than anything else.

Making the Click Cut Through The Mix

Many times just providing a metronome in the phones isn’t enough. What good is a click if you can’t hear it, or worse yet, can’t groove to it? Here are some tricks to make the click not only listenable, but cut through the densest mixes and seem like another instrument in the track too.

  • Pick The Right Sound. Something that’s more musical than an electronic click is better to groove to. Try either a cowbell, sidestick, or even a conga slap. Needless to say, when you pick a sound to replace the click, it should fit with the context of the song. Many drummers like two sounds for the click; something like a high go-go bell for the downbeat and a low go-go bell for the other beats or vice-versa.

  • Pick The Right Number Of Clicks Per Bar. Some players like 1/4 notes while others play a lot better with 8ths. Whichever it is, it will work better if there’s more emphasis on the downbeat (beat 1) than on the other beats.

  • Make It Groove. By adding a little delay to the click you can make it swing a bit and it won’t sound so stiff. This makes it easier for players that normally have trouble playing to a click. As a side benefit, this can help make any bleed that does occur less offensive as it will seem like part of the song.

    Session Management

    To get the best performances, you have to keep the players constantly focused, and the best way to do that is for a producer to manage the session well.

    Listening To Playbacks

    Bringing the players into the control room to listen to a playback can either be disruptive or used to strategically bolster the momentum of the session. If the players listen to a playback after every take, the energy slows down as the players file into the control room and then back out afterwards. Even if the players listen to a playback through their phones, the momentum can be disrupted. It usually takes a minute or two until they get comfortable again, which can take you further away from the perfect take rather than closer.

    One of the best ways to get your point across yet keep the energy high is to be selective on control room playbacks. It’s usually best to bring the players in for a listen after the first couple takes and everyone is to the point of where they feel comfortable with the sound and studio. At that point, they can get a reference point for where they are now and where they have to go. Don’t bring them back into the control room until they either have what might be a keeper take, or if another listen will help them play something better. Fewer trips to the control room will help keep energy high and momentum going forward.

    Session Breaks

    One of the best abilities for a producer to develop is determining when it’s time to take a break. Sometimes a ten minute break can pump new energy into a flagging session, so the producer always has to keep his finger on the pulse of the players to gauge their concentration. The danger is that you’ll call a break just as the players are getting in a groove and it will be difficult to get it back after the break, but usually the players will tell you that they want to keep going, or they’ll confirm that a break is needed too. It’s usually best to figure on a break at least every three hours or so, depending upon how the session is progressing.

    Dinner Breaks

    Dinner breaks can be dangerous in that they must be handled with care so you’re able to get the players back in a groove afterwards. If the break is too long, it may take an equally long time for the players to get their attention back. The same applies if you allow them to leave the studio to eat somewhere else, which is why it’s always better to have food brought in. One of the biggest problems to guard against is a large meal, since normal digestion naturally slows down the player’s ability to concentrate afterwards. Keep the meal time short, the portions small, and allow absolutely no alcohol so everyone stays fresh and the session is kept on track.

    How Long Are The Sessions?

    Back in the days when most music was recorded in commercial studios, everything revolved around the 12 hour “lock-out.” This means that while you only get charged for 12 hours, no one else can use the studio for the other 12 so all the musician’s gear and the gear in the control room can remain set up.

    With 87% of music coming from personal studios these days, staying set up isn’t as much of an issue, but the mentality that you can play for as long as you like can actually play heavily on the session’s consciousness. If you’re paying for a 12 hour day in a commercial studio, it’s not uncommon to want to get every minute’s worth by staying in the studio long past the burn-out point. This can be counterproductive as a whole since the burn-out tends to catch up with everyone in all successive recording days thereafter, making it harder and harder to concentrate and making the useful time in the studio shorter and shorter. If you’re not paying for the time, it’s easy to get lackadaisical about the time and stay way beyond the point of any productive work.

    Studio pros have found that it’s best to keep the days to a reasonable 8 or 9 hours, only pushing past that if you’re really close to something great and everyone wants to continue, or a deadline looms. One of the producer’s main jobs is sensing when the burn-out point has been reached and call an end to the session at that time.

    How Do You Know When You’re Finished?

    Knowing when you have the keeper tracks that you need to make a great record is one of the more difficult assessments for a producer to make. During basic tracking, the ultimate is a flawless performance with a great groove and lots of feel, but achieving all three attributes is very elusive. Know that given enough time and enough takes, the perfect take is within your grasp. It’s not uncommon to do dozens of takes until the perfect one appears (Jimi Hendrix’s landmark All Along The Watchtower was Take #28).

    But sometimes it’s best to determine that, while the track is not perfect, you have enough to work with. Can you cut and paste several takes together to get what you need? Should you move on to another song and return to this song later for another try? Once again, whoever is paying you will have dictated their needs before you’ve even begun tracking. If your job is to get a number of songs finished within a certain period of time, then you might have to settle on some performances to meet the deadline. If your job is to get the best possible product, then you might throw the time schedule and budget out the window.

    Either way, basic tracking can be over in a few hours (as in the case of recording a straight-ahead jazz project) or can continue for months or even years (like a big-budget legacy band), but it’s up to the producer to make the call that the mission of capturing exactly what’s needed for this phase of recording has been accomplished.

    Next month we’ll look at the process of overdubbing.

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