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The Art Of Music Production – Part 4

This post is part of a series called The Art Of Music Production (Premium).
The Art Of Music Production – Part 3

Music production is a job frequently misunderstood by everyone but the producer, or underestimated in the scope of just what the job entails. This 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 remove the vail of mystery from the process. Be aware that we’ll be looking at the relationship of a producer with a band or 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

The overdubbing stage can be something as simple as fixing or replacing something in the basic tracks (like the bass, rhythm guitar, solos or lead vocal) to sophisticated layering and additions of horns and strings, multiple guitars, keyboards and background vocals. It’s also the phase of the project where the most experimenting is done, since even the most meticulously designed parts sometimes are found not to work and require some alteration.

Making It Better, Not Just Different

A common trait that most artists have is the creative streak that provides them idea after idea for parts, lines, embellishments and enhancements. The more creative the artist, the more the ideas spring forth, and that’s the problem. Sometimes an artist has so many good ideas that it takes a lot of time to try them all, and before you know it, you’re behind schedule. That’s bad enough, but an abundance of ideas can move a song away from it’s true intention, even detracting from the original inspiration. An example would be an artist who wrote a song that was originally a straight pop song, but now just has to hear how it sounds with a reggae feel. While the song might be great with the new style, it may now not contain the essence of the artist’s original inspiration. It’s up to you, as producer, to put a hold on the experimentation and focus the energy back to where the artist shines best.

Sometimes an artist will come up with good idea after good idea on new lines and parts during overdubs, and while most of them might work, it just makes the song different and not better. Again, it’s up to the producer to focus the energy of the artist and musicians back to where it needs to be and make the decision that the original direction you were going was the best one.

Sometimes an artist’s massive creativity can work in your favor though. For example, if you’re just not sure about the original feel of the song, expressing that to the artist will get his creative juices flowing and before you know it, a better idea will appear. But usually the artist’s first inspiration is the best, and it’s probably the one that attracted you to him in the first place.

Time To Experiment

It always happens at least once in the overdub phase. A player plays something by mistake or during warm-ups that lights up the whole studio and the producer says, “Can you play that again, but do something different on the end?” Or “Can you play it like that in this section instead?” And then the chase is on to recapture that lightening in a bottle and pour it over a part or section that was lacking before.

But things are usually never as simple as they seem, as the once brilliant part is changed to fit the new section or tweaked to better serve the song. A quick pass turns into hours and before you know it, you’ve spent the entire day working up this single part. That’s usually the way these things go during overdubs. By the time everyone has worked out the perfect part, the player is too tired to perform it in a convincing manner.

During these times when an entirely new part is being worked out, I’ve found that it sometimes takes two sessions to really make it happen. The first day you take that brilliant seed of an idea and work it out to where it properly fits in the song, and the second day is when the idea really flowers when you can properly execute it. Keeping this in mind can save you countless extra hours at the end of a long day. Leave it alone and come back tomorrow when everyone is fresh. It’ll probably be performed perfectly the first take.

Limit The Attendees

Sometimes overdubs go faster and smoother if band members other than those playing, friends, or entourage are not allowed in the control room. Too many people can spook a timid performer or worse yet, have her perform for the crowd instead of focusing on the job at hand. If visitors or band members must come to the studio, keep them out of the control room and have them stay in the lounge until the part is complete.

In general, it’s best that any wives or husbands, girlfriends or boyfriends, friends and associates, hangers on or non-essential people, not be allowed to come to the sessions except in extraordinary circumstances (like a playback party or delivering a forgotten instrument). The more people, the more likely the gathering becomes a party, and a party is not conducive to recording. There’s a time and place for it, but it’s not here. Unless the person is essential to the task at hand, have them stay at home.

Recording In The Control Room

Regardless who’s playing and what kind of instrument they’re using, it’s always best if you can get them to record in the control room with you. This is easy with guitar, bass, electronic keys and even vocals, and tougher for everything else. Having the musician able to hear exactly what you’re hearing as well as the immediacy of communication, not to mention the absence of headphones, will usually get a much better performance out of the player.

Most studios are now equipped with the cables and hardware to keep an amp in another room while the player plays in the control room. Playing in the control room is usually not an option for more than one player at a time (which probably won’t happen during overdubs anyway unless it’s a horn, string or vocal section), or with instruments that are quiet, like some percussion, acoustic guitars, or strings.

Vocals In The Control Room

While it seems like recording blasphemy, many vocalists hate headphones and would much rather sing in the control room with a hand-held stage mic like a Shure SM-58. This might not win you any hi-fidelity awards for vocals sound, but a great performance will trump audio quality any day. Plus the sound of most stage mics, while certainly not as hi-fidelity as a multi-thousand dollar vintage Neumann, is better than you think (as long as it’s in good condition) when routed through a high-quality microphone preamp and good enough for just about any recording purpose.

Overdubbing Techniques

There are several overdubbing techniques that are commonly used that every producer should be aware of. Although the following techniques refer mainly to vocals, they can be used for just about any instrument.

Use The Big Part Of The Studio

If you’re in the same studio where you tracked your basics, don’t fall into the trap of keeping the exact same instrument setup in the same place in the studio as when you did your basics (unless you’re doing fixes to the basic tracks, of course). Move the vocal or instrument into the big part of the studio. All instruments sound best when there’s some space for the sound to develop. You can cut down on any unwanted reflections from the room by placing baffles around the mic, the player, or singer.

Vocal Doubling

Doubling a lead vocal has been used for as long as there’s been multitrack recorders. The Beatles did it way back when they were using only four-track magnetic tape and really didn’t have a track to spare, which tells you how powerful a tool it can be.

Doubling a vocal (having the singer sing the exact same line or phrase twice on two tracks and playing them both back) works for two reasons; it makes a vocal sound stronger, and it masks any tuning inconsistencies in the part.

While the doubling technique can work for a great number of vocalists, sometimes it just doesn’t sound good if both vocal tracks are replayed at the same level. Try adding the second vocal at 6 to 10dB less than the track you deem the strongest. This will add a bit of support to an otherwise weak vocal without sounding doubled.

Here’s an example of a single lead vocal, one that’s doubled but mixed 10dB below the lead, and a doubled lead with both at the same level.

Example 1 - Lead Vocal Double Examples

Vocal Stacking

An offshoot to doubling is vocal stacking, a technique normally used on harmony background vocals. Like doubling, stacking can make a harmony vocal part sound stronger while smoothing out any tuning inconsistencies.

An example of vocal stacking would be a three piece vocal group singing a three part harmony part. After their first pass is complete, they’d double the exact parts singing it exactly the same way, then even triple track it or more, all in an effort to get a bigger fuller sound. One little trick that makes a stack sound bigger is to have the vocalists take a step back from the mic with every vocal pass while the engineer increases the mic gain to compensate for the distance. The increased ambience of the room will naturally enhance the sound without artificial means.

Another trick would be to have the vocalists change parts with every pass. In other words, the vocalist on the highest part of the 3 part harmony would move to the lowest, the one on the mid part would move to the highest, and the low part would move to the mid part. Of course, this assumes that the vocalists are pros and capable of changing vocal parts without too much of a problem, and that their voices are actually capable of performing the new parts.

Here’s an example of a band that doesn’t sing harmonies well, but ends up sounding pretty good after everything is stacked. Each part had three band members sing just one part of the harmony triad. They moved a step back when they doubled it. You’ll hear each part, then doubled, and the final harmony.

Example 2 - Stacked Vocal Harmonies

Instrument Doubling Or Stacking

Instruments can be doubled or stacked the same way that vocals can and while the exact same performance twice (doubling) can sound pretty good, you soon reach the point of diminishing returns unless you change something up to make it sound different. A different mic, mic preamp, room to record in, or distance from the mic will all help to make the sound bigger on subsequent overdubs.

For guitars, two guitars (a Les Paul and a Strat, for instance) and two amplifiers (a Fender and a Marshall is the classic combination) combined with different pickup settings will allow a multitude of guitar tracks to live together more effectively in the mix. Many times you’ll find that fewer overdubs are needed if each guitar overdub has a distinctly different sound.

Here’s an example of a guitar part that’s stacked with different mic placements and amplifiers.

Example 3 - Stacked Guitars

Next month we’ll look at the process of mixing and mastering from the producer’s perspective.

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