This is the last in the series on music production based around my new book, The Music Producer’s Handbook, and it deals with self-production, a process that’s become very common these days. Just because you own your own studio or have some production experience doesn’t necessarily mean you’re able to produce yourself though. As you’ll see, it takes a strategy that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of normal production.
Also available in this series:
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 1
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 2
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 3
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 4
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 5
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 6
Self-production is simultaneously one of the most difficult things to do in music, and perhaps one of the easiest. Every artist hears what their music should sound like in their head (that’s the easy part), but it’s sometimes difficult to get it to actually sound that way when it comes to real-life recording. That can lead the artist to overwork a song until it’s limp like a dishrag, or overproduce it so it sounds like you have a so many layers that it sounds like there’s a 30 piece band backing you up. Indeed, it’s difficult to get it to sound somewhere in between, which means that you project is both exciting and vital, and still meets your vision.
Get Some Help
As said before, you may hear your music in your head already, which can be a blessing or a curse. If you can hear it, but can’t get it to sound that way in real life, that’s the curse. It’s times like these when you have to turn to someone for help. The best case is to have a co-producer, but if you have a trusted musician friend or engineer that can give you some honest, useful feedback, that can work too. Be aware that if you’re constantly asking for input and then acting on that advice, it’s a good idea to give that person some kind of credit, even if they say they don’t want it. Subconsciously, everyone wants to be recognized, so don’t skimp on the acknowledgments, or you risk creating a resentment that may be difficult to overcome in the future (like the next time you need help).
The other time when help is needed is when you can hear it in your head, yet have no idea how to go about getting the sound. This is different in that you may be baffled about just how to even begin. If that’s the case, bite the bullet. You need a producer, or at least a co-producer.
It’s true that an artist hates to lose control (which is why you want to produce yourself in the first place), but getting some feedback and some honest input doesn’t mean that at all. It just means that you have a clean mirror to see how you’re dressed this morning. You don’t have to take the advice or the opinion; sometimes hearing it is enough to allow you to make a decision.
One of the best things about having someone to bounce things off of is the fact that you may get some ideas that can turn a song in a direction that you never would’ve thought of. Taking the song down a delicious new path is one of the best parts about a collaboration, which is something that you’ll never have unless you’re willing to bring someone into your inner production circle.
One of the biggest problems with a creative artist is going in circles. This means that the artist has so many good ideas that the production is never finished. As soon as a version is complete, the artist thinks, “I think the middle 8 should have a ska feel.” Then after that’s recorded he thinks, “Maybe the entire song should have a ska feel.” Before you know it there are versions with a 6/8, speed metal and reggae versions (and maybe more), with each one just sounding different, not necessarily better.
If this is the case, there are two words to keep in mind.
Instinct - Usually, the very first inspiration is the right one, especially if you’ve gone through more than a couple of different versions. You’ve got to repress the urge to keep changing things and learn to follow your initial instinct. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tweak or perfect what you’re doing; it means that you shouldn’t make a right turn in your direction that goes against your initial inspiration.
The exception to this is if you think it might be cool to have multiple different versions of the song available so you can give the alternate versions to your core fans as an exclusive gift. Then, a wholesale change in direction can actually be particularly useful.
Deadline - One of the biggest problems with producing yourself is the fact that your project is usually open-ended time-wise. As a result, you end up with the “project that wouldn’t end” that keeps going for years (no exaggeration here).
The surest way to keep that from happening and to actually accomplish something is to set a deadline for the project’s completion. Many people do their best work on deadlines because they don’t have a chance to second guess themselves. The final product may not be 100% of what you want, but remember that it seldom ever is, even with all the time in the world available to finish the project. Save yourself some heartache and impose a deadline on yourself.
Take A Break
Sometimes it helps to put the song away for a while and work on something else. It’s surprising how different something can sound after you’re away from it for a few days or weeks. Things that bothered you like crazy will zoom right past you without you even being aware. That guitar that sounded out of tune now just sounds a bit chorused. That vocal double that you didn’t think was phrased closely enough now sounds surprisingly thick. Time has a way of doing that.
One of the things that we always say during mixing when the artist or a player is getting persnickety about some minutia of the mix is, “In two weeks, you won’t even remember what part of the song this happened in,” which is almost always the case. Same thing with your production. A little time smooths a lot of rough edges.
That being said, if you come back a week later and the part, sound, playing or whatever the problem is bugs you more than ever, then it’s time to go back for a fix.
Raise Your Expectations
One of the things that a neophyte producer sometimes does is settle for less than the best performance. This usually results in a sloppy sounding record, which on the surface can sound very garage, punk, or street (if that’s what you’re going for). Unfortunately, the hit records that you think sound that way are usually a lot more precisely played than you might think.
Listen to what you consider great and influential records and try to emulate the playing and the sound. Be aware that you’ll probably never obtain either unless you have the exact same players, equipment, and conditions (which you’ll never have), but that doesn’t mean you won’t get a quality product.
But Not Too High
You can’t sound just like Arcade Fire, U2 or Lady Gaga no matter how hard you try, so don’t make yourself crazy trying to do so. If fact, even those acts can’t sound like their records most of the time after a song has been recorded. A recording is a data capture of a moment in the infinite universe of time and space. The chances of it happening again the exact same way are infinitesimal, so don’t even bother worrying about capturing it. Besides, why sound like another artist anyway? The world already has one, they don’t need another. They want something new and different, which is something that you can more easily deliver. Just use your favorite records as a blueprint for developing your sound.
There’s Beauty In Imperfection
If you listen to many of the greatest hits from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, it’s surprising just how many mistakes there are in the recordings. Bad timing, funny attacks and releases, instrument tuning problems, and out of tune vocalists all lent to the vibe of the song. That doesn’t mean that if it were easy and possible to fix those things, the producers of those records might not have done it, just that in the grand scheme of things, a hit is a hit. The listening public’s ears can be very forgiving if they like the song in the first place.
If you stumble upon that moment of great inspiration and magic, you’ve got to learn to recognize it for what it is. How? Listen to the response of the players, engineers and listeners. If they’re excited and animated about what they hear, perhaps it’s best to leave things alone. Even if every fiber in your being is aching to change the recording, you’ve got to learn to listen to your audience, even if they’re the people that you’re working with. They’re the ones that are the ultimate judge of what you’re doing, unless your project is strictly for vanity. If that’s the case, help yourself to an extra dose of soulless perfection, and take all the time you want to do it.