"Production Essentials" is a several part series that covers the basics of music production vital to the Independent music world today.
Production Essentials Part 1 >>
Production Essentials Part 2 >>
Production Essentials Part 3 >>
Production Essentials Part 4 >>
Production Essentials Part 5 >>
Part One - Songwriting
Songwriting is to production as a foundation is to a building. Its without a doubt the most important aspect of the recording process but unfortunately its quite often the most overlooked. The two are deeply interwoven yet few realize it. Consider that few people ever praise a good recording of a weak song but the masses constantly consume weak recordings of great songs. Its interesting that people with different worldviews and life experiences can listen to a song and all agree that it is good when they hear it but no one can define or create a formula to describe it (though industry folks have certainly tried). While its beyond the scope of this article to attempt to define what makes a song great I would like to preface my upcoming series with the understanding that without a good song the production is virtually meaningless. As we delve deeper into the series always stay focused on what matters most; ultimately, put your time into the writing.
Songwriting is about establishing a mood or getting an intended reaction from your listener. A while back when working on Rod Stewart Stardust. I had the pleasure of submitting some mixes of You Belong to Me. Aside from the performances, which were great, I was most intrigued with how the song made me feel. The song was melancholy and simultaneously hopeful which is a real paradox. Yet if I had to scientifically evaluate what made that song speak to me I couldnt, I would be trying to describe the indescribable. At one point you just have to experience it for yourself to understand it. This is the power that music holds over us. It can conjure up feelings and provoke action. For this reason Ive encouraged the artists I work with to pick four records theyre not familiar with and study them religiously before writing new material. By learning how other artists use their writing tools to provoke feelings and action, an artist can add depth to his or her own music that didnt exist there previously
This is the meat and potatoes of songwriting. This is where the song goes both musically and rhythmically. Usually this is by combining verses, choruses, melodies and rhythms together in a creative fashion but there are as many structural variations in music as there are styles. Most great songs incorporate some sort of memorable hook that frequently reoccurs without getting annoying. For instance, some songs may employ Top 40 type formulas (verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge ) whereas other songs may employ more unconventional techniques. One example of an unconventional technique would be Flying in a Blue Dream by Joe Satriani. While the song does have a simple structure to it (A/B/A vamps), Joe demonstrates the ability to integrate unpredictable melodies that never quite meet up again in the song. When you evaluate that song critically you will find that compared to a Top 40 tune the use of a hook in the song is almost incidental, but because of his wonderful implementation of melody and creative use of feedback the song crossed over into pop radio and proved to be a real success for him.
So many artists are under the mistaken impression that since Sweet Child o Mine was 6+ minutes long its ok for them to do the same. Ok, aside from the fact that over a minute of that song had to be one of the most incredible guitar solos Ive ever heard, the rest of the song was divvied up between an amazing hook and a remarkable intro. Face it, its hard enough as it is to get radio to take unknown artists seriously these days regardless of HOW good the material is, yet some artists seem to think that they can get established with a 6 minute tune. When it comes to length in songwriting just do yourself a favor and say what you need to say and be done with it. If it takes you 2:15 to state it then dont drag it out to 3:30 because of some unwritten rule. Likewise, leave the 4-6 minute masterpieces for live performances or until after you have garnered yourself a sizeable fan base.
Not every song will be a hit - dont be discouraged. In fact its not uncommon for a song to start out one way in the writing phase and then take a left-hand turn for better or for worse in production. On Five for Fightings latest record Two Lights, the band spent close to a year in pre-production and test recorded over 20 songs before actually booking studio time to record the album. Some of the songs that were test recorded didnt even get cut in the studio and ultimately only half of those songs made the final album. The material that didnt make it wasnt bad in my opinion, but the band members were able to pick from the best songs. If you write lots of material then later youll have a plethora of good songs to choose from once its time to assemble your record.
Decades ago great records were cut live and had little reliance on technology. In todays world I believe that we place such an unhealthy emphasis on equipment and technology that a good song can become diluted by it. Ive had artists arrive at the studio expecting me to fill in the missing parts in their songs with the notion that somehow Im going to employ some vague form of studio magic. No song is worth recording if it isnt worth performing well first. If the song works live then the recording will fall into place almost naturally. If you expect the technology or studio personnel to do your homework for you, youre stooping to the level of the billion other artists pushing their songs on the Internet.
Keep in mind songwriting came before technology and technology was developed to support songwriting, not forge it. Recording has always been a musical endeavor and should take the back seat when it comes to music. I hope that as this series unfolds you will learn to understand the relationships between the two such that when in doubt, the music will always come first.
Until next time,
Part Two- Pre-Production
Pre-production can yield the difference between a dull and lifeless recording and a finely polished energetic recording. It is here where the musical ideas expressed in songwriting start to take shape by continued rehearsal, critical evaluation and regimented performance. By implementing the ideas below, you can take a low budget project from mediocre to impressive with very little added expense.
Picking a Producer
Home recording has redefined how records get made. Years ago it took money or access to studio time to produce great results. Today this is not necessarily the case as a home recording can be made to sound just as good as any project from years gone by. The unfortunate casualty of the new system, however, is the absence of a skilled producer during the session. Any recording, home or otherwise, screams for a qualified producer because few musicians can be objective enough to handle the production duties that making a serious record requires. Producers can identify weak spots in songs (choppy, too long, boring, etc.), shape continuity (vibe, tonality, consistent performance, etc.) and are objective enough to issue spot before the artist is on the mic desperate for direction. The time to shop for a producer should be after the songs are written but just before the artist starts to perform them live. This is because a producer will likely hear the material differently than the artist and can suggest changes before the artist becomes attached to weak sections. After attending a few rehearsals a good producer should have proven his value quickly; if he hasnt hes probably not a good fit for the artist. A producer should have a good understanding of the artists direction and have the ability to communicate well but still be aggressive enough to get the artist motivated when necessary. Good producers these days possess differing skill sets. Some are technically literate whereas others rely more on their musical education or people skills to get the job done. Most producers have elements of all three blending whatever methods they deem appropriate to get the best performance they can from each artist.
The next logical step in production is rehearsal and performance. In order for a performance to be worth recording it needs to be worth performing first. The bulk of your pre-production time should go into recording demos of your rehearsals and live performances. Afterwards, you and your producer can evaluate the material more objectively and eliminate weak spots and songs in the production. I believe February 11, 1963 testifies to this point. This was the date that The Beatles cut their entire first LP. Why would this have anything to do with performance? Because it establishes a legitimate precedent for the idea that if an artist spends the necessary time forging their material in front of a live audience (as the Beatles did in Germany for three years prior to their first session) that the performer will eventually learn how to get their songs into a state that generates the intended reaction they want from their audience. Though there is a learning curve to playing your material in a studio (and even The Beatles had problems with their first test sessions at EMI), live performance can get your songs into a place where excellent results are obtained easily. Focus on delivering a compelling performance as a cohesive unit and the recording will reflect your efforts.
Its not uncommon for an artist to walk into a session without a clue of what to play. Ive seen guitar players ask for time to write solos on the spot, vocalists take time to learn how to sing or compose background parts, bass players use notes out of scale without realizing it, and drummers change their fills after each pass. Pre-production exists for this very reason. It gives the artist and producer time to refine everyones musical vision so that they are not under pressure to create it in the studio. Save yourself some hassle and learn your parts prior to attending your first session. Though accidents can result in something beautiful, divine inspiration isnt a reliable production tool. A good producer will expect competency from you and will push you to achieve such results before tracking starts.
Tempo and Keys
Once you have established the feel and length of the song, its a great idea to rehearse the material against a tempo reference like a drum machine or click. This will push for tighter performances and will payoff considerably should you desire to fly parts around or create seamless edits later. If you intend to record to a click be sure to rehearse with the click outside the studio first so you dont tie up valuable session time learning how to do it. When I work with an artist I try to tempo map each song against a click to see if we have any songs with duplicate tempos. Sometimes Ill speed up or slow down songs so there are a greater variety of tempos across the work. Coincidentally, I do the same thing with keys too. If we have too many songs in one key, Ill recommend key shifting some songs to break up the monotony. When key shifting the artist needs to be careful though, always take into account the needs of your vocalist. Artists can unknowingly hurt themselves by shifting something too far out of their vocalists range.
As I mentioned above, The Beatles had real issues at EMI during their test session. It all came down to gear problems. For this reason, meet with your producer and engineer before the session to go over your equipment. The pre-production period is a good time to do this. Good engineers will quickly find issues with equipment that you may not. Drums can have loose or squeaky hardware, amps can have noisy or rattling tubes, guitars can have buzzes or intonation issues, and mics will pick all of it up. Have your equipment checked out and repaired before tracking. Once checked out its not a bad idea to deliver the gear a day or two early to the studio to allow the instruments to acclimate to the studios relative humidity and temperature. While you are at it discuss with the engineer the sound you are going for beforehand and keep reference material (CDs) available during the session to help focus your sonic efforts. Though you should avoid using equipment you dont know, the engineer may suggest you try alternate gear to get you closer to your desired sound. Likewise these days retro studio gear is in while the solid state stuff from the 80s has fallen by the wayside. If you are going for a period sound make sure your engineer understands this so he doesnt pull out older studio gear when you really want that cleaner solid state sound.
Considering the value that pre-production offers an artist its surprising that more independent artists dont integrate this age old process into their own productions these days, especially given their low budgets to begin with. Too many over ambitious artists ache to just throw something down without any structure behind it that they only live to regret later because the recording ends up weak. Additionally, its equally puzzling why artists dont look for good producers before recording and why the defacto standard is to let the studio engineer make critical decisions for the artist when they know little or nothing about the artist to being with. Maybe its because artists dont understand what a good producer can do for them or maybe its because they think it will cost them too much. Suffice it to say combining the two roles together will save the artist time and money in the long run, which will allow artists to focus on what brought them into the studio to begin with. Making good music.
Until next time,
Part Three- Studio 101
There are many details to consider before making a recording. Aside from the topics we have covered in previous writings, one needs to be prepared for the more mundane decisions too. For instance, have you considered where will you record? How will you proceed once you get there? Who will you call if you run into problems? What sort of items should you bring with you? Though this may seem rudimentary to experienced folks, I cover some age-old studio wisdom below that will help your sessions move along more smoothly.
Location vs. Studio
One of the hippest records I own is U2, The Unforgettable Fire. Some folks may not be aware of it but much of that record was recorded outside a real studio. In fact it was recorded in one of the most unorthodox studio environments available, Slane Castle in Ireland. There are hosts of other non-studio records that have done remarkably well in the marketplace too. For instance, producer Rick Rubin recorded Red Hot Chili Peppers Blood Sugar Sex Magik in his house, The Beatles Let it Be contained tracks that were recorded on the roof of Abbey Road Studios, and Dishwallas home brewed hit record And You Think You Know What Lifes About was cut at their home in the Santa Barbara mountains. The point here is obvious: you do not need a studio to cut a great record in, you need top-notch talent to guide it and an interesting acoustic space to record it in. My position has always been that as long as you have clean stable A/C power available, you can pretty much record anywhere. That being said there are plenty of aspects you will need to consider if you choose to record outside a real studio. You will need to have the support staff available to troubleshoot system problems (ground loops, noise, wiring issues, etc,) some degree of environmental control (air conditioning) and a basic understanding of acoustics to solve acoustical issues. Home or location recording can be fun but nothing kills the buzz of a great performance more than traffic leakage or that nasty 60Hz hum on your vocal mic. For this reason you need to be prepared for all types of problems. If you prefer to go with the fancier worry free vibe of a commercial space make sure you have good acoustical isolation and clean power before booking. The rest should take care of itself.
Analog vs. Digital
This has been an ongoing debate for years but at this point its a futile one since there are few companies left to produce analog tape and the last major manufacturer has confirmed its imminent departure. Whether you like it or not, digital will eventually replace analog; its inevitable. As for whether artists should take one last swing at analog I usually leave that up to them but I explain up front that if theyre working on a limited budget the artist can expect costs to almost double with analog, plus you can kiss the convenience of home recording goodbye.
Another overlooked factor when considering tape recording is machine maintenance. These days most studios cant tell you the last time their machine was turned on, much less when it was serviced by a qualified tech. Its a really bad idea to put any master on an unknown machine because they can damage tape so easily. However, if you happen to be one of the lucky few who can afford an analog studio with well maintained gear to boot be sure to budget extra time to transfer the 2 masters before wrapping the session. You never know when you will need to call on that session again and by that point a working machine could be as rare as hens teeth.
Instruments and Tuning
Even if youve had your instruments properly setup outside the studio you will likely need to address them again before recording due to changes in humidity and temperature in the studio. Out of all the instruments youll use on your session electric guitars (and basses) tend to be the easiest to deal with tuning wise, but they can be a real bear if you are not on top of your intonation. If any of you have ever experienced going from one chord (or note) to the other and noticed the tuning seems to change on its own, it doesnt, thats an intonation problem. With this in mind you can understand why tracking on a poorly intonated guitar (or bass) is such an issue for recording. The minute you start to layer on other instruments that do hold their tuning the problem will become apparent. For this reason check each guitar before your session to save yourself the hassle of re-recording. Even after you have your intonation set, hard playing will require regular tuning so check it often. Always keep a good tuner handy and try to use the same tuner across the entire project since not all tuners are alike.
Drums, on the other hand, are by far the worst offenders because of their complex nature. Drums specifically require a great deal of time and skill to tune because they react adversely to different rooms and different temperatures. The drum sessions I look back on with any pride were the ones where I had a competent drummer who understood proper tuning and could respond to my complaints about the sound of the drums in the room. In those cases every drummer was familiar with the use of some type of tuning device. Torque tuners are one example. They allow the user to measure the relative torque on each lug. Another type of tuner would be the tympanic type tuner, which measures the pressure being applied to the drum head near each lug. Though drum tuners are really handy they will only get you half the way there; at one point you still need to use your ears to fine-tune the drums because inconsistencies in the head manufacturing process will require uneven tensions across the head to get good results. Even after the kit has been fine-tuned as the tracking session progresses you will need to check tuning occasionally because performance and environmental changes will cause the tuning to slip. For drum recording tuning is key and no EQ in the world will make an out of tune drum kit sound better.
Like drums, pianos are equally difficult to tune and require a lot of skill to deal with. When tracking pianos its especially important to have them professionally tuned and inspected beforehand. Pianos can slip while tracking but unlike the guitar I would not advise grabbing a tuning wrench and fixing it yourself (though I have been tempted to do just that on occasion). Keeping the room temperature stable and avoiding nearby doorways, windows or vent openings should be enough solve most slippage issues but dont be surprised if you end up having to bring your piano tech out again to cover any slippage problems. Pianos are a very complex stringed instrument and are subject to the same problems that guitars are.
I am always amused when I tell my clients to be prepared for a session in every way and they show up without any form of a spares kit. A spares kit is a kit you would take with you if you were going to do a long-term gig on the road. Each kit would be specific to the rig you are using. For instance, a spares kit for a guitar rig might have a tuner, batteries, extra strings, picks, patch cables, guitar cords, power strips, A/C extension cords, tubes, and maybe even some fretboard cleaner to wipe your fretboard down between takes. Keyboard players might show up with some longer 1/4 cables, IEC cables, extension cords and maybe even a DI or two just in case. In my experience drummers typically come the most prepared but even they should at the very least be sure to bring a floor mat, tuning keys, tuner, extra sticks, brushes and cloth tape to dampen the heads rather than rely on the studios console tape to do the trick. Though I would not expect a drummer to show up with spare heads, if your drummer has a habit of breaking them you probably should bring extras just to be safe.
The Entourage? No.
My first paid gig in LA was as an assistant at a small studio. Since the studio was owned and operated by my employer he laid down the law from the outset when he was producing a record, little or no visitors allowed. Conversely, when we had regular bookings my boss never laid down such a rule. Why? Two reasons. The first being that since we were hired guns it wasnt our business what the clients did as long as the gear didnt get hurt and the second being that it ended up turning the studio into a profit center because clients regularly wasted time hanging out with friends. If you intend to go make a record (where ever it may be) keep whatever observers you may have assigned to a task that will help the project out or keep them out altogether. Aside from taking up space visitors tend to make subjective comments about the music at the worst possible time and complicate the producers job further by asking too many questions when he is trying to focus on the details of the performances and the engineers work.
Ive still barely scratched the surface of the recording process but the above points still bear repeating. A good record can be made anywhere. Good equipment and great engineers cut records in the most unorthodox spaces daily. The idea is to be prepared for whatever problems may crop up along the way. Finally, recent sessions have reminded me that your producer is by far the most valuable tool you can have with you in the studio. If you hire a producer to guide you then take his criticism seriously. Producers exist to balance out the Yes Men that musicians subconsciously surround themselves with. Respect his input before you start recording (even if it hurts) and the session will absolutely yield you positive results. Failure to consider the guidance of experience will only cost you in the end.
Until next time,
Part Four- Tracking
The objective of a good tracking session is to walk away with solid performances of the rhythm tracks. These usually include drums, bass, guitars and possibly a temporary (scratch) vocal. Once you and your producer feel you are able to achieve that goal, then it is a good time to book a studio for recording. Its then and there that youll set up the gear, select your mics, and establish the tone of the project. For some it may be a day or two while for others it could turn into weeks or months. Either way at that point the clock starts ticking and wastefulness will cost you time, dollars, or both.
Any basic session will require a significant amount of time to get set up. For this reason the band should have a roadie or even a friend who can help the engineer load in, setup, tune, and play instruments while the engineer gets basic tones. By doing this the engineer can avoid burning out the musicians before the session gets started. Ill even go a step further and stagger the musicians arrival times until I am ready for them so that they are not sitting around the studio wasting time being bored. Also while getting tones keep your reference CDs handy. While its unrealistic to think that youll get identical tones to your reference material, your engineer can use this as a guide to get you in the ballpark of where youd eventually like your tone to be.
While I could write a book on microphones alone I would sum it up with the important fact that you should never judge a mic by the name on it, but rather its tone. Ive seen classic mics that looked impressive but when examined up close, it becomes obvious theyve been altered or they are just flat out not working right. Similarly, I have seen homegrown mics that look like junk but when you listen to them they sound great. Always use your ears and never your eyes when selecting gear. Pick the mic to match the sound you want from your source while remaining open minded about what you ultimately get.
Mic positioning is an equally lengthy topic and too complex to get into detail here. Suffice it to say that mic placement has everything to do with getting a good sound. Once you have dialed in your sound source, watch the engineer as he moves the mic (or mics) around and listen to what happens. If you end up going with more complicated multi-mic techniques watch out for phasing and comb filtering (hollow sounding tones) while keeping in mind that sometimes the best mic technique is just one mic on the source.
There was a time when recording boards were judged by the sound of their mic pre-amps alone. However, studio owners eventually began to put more emphasis on flexibility and features and paid less attention to the sound of the mic pre. This left us with some extremely flexible consoles that performed well but lacked the sonic qualities that many engineers appreciated from older pre-amps. As a result, engineers started using custom boxes that would allow them to interface older preamps with newer consoles. While one does not need to understand the details of how a mic pre functions its important to know why we talk about them with such distinction in the studio world.
Essentially all a mic pre amp does is amplify the output of a mic so that it can operate at studio levels. Whats interesting is that while most mic pres will share similar or identical specs they will have different sounds when powering the same mic. Essentially, each one will lend its own color to an instrument and can add different timbres to a recording that werent there before.
Though the pre amps sole purpose in life is to bump up the mics output to studio operating level it is possible to overdrive the input of your recording system with the pre-amps output. Some modern recordists actually end up cramming so much input into their workstations that they end up overdriving the input within a dB of the digital ceiling without actually realizing it, which is completely unnecessary. Ill spare the technical reasoning for it but in short you gain little, sonically, by printing to digital at obscenely hot levels. As you work with your signal chain keep in mind that digital is very forgiving of under recording. Typical workstation metering is not a refined tool yet so try to keep your meters in the green and youll be ok; over recording can result in distortion thats impossible to undo.
Just as the whole mic pre craze has reached levels of parody, the same could be said for processing equipment like compressors and EQs. In short, compressors (or limiters) simply reduce the peak output of a mic pre to levels that are more manageable for the recording equipment to handle. By reducing the dynamic range of an instrument, you can cram more voltage into a limited space, thus increasing the apparent loudness of a signal (how else do you think Korn can go from a whisper to a gut wrenching scream without changing volume?). The trade off here is a higher noise floor and increased distortion specs. Studios carry a wide selection of limiters specifically because of the way they shape and distort the tone. Alot of the characteristics I attributed to mics will also apply to compressors. Do not judge them by their look because too often classic units have been heavily modified from original or are in serious disrepair. Ultimately judge them by their performance. When recording, dont be afraid to experiment with these devices but also avoid excessive amounts of compressing to disk because you cannot undo it if you go too far. Ultimately you should leave these decisions for the mix.
Ironically, EQs suffer from a similar fate. Like compressors, they too can add serious color to a sound, but if they have issues with their state of repair they can do more to damage a signal path than help it. These boxes are excellent tone sculpting devices and can add brilliance or punch to a sound either subtractively or additively. Most professional engineers agree that its ideal to get the sound right at the source before adding EQ because if they are overused in tracking you can paint your mix engineer into a serious corner. Regardless of whose name resides on your EQ if it doesnt help your sound, either dump it in favor of another one or disconnect it altogether.
While even the most basic instrument rigs have access to stunning effects these days its still a good idea to let the engineer decide if he wants to print your effects or not. Typically modern effects units and pedals wont hold up against the power and conversion that high-end or classic studio processors have. That being said, if an artist shows up with a song that requires he interact with some sort of effect during the performance (like a delay or reverb), I may print the source and effect to disk simultaneously so the artist can provide me the appropriate performance. Its generally not a good idea to marry the effects and sound source together on the same track because you cant adjust the finer balances in mix. A better idea would be to place them on separate tracks via an Aux or Bus; that way you are not committing tones you cant undo in the mix.
Speaking of committing tones that you cant undo, Im seeing more and more artists show up these days with modeling technology built into their instruments which attempt to emulate classic combos at the push of a button. While I think this technology may work ok in a live setting, I have serious reservations about using it in the studio. My main reason for objecting to such gear in the studio rests on the fact that when compared to a real source under a microphone the model will not stand up. Worse yet, for reasons that escape me, Im somehow to blame when asked to deliver sounds that match classic tones and my results come up short. Musicians, do not be offended if your engineer asks you show up with real instruments and amps instead of your flashy live rig. Your models might work ok for some purposes but for finely finished product, real instruments and amps have been the benchmark for quite some time and I do not foresee a change in this equation any time soon.
Once you have gotten your instruments miked up, the next step is getting cue mixes. This is one of the more overlooked aspects of tracking and is certainly the most critical. Cue mixes are a real balancing act. Most engineers gloss over them and hope for the best while most musicians are too willing to accept a mediocre mix just to keep the session going.
Amp isolation is ultimately the culprit behind most cue problems (though on occasion I have found under-powered cue systems (headphone amps) to blame). Even though isolation proves to be a huge relief to the engineer it remains a thorn in the side to the musicians who cant hear their instruments. To make matters worse, to get everyone a satisfactory cue mix, the click track leakage ends up loudest of all, bleeding into the overhead mics forcing the engineer to turn the click down. I list the methods I employ to break this vicious cycle below.
First, its always a great idea to have your engineer set up a talkback mic near your isolated talent so you can communicate without hindrance. Secondly, while most studios have multiple cue mixes to allow everyone an isolated mix, this still might not be enough. These days, a lot of studios have outfitted their gear racks with more sophisticated cue systems which allow the musicians to dial in their own mixes rather than having to rely on the engineer to do it for them. Though these systems dont work in every situation (because they are often under powered) they can help. Lastly, while studio headphones can function ok, most of them are the open back style, which are prone to leakage issues. I personally recommend my clients bring in-ear-monitors or isolation headphones with them since both systems block the offending leakage to begin with. As an added bonus they also allow the user to keep the internal levels much quieter. Though these products are NOT found in most studios, this added expense will save your ears and make tracking much more enjoyable. My advice is if you intend to isolate your amps or cut drums to a click, spend the money and get some good isolation headphones or IEMs. They will serve your career well both live and in the studio by giving you cleaner and quieter mixes, which ultimately will result in better across the board performances.
Once all of the preliminaries are out of the way, then its time to actually record. Though I dont always tell the artists Im recording (for psychological reasons), I usually allow them extra time to rehearse with the click to get comfortable with the cues and each other. Once recording starts the drummer should not stop unless instructed to do so by the producer or the engineer. Unless you are really going for a live performance, its better to let the drummer run his take to completion even if the bass player totally screws up mid song. Likewise after a complete take, everyone should remain silent until they have been given the ok to communicate with each other. I personally have had artists ruin great takes or endings because they didnt have the big picture while tracking. Save for obvious mistakes its better to let the producer call the take rather than do it on your own. Thats what he is there for and he is in a much better position to tell you if a take is worth scrapping in transit or keeping the magic of a unique performance.
After a few takes you should have a good idea of where the record is going. Ill regularly invite the musicians into the control room to evaluate their performances and generate feedback that might allow me to help them further. Even though I ask the musicians to focus on their performances rather than the production, every now and then I get comments that pertain to monitoring issues. Keep in mind that all rooms, speakers, speaker sizes, and even playback volumes yield different results. Big speakers yield a big impressive sound but are rarely accurate whereas small speakers seem unimpressive but show higher levels of accuracy since they minimize room equations. There is always a sweet spot for monitoring in the control room and typically its reserved for the engineer or producer to make critical decisions in. When in doubt about the sound of your recording, ask the engineer to let you use the sweet spot for a minute or ask him how well his room translates to the outside world. Your engineer should know his room well enough to be compensating for the acoustic deficiencies of it. This brings up an additional point as well. When tracking in a non-studio environment, make sure your engineer has spent a lot of time listening to music he knows well in the space before recording. Recording in the real world can be done but because its a hostile environment, you never know exactly what youre putting down until you have spent ample time learning the sonic footprint of your workspace.
Tracking is supposed to be a fun low-pressure environment. Every now and then it can get a bit nerve wracking so avoid wearing yourself down. Stay fresh and take breaks often. Once you are done and have committed your performances to disk then you are ready to move into your next phase of production, overdubbing
Until next time,
Part Five- Overdubbing and Vocals
I was about 10 years old when the concept of overdubbing first hit me. While listening to one of my dads favorite cassettes I realized that vocalist was singing on top of himself. I was stumped on how they managed to get him to do that (I wasnt quite as musically developed back then) so I turned to my dad and asked, How did they get the singer to sing over himself? He, not being technically savvy replied, I dont know its some studio trick. Now, of course, I understand the science of it much better than I ever did when I was a 10-year-old but then I was completely mystified by it. I use this example to drive home a really important point. Overdubbing is obvious even to the studio illiterate. It also happens to be where the magic in music comes together. It allows us to do what is humanly impossible to do in the live world.
Evaluate if its Necessary
Before overdubbing starts you have to have a basic track to begin with (preferably a rhythm section). Some songs naturally lend themselves to being done with very little effort, organic as I call it, whereas other songs either need or are just enhanced by deeper more thoughtful arrangements. While there are no hard and fast rules for track arrangement the general consensus amongst professionals are just because you have open tracks does not mean you need to fill them. Blackbird and Mother Natures Son are both tremendous songs but there is very little arrangement needed for them. Certainly The Beatles could have put some sort of George Martin style arrangement on those songs but they just realized it wasnt necessary. Follow this simple rule when in doubt avoid over recording. Aside from creating unnecessary headaches for your mix engineer nothing will kill a song faster than over layered and choked back arrangements.
I once read that Nicky Ryan (Enyas producer) layers her vocals hundreds of times per song to get that thick sound thats so unique to Enyas records. Not surprisingly when you hear her music its pretty obvious. Layering is the process of taking several different musical parts, with a given instrument(s), and recording the parts on top of each other to create one big part. Since arranging and layering are deep topics in and of themselves its beyond the scope of this writing to get into detail on it. There is no trick to any method, per se, you just roll the playback and play/sing along with it until your ideas come alive. If the part sounds good record it, if not throw it out and start over. Sometimes it helps to bounce an idea off a fellow musician because they can help you refine your ideas further. Keep in mind that the more complex your layers become the more likely parts might clash in the mix. As you approach the mix phase do not be alarmed if you cant use everything you created. Its not uncommon for me to have to scrap parts in the mix too. What seemed like a good idea during overdubbing might just clutter up an otherwise good mix.
A lot of what I mentioned in earlier writings holds true in the overdubbing phase as well. Here its more critical that musicians pay close attention to their tempo, phrasing, intonation, and timing. For instance, I cannot tell you how many times Ive overdubbed guitar and bass parts only to hear weird pitch artifacts as we attempt a double because the guitars were not properly intonated (or at the same time). At that point you pretty much have to scrap everything and start over because chord changes wont track right. Little tricks like using the same tuner and some guitar tools handy can help in a pinch but there is no substitute for a well-intonated guitar. Tempo and phrasing errors (typically rushing) are usually the product of a poor or overly dense control room monitor mix. Faster-transient heavy playback mixes can help keep rushing musicians under control much better than a mix thats got 8 guitars and a bass blaring with a hint of drums behind it. Though it may not be as inspiring to perform to when I overdub parts and precision is important I will mute all of the unnecessary parts so the musician can just focus on solid timing, not the lush sounds they are creating in the process. Once the tracks are done we can audition the results of combining several parts together and clean up issues then.
First off let me say ALL vocalists need vocal coaching. Even Michael Jackson used a vocal coach for session work so it stands to reason that lesser experienced vocalists could benefit from one too. A good vocal coach will train the singer how to use breath and diaphragm control to obtain better pitch and power characteristics. Contrary to typical wisdom the time to get a vocal coach is NOT before the session but months prior to the session. The voice is a muscle that must be conditioned before serious use. Jumping in on an eight hour marathon session without serious training will only serve to damage the voice, hurt the vocalist, and frustrate the producer.
These days folks tend to record vocals as much at home as they ever did in a real studio, where the environment technically has better climate control. Funny thing is I cant ever remember working in a studio where the HVAC system was actually set right for a vocal session. Putting a singer in an over air conditioned room is a bad idea. Its like working out in a refrigerator. For this reason when I work with artists I try to keep the room warm and I prohibit them from drinking cold drinks or dairy products during the session. Vibe is also very important. Each vocalist has their zone and its your responsibility to help them find it. Mood lighting, mic selection, equipment settings, temperature, headphone mixes, even a cheap mic in front of loud control room speakers and a live audience can work, whatever work with the artist to make them comfortable and it will pay off in the final performance.
Behind the Glass
Part of getting a good performance is making sure you dont wear your singer out prematurely. Due to the athletic nature of vocal performing you should avoid asking your vocalist to retread ground by having clearly labeled cue points and markers throughout the song and avoid using too much preroll before punch ins which can burn the singer out. After the track is marked properly you can also set up a tempo map which will allow you to move really hard to sing vocal parts effortlessly around the song. When flying vocals around a track though, its not a bad idea to print a guide track to help you edit the change in feel as the song evolves. Additionally, its wise to provide the engineer a legible copy of the lyric sheet since he or she can use it as a road map to navigate through the song faster and catch words that might be unclear in the mix.
Editing and Composites
A composite is a combination of several takes that yield the best performance. This starts out as a few takes recorded in succession and then ends up as an edit compiling the best performances into one take. In digital its easier to comp because there is no limit to the amount you can keep and the editing possibilities are endless. However, if you are not paying attention poor editing can escape through the QC process and rear its ugly head in mixing and mastering. I see this frequently these days. Bad edits, weird fades, unnatural vocal changes are the mark of inexperienced editors. For this reason its not a bad idea to solo the comps and listen closely for weird vocal artifacts that exist around the edit points to make sure your edits are smooth and natural.
Lets face it not everyone can sing well. Unfortunately, at one point you will have to choose between a processed sounding in tune performance or a clean sounding pitchy performance. Though I pull out tuning software on most sessions these days I use it to graphically show the performer what they are doing wrong. A visual representation of their delivery can help them learn from their mistakes. Eventually I may need to go in and tinker with a few notes but I still stand by the idea that they have to attempt to get it right first. To help speed my vocal sessions along as well I keep a cheap keyboard by my side so I can help the singer pick out exactly what notes they should be trying to match. This coupled with good software can really help weak singers learn how to deliver their parts right first so you dont need to process it later. If you absolutely must reach for pitch shifting software use it sparingly. Industry folks can spot a fake immediately. They only mind it when it distracts them from the song because of over-zealous processing.
Overdubbing is where most records live or die. Some folks get so caught up in the possibilities that they never finish their record while (rarely) others rush through it and they leave those possibilities out altogether. As always find your middle ground and stick with it. Setting deadlines and boundaries are great for indie records because they force you to become accountable. Dont let the missing subtle nuances condemn your recording to digital hell, rather plan for and expect its final release, which is what led you to record to begin with anyways. Upon that release youll find those missing nuances are all forgotten anyways.
Until next time,