Hi, I’m Nick and I’m a Pro Tools columnist at Audio Times. I started out producing music when I was 15, and now work under the pseudonym ‘Veranova’. Having released various records, produced for up and coming artists such as Lewis Mokler, and composed for companies such as Morphsuits; I took an interest in teaching. So I started Production Bytes, a source of video tutorials and products for music production; now my main business. Thanks to the success of this I also took an interest in writing and have settled into a columnist role with Audio Times. Which brings us to now. Enjoy!
Working with a band or artist can be a tough job. Creative’s can be disorganised, un-predictable, and sometimes egotistical. However as a music producer you have to learn to work within this meta, to achieve the best possible end product with your artist; and overcome the politics of having a band, their manager, their mate, and some guy from some label, in the studio together.
For the purposes of this article: I’m going to make the argument that if you sit there and let the artist do whatever they want, you’re an engineer and not a producer. Probably a point for broader discussion; but this month I’m going to be focusing on some of my favourite tips as a producer involved in the creative process.
As a producer you need to know you can work with an artist, and also figure out what both parties want to achieve at the end. This is also useful to figure out the logistics of recording complex songs, and voice your expectations of the artist. Pre-production need not be anything more than a 20 minute sit down in a pub. But you can spend a day listening to demo recordings to map out the recording process if you need it.
This is the golden rule. Creativity can only bloom when someone is comfortable and in their zone. If you’re critiquing everything they do wrong, or pulling frustrated faces at their mistakes, you’re not promoting a good environment.
I’m a mediocre guitarist, and once requested the help of a friend to track some guitar for a demo. After every take he would insult my playing in some way, and whether he was right or wrong; my playing only got worse. Do you think him offering feedback on my technique, might have made a difference?
Sometimes a track just isn’t working, and often the thing to do is sit the artist in the control room and play it back to them. Be honest about where you feel the track’s headed, but provide ideas to improve it, they’re probably thinking it too.
If you’re stuck on a track, sitting in the studio paining over it isn’t going to help. Take a break and try some other instruments, plugins, or just go for a drink. If you’ve read my last article on tips for breaking writer’s block then you might be familiar with this concept.
Some artists are very protective of their music, and some want all the input they can get. Hopefully you’ll be working with someone because they’ve chosen your production style. But be aware of how far you can push an artist, to deviate from what they’ve written.
Some dogs bite when you move their ball; and some musicians will find another producer before they change their guitar part.
Your level of input should really be agreed upon in pre-production. But if your artist likes their guitar part that much, letting them keep it is often for the best.
Conversely, “Bon Jovi” hated their “Livin’ On A Prayer” demo, but after some extra production work it made the cut.
Lots of eyes on a performer can have a massive impact on their performance. It can be positive or negative, but yet again you need to know your artist!
Try to have as few people around as possible, so they can get in their zone instead of feeling distracted.
Or if they’ve got egos like planets, they might benefit from having a crowd around the control room window to make an audience. Know your artist!
You have to be the main objective force in the room, and be respected for it. What if you have a 5 piece band, their manager, a label representative, and the bands’ best friend who has “really good taste in music”?
They all have their own opinion’s, but the band will hopefully look to you to break arguments. Usually the most creative action, is to choose the best ideas and try them all. But if you’re short on time and know what will work best, or be most original, leverage your experience and put your foot down.
If your artist still can’t decide, you can either kick non-essential people out for 20 minutes, or recommend the band go away and come back another day. It’s your time they’re wasting as-well as their own, so let them argue without you.
Knowing how to spot & fix intonation problems, or understanding how to look after a singers voice during sessions is key. It’s amazing how little musicians can know about looking after their instruments.
I was recently working with a vocalist who was struggling to hold their voice in a difficult section. The simple solution: coat the throat! Warm water and honey is a popular method, but anything thick can work. The nearest thing we had was a coffee shop, so I ordered him off to buy a hot chocolate.
When he came back we were breaking the studio rules, but the vocal performance was perfect.
Musicians are often not technicians, so in low budget sessions you need to bring as many soft-skills as possible. Remember how I’m a “mediocre guitarist”? Well I know how to service a guitar!
Often recording sessions can encompass as much writing as recording, and if the artist needs to practice their parts this can be time consuming. So don’t rule out recording everything in smaller sections and editing them together.
Recording a “construction kit” of guitar licks and rhythms, can be powerful beyond building the lead guitar part you’ve been struggling with for the last hour! It can also be a creative tool later on in the process.
It’s true that this is a dangerous suggestion if the artist is dead set on authenticity, and could be taken as an insult to their playing. But you can often see the look of frustration on a musicians face after 20 failed takes with an hour left of the session. At this point offering an alternative, even if it contravenes authenticity, is probably rather welcome. The other option is to let them rehearse the new part before the next session, but time is money!
You need to anticipate what your artist is going to do next. If they start playing a guitar during a break, and are pulling out some new riffs, be ready when they return, with new audio tracks and mic’s ready for the guitar.
Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” was originally being tracked as a full band, however Kurt didn’t like how it was sounding and in his frustration started playing the track from the control room couch. Producer Butch Vig’s reaction, was to mic him up where he sat, and the resulting recording formed the heart of the final track.
If your artist walk’s in the room, and they don’t even need to ask to record the part they just came up with, you’ll impress them AND get the most authentic performance possible.
If you see the vocalist getting frustrated and are ready to catch your £1000 mic, you might also save yourself an insurance claim!
◦ Always have a trick or two up your sleeve.
◦ Create a positive & creative environment, which suits your artist’s personality.
◦ Always be one step ahead of your artist. Creative moments are easy to spot, capitalise on them.
Production is a balance of driving the development of your artist, and keeping them in a creative mood. You want to promote an atmosphere which allows both, but they’re not always compatible and you have to be smart about it.
At the end of the day we all develop our own ways of dealing with different situations, and these are some of mine. I hope you draw something from this, and if you disagree with anything I’ve said, I implore you to ignore me and do it your way!