A Producer’s Really Practical Guide To Expensive (Sounding) Record Making – Part 1
We could all do with more honesty in our lives, never more so than when you’re recording.
Text: Michael Carpenter
Most musicians, songwriters, solo artists and bands have the same dream of how to make a fantastic record. The dream invariably involves a huge studio with endless racks of gear, a huge console, a massive drum room, several formats of analogue tape, every type of expensive microphone known to man, the pick of the best musical instruments ready to use, their favourite producer/engineer combo and, most importantly, no time restrictions. Only in this dream scenario can we truly fulfil our artistic destiny, and do justice to the genius lying dormant within us… or so it’s thought.
But life is not a dream, and the sad reality is that many of us – no, most of us – will never get the opportunity to live out this fantasy. That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should put our ‘song writing ideas’ Dictaphone in the garbage and let the strings on our favourite acoustic guitar rust. Truly great recordings lie within many of us, and the idea behind this series of articles is to provide some absolutely practical real-world pointers on ways to fulfil this potential… without having to cash in your inheritance.
A GENERAL WARNING
A word of warning before I get started though: as a producer/engineer working predominantly in the world of the independent recording artist, I’ve witnessed many things. I’ve seen recording miracles born out of raw talent, determination and common sense – and this has fed my belief in the power of music. But far, far too often I have seen people waste opportunities, loads of money and worst of all, their much cherished dreams, through poor preparation, stubbornness, small mindedness or a basic lack of understanding of their own (or other band members’) abilities. This article will hopefully expose some of these pitfalls, and, as a result, there may be several instances of ‘tough love’ in the following paragraphs, but we all have to face reality at some point, don’t we?
This three-part series will start off by asking some important questions about whether you’re ready to record. The next instalment will deal with the task of finding the right people and studios to work with, as well as managing the all-important budget. The final article will deal specifically with the respective journeys of the ‘solo artist’ and ‘the band’. While these articles will offer advice on how to cut some corners financially, I’ll make it clear early on that you can’t make first class records for nothing. You do have to spend some good money at some point. Just keep that in mind…
I WANT TO BE A STAR – LET’S BOOK A STUDIO!
Not so fast! It’s a wonderful feeling when we feel like we’re at that point where we want to do some ‘real’ or ‘new’ recording. We can see the road laid out before us, and once we’ve made this commitment we can’t wait for that first session, that first mix, that first real reference CD. But this is the precise moment when many fundamental mistakes are made.
The first question to ask yourself at this point is: ‘Am I really ready?’ I seem to be continually saying the word ‘real’, or ‘realistic’, but the toughest thing we all have to face is the realities of our abilities and circumstances. Many of the greatest artists in the history of popular music have done it, constantly assessing their own talents, and making decisions based on what they know they can realistically achieve at that particular point in their careers.
So, if you’re a singer, have you recorded yourself on your Dictaphone, done some four-track demos at home, or made any recordings of yourself singing at all? If so, do you find your tone pleasing? Can you sing in tune? An even better guide is: ‘do you think you have something in your voice that’s comparable to all of those wonderful artists on your iPod?’ Really? Okay, great.
The trick now is to go out and play these recordings to people you trust. Make a deal with anyone you play them to; they have to tell you truth and nothing but the truth. This alone will discount your mother, many of your good friends and sometimes your band mates. You’d almost be better off stopping strangers in the street than expecting the truth from loved ones who won’t want to hurt you or shatter your dreams. Getting independent opinions from strangers might seem like a tough thing to confront so early on in the process, but now is the time to work out how tough you really are, and if you’re any good.
EXPOSING THE TRUTH
If you haven’t done any rough recordings yet, how can you be seriously considering spending lots of money to find out whether your voice may or may not be appealing to you, let alone the general public? If you haven’t recorded yourself in any way, shape or form, go to your diary now and look up the date that is six month from today. Write on that page: ‘start thinking about going into real studio again’. Then go forward one month from today and write: ‘have I heard myself sing yet?’. Write this in every month for five more months. If you get to the sixth month and you still haven’t bothered to sing into your telephone, Dictaphone, friend’s computer etc, then you seriously need to re-assess your career choices. There’s no value in wasting lots of money if you’re not prepared to face reality beforehand… for free!
What if song writing is your thing? In many ways, the same ‘tough’ rules apply. The oldest cliché in the book is that a good song can be played in the most basic way and still stand up. There’s a reason why this is a cliché – it’s true!
A good song, a confident voice and an acoustic guitar have regularly given me some of my most joyous creative insights as a record producer, irrespective of the recording setup. With that in mind, record your best songs with some very simple arrangements, making sure that above all else, you’re comfortable with the instruments around you. Once you’ve done this, play the recordings to people whom you trust will tell you the truth.
If you have five songs, disregard the opinion of anyone who says ‘I loved every song’ or ‘every song is a hit single’. Hope that people will unanimously enjoy two or three at the most, and then go and write some more until you really start to feel like you have songs that are good enough. Another cliché: the best writers say it takes 10 songs to write maybe two good ones. While it’s wonderful to believe you’re an exception, you more than likely aren’t. That’s not to say you’re unable to write great songs. Most great writers will say that song writing is a craft and a skill that needs to be developed. And the best way to do this is by writing song after song after song, and getting an understanding of what you offer as a writer.
ARE WE THERE YET?
Okay, so we have a great singer who believes they’re a great singer. We have a writer who has gone through his or her songbook and picked out three or four classics. Now are we ready to go into the studio?
I don’t know. Can you (along with the people playing on your record) actually play? If being a musician is your bag, you need to expose yourself to the same scrutiny your singing and writing companions have just been subjected to. I’ll let you in on a personal secret. I don’t have many regrets in my life, but not learning how to play my instruments properly before I first went into the studio is one of them. I’m not ashamed to say that many young tears were shed when engineers and producers threw concepts like ‘playing in time’, ‘playing with feel’, ‘overplaying’, ‘intonation’ and ‘tuning’ at my young, inexperienced and fragile musical psyche. I wish someone back then had demanded that I learn to play in time. And when I say ‘in time’, I mean, learning to make a metronome/click track my new best friend. I’ll try not to overstate this, but put simply, the lack of ability to play in time is the single biggest flaw musicians bring into recording studios! This factor alone can be the difference between making a record within or over budget, and making what should be a great piece of music sound positively amateurish.
So, here’s a test: Set up your recording device. Then get a click track/drum machine and set up grooves at 120bpm, 160bpm, and 80bpm. Make them straight feels and also shuffles. Play any chords or licks you like for three minutes each. Record them. Listen back. If you stayed pretty close to the click track and didn’t lose your place for all of those tempos/feels, and it actually feels good, well done. You’re ready. If not, get your diary out again and go forward three months and write, ‘check my metronome progress’.
While listening back to these exercises, take note of what you played. Did you hear yourself growing bored and getting all fiddly? That’s a sign of overplaying. There’s actually real glory in playing rhythm guitar for three minutes, grooving on a piano or drumming a good straight feel with no fills. And also, while you’re at it, listen to the sound of your instrument. Is it in tune? Can you even tell? Is the basic sound pleasing to you? Is your feel even or erratic? These are all elements of basic competence that need to be addressed before you’re in a studio spending lots of money.
KEEPIN’ IT REAL(ISTIC)
I know I’m being pretty tough on you all, but improving on these basic skills before you set foot in the studio door makes the sessions vastly better. Not just faster, but better. As a producer, there’s nothing worse than having to send everyone out of the room while you retune, nudge, edit, massage or replace someone’s poorly played part. And for musicians, there’s nothing more frustrating. The difference in how a session feels when somebody knocks over a part in 30 minutes as opposed to four hours is huge. Making sure you’re ready to record before you get in the studio will help make your first recording experience a fantastic one, rather than a chore. And having a good experience during these first sessions can inspire you to want to do it more, and improve on the last effort. And that is a beautiful thing.
The most important thing I’ll reiterate at the close of this first article is that it’s critically important – at every stage of your career – to be realistic. There’s no time when this is more critical than before you go into the recording studio. The idea that anything can be fixed in the studio is a myth. If you’re good, then you’ll find a way to make good records. If you’re not, then you shouldn’t be making records at all. And while many of these concepts can be interpreted as being directed at the ‘beginner’, we can all benefit from seeing whether we’re ready. I see many so-called ‘experienced’ people coming in to record their new album woefully under-prepared. The studio is not the place to realise that you haven’t fixed the problems you had when you last recorded!
So now that you’re ready to record, in the next instalment we’ll deal with working out what sort of artist you are; why every artist needs a producer; choosing a studio; and working out a real budget (and how to stick to it). See you then.
The studio is not the place to realise that you haven’t fixed the problems you had when you last recorded!
This time we tackle the prickly subjects of budgets, producer fees and written ‘contracts’.