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For The Record:
Making A Real One


Written by
Michael Johnson

You've demoed several of your songs by now and it's time for you to do your very own record project. Maybe you've decided it's the best way to get your material to the publishers; maybe you've always secretly wanted to do it in the first place; maybe just because. Here are some things to consider before you jump in.

Many first records are self-produced. I have done two that way, and I have mixed emotions about the outcome of each. What I gained in freedom of choice I lost by creating a one dimensional sounding product. I learned much. Most importantly, I learned not to go to school on myself. In this article, I'm presuming that you'll go into the studio with some form of outside help in making the overall decisions.

So what does a record producer really do? From everything to nothing. In other words, a producer does whatever the artist doesn't do. Depending on the situation, most producers will serve as objective listener, director to the engineer, and ambassador to the record label. Often they are musicians or engineers themselves. The best of them, I've found, are not frustrated artists.

Obviously, the job changes from one project to the next. I know a producer who described working with two totally different artists who shall remain . . . famous: "(Artist #1) comes into my office, sits on my desk and with guitar, plays me twenty songs, says, 'Pick 10 and tell me when to show up.' That's it. I start reserving studio time and hiring musicians. (Artist #2) comes in with songs, keys, players, background vocal plans, modulations—all in all, too many options. This guy needs more of a father than a producer. I put my arm around his shoulder and say something like, 'Which way are you leaning on this?', and try to help him decide." Learning to trust a producer may be difficult for you. It is for me. As an acoustic musician, you are probably a bit of a loner anyway and that doesn't lend itself to learning how to delegate any responsibility, much less learning to trust someone with your brain-child. Learning to trust is a rite of passage, I think, for an artist. It is essential before you'll be happy with a producer, an engineer or the musicians who play on your tracks.

Record production is an art too, and so your first record may not be the most appealing project to an experienced producer. You might find yourself working with someone as green as you are. Nonetheless, there are times I've realized that anyone could produce what I'm doing better than I, because I lack the overview of being outside my skin.

Personally, I've had trouble working with the critic-style producers. You know—the editor, someone who only knows when it's wrong. And I've always been wary of the one who loudly claims he can "bring something out of you, that you never knew was there," (even though recordings often do that very thing). I have to work with someone who likes my music. That's important to me because then I have someone to sing to. It helps me remember why I'm doing this in the first place, and it keeps it all from becoming sterile. Also, I can trust that he/she'll know when it's good because they'll be moved by it, as opposed to deciding in terms of what "the listener" (whoever the hell that is), will like.

Essentially, you need a producer/partner because it's hard to know when to quit beating a dead horse. And, conversely, it's hard to know when to keep working—on pitch, rhythm, phrasing, etc. Intonation has often been a real teacher. It still surprises me when it feels so right but it isn't—and it's even stranger when it sounds better on playback than it felt going down. (I don't trust that one at all anymore.) Also, during the course of the weeks/months as you hear your rough mixes in progress, they'll sound too fast, slow, dull, boomy, flat, then sharp, everything imaginable. Many artists can't stand the process and just leave all of that to other ears.

It's strange, but I find that I don't really know if it's going to fly until after it's on tape. Some songs are too small, too Haiku; others are too rough or vague to be experienced under the scrutiny of a close microphone. And some things just don't work, even though they should.

After you're partway into the project, and you know what some of the material is definitely going to be, then you'll have a better idea of what else you need to round out your project with regards to dynamics, emotion and tempo. I don't pretend to know what you should put on your record, other than to suggest that you be versatile with your emotional palette. If you're one whose heart is primarily filled with angst, torpor and ennui, it would give your tearjerkers a better chance if you set them up with something lighter . . . kind of like the orange sherbet they serve you in between courses at a French restaurant. The sun comes out too, you know.

Each format has its strengths, and many producers and engineers, if budget allows, will use both somewhere in the process, cutting analog and mixing digital or vice versa. Who cares? I'm a musician, not a scientist. Yes, sometimes I think I can tell the difference, but then, sometimes I think I can tell when yogurt goes bad too. It's an old and tired argument. The fact is, that unless you're trying to cut a big money commersh monster with which you intend to compete in the hormone horse race, it doesn't matter much. You can make wonderful recordings on either format.

But here's the really important news. Affordable digital multi-track machines, like the Alesis "adat" (and its rapidly approaching competitors), have truly leveled the playing field and given the power to the artists. No longer do large record labels have a monopoly on state of the art audio technology.

Overdubbing vs. Reality

You may come close, but you will never get it perfect. You just can't. It will die first. The albatrosses are these:
  • If you do a multi-tracked, layered, overdubbed type record, it may be in tune, but it may also be sterile and lifeless.
  • If you go the other route, recording it live, then you have to deal with rushing, playing sharp, singing flat and laying little eggs all over the place. Dead Perfection vs. Live Turkeys. Yuck.
In either case, it's not easy to make a studio recording that will take on a life of its own.

Despite purist philosophies against overdub recording, it might be best to realize that there are so very few good live recordings out there, at least within the singer/songwriter arena. The thing about a mistake on a professional recording is that it's always there, every time it's played, it's still there. You wind up listening for it. And if there is an audience reaction involved in the live recording, then on playback you're often left with that "I guess you had to be there" feeling.

What do you want to emphasize—your voice, your instrument, the other players? It may be obvious on paper, but in the middle of a session, it's easy to lose the resolve that the song and its lyrics are more important than the singer, or the instrumental solo, or the little fills and licks.

The people I want with me in the studio are those who are able to play beautifully, and with authority without "stealing your ear" from the purpose of the song. It's a real compliment when the drummer asks for a copy of the lyrics on his music stand. That kind of dedication is hard to find.

Depending on your budget, musical ability and the nature of the instrumentation, there seem to be a couple of ways for a for a singer/player to go about laying down tracks.
  • Often artists will sing and play on the rhythm track date, to give the other players some live atmosphere to work with, and then re-do both guitar and vocal parts because of, say, the voice leaking into the guitar microphone and ruining the sound, or maybe you missed a few licks. I'm being kind here. Maybe you have a lot to learn and you're learning it fast but not fast enough, and you need a second chance at your part. Take heart. The fact that the vocal is going to be prominent in the mix is reason enough to re-do it with an eye to great performance and better sound quality. And the engineer gets a second chance this way too.
  • Another approach is that of getting your instrument on tape exactly the way you want, and then building the track from there on out. This gives the advantage of really personalizing the song. The subsequent overdubs have to relate to what's already on tape, and so the arrangement can take on the personality of an expanded guitar part. It's a good way for more accomplished players to get more of themselves into the music.

So much of the process involves learning to listen in different ways. Playing, and especially singing along with previously recorded tracks is a demanding skill that seems to change as you grow. It takes time, each time, to discover the right relationship between your live thing and all the other elements on tape. Don't feel like the Lone Ranger. I've had to develop my own little ways, as has everyone else I know, to hear existing tracks while laying down another. Here are some:
  • While singing, listening with one headphone to the track while cupping the other ear for your live vocal.
  • Listening with both headphones held slightly away from your ears, with the live vocal loud in the phones.
  • Listening just plain loud (be careful).
  • Using walkman button style phones.
  • Working with small speakers placed directly behind the live microphone.
I have also learned from session players to carry my own phones with me; it gives me a steady sound reference I can count on.

If your lyrics are paramount to you, then your singing is the most important thing on the record. There are ways to either enhance or sabotage your lead vocal.
  • Take your time with your vocals. Be ready and healthy.
  • Don't go overboard. Some singers do 4 or 5 tracks of vocals, then build a composite, a mosaic, of the best of them. It's often more trouble than it's worth, and there's no need to go that far.
  • Sometimes you can tell right away if it's in the cards for you to sing a great vocal today. If it's not, blow it off.
  • Doubling. Generally, doubling a vocal part, whether it's a lead or background, rather de-personalizes the sound. It can be effective, especially for background vocals, because you can add a texture to the music without introducing a new character into your story. But if you're not good at it, it gets pretty schmaltzy.
I've found that being around mixing sessions is very boring. Unless of course it's my record. Some artists would just rather have you mail it to them. If that's your story then you're better off out of there. It takes dedication and focus to mix a record. Objectivity too. But if you really want to be involved, then you might need to know how to make a well-timed comment to an engineer who is trying to do something you don't understand while you are praying for less reverb. Often you'll find you're on the same wavelength, just different planets. His/her brain may be full for the moment, that's all. Sometimes engineers would rather not have us around at all, at least for the initial working up of a mix. It might be nice for you too. You could be the one to show up with "fresh ears" and be more objective.

Hopefully, your disc or cassette will be listened to from beginning to end, at least for the first hearing, but it's reasonable to assume that a few of your treasures are gonna get "gonged" by your fans. Nevertheless I'm convinced that a recorded music project should be presented like a performance, with attention paid to song order. I am a balladeer (how unique), and so I feel that I need to support the heavier stuff with songs that are more "accessible" (sorry, publisher's word). Also, I try to mix up the various energies, instrumentation, background vocals, keys, guest artists and solos.

Recording is an amazing art. It requires many different gifts and skills. Try to find out which ones you're best at, position yourself to do them, and then surround yourself with people who are better than you at what they do.

Good luck. We'll be listening.

Performing Songwriter - Volume 2, Issue 10 - January/February 1995

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