Production is a weird animal. There are lots of ways to do it, and no real “right” or “wrong” way to make the magic happen. So how do you know if you’re doing it the best way possible? I’ve been producing records for 10 years now, but still feel like I’m learning every day. Nonetheless, I wanted to begin to share some of the things I’ve learned and hopefully help you avoid the mistakes I made.
Figure Out The Song First
Everyone’s different, you’ll need to accept that. Some artists will come in with a killer song that you’ve got jack-squat to change and when that happens – consider yourself to be lucky. It won’t happen often, at least on the indie level. Unless you’re working with bands, most individual artists will have half-finished ideas that need to be completed. Do this first. Help them figure out when the song needs to do, what needs to change or be added or – send them home to do it first if you’re not a songwriter. Hell, don’t even schedule the session if you’re not a songwriter and adept enough at helping artists hone the song. It’s totally ok if you’re not – there are plenty of producers who don’t write but are wizards at ProTools, making sounds, beats, engineering, etc. But get the song nailed down first. Don’t even create a click track unless that song is done, and ready to be produced. You will find yourself in a world of uncomfortable situations and will potentially tick off a lot of clients if the song isn’t done. You will mess things up if the song is not done first. Finish the song first. Period.
Live vs. Programmed
After years of trial and error, this is where I’ve found to be the “great divide.” It may seem obvious to some, but if you don’t do any pre-production you could find yourself in an embarrassing situation with your client where you’re stuck on the clock in the studio, and you are not ready to do either program nor track live. And while having one’s pants down is usually indicative of a good time, getting caught with your pants down in the studio does NOT feel as good I can assure you.
This is one of the reasons I ALWAYS do pre-production. Even if you’re only meeting for an hour or so talking specifically about a song you’re about to produce, you can suss out so much from just that one conversation. I cannot stress enough – ALWAYS DO PRE PRODUCTION. Before you get in the big room, before the clock is ticking away thousands of dollars per hour – just do your client (and yourself) a favor and get a road map. I’ll probably blog about the best ways to do pre-pro later. For now – just do it.
It’s always paramount to me that I figure out what my artist’s vibe and sound is as quickly as possible. Will this be with live drums, or programmed? Will we have extra session players like horns and strings, or will their music all be synthesized? Sometimes they know exactly what they want, but a lot of times they don’t. And when they don’t – it’s your job to figure out what their sound is, and what the core elements are going to be in their production. Why do you want to make sure and NAIL this? Because when the song(s) are completed and they don’t like it – they’re going to turn to you and say “why isn’t this more X or Y?” And that’s a bad situation to be in, trust me. Nothing makes my stomach turn more than having a client walk away with a bad taste in their mouth from working with me. I haven’t had that happen often, but it’ll happen to you at some point. Face it – it’s a journey to learn how to produce records, and you have to make a lot of mistakes before you realize all these things.
The best way I’ve found to figure out whether or not they want a more live or programmed sound is to make them show you what they like. Have them play you a bunch of songs in the room together. Who’s your favorite artist right now? What do you wish your music sounded like? What are some of your favorite songs? If you had to pick a top three or artists that represent your soul – who would they be? Questions, questions, questions. Ask them a ton of them, and if they don’t open up – be careful. I’m very nervous about starting a song if I don’t know what the artist is going for. If they don’t know what they’re aiming at – you’ve got a slim chance at getting it “right” for them. I’ve made this mistake plenty of times. I’ve tried to go ahead and dive in, even though they didn’t know what they wanted, and 9 times out of 10 neither one of us walked away happy.
The best thing to do – although it’s hard – is to either walk away from the project, or manage their expectations correctly and say “since you don’t know exactly what you want, this could take an unknown amount of extra hours in pre-production to figure it out – are you willing to spend that time to do that?” Make them commit to the extra time. Make sure they understand that if you’re going in blind, that’s not ideal. They need to lead the way – at least enough to help you understand what the core elements are in their music. They don’t need to know the specifics of which instruments, or whether it’s programmed or not – that’s all your job to figure out. They just need to be able to say “I want this and this, mixed with a little of this and this.” Gary Clark Jr. mixed with Nat King Cole songs. Or Fiona Apple chords mixed with Diplo types of beats. That’s your road map. Now go and produce the spank outta that track!
If it’s a programmed track I try and start with the drums first. I will normally make a basic beat with the core sounds or the drum track (bass drum, snare, claps, hi hat, etc.) and find the core synth that goes along with that. Once that’s done, I’ll map out the song and get a scratch vocal down. This helps a lot with your overall road map of the tune, and then will allow you (if you like to work on the track alone) to send the artist home and you can spend your inspired time with a vocal and a vibe that they already approved. Some people will want to work with you every step of the way. That’s fine with me if they want to. You may not be that way.
Everyone’s different. I may prefer to work on a track alone, but if my client wants to be there to watch, or give opinions – that’s great. I want as much of their opinion as possible. However, programming won’t be something everyone wants to watch. Although it’s always great when the song is DONE, going through the process of staring at a computer screen for 7 hours slowly tweaking parts and finding sounds may not be everyone’s idea of a great Saturday night. Just make sure that before they walk out that door that you have a REALLY GOOD understanding of what their vibe is, and what they’re going for. If you produce it alone, only go so far as a rough draft before sending it to them. Give them a chance to give you input on what they like and don’t like. This will happen – be prepared for it.
While we all love to believe we’re infallible and *only* produce hits 1000% of the time – we will not always nail it. We will need to go back and revise. And that’s ok. That’s the beauty of making music. Don’t be attached. Don’t get butt hurt because they didn’t love your super amazing transition you spent two hours on. You tired it. It didn’t work for them. That’s ok – the artist is most important. You’re producing for THEM. If you want final say on the project, either own it completely and don’t accept payment or make your own damn music.
Once the track is done and your artist has completely soiled their H&M skinny jeans from your sheer genius, it’s time to cut vocals. Schedule a vocal session time that’s best for them, when they’re going to perform their best. If they’re night owls, cut it at night if you can. If they get up early, get up early. Schedule the session whenever it’s best for them. Repeat: when it’s best for THEM. They are artists, just like you
I start by cutting a minimal demo, with either piano or acoustic guitar and a vocal. That’s it. Don’t waste your time with anything else on that demo unless it’s essential to the live tracking, communicating the parts to the players, or it’s part of the final song. I know. I get it. You’ll be inspired, you’ll want to start producing nowwwwwww – but – suppress that urge. Don’t waste your time and your clients’ money on something that won’t matter in the long run. Give the players something to imagine! Don’t spell all the parts out completely for them. If it’s all going to be replaced anyways, it’s not going to matter if you decide to put down a poorly programmed bass line – irrelevant. Do yourself and your client a favor and let the professionals come up with the parts. You’ll be there to guide them, that’s a big part of producing. Have the patience and open mind to not lock down parts now and let the ideas flow freely in the big room when you’re all ready to record. You can conceptualize the parts before the session, and without locked in parts, it gives your brain some space to imagine – which is really, really important. So in short: cut a basic demo, and move on to the next song.
Now, with all that said – some artists will want to flush out ideas more, and that’s fine too (especially if you can do it quickly). I do both, it just depends on the artist and the songs. More often than not, I try to not to get too specific, and not too attached. If I have done a demo that’s more flushed out, I try not to listen to it very much at ALL. Keeping a fresh perspective is SO important in music production. The more you listen, the more locked in to the demo you’ll be. If you do that too much, you’ll have demo-itis and won’t be able to approach the song with fresh ears. You need that fresh perspective to operate on instinct. You have great instincts (that’s why you’re a producer) and you should utilize those instincts in the session. You won’t ever always be right, but – when you haven’t over-listened you’re operating on a much more emotional level, and that’s the best way to react and produce music in my opinion. It’s not about the technicalities, it’s not about the details. How does it FEEL? That’s how any regular listener will react to it, anyways. They don’t care about any details. They care how it makes them FEEL.
So you have your demos cut. Now schedule the session go the big studio and cut the rhythm tracks. There’s going to be a lot of variety in this step as some people will have the money to go in the studio for a week and cut it all, and some people will only have the budget for a day or two. You may own your own room, and that may not matter. Speaking mainly to the producers without their own studio – figure out how many songs needs drums, bass and guitar (or keys, if it’s a more keyboard-based project) and plan your days out. I usually try to cut the basic rhythm parts first together if possible. It’s always going to vibe better for the bassist and the drummer and whomever else is playing if you can get them to do it live. Assuming you’re using session players, you’ll probably get some great magic to happen. Give them room to play around – let them experiment some. You never know what’ll happen! I always cut the rhythm tracks against the demo vocal and guitar, so they can have guide map of where the song goes. Make charts, if you can. Make it as easy as you can for the live guys to walk in, operate on instinct, and play their hearts out.
This step can vary widely, depending on lots of factors. When I can, I try to stay at the studio and cut all the overdubs after the rhythm tracking is done. I love to stay in the vibe, and just LIVE inside that record, and that vibe. However, not everyone will have the budget for days and days in a big tracking room. When that happens, you’ll have to either go back to your home studio to track the overdubs, or make multiple trips to smaller rooms to finish it out. Either way, I always do this next. Finish the songs out, and get all the elements down. Take your time to make sure all the performances are great (if it’s with more live players) or that all the details are there. This process can happen in a few days, or can last weeks. It all depends on the budget and the time available between you, the artist, and the studios needed. Overall – don’t compromise on quality. If it needs to be played again – have them play it again. If it needs to be fixed, fix it. Don’t settle for second-best. This is your work, just like it’s their song. You should both walk away proud of what you’ve accomplished when you’re done. Make it great! Push for the magic!!
As I stated earlier, vocals happen after the track is done. I don’t cut a final vocal before the track is done unless there’s some logistical reason, or if I’ve got a vocalist that’s just AMAZING and can get it right the first time (eg. Scott Hoying, Dana Harper, Sarah Sellers). I do this for a few reasons. First off, it’s for my vocalist. It’s always better when you can perform with all the elements already there. They’ll react more emotionally to the music, and will give you a better performance. It also helps with headphone bleed, if you have headphones that bleed too much, or if you have a vocalist that jams the hell out of their cans. If it’s the final track, it won’t matter as much. It there are demo elements in your final vocal, you’ll be stuck in a difficult position.
Mix + Master
After all the elements are there, it’s time to get your track mixed and mastered. Make sure you’ve got all your stems bounced from zero, and have cleaned up all the tracks for your mixer, if it’s not yourself. Pick a great mastering guy who does the style of music you’ve produced, and who has a great track record or not over compressing masters. Compare your masters to major released songs.
I hope this has been informative for you! Like I said I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve learned a lot as well. If you love production, just keep doing it. The more you do, the more you’ll learn. It’s a beautiful art form and a really fun journey, and one that I’ve been lucky to get to continue doing! Best of luck to you on your next track!
Josh Goode is a Dallas music producer specializing in pop, dance, country, and singer/songwriter projects. Music is his passion, and tex mex is his muse.