Production is not all about technology, microphone placement and mixing.
Don’t get me wrong, there will be plenty written and discussed here about those recording techniques, but hidden between the lines of my earlier post is an important message:
The secret of a great mix is to get a great performance and arrangement. Everything else will fall into place.
The question is – how ?
As a producer, perhaps the most important job I have to do is keep the artists focused on the things that really matter about their music. Exactly what those things are varies widely depending on the material – for example, tuning is less important in punk than easy listening. But the things that divert musicians from their goals are the same in every genre. They’re seductive, easy-to-miss, time-sucking traps.
Here they are – plus tips on how to avoid them.
Poor exam technique (Or, Starting with the the hard bits.)
Everyone has moments on an album they dread – that raw exposed vocal, a complicated chord sequence, or the tune that just gets faster and faster ’till it falls over. It’s natural to focus on these problem songs, and be tempted to try and get them out of the way too early in the recording process. The danger is that you get tangled up in the problems, waste time trying to solve them and end up unhappy with the results, feeling rushed for the rest of the sessions.
Solution: Use good exam technique – do the easy ones first ! Getting several songs under your belt fairly quickly feels great and helps everyone settle in and relax. You can solve any teething problems with the recording on these more straightforward numbers, and be on top of your game when you get to the more difficult stuff.
Playing out of tune
I was joking about Punk before – hardly any genre of music sounds good with things being out of tune. When instruments and voices are in tune, the harmonics “lock” together and create a powerful, ringing quality to the sound. On the other hand, out-of-tune performances sound ragged and messy – it can be almost impossible to make an out-of-tune mix work.
Solution: Er… play in tune ! Get an electronic tuner but check everything sounds good together, too. Especially keep an eye out if you’ve done several takes in a row, as instruments can go out of tune.
Playing out of time
A certain amount of “give and take” is part of a musical performance, and some styles really suit shambolic playing – but not many. Tight, cohesive playing makes riffs bite, grooves groove and heads nod. Your music needs this.
Solution: Practise. (This applies to tuning, as well !) Try playing with a metronome, but don’t suddenly decide to do this a day or two before going into the studio – it’s a skill in itself, and requires… practise.
“Just One More Take” Syndrome
Everyone has been here, and it’s a sure-fire route to studio burn-out. You want to record in complete takes for a live, natural feel – great ! Take #3 was excellent except for the second chorus, so you give it another shot. This time the second chorus worked well but the middle eight was a bit sloppy. Next time the singer wasn’t happy… and before you know it you’re on Take 15, everyone is tired and irritable, and all the original sparkle has gone. With hindsight, a quick edit splicing between takes 3 and 4 would have been the ideal solution.
Solution: Don’t do too many takes without pausing to listen back – as well as giving everyone a rest, this offers the chance to hear problems and correct them early, as well as giving more objectivity about how things are working out. Recording several full takes and editing between them is almost always better than…
“Patchwork Quilt” Recording
The exact opposite of “Just One More Take” Syndrome. Just because digital editing makes fixes quick and easy, doesn’t make it a good starting point. As tempting as it may be to go with the first complete take and edit in patches to cover any problems, assembling a song in too many small pieces, like a patchwork quilt, can create a disjointed result without the build or flow of a complete performance.
Solution: Always do several complete takes. If possible, get at least one great overall version, even if it needs a couple of patches. And even if the first take seems fine, try a couple more for luck. Most artists and musicians have a “sweet spot” – a consistent time in the recording process when they get the best results. Keep a mental note of when happens for each track and you may spot a pattern. Remember this – if you can spot it, it’s a very useful thing to know.
Perfectionism – obsessing about the details
Everybody has their own insecurities, their own pet hates about their musical abilities. Under the recording microscope, it’s all too easy for these to loom large and blow up out of proportion, distracting us from what’s really important, and stopping us performing to the best of our abilities.
Solution: Say “to hell with it !” Do the best you can, and accept a few flaws or rough edges. No-one else will notice the fret-buzz in bar 12, the sibilance in the third verse, or that dodgy drum fill. If you absolutely have to, fix them with an edit later – but when you’re recording, keep focused on the overall result – emotion, excitement and telling a story.
Too much coffee / nicotine / alcohol / sugar / bread / narcotics / whatever
Excess is the enemy of success. Except when it’s essential for it. Sorry folks, you’ll have to figure this one out for yourselves – but just bear in mind that balance is everything – very few people perform at their peak after excessive amounts of anything.
Letting the computer do it
This one’s pretty obvious – personally, I couldn’t make any music at all, without a computer. They are incredible tools and have opened up the possibility of almost anyone making their own recordings. But music is about people, so wherever possible avoid too much of any of the following:
- Autotune – try another take, or tune the worst notes “by hand” instead, for a more natural feel
- Copy & Paste editing – this can be invaluable, but don’t use it too much. We are surprisingly sensitive to subtle detail in musical performances, and actually expect it – just looping the same chorus throughout a song almost guarantees boredom, for example
- Samples, soft synths – don’t get me wrong, I love electronica, and not many people have access to real string or brass sections. But whenever you can use a real instrument – do ! Even a dodgy stand-up piano has more character and life than most samplers. An old trick is to always include an acoustic guitar somewhere in the mix, just to get some natural harmonics into the sound. U2 used this on Achtung Baby, for example.
- Quantization – Too much strict quantization removes even more of those subtle details that are so important to music – try recording at a slower speed for more accuracy, or use less severe types of quantization.
Being too close
This one’s the killer – being so near to your performance that you don’t hear it objectively. So wrapped up in technical details you don’t realise the feel is wrong. So worried about tuning you don’t notice the arrangement is weak. Or so focused on getting a perfect take you forget to sing it as if you mean it.
Solution: Get a producer. Like us ! But seriously, this is a tough one. The best advice I have is to try and listen in ways that put you into a different listening “mode” – which is where the classic “what does it sound like in the car” test comes from. Take a break, head out of the studio and listen on a portable player, through the ‘phone system, from the other end of the corridor – anything to get a different perspective. Sometimes playing the rough mixes to friends or colleagues is worthwhile, but it can be a risky strategy. Another top tip – sleep on it.
So there you have it – my list of everything that can go wrong with your recording. It will be a rare session indeed that doesn’t fall prey to at least one of these problems, but remember:
Experience enables you to recognize a mistake when you make it again.
Or, on a more positive note:
Forewarned is forearmed.
Do you recognise any of these mistakes ? Are there any you would like to add to the list ?