5 bad questions artists ask about recording (part 5)

(if you're just tuning in, binge the whole series from the beginning!)

 Bad question #5 : Do you do mastering?

This is true: I have never had anyone ask me this question that knows what mastering is. 

I really wish I could end this series talking about something that I feel is more important, (like why you should hire a producer. Super important), but this is probably the #1 most common question I get and here's why:

Most of these people when they say mastering mean mixing.

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When the tracking (recording of the parts) is done, the next step is editing and mixing. Editing often takes longer depending on the project, it involves going through all the multiple takes of each instrument and vocal and cutting together the best parts for a master take, often fixing performance and timing issues, often pitch correction for vocals.

Generally speaking, mixing begins when editing is done and you can hit play and everything you want to hear is there in the song the way it should be and nothing else. Mixing is where you balance the levels of each thing in the song, usually in a dynamic way (things don't usually just stay at one volume the whole time), and make all kinds of adjustments to the sounds to make the song exciting. It's hard to say that any part of the process is the most important (having a great song is probably the most important) but from a technical standpoint mixing is the most important step. Mediocre tracks in the hands of a great mixer can become really compelling, and great tracks with a bad mix are bad. 

The last step of the song production process is mastering. Traditionally, mastering is done by a separate mastering engineer who only does mastering. One of the biggest benefits of mastering is a new set of ears on your song, to listen for anything that could be balanced or polished better, however your song is already mixed. They can make global changes to the song but they have a finished mix to work with, not your individual tracks (usually). They do not have the ability to adjust the level of a background keyboard part, but they can make the whole track brighter or bassier. The typical benefits of mastering include your mix translating better on all different types of sound systems, the levels of your songs staying consistent and transitions sounding smooth from track to track on your record, and the entire project being "commercially loud" so that you don't have to turn up your song in comparison to the radio. 

Mastering is a really helpful final polish on your song or project, but it is not a drastic change or a step where problems should be solved. When we send something out for mastering, I tell clients to expect their song to come back the same but 10% better. 

One thing to look out for is people who include mastering in a super cheap price. When someone says "your song mixed and mastered for $50" you should be wary (for so many reasons!) More and more small studio folks are opting not to have their song sent out for mastering but rather to put some "mastering" plug ins on it themselves and call it a day. This doesn't mean the song is crap, but you should understand what the ideal situation is and plan accordingly as budget allows. 

Better question: Who do you use for mastering?

 This is Cameron Henry, mastering engineer, whose picture apparently comes up if you Google "mastering a record". He recently mastered a record for my band Rosaline. He does amazing work, is easy to work with, and is not crazy expensive.  welcometo1979.com

This is Cameron Henry, mastering engineer, whose picture apparently comes up if you Google "mastering a record". He recently mastered a record for my band Rosaline. He does amazing work, is easy to work with, and is not crazy expensive. welcometo1979.com

5 bad questions artists ask about recording (part 4)

Bad question #4 : Why is this going to take so long?

Often as part of the budget conversation, a prospective client will say something like this: we only have 4 songs, and at about 5 minutes a piece, I would think we could get it all done in an hour

When I suggest that they shouldn't expect to even be tracking anything in the first two hours, sometimes these folks are nearly fuming, thinking that I'm trying to rip them off. 

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Here's what happens: a typical session with let's say a 4 piece rock band will be nearly an hour of load-in and discussion (how are we going to do what we're going to do before we set everything up and then waste time rearranging it later), an hour of drum set up (the most microphones, the most variables, probably testing different snares and cymbals that we might use on different songs), and an hour of dialing in the other sounds and the headphone mixes. There are ways to speed it up (like using the house kit), but you get the idea: other than for maybe a vocal only session, you usually can't just walk right in and play. 

This is just the setup "day-of" part of the equation: often I suggest to the artist or band that we have a preproduction meeting or two, and this isn't free. The reason I do this is because I want to have a great plan in place for the artist, to save them time and money and make the best record they can. If we decide we are going to hire a keys player, maybe we should have them there for the initial tracking sessions, so we are not paying extra time for them to come in separately and record their parts; maybe we shouldn't. Everything depends on the band, the material, the approach that's desired. What's clear is that when you don't have a great plan and you're figuring it out as you go, it can get very expensive

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When clients are paying by the hour, it's very understandable for the discussion to be somewhat tense when they start to realize how much time will actually be involved. Although I could probably land some clients easier by glossing over or downplaying parts of this conversation, I (and all the other good producers I know) would rather you know what you're realistically going to be looking at so you don't end up frustrated later, or wors, out of money and sitting on a half finished record.

There are definitely ways to make the project happen efficiently by way of preparedness, but in general great art doesn't happen when you're in a frantic hurry.

Better question: What’s a reasonable ballpark timetable for my project?

 

5 Bad Questions artists ask about recording (Part 3)

Bad question #3:

What's the cheapest we can get this done? (Or it's close cousin: How much can we do for $100)

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Everyone is on some kind of budget, and you absolutely should make a plan for how you're going to afford your project. You should be able to get at least ballpark prices from anyone in advance, and that's part of wise planning. Like question #2, the reasons this question is bad is typically because of where it comes from. 

First, many of the people asking it are still weighing question #1 (see the first post in this series), and essentially expecting a professional to compete with free. Let me say a few things without hopefully being too defensive: I don't know anyone in this industry that is out to get rich by ripping off artists. Everyone I know isn't doing either! We got into recording/producing because we're crazy about music, we understand the seriousness of someone trusting us with their songs, and it's a big deal to us that everything is as good as it can be. A great producer or engineer pushes themselves as hard as the artist to deliver a great record. 

The market for music is changing rapidly, competition is massive, and prices have fallen like crazy. Good news: you're already getting a great deal on your record because it's 2017. Your record would've cost 5 times as much for a comparable level of quality 20 years ago. 

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Here's the big thing for me, as a songwriter and artist myself: when you are handing the deepest part of your heart and passion into someone else's hands, maybe how cheap we can do this isn't the #1 thing you want to be thinking about. If you really do believe in your potential, and you're entrusting your future to someone else in a big way, maybe you don't want to be looking for the most budget way possible. 

Unfortunately, a lot of recording professionals get so tired of arguing with and explaining things to the client that they will cave and let things happen that shouldn't. I've been guilty. Corners get cut because after awhile you give up caring more about the quality of the project than the client does. 

You usually are just going to get what you pay for. 

One of the biggest things that can help is just doing fewer songs. In 2017, no one cares if you did a full length album. Better to spend all your budget on a great single than have a mediocre EP. 

Better question: based on our budget, how many songs do you think we should do?

5 bad questions artists ask about recording (part 2)

(this is part 2 of a 5 part series about the most common mistakes I see bands and artists make as they are approaching making a record. It'd be good to scroll down and check out part 1 if you haven't already)

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Bad question #2.) Can I visit the studio/ do a tour?

Ok, it's not that this question is the worst question ever, it's more of an issue of WHY it's being asked. 

Basically, studios all do the same thing: capture audio. I’m not AT ALL saying all studios are created equal, but there is this ridiculous hyped magical mystique of “The Studio: where dreams are made”. We have a fairy tale-like affinity for the studio environment because we’ve all seen so many movies and heard so many stories, and we want to create our own legend, too. We want to sit on that couch behind the big mixing desk and tell each other "it's a hit". We desperately want someone to call so we can tell them "I'm in The Studio". We must Instagram everything. 

The only thing wrong with that childlike sense of wonder about the whole thing is when it gets in the way of you making the right decision for your musical career. 

Are you deciding where to make your record based on the artist lounge? Of course not. 

Big expensive recording facilities, just like the big budgets for making records, are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. So many of the big facilities I’ve been in in the last 5 years have been totally underwhelming if you actually know what you’re looking at. The overhead is massive (so prices are higher), the old equipment is expensive to maintain (so sometimes it's not), many places with a big old analog mixing console never even turn it on anymore (if it even does turn on). In many places that giant sexy mixer is just a stand for the computer. 

Check out, for comparison, the place that Taylor Swift made her first 3 records with Nathan Chapman. This is by and large where the world is going, really already has gone. Don't make a decision based on amount of knobs and blinking lights. Looking for the most visually appealing place is not the way to do it, if what you care about is a great record. 

 Nathan Chapman home studio

Nathan Chapman home studio

It's not that a big awesome room and a giant sexy console isn't super cool, they are and I generally love working in those places. For my alt-country rock band Rosaline, we rented out a big room for tracking so that we could have 4 players track together with a decent amount of isolation, and I'm glad we did. But this is rarely how records are made anymore, so consider what you'll actually need. 

What you want to focus on the most is the quality of the work of the person/people you’re hiring, and secondly, will you like working with them. This is where a pre-production meeting may be absolutely necessary. Find out if you can afford to hire someone that worked on a record you love. (Guys, Steve Albini is so cheap) Often, you actually can. 

Better question: Can I listen to some things that you’ve worked on in my genre?

 

5 bad questions artists ask about recording (part 1)

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Once I was complaining to an older studio veteran about the headaches I was having self-producing a record for my band. He responded with one of the best axioms I’ve ever heard, something that I still think about on a near daily basis.

“Making a great record is a lot like flying a plane. If you have a good approach, you’ll have a good landing. If you take the wrong approach, it’s going to be a disaster.” 

I’ve never flown a plane, but you get the idea. I had so much excitement about recording my songs and the mystique of going in “The Studio” that I ignored several crucial phases of planning, and now was in the very common situation of trying to piece together a record through endless edits, overdubs, and mix trickery. 

They call that trying to polish a turd.

To help prevent others from ending up in this situation, I’ve compiled a list of the 5 most common bad questions I get from prospective clients, and I’m going to try to answer them with better questions that should lead you to the right approach. 

Bad question #1.) Can’t we just do it ourselves? 

Now that everyone has a laptop and GarageBand, and with quality recording gear getting cheaper all the time, it’s understandable that many people consider the DIY approach. The truth is, you CAN do it yourselves, but in most cases, you shouldn’t. 

I’m being honest because I want to help you: I have never heard a great sounding record from a band that recorded their own debut. Ok there's that Bon Iver thing (which is a specific type of "good"), so one time. In most cases (like with my first band) these records sound really terrible. Yeah, your girlfriend is going to love it, and you and your bandmates are going to be enamored with it because it’s from your heart, but that’s where it stops. Bad records don’t get you better exposure or better shows or grow your fanbase, they can actually really hurt you. As the saying goes, you don't get a second chance at a first impression. 

It's not that it isn't good to record on your own - it totally is! Documenting song ideas, musical skill development, demoing, and making scratch tracks are great uses for a small recording setup that can be put together pretty inexpensively. But really learning the art of recording takes about as long as learning an instrument. If you’re not looking to dedicate years and thousands of dollars to this pursuit, you should adjust your expectations.

I often tell artists that are intending to go the DIY route to keep track of their hours and pretend they were paying themselves minimum wage for all that time spent at 2am googling "why don't my drums sound good" and getting 19 contradictory "answers". If you do that, you'll find in the end that it would've actually been cheaper to hire a reasonably priced professional, also it would've been way more fun, also you would've ended up with a better record. 

Here's a better question: What can we do on our own time/ with our own gear to make sure we are as prepared as possible for this project?

Why are we spending so much money on wireless microphones?

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We literally had to wait for a herd of goats to move so we could park the jeep. We use the phrase "middle of nowhere" pretty liberally in the US; this was a three-hour drive into the scrub grass plains of the southern Congo, right on the border of Zambia. We had split our team into three groups to visit as many churches as we could on Sunday morning. I drew the straw for the wilderness excursion, to a dirt floor mud brick thatched roof hut church where I spoke to a crowd of about 40. Noisy packs of kids and chickens rushed in and out through the open doorways as if to punctuate my better points. Truly one of the better church services I've ever been to. 

    The really odd thing about that service wasn’t the wild atmosphere: that’s Africa. What was weird was seeing a brand new, name brand wireless microphone at the service. The horn on the one speaker they had was blown (the trademark Africa sound you’ve heard in 100 movies), and the whole PA was being run off a car battery, but they had sunk 90% of their sound budget into a microphone that costs twice as much in Africa as it does in the states (if you can even find one).

    There’s a whole thing here about how we are influenced, how we watch people do things and then think if we copy them (externals) we will have the same (spiritual) results, and how we are often totally unaware of how we are being influenced in this way, but this is a tech thing, so…

    Why are we spending so much money on wireless microphones? 

A wired SM58 will work and sound fine when your great grandkids use it. If one of them had been buried with King Tut you could blow the dust off and plug it in. I paid $30 for a used one on Reverb last week.

Here’s what you need to know about wireless microphones:

  • Wireless microphones are 2-5 times as expensive as their wired counterparts. 
  • Wireless microphones do not sound as good as their wired counterparts. I might even go so far as to say they never will, since the sound has to go through a (degradation) process to be transmitted. There are people that know a lot more than me about this for sure, but in my experience (and that of every great engineer I know) no one prefers a wireless mic based on its sound quality. 
  • Wireless microphones are technology with a shelf life. They have more parts: digital, computer parts, and will be outdated or quit working at some point. (Or the FCC will take your frequency, whichever comes first.)
  • Wireless microphones require constant basic maintenance. That battery will always die mid-set or mid-sermon. Aren’t those moments great? 

    In my work as a sound consultant, I often go into smaller churches with $30 hi hats, $100 guitars, and $3000 worth of wireless microphones. (I don’t want to come right out and say you spent that money because you saw someone that looked cool holding one on YouTube, but…did you?)

    People sometimes look at me like I have three heads when my suggestion for how to fund their basic audio needs is to sell 5 of their 7 wireless microphones. In 3 of the last 4 churches I’ve worked with that’s exactly what we’ve done, because $800-1500 will solve most of the problems that small churches are experiencing, and most churches that tell me they have no money have those mics in a drawer in the booth.

    When it comes to audio budgeting we act like microphone cables are the thing preventing life transformation from happening in our churches. I get it, cables are annoying. Get a wireless for your pastor. Does your worship leader play guitar or keyboard? Please explain the actual benefit of a wireless mic in that situation. 

    Recently I saw an ad for a famous mic company with a big-name worship leader in it. He was holding a super-slick wireless, and sporting super-hip IEMs and the tagline read: “Your message is important. Make sure it’s heard clearly.” I laughed so hard I think the staff was considering escorting me out of Barnes and Noble.

Just F*ing do it: What I'm Learning From Finally Finishing a Passion Project

This week I'm finally releasing a passion project over 5 years in the making, which is stirring up all kinds of crazy emotions. Somewhere along the lines I committed to sharing these songs I wrote under the tree in the front yard of my old house in my 20s and now I can't back out even though I'm not sure I'm ready for you to hear it. I mean, one of the reasons it took so damn long is that I spent so much time doing and re-doing stuff because I was worried about what you were going to think about it. 

These days everyone is a content creator and has a brand and a blog and a single out and a better logo than you, everyone is doing something much better than you all the time and it's always in your face thanks to your phone. You get bummed out and then get on there to escape and then you see how great everyone else is doing, which makes you want to blow your brains out. 

I don't think anything about this record is groundbreaking or all that great in general, other than that it's my voice, my own proprietary blend of what I've heard and liked and appropriated from others. I spent so much time deliberately copying the Stones it's stupid. But I am proud of it whether it's objectively any good or not: I don't have to live in a lie in order to be creative anymore. I don't have to look myself in the mirror and tell myself I'm the greatest and everyone loves me 37 times so that I can get physched up enough to do something. A self-world created in that mold always comes crashing down anyways, no matter how hard you try to hold it together.

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The easiest way to crush the warm fuzzy heebie-jeebies that you feel when you're creating something that you love is to think "are other people going to like this?" Most of us, when we're working on creating something, tend to think of the most critical person we know and judge for ourselves whether they would like this or not. With all due respect to them (they're often people that love you and would hate finding out that they are the dream crushing demon on your shoulder), in this regard, screw them. If you lack urgency, go to a few funerals. You and I are on a very limited timetable here, we have to get on with what we're really passionate about. 

If there's something that you love and you're not doing it, it's really not because you're too busy or you're too tired, it's because you're scared. Following your dreams almost never happens inside a 40 hour workweek, and we all know it. I had two kids and changed careers in the middle of this record, but what took me the longest to deal with was working through my insecurity. Finally I made my friend/ bandmate Rick come sit with me while I was tracking the vocals just so that I could have someone tell me they were ok. That's how fragile my ego was/is, so I just had to figure out a way to work around it. 

My songwriting mentor/ alt country legend Ryan Adams says there are only two rules to writing: 1) put your ass in the chair. 2.) fucking write. This idea goes with just about anything. Anything worth doing is worth doing shitty. Write and share your shitty songs. Start your shitty blog. Paint shitty paintings and create shitty derivative graphics. Do your personal shitty thing that I haven't specifically mentioned. Stop judging your life on likes and shares and just think about how awful it will be to get to the end and feel like you didn't really do what you wanted to do.

Some links to my thing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7lnJ-2Zy-U

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6eV_0M_ado

Also the whole album is on Spotify already but that's a secret for people who make it to the end of blogs. Shhh

Why You Should Record Every Church Service (or Show)

This article initially appeared in a Ministry Tech magazine issue available here:  http://web.ministrytech.com/issue-february-2017/

            About 12 years ago I said “Why not?” to a Musicians Friend home recording starter kit. I had never even so much as sat behind the sound board in our church, but I foolishly thought, “how hard could it be?” 3 months and many sleepless nights later, our youth group band had a (bad sounding) EP and I had unintentionally begun the best music education journey of my life. Here’s three game changing shifts that happened through getting our team into recording.

            It helped me embrace objectivity as a gateway to growth. In other words, through the painful, unbiased honesty of playback, I discovered my weaknesses. I was going flat on every high note I sang. I was strumming the guitar like I was trying to chop down a tree. Once I got over the initial “that doesn’t sound like me at all!” syndrome, I decided that instead of delving deeper into the digital tools that could somewhat mask my inadequacies, I was instead going to do whatever it took to actually make these issues get better. It’s been a long journey; you don’t become a better player or singer over night, but the truth of playback has been my greatest teacher in the process.

            It helped facilitate conversations with the team. Almost everywhere I’ve been to work on a sound system or do a team training, there are elephant-in-the-room conversations that have been being avoided for so long they’ve become part of the team dynamic, like a who-got-murdered-here carpet stain that you stop noticing even though it’s never become less nasty.

            “Our guitar player always leaves his fuzz, flange, and wah on for every song; no one likes it, but he’s the best we’ve got.”
            “She is rarely on pitch during high parts, but we don’t want to hurt her feelings.”    
            “Our sound guy mixes the vocals way too hot and the band way too low, but (unfortunately I’ve encountered this more than once) he owns the sound system.”

            Within the next few years I’m sure Siri will be able to have these awkward conversations for us, but until then, what’s often needed most is a way to introduce objectivity into these situations. So many of the leaders I’ve met don’t want to end up in what would seem like a battle of preference, so…enter the always honest, never biased recording.

            I don’t want to oversell this, it’s not magic. However something different, some kind of left brain/ right brain thing that I’m not smart enough to understand does happen when we’re listening rather than playing. After all, most of us can attend a live performance and agree on what’s good or not. It gets muddled when we’re the ones doing the playing.

            In relaxed (usually one on one) contexts I’ve been able to have breakthrough conversations with team members by listening to our recordings.

         Usually we would start with “let’s listen to this section that is really awesome. Hear how you and the other guitar player are really locked in and how great that is?” (listening to the kick drum and guitar tracks solo’d). Then once we’ve highlighted a strength or two, we listen to a section that’s needs some work and offer some practical tips on how to grow. When bad tone is the issue, I’ve found that the 45 seconds of isolated tracks you can listen to for free on multitracks.com is a fantastic education for the ear about what sounds work well together in the modern worship context.

            I don’t think I’ve ever had someone get upset at me for challenging them in this type of environment (group contexts are another story). It seems that most folks I’ve worked with really do have a desire to grow to be their best, but are lacking clarity about how to move out of the rut they are in. And, (referencing point number 1), a great way to lighten the tension of sitting with someone listening to their mistakes is to point out some of your own. I’ve never had a hard time finding some.

            The longer we practiced this discipline as a team, the more our conversations became collaborative.

             The drummer and bass player would listen back and discuss improvements to the rhythm section. The electric player and the sound person would listen back and discuss tones. When we introduced original songs, we had a way of documenting different arrangement ideas before we settled on one. As we moved into having multiple leaders at weekend services, I was able to steal great ideas from the other teams! The team began owning the things they were playing in a different way; it inspired new levels of creativity and renewed desires for excellence.

            It’s encouraging. When you play back something that you were a part of and it’s awesome, that’s supposed to feel really good. I’m no great theologian, but I’m pretty sure it was God who gave us the ears and the inspiration and designed us, spirit and body, to delight in this stuff. You put all this work in, you should enjoy it.

            As much as the recording process will reveal that which is frustrating and highlight room for growth, it will capture moments that will remind you why you’re so darn passionate about this thing to begin with. They become markers of that season of life. Some of my favorite records are ones we made with dear friends who are with Jesus now, and they are gold to me. I even love the heck out of that kinda lame sounding EP I made with my friends in the youth group band.

Create and share something this year

                6 pack... and a horse

               6 pack... and a horse

I don’t really know any musicians that fit in to the stereotype pretentious, cocky rockstar mold; maybe that’s just because I don’t really know any rockstars. In fact, everybody I know has pretty much the opposite problem, and is trying day by day to wrench themselves free of the gravitational pull of insecurity in their hearts in order to be motivated to create something.

 

Insecurity is by far the greatest obstacle that hinders our creative potential, far more than whatever we sometimes think the problem really is: whether lack of money, lack of connections, or lack of the big hit. It saps our best energy. It keeps you from taking your chances to get up behind the microphone. It keeps your great songs hidden in your notebooks. It comes in all shapes and flavors, and the good news is that even though not one of us will ever grow out of it (not even the rockstars actually), you can learn to not be controlled by it, and I want to suggest just one thing you can do to help in the new year: create something, and then share it.

Because it seems like people like reading lists, here’s a list of good reasons you should do this:

1.) It’s therapeutic. Making music is good for your soul. You love doing it, and it makes you a better, more enjoyable person to be around. Working hard in an area of your passions is intrinsically rewarding, as it should be.

2.) It makes you better, both as a musician and as a person that’s learning to not be controlled by insecurity. Your best learning comes by doing. I promise you won’t get better by sitting on your ass, and you won’t get better by keeping stuff to yourself. If you share your dumb stuff, (which is truly only sorta dumb and sorta ok), something magical happens where over time you gain perspective on it, on what’s good and bad about it, and this is how you get better.

3.) You won’t regret it. For real, I have put out lots of dumb, bad sounding stuff – like, the most embarrassing kind of trying to be artsy, overly earnest, bad stuff. Weird thing is: they just don’t bother me. In fact, even though I hear all the mistakes, I still love them in their own way. Those songs are documents of a place and a time and a feeling, and of course your feelings at 17 are dumb. I put them on and jam to them, and that’s pretty narcissistic and I don’t care.

4.) Everyone needs encouragement. One thing that will happen when you put stuff out is people will tell you it’s good, regardless of whether it totally is. This is good because you need it. Insecurity makes you defensive, and one of the ways to grow in that area of life is to let people encourage you. People will tell you your music is good either because they really like it or just because they like you. Honestly, I’m fine with either.

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Of all the times in history to be motivated to do something, this has got to be the best. Every day, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, are sharing their awful songs and painful singing and terrible playing on the internet, and people are watching it and telling them it’s cool, and some of those people are being genuine. Why are you still sitting there, working on a song, hearing the voice of the most negative person you know in your head telling you it sucks? (Am I the only person that this happens to?) Insecurity doesn’t get better by giving in to it. Quit dragging your feet and do something. That’s it.

PS – I have been working on a record of my own tunes for over two years, and I’m putting it out in the next few months, for real. Hold me to it. 

Why Hire a Producer

There’s a lot of confusion about what a producer does. Maybe when you hear of a producer, you think of the slick corporate guy from the latest rock doc you’ve seen or, more likely, you think of the legendary Bruce Dickinson demanding more cowbell. In reality, a producer is a skilled professional in your corner who helps your artistic vision become reality. There is a huge difference between what a producer brings to the table and what you may get if you simply rent out some studio time and take a swing at creating something. Here are ten things a producer will do for you that you won’t get if you record in a studio without one.

1.)   Perfecting your song. Music isn’t always objective. Songs are meant to be improved and perfected. It takes a collaborative effort, as well as talent, skill, and even industry knowledge to move a song from good to great. Take, for example, “Yesterday,” which was originally titled “Scrambled Eggs,” until someone—thank the good Lord—stepped in to improve it. If your song is seven minutes long and you want it on the radio, some editing might be necessary. With the help of a skilled producer, even well-constructed songs can be pushed to near-perfection.

2.)   Pre-production. With the help of a producer, you’ll be able to hear your song in a new way. Are the kick and bass parts conflicting during that second verse? Do we need to consider a key change when the singer is struggling to reach some of the notes? Is that damn cowbell still not loud enough? A producer will be able to give you priceless insight into the inner workings of your song so you can make decisions before you’re paying for studio time and the pressure of a limited budget leads to bad decisions like “oh well, we don’t have time to redo it, we will just fix it in the mix.”

3.)   Finding/hiring of musicians. As a singer/songwriter, you may need help finding a band of top players to finish out your instrumentation. Instead of grabbing a few random friends of mixed talent levels, a producer can find the right people who are genuinely equipped to play in your genre. These musicians will get recordings done faster (which saves you money in the studio) and your song will sound astronomically better. Even if you are a band, you may realize cello/didgeridoo/cowbell would be really cool on that bridge. A producer can help find the right musicians to make it happen.

4.)   Choosing the right studio. A producer usually has experience in working in a few different places, and knows that every studio is not equally equipped or experienced for recording your style of music. They may also be able to negotiate a better rate for you based on their relationships and quantity of work in these places.

5.)   Planning of sessions. Organization before you record and anticipation of issues that may arise during a studio session will save you hassle and money. Are you going to record your parts individually or as a band? What things will get overdubbed and in what order? Will you use a click track or do you prefer a looser feel? Maybe, to optimize your budget, the foundation tracks (drums, bass, maybe guitar/keys and a scratch vocal) will be recorded in the studio and other overdubs can be done later in a home studio environment. Going in with a clear plan always saves you time and money and delivers better results.

6.)   Choosing the right tones for your style and song. Once in the studio, decisions must be made that will be crucial to your finished product: What microphones are you going to use on which instruments? How should the drums be tuned? Should you use the guitar player’s amp or the studio amp or take a direct signal to re-amp later? How much bleed between instruments is acceptable? Commercial studios tend to be formulaic only because they’ve nailed down a safe way to get a good sound, yet their method may or may not be the right thing for your music. Using a producer to track the best sounds for your particular song is the most important thing you can do for your mix.

7.)   Encouragement and direction at your session. When is a take truly good enough and when do you need to record it again? When do you need to take a quick break to alleviate some stress? In what moments are you not quite communicating the emotion of the song, requiring a little push? When it comes to recording—especially regarding vocalists—there are millions of ways to perform. When you’re already in the studio, it may be difficult to determine whether you’re recording the next Thriller or slapping together the next Friday (no offense to all you Rebecca Black fans out there). Encouragement from a good producer can keep you in the right emotional space—giving you room to deliver your best. They can also offer just the right amount of direction to improve or alter trouble spots in your recording. You can avoid the time-wasting frustrations of being trapped in a creative rut and yielding diminished results. Not only does this save you time, but it saves you money as well.

8.)   Protecting you from listening to your rough mix a million times. No kidding, this is crucial. Countless musicians have been there. You just did your first recording at real studio and you’re blasting the rough-mix in your car on repeat on the way home where, for the benefit of your mom and your girlfriend, you blast in on repeat some more. You might even be tempted to post it on social media. By the time you get a real mix, you’ll hate it (even though it’s amazing) because you fell in love with the subpar rough by listening to it too much. This is a documented disorder called “demo love” and together, we can eradicate it forever!

9.)   Advocating for you with those who are finishing your song(s). Often yourproducer will mix your songs. However, if this isn’t the case, your producer’s been through the mixing process before and can be amazingly helpful. He can guide you in choosing the best mix engineer available for your budget—someone who has experience and a fantastic track record in your genre. When your first mix comes back and you gotta have more cowbell, your producer, who in many cases has a previous relationship with the mix engineer, communicates things in a way that is helpful, not harmful, to the process. Also, your producer can provide an objective opinion that enables the band to hear whether the mix is right for the song, rather than the usual “my bass part isn’t loud enough” arguments that come from a group of individuals not really used to listening to the song as a whole.

10.) Therapist/Counselor. No seriously, we’ve all seen the movies. As we all know, the hardest part of being in a band is dealing with the humans, and the number one thing that derails good projects is the emotions, egos, and drama created by relationships. A producer has been through this many times, and is skilled at navigating the common tension spots that arise in the very emotional process of making a great record.

So when a band has a record you really love, check who produced it. Odds are, if you follow that producer, they’ve made records with other artists you love too. This is because producers have huge influence in the process of creating your art. A recording studio is a by-the-hour business whose job entails setting up microphones, waiting until you’re ready, and then hitting the red button. Most studio engineers are masters at what they do, but being invested in your project isn’t part of their job, and they probably aren’t going to tell you if what you’re chucking into their microphones sounds like a cat caught in the garbage disposal. The misunderstanding of the roles of a producer and a studio engineer—often on the part of first time recording artists—is why good musicians, who are simply excited about being in a “real studio” so often come away frustrated, with costly and lackluster recordings in hand. If you would rather have a better sound, spend less time fumbling through mistakes, save money in the studio, and have loads of fun making your songs a reality, you really should consider working with a producer.