The Production Line
You’ve written the music, spent hours crafting the lyrics, arranging, programming, playing, tweaking, rehearsing and gigging and it’s time to cut your tracks, it’s time to get it out there and into the hands of the right people. This is your demo, it represents what you are capable of, it’s a showcase of your talent and passion, it’s going to be sent to record labels, uploaded to various websites, given away to friends and sold at gigs. So how important is the quality? The sound? The production?……
Well these days it can be very important indeed! We live in an age where production is King, where some popular music artists have a small army of producers and engineers working together to come up with the next big chart busting piece of pop pie. You may not like the music, but you have to admit the production is pretty slick. Pristine audio is beamed to us from all directions, it’s loud, punchy and crisp, it has bite and presence. It may not be your style, it may have no connection at all to what you’re about, you may hate some of it (if not all of it) but good or bad it’s a part of the game we play. So get used to it, learn about it, and arm yourself with some techniques in preparation to do battle. After all you want to be a contender, right?
Now, it’s time to wheel out that well worn piece of musical wisdom that we’ve all heard at some point… “A good song is a good song” of course this is true, nobody will ever deny this fact but the production values of a track can mean the difference between a good song and a great song, or at least in the way the track is perceived. You have to remember that todays listeners have grown accustomed to quality. All genres of music are readily available anytime, anywhere and the standard is often high. There’s nothing worse than hearing your track on the radio or in a club or bar after convincing the appropriate person to play it only to discover that’s it’s half the volume of everything else and doesn’t cut the mustard. You’ll soon feel your enthusiasm deflating and trying to think of a way of explaining yourself and we don’t want that do we? So take control!
For the purposes of this article we can generally split artists into three groups, the first and usually the easiest to deal with is the singer/songwriter or acoustic act. Great results can often be achieved by recording at home in the project studio with limited resources. Good quality microphones and cables are key to this along with a laptop or PC, some recording software and plug ins and a good knowledge of how it all works, but don’t forget the details. Microphone pop shields and reflection filters will work wonders and a good quality audio interface with high spec pre amps and audio/digital converters should not be overlooked. Experimenting with different microphone placements and listening to the sound of the room can give your recordings character and depth. If you’re not into the whole computer wizardry thing then a recording studio will be the way forward but do your research. Try and find somewhere that boasts a nice sounding environment, good mics and maybe some classic analogue equipment. Many recording studios cater for acoustic music very well, ask for examples of their work and spend some time getting “that” guitar sound. It’s all about the detail.
Secondly the electronic musician. This often nocturnal creature can usually be found in a darkened room staring bleary eyed at a computer screen, and they are everywhere! These days anybody with a computer or even a smart phone or tablet can make music, which is in my opinion a beautiful thing but be under no illusion that it is easy. Modern computer based music is not just about ’pressing buttons’ as some non believers tend to think, to create electronic music with ’soul’ for lack of a better word can take a lot of time and effort. The amount of software and hardware on the market at the moment is overwhelming, virtually everyday a new downloadable gizmo is released into the wild, often trying to recreate the sound of a now very rare and expensive piece of analogue gear, but do you need hundreds of soft synths and the latest emulation of a 1970s compressor?….Maybe, maybe not. There is no straight answer but it can sometimes be more productive to stick to just a few VSTs and plug ins and get to know them really well. It’s far to easy to just throw stuff at a project, but you can soon lose sight (and many hours) grazing through synth presets and cluttering up a project. Try and find what works best for you and get the most out of it, spending time polishing up on your mixing techniques is a much more productive way to spend your time than clicking through bleeps, basses and whooshes (although that can be fun).
When it comes to mixing electronic music in the project studio things can get a little tricky, it sounded great before you left the house but when you play it in your friends car the all you can hear is BASS!!!!! Where’s the vocal gone? What happened to that really cool synth hook?…..There are many pitfalls but they are not all necessarily your fault. The room you’re mixing in and the equipment you are mixing on can have a massive effect. Combating this can take time, getting to know the sound of the room and spending your hard earned money in the right way can be important. Again a good audio interface paired with the best monitors you can afford will help. Your monitors will be your best friend! They will tell you when things aren’t right, choose your monitors wisely and keep in mind that your sound may only ever be as good as the weakest part of your overall system, so show it some love and leave the latest must have soft synth alone (for the time being at least). There are some good books on the market that can help you improve your home based projects, learning about how sound works can really help. If however the mixing process is becoming frustrating and holding back the release of your electronic masterpiece then you might want to consider an online mixing service, you’ll be sure to find a like minded studio who offer a remote mixing session, they will have the gear, the experience and the environment to really bring your music to life and can be cheaper than taking your project to a full blown recording studio for an attended mixing session. Explore your options, it will pay off.
Last but by no means least is ‘The Band!’ a group of people, sometimes with slightly differing ideas on how things should sound, all crammed into a room making a noise, what could be better? The same rules of studio research apply here, finding a good studio with a good engineer will give you an edge before you’ve even started! Be prepared! It sounds obvious but a little preparation can go a long way and make a huge difference to the end product. Practice playing to a click track, not just the drummer but everybody. Engineers usually prefer to record to a timing track, this makes the whole mixing process easier and faster. The fairy dust effects that will make your track shine can be synced almost instantly to a track that‘s been recorded to a click and editing becomes a less labour intensive process which is important if you’re working on a budget and need to fix in the mix. Have your parts nailed down, have any guitar effects set up ect and think about what you want to achieve, teamwork makes the dream work! For all the skills that a good engineer holds they wont necessarily share your musical vision, so use them, push them towards the sound that you’re trying to achieve, ask questions, give examples, use the mix down process creatively. Studios and engineers are expensive so make sure you get what you want and not just what the engineer thinks it should sound like. Build a good relationship and work together and you’ll find that next time you record together the whole thing will start to gain momentum. After a mixing session it can be a good idea to take the track away and live with it for a while, more often than not you’ll find that you would like to make small adjustments so its worth considering this in your budget. A four hour finalising session can really put the icing on the cake.
A great sounding demo can be one of the most rewarding things you’ll ever produce, you’ve poured your heart and soul into your music, you want it to be the best that it possibly can be, you want it to connect, entertain and impress the listener, so showing the whole production process the love and respect it deserves will pay dividends when you’re blasting the finished article out of your sound system, and who knows where it might take you from there? And above all, enjoy it!