How to Produce (Part 1)

Produce

The last article I wrote focused on the transition to producer-hood. After writing it, I received a ton of responses from musicians who couldn’t quite see the difference between the two. So today, I’m planning on clearing up some of the confusion.

Someone Who Plays an Instrument

When I talk about musicians, I’m talking about anyone who plays an instrument. Think back to when you first started honing your skills. When you were learning to play scales on a guitar, what was your main focus? I know when I first started the only thing I could think is “Am I even holding this thing the right way?” Then, as I got more comfortable my focus shifted. I started to pay attention to how hard I was pressing the strings. They needed to be held down all the way, or else I’d get fret buzz. Once I got my technique down for holding the frets and picking correctly, I could pick up the speed of the scales and really start grooving. The point is, the more I practiced, the more I could open my mind and see a bigger picture.

Becoming a Musician

When you’re playing alone, your focus is on yourself. So as you make the transition into playing with a band, now you start learning to play with 3 or 4 other guys. You learn to adapt, and you learn that you are not the main focus. You all need to contribute together in order to create something that blends well together. If the drummer wants to play a solo in the middle of every single verse, the only person who’s going to want him around is himself. So he’s stuck as a merely “a drummer”. Every other instrumentalist (including soloists) who can visualise a bigger idea is more of a “musician”.

Using your Musician Skills to Produce

Having an open mind allows you to progress smoothly into producing. It isn’t easy, because as a producer you must give up a ton of control. Some musicians are not comfortable giving up that control, and that’s completely fine. Different strokes for different folks. I prefer guiding others and helping them adapt their skills. (I think it’s the teacher instinct in me.) Using your skills as a musician who can see things from a broader perspective can help others in amazing ways.

Play to the Strengths of Others

One of my favorite things about producing is the talent of the artists I work with. I’m not a drummer. I don’t have an amazing voice. I can’t shred like Slash. But I’m a A+ player when it comes to the basics. So if I’m working with an artist who has an amazing voice, and I hear a beautiful melody in my head, you can rest assured I’m going to share that melody with her. Before she even sings it I’ll have full confidence that she’s going to absolutely kill it. When we have confidence in ourselves and our abilities, and we combine our tenacity with the pure talent of others, the possibilities are awesome.

Think of it like making a movie. The producer is the visionary, the actors are the talent, the crew get the job done, and the writers make it all possible. Find your skills and run with them. Find your passion and follow it. I love producing. I love helping others. And it still allows me to be a creative musician. I’m going to build off this idea in my next series (which will go into exactly what producers are listening for before they even start recording each instrument), so please be on the look out. And as always, thanks for reading. Peace and rock on.

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Transitioning from Musician to Producer

So you’re looking to hang up your guitar, jump into that big comfy chair and twist a few knobs around, huh? Well, first you have to make sure it’s the right decision for you. Are you really willing to give up touring and live shows? Can you give up your creative control and allow someone else to take the lead? Do you really want to be the person behind the curtain? If you answered yes to all of these questions, then let your journey from musician to producer begin!

Study.

First things first, you can’t just jump into production without some working knowledge of a DAW. You’ll need to learn how to track, edit, mix and master before you get into the actual production side of things. The reason for this is that you want to know how each and every aspect of the process goes. You’ll use this knowledge to your advantage as you take your bands through the entire recording process. Once you’ve mastered your skills as a mixer/engineer, you’ll really need to start studying different genres to tackle the fun that comes with production. 

Leggo Your Ego.

If you want to make it in this business, you can’t have an ego. Let the other guys have theirs, but you’ve gotta be cool. Remember, the bands you’re working with are the stars. You’re just there to help facilitate the process. They get the glory, even if you put in all the work to get them where they need to be. 90% of bands won’t appreciate or even truly know how much you help them out. But don’t get discouraged when this happens. You’ll be building up a portfolio of great sounding songs, and it’ll make you a better producer in the long run.

Become More than a Musician.

To become a producer, you’ll need to acquire some chameleon skin. Most people hear the word “producer” and they automatically jump to the conclusion that this person has no idea how to play an instrument. In 99% of cases, this isn’t true. Most producers have some knowledge of an instrument – but their true genius comes from their knowledge of more than just that. They have a keen business sense… they’re multi-taskers… they can think on their feet… and deal really well with people. They are leaders, inspirational speakers and hard workers all blended together. Being a producer encompasses far more than just playing a few chords.

Hustle.

Never stop hustling. There will always be someone out there trying to be the best. Trying to be better than you. Don’t let them. Push yourself past your comfort limits and do what you can to grow as an artist. Are you killing it on the pop punk front? Then get some bands in that play hard rock. Don’t feel comfortable working with metal? Well, get yourself a few metal heads and record some tasty licks. Don’t just settle for ok. You wouldn’t have done that as a musician, so don’t do it as a producer either.

I hope this article has piqued your production interest. If you’re looking to make the transition, or even to record as a hobbyist, I’d love to hear from you. What have you found to be your hardest mountain to climb? What have you enjoyed or dis-enjoyed? Please leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you and discuss!

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Record Producers Guide To Saving 306 Lives

This is a guide to being respected, feeling valued, and creating personal brand ambassadors. In PART ONE, we went over how to identify the problem clients. In PART TWO, we discussed how to hack the primal brain using dogs, Ben Franklin, and elevators. In PART THREE we focused on diffusing initial tension with an honest and forthright introduction. I promised to start giving you the silver bullets for the record ruining monsters that you see in the studio. The first monster we will deal with is reactive thinking.

Reactive thinking is a skill taught to athletes, pilots, and marines. It’s the reason they can make split second decisions when they encounter a change. It’s how professional baseball players decide what pitch is being thrown, if it’s a ball or strike, and how to best hit the pitch in less than 4 tenths of a second! Reactive thinking has also caused airplanes crashes, surgeries deaths, and your recording sessions to fall apart.

First, here’s how to train your brain to make reactive decisions:

1. Make a mental picture of how things should be. Consider the baseball player. He would picture the perfect release of a fastball that crosses perfectly in the center of the strike zone.
2. Consider the alternatives. The baseball player may picture a poor release that will guarantee a ball. He may also consider a release that causes spin on the ball. Go through every alternative to the perfect mental picture that you originally had in your head, and tell your brain what you should do in each situation.
3. Run the situation in real life as much as possible. Your brain will now process new alternatives to the perfect mental picture and attempt to come up with the proper reaction to it.

This is a skill that can make you incredibly valuable in high-pressure situations that need split second analysis. It can also cause catastrophic failures.

Air Transair Flight 236 was in danger of crashing due to reactive thinking. This airplane, carrying 306 people, had a fuel leak in the line leading to the right engine. The fuel there was leaking at a rate of a gallon per second. The onboard computer alerted the pilot that there was a fuel imbalance. This was not a part of the perfect mental picture he had in his head. Reactive thinking told him to correct it the way he had so many times before. He diverted fuel from his working engine, into the leaking engine. This caused both engines to flame out due to fuel starvation.

This seems like an illogical decision to make. But, reactive thinking isn’t based on logic. It’s more akin to muscle memory. And, if you’re wondering, the pilot recovered from this and was able to make an emergency landing by gliding his massive plane to the closest runway and doing what’s called a “dead-stick” landing. He was a very skilled, experienced, and smart pilot.

What does this have to do with your recording session? Everything! This type of thinking doesn’t just happen when you need to make split second decisions. An artist almost always has a mental picture of how their song should sound. Sometimes they have a mental picture of how the session should go, and how you should do your job. If something does not fit into the perfect picture the artist has in his head, he will attempt to remedy that.

Before I explain how to break this cycle of reactive thinking, you’ll need to understand something very important. It will not work if you’re trying to manipulate the situation in your favor. I have used this method before and it works extremely well. But, only in situations where it is in the artists best interest. I once had a band in for a preproduction session that hit a wall. I pointed out a transition that was destroying the lift of their chorus. The drummer was starting the chorus on a downbeat while the rest of the band and the vocal came in on the previous upbeat. They were literally starting to play the part at different times! After pointing it out to the drummer he told me that was how it’s supposed to go. Of course, he was referring to the mental picture in his head rather than the actual song. He was sure he was right, and would not even attempt to play it properly. Here’s what I did.

How To Break Someone Out Of A Reactive Thinking Cycle:

1. Ask for a temporary change for experimentation. Instead of saying “You’re absolutely wrong!” (Even if the person is.) Ask the person to consider it a different way.
2. Ask why he can’t try it differently. If you still get pushback ask the person why he won’t attempt it a different way. Remember that his brain is holding him hostage, and he won’t have a logical answer.
3. Show your human side. If you’re still met with a storm of no! Make a grandiose statement to diffuse the tension he’s feeling like “I’ve been known to be stuck in my ways from time to time. Truth be told, I’ve been in this situation before. It feels like some imaginary person is holding a gun to your head and telling you any change is wrong. So, you don’t try any of it. When I get that person in my head, I try to remember I’m in control. Then, I dress the imaginary person up like Wilma Flintstone and imagine that Stone Age cutie cheering me on.”
4. Explain the psychology behind his feelings. This is a last resort. People generally don’t like being told how their own brain works. Soften the blow by telling the airplane story. Don’t forget to explain how talented and smart the pilot was when he stopped thinking reactively and assessed the situation properly. If this doesn’t work on the person thinking reactively, it has a good chance of convincing his band mates to continue the conversation for you.

Now that you know how reactive thinking works, consider if you may think reactively as a creative professional. Do you cringe when you so the cheap guitar the artist brought in for the recording? Do you hear it out on the setup that he apparently thinks sounds great before starting to defend the affront to your perfect mental picture?

Ready for the next monster?

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Six Tricks for the Perfect Mix

This article will not make you a perfect mixer. There’s not one (or six) trick(s) that can give you a “perfect mix”. If there was, we’d all already sound just like Chris Lord Alge and life would be boring. Every mix sounding the same. This is meant to help you out with a few things I’ve learned along the way. So please read on and hopefully you’re able to take something positive away from my ramblings.

1) Record it Right in the First Place

Personally, I will never take on a strict mixing gig. One of the reasons I avoid mixing projects is because you never know what you’re going to get. Some recordings are straight up unsalvageable. It’s tough to deal with tracks that were played without a metronome, or where a vocalist is out of tune. At these points, you’re talking about doing more editing to save the song than actual mixing. If you do it yourself, make sure you do it right from the get go. Otherwise, you’ll be doing your best to fix someone else’s mistakes and your name will forever be tied to the stinky turd you’ve volunteered yourself to polish.

2) Nothing is Set In Stone

…until it is. That means get funky, get experimental, and get weird! Your mixes are not final until they’re up on iTunes. So have some fun and try out some different effects. If your clients are digging them, fantastic! If they don’t like all the flange you threw on their guitar, that’s an easy fix – just bypass the plugin. Simple as that. Don’t limit yourself because you’re afraid something might sound off-putting. What’s done can just as easily be undone.

3) Hold the Compression

Something I learned very early in my career is that even a light touch of compression can make a world of difference in a mix. You don’t need to slam your drums or vocals with compression, just give it a little tap tap taparoo. You’ll be impressed with how much you can do with so little.

4) Practice Your Craft

Yes of course you should be reading blogs, (cough cough, like this one), but what you should really be doing is practicing every chance you get. Just because someone loves one technique doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Look at my compression example – it’s something that works for me in most cases. I never go too heavy on my compression. But if you go through my catalog of songs, there are a few tunes I’ve doused with heavy loads of it. The more you work your craft, the better you’ll become at it. Practice makes perfect.

5) Edits Make Perfect

Practice makes perfect, and so do edits. You’ll be amazed at how much better a mix will sound when the vocals have been properly aligned with Melodyne, or the drums have been quantized perfectly with elastic audio. Even editing out mic bleed can dramatically improve the quality of your mixes (especially editing your toms on your drums). I know some people are more traditional with their approaches, but if you don’t like the way your songs sound after some finely tuned edits, revert back to #2.

6) Make it Your Own

No one ever told me when I first started that I could do whatever I wanted. Well, here I am telling you that you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT. You don’t have to take my advice, I’m just telling you some things that have worked for me. If you’re using some techniques that are completely unheard of, but you’re making your clients happy and making a name for yourself, you’re obviously doing something right. There is no right way and wrong way to do this, it’s all about what sounds good.

I hope you’ve been able to get some sound advice (oh boy I love a good pun) from this article. And honestly, if you’re using some obscure methods that your clients love, please hit me up and tell me what you’re doing. I’d be pumped to hear about it!

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