How to Produce Vocals (Part 5)

Last week we took an insightful visit into bass production. At this point we know what to do with all of our instruments, so now we’ll start making our progression into vocal territory. There are a few simple techniques that will really help your songs to shine, so grab a pen and get ready to start taking some notes on how to produce vocals!

Motif

Motifing is something I talk about a lot. But what exactly is it? Motifing is keeping a pattern to your vocals both melodically and syllabically. An easy  example is in twinkle twinkle little star. Think of the line “Up above the sky so high”… it motifs perfectly with “Like a diamond in the sky”. It’s the same melody and same rhythmic pattern. The benefit of this is that your songs are more prone to get stuck in a listening audience’s head. Verses tend to mirror one another, as well as certain lines in the chorus. This way by the mid point in a song, listeners already know what to expect and are more likely to remember the tune. This is how you create an ear worm.

Feel the Emotion

When producing vocals, you’ll want to keep an ear out for raw emotion. Vocal cracks and quivers can actually add a huge dynamic to the vibe of a song. They show a side of human frailty that can hit listeners right in the feels. Always be on the listen-out for for vocal takes that have that extra “special sauce”.

Pay Attention To The Lyrics

When listening to vocals, you’ll want to pay specific attention to what the lines are actually saying. If the first and second lines of a verse are contradictory, ask yourself why. Was it done intentionally? Does it make sense in the context of a song? If not, help your artist to make sense of it. And remember to use a lot of imagery. Don’t just describe something as it is, think back to english class and use those similes/metaphors!

Vary the Dynamics

Remember to match the vocals with the music itself. At softer parts of the song, have the singer sing breathier. At more intense spots, ask them to sing through gritted teeth. This brings a lot to the song. Don’t forget to play around with different vocal speeds as well. If your verses are slow moving, try picking up and singing quicker lines on a pre-chorus. Adding that push and pull can bring some well needed tension into your music.

Background Check

Adding background vocals can really help your songs to pop. Background ooo’s and ah’s can lift a chorus. Lower harmonies can warm things up. Overdoing backgrounds can make songs sound very produced, but some bands are looking for that overly processed sound. Listen for what works with other bands in similar genres, and borrow ideas from different styles. Remember not to throw background vocals on intimate parts of songs, it can really take away from the raw emotion we spoke about earlier.

Next time you’re looking to track some vocals, you’ll want to think of all these things. You’ll be amazed at how some small changes will improve the overall quality of your final mixes. Which techniques are some of your favorites? What else are you listening for when tracking? Leave me a comment below and let me know!

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How to Produce Bass (Part 4)

Last week we dug deep into producing guitar. This week we’re going to move into the groovetastic world of how to produce bass. As producers, we’re listening to the songs as a whole and simultaneously breaking down the individual performances of each instrument. We know how important the drums are on a record, and seeing that the bass completes the rhythm section, we have to view it as equally significant. So let’s start reviewing.

Follow the Beater

First and foremost we need to understand that the drums and bass are like peanut butter and jelly. They’re best friends – not meant to be separated from one another. Drums and bass should “lock in”. The bassist should make a conscious note of where the kick drums hit and he should be matching his fingering pattern accordingly. If the kicks are hitting on 2’s and 4’s and the bass is hitting on 1’s and 3’s, we’ve got a problem. Make it match and your songs will sound much smoother.

Don’t Play Lead Bass

I’ve seen it far too often… the bass player in a band is not a bass player. He’s a “lead bass player”. A converted guitarist who hasn’t studied his craft well enough. The bassist is a supporting role – not a main character. It’s meant to pad the songs, not to take over (unless your name is Flea… or Victor Wooten). Have the bass player avoid overplaying and definitely don’t let him solo at inappropriate times. This leads perfectly to the next tip…

Keep it Simple

Although it may sound boring, 99% of the time keeping it simple is key. Bassists may fiddle around for hours trying to find the perfect lick, only to find it muddles the mix in the end. It’s amazing how following the root notes can actually make a song pop. Avoiding too many passing tones is also essential for bassists as they tend to muddy the mix. Chromatic notes on a bass don’t always translate as well as the same line that may be played on a lead guitar. The low end messes with your ears.

Watch The Fills

Fills are terrific. Listen for the drums and try to follow them when you can. Match the toms, hit a harmonic on a cymbal ping, and highlight those embellishments. But don’t overdo it. Fills lose their appeal if they’re played too often, so don’t throw them in after every single chord rotation.

So next time you start tracking some bass, take all of this advice into account. It’ll help save you a headache once you start mixing. Low end is always a problem and you’re always better off tracking things correctly in the first place. What tricks do you like to use when you’re tracking bass? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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How to Produce Guitar (Part 3)

If you’ve been keeping up with the series, you already know what you should be listening for before you even press the record button. You should also be an expert on drums… and today, you’ll be a pro at producing guitars.

Growing up as a guitar player, I’ve always paid attention to the chords, the leads, and every lick in between. But playing guitar and actually listening to the guitar are two completely different concepts. Even the greatest guitar players can use a little guidance when it comes to tracking on an album. A few simple pointers can make an insane difference.

Think of the Listener

Not every guitarist wants to hear it, but they are not the center of the universe. They may have more finesse than Slash, and more licks than Clapton, but are they using them correctly? If you’ve got a guitar player that is soloing throughout the entire song… you’ve got a problem. For the most part, when the vocalist is singing, they should be the focal point. The song needs to breathe. The listener needs time to digest and process all of the emotions in the music. It can cause a real headache if there are too many things happening at once. So please, for the sake of the listeners, keep your guitar players in check.

Listen to the Drums

You should really break things down by instrument. Listen to how each one plays off of one another. Are the drums building? If so, the guitar should follow. Do the drums hit a stop on 3 and the guitar stops on the & of 3? Well, that’s going to sound sloppy on a record. Everyone should be on the same page. Stop together. Build together. Match one another dynamically. This will make for a tighter and more coherent sounding record.

Building the Song

You always want to keep things moving on a record. I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it… At live shows, you can keep an audience engaged. We need to find a way to keep them just as focused when they’re solely listening. So how do we do this? Easy, build the song. On double verses, consider adding a lead at the midway point. You could always add extra beats to the strumming pattern as the song progresses, and you can even play more complex chords as the song goes on. There are plenty of ways to move the song, and remember to try pushing forwards. Keep the feel of the song, and build the emotion.

Subliminal Padding

A great way to lift a chorus is with a little thing called subliminal padding. One of my favorite bands that do an incredible job of this is Coheed and Cambria. Why do their chorus’s hit so much harder than the rest of the song? What’s their secret? It doesn’t even sound like the lead is doing anything special! Well, that’s the beauty of it. The guitar isn’t doing anything special. Doubling the rhythm guitars and playing simple octaves that follow those chords is an amazing way to build a chorus subliminally. The audience will feel the song get bigger and they aren’t sure why. This is a great technique to throw into your production portfolio.

Beware the Wall of Sound

Sometimes too many guitars can actually be a bad thing. You’ve heard the term wall of sound, and sometimes it works. But if you allow the guitarists to run the session, 99% of the time they’ll throw as many guitar parts in as humanly possible… It’s in their nature! Your job is to keep things in order. You won’t be able to mix 8 guitar leads at the same time, there just isn’t enough sonic room. So keep things simple… it’ll save you in the long run.

Next time you’re recording guitars, keep some of these points in mind. You’ll be surprised at how much these simple tricks can help. Are there any tricks that you use when tracking guitars? I’d love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below, I look forward to talking more! Peace and rock on.

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How to Produce Drums (Part 2)

First of all, I’m really excited to be writing this series! I think it’s going to be very beneficial for a lot of my readers, so please feel free to spread the word! I grew up as a guitar player, and when I first started producing all I ever focused on were the chords. I mean drums, really? Are they even that important? When I was 16 I remember saying that a good song is always going to be a good song regardless of what the drummer is doing. (I also thought Bulbasaur was the best Pokemon.) But guess what… I’m not 16 anymore. I grew up. I learned a LOT about music. Drums can absolutely make or break a song… and more importantly Charizard would obliterate Bulbasaur in a battle. Here are a few non Pokemon related tips to help you out when you’re looking to produce drums.

The first thing to bear in mind is that you are the conductor. You’re leading the sessions. But you’re not a dictator. Your word is not gold. You give advice, and the band will either take it or leave it. Certain changes may sound weird to a band initially, (especially when they’ve only ever played their songs one way), but if the advice is good, and the band is open to great ideas, you’ll win them over sooner rather than later.

Simplify

This is easier said than done when you’re dealing with some drummers. My ear is always instantly drawn to the kick drum. When I hear a complicated bass drum pattern that doesn’t match the song, I’m trying to figure out why. I’ll ask the drummer why he has so many kicks, and most of the time he didn’t even realize it. Some other band members are just like a younger me, in the sense that they weren’t overly concerned with what the kick drum was doing. But on a record, these things are important. You’d be amazed at how much a simple 4 to the floor can improve the overall feel of a chorus.

Listen for Dynamics

Again, sometimes drummers have a tendency to get lost in their playing. (Other instrumentalists do too, but when the drummer does it, it stands out so much more.) Listen to the drums in context of the song. Should the drummer be playing on his crash cymbal during a palm muted, vocally driven verse? Or might it sound better if he switches to a closed hi-hat? Sure the ride cymbal sounds cool during the the bridge where the guitar rings outs, but wouldn’t it feel warmer if the drums had more space, maybe half time on the floor toms? Don’t be afraid to experiment with different feels making the drums bigger and smaller as the song opens up and gets softer.

Think of the Listener

This is a pretty interesting idea. Assume you’re writing the record for people who don’t fully understand music the way you and I do. You need to tell the audience what they’re listening to. Make it blatantly obvious. If you’re playing your verses on a hi-hat, switch to an open hi-hat for the pre chorus. Then really open things up with a crash cymbal for the chorus. Not only does it make the songs sound more coherent, but the audience will feel the changes and follow the songs easier. Engaging the audience in such a way will lead to more people grooving to music at live shows. Try it out, you’ll be surprised, and your bands will be highly impressed with this simple piece of advice.

Don’t Be Busy

Stop the drummer from trying to be the center of attention. He’s a supporting character. On drum solos he can go as bananas as he wants, but when the vocalist is singing an intimate lyric, the audience should be focusing on his words. I don’t want to be drawn into a powerful verse, then have it ripped away by a drummer who insists on playing a fill that is completely out of place. This goes for crash cymbals as well. They don’t have to play crashes on every down beat in the chorus, sometimes it works, but usually it’s just overkill.

Transitions are Key

A beautiful transition can lift a verse, make a chorus pop, and improve certain parts of the song. If moving from a verse to a chorus feels awkward, consider changing the drums around. Hitting a stop at the end of a verse is a nice trick that can make a chorus hit hard. Building up to a chorus can really lift it, and sometimes the perfect fill can really solidify select parts of the song. Try out a bunch of different ideas, and always keep in mind, it all starts with the drums. All of the other instruments will build off of what they’re doing.

I really hope you take this advice into account next time you’re looking to produce drums. I’d love to hear some of your experiences, so definitely write a comment. What have you found works when you’re recording drums? I’d love to hear from you. Thanks for reading, and be on the lookout for next weeks article on guitars. Peace and rock on.

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