For nearly a decade, I’ve worn many hats: songwriter, recording artist, audio engineer, music producer, studio manager. I’ve worked as an engineer or producer on close to two dozen records in the last 5 years, and I’ve noticed something:

 

If you think your band’s record is terrible, it’s probably your fault.

 

I know that’s not the nicest way to phrase it, but the fact of the matter is that on the local (read: unsigned) level, most records are torpedoed by the bands themselves. It’s very easy to immediately place the blame on a studio or producer (and believe me, a lot of them deserve it), but what I’m going to cover here has very little to do with either of those. I’m writing not just as someone who has witnessed these situations occur, but as someone who has made these mistakes in the past. These topics are quite complex, so please forgive me as a few generalities are in order to keep this piece succinct.

Write Some Good Songs

“No shit,” you blurt, as if speaking to a small, stupid child (why are you swearing at a child?), “writing a ‘good’ song isn’t that easy, it’s all subjective.” Well, of course it’s subjective, but this is the most important part of it all, yet it’s still often ignored. The reasons are simple:

Musicians are anxious and want people to hear their art.
-and-
Musicians are too close to their own work.

The first one is easily understood and requires little explanation. Suffice it to say that artists are generally looking for some sort of validation, and releasing songs to the public feeds this desire. As far as the second one, musicians are either too critical of their own work, or not critical enough, making it difficult accurately judge their material.

If you don’t absolutely love listening to and playing your own songs, why assume your audience or your producer will love them? Of course this isn’t the best gauge; I’ve had some songs I adored that were total garbage. Here’s my suggestion to get around this initial problem before you ever enter the studio: Write 30-40 complete songs, then pick the best 15 for the album. Maybe try a bunch of them live and see what the audience reacts to the most. When you’ve fully tracked all 15 and the record is done, pick the best 10 or 11 to release.

Cut the fat, as it were, so that you’re left with the deliciously trim meat that is your album.
There’s one other bit that many forget, musician and producer alike: a great song will be great, even with sub-par production. The quality of the song masks the quality of the recording, but the inverse is not at all true. In fact, a bad song, even with stellar production, will usually sound a little off, in a way.

Find the Right Producer

Anyone who has played in a musical group knows that the working relationship between all of the members is incredibly important. Group dynamics vary, but at the end of the day, if the relationship is healthy and productive, then it’s probably the right one for the project. The same goes for your producer
and their team.

Let me give you an example of a poor way to pick a producer. I once hired a producer for a personal project, and there were a few factors I considered:

  • How did their product sound?
  • Did their overall production style fit the band?
  • What was their track record, who had they worked with?

The producer was also one of my musical influences from a young age, so it felt like an easy decision to make. I mean, how could the product not be exactly what we wanted? Basically, the producer and the band had different goals and work ethics, and we frankly did not work well together. While I consider it overall to be a great (and very formative) experience, to this day, I still have trouble listening to that record.

Let’s not forget that one of the producer’s roles is to coax the best out of the band; their role is not to change the band stylistically (unless it was specifically asked of them, but that’s a different conversation). If the producer and band are pulling in drastically different directions, the working relationship should probably be terminated. Push-and-pull is a necessary part of the process, but you need to recognize when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t.

I’ve also been in the chair as the producer who wasn’t right for the project. I try not to put myself in those positions, but it does happen. Trust me, if the producer is aware of what’s going on, they will be just as uncomfortable as you, and that’s where the difference between health and unhealthy tension comes in. Talk to as many producers and engineers, even people you wouldn’t normally consider working with. Who knows, maybe that old country producer completely gets what you’re trying to do with your death-ska-dub-jazz project.

Come Prepared. Please?

Okay, so you’ve got some kickass songs, and you’ve found the right producer and studio to work with. The next question is this: Are you prepared? You better be able to reply with a “Fuck yea,” because if not, welcome to hell.

In the age of a dying record industry, budgets for records are shrinking. At the unsigned level, they’ve always been rather small, and this has never been more apparent than now. Because of this, my opinion is that it’s imperative bands do extensive preproduction. Get your producer in the rehearsal studio with you and go over each song in painful detail, recording these sessions if possible. This is where a little bit of money now can save thousands in the end. This is the best way to figure out if Joey the Guitarist is playing a minor lead line over the major progression of the bridge. Or maybe Bogdod the Bassist has been playing everything one semi-tone flat, making the entire song one giant minor second car crash of crap. And your drummer is probably playing the song wrong, anyway.

Making sure every musician knows his or her parts in their sleep will save time (and money!) when it comes to actually tracking the record. For every song that isn’t well-rehearsed, you’re looking at additional hours of tracking, and probably some editing, just to wind up with an “okay” performance. If you notice that it’s taking your engineer or producer as long or longer to edit a performance than it took to track it, it’s a good sign the band wasn’t prepared.

Also worth mentioning is that every time a producer has to chop up a shitty bass (or guitar, or drum, or vocal) track because the dude couldn’t play in time, he dies a little inside. Trust me, I know. I’ve spent many hours editing poor performances that we should have had a studio musician track. It kills creativity and causes strife between the band members, along with the band and the producer. You’d be shocked at how many times I’ve seen bands break up or members quit or be fired in the middle of an album, and it mostly stems from failure to prepare. I spoke of budgeting earlier…

 Stop Cheaping Out.

Some of the most common things I hear when a band comes to me looking for a producer:

  • “We could just buy a bunch of stuff from Guitar Center and do it ourselves for that much money.”
  • “My buddy said he can do it for $50 a song. He’s got Logic and some SM58’s, so it’ll be good.”
  • “We’ll just use EZ Drummer and some amp plugins at home and have you mix it.”

My replies:

  • “I’ll be waiting for your phone call.”
  • “I’ll be waiting for your phone call.”
  • “No, thanks.”

I won’t go into full preach mode, here (that’s for another time), but I will say that when you hire a producer or engineer, you’re hiring them for experience, not equipment. A good engineer can get amazing sounds out of just about anything (within reason), while someone with little-to-no experience could be given a multi-million-dollar studio and wind up with something that sounds like it’s being played off of an old Casio keyboard with a blown speaker. There are a few things I’ve noticed about bands looking for a deal on studio time.

First off, their expectations are horribly unreasonable. No, you’re not going to get Metallica’s Black Album for $50/song, so get off it. If keeping guitars & basses re-strung and good heads on the drums is going to cost more than you’re willing to pay for your “record,” then you do not belong in a studio.

Second, they are always, without fail, the most difficult to work with. Egos abound, scheduling gets ignored to the point that it’s a running joke, and the band’s inability to play their parts makes you think you’re on some shitty new version of Punk’d.

Third, 80% of the time, they come back asking me to “fix” whatever they got done for next-to-nothing. They’re still unwilling to pay to have it done properly, but that’s no matter. “We already paid $500 for this full-length record…That was our whole budget, so you gotta help us out. We’ll get you on ‘the back end.’” The other 20% seem to fall off the face of the Earth.

 Oddly enough, I never see the $50-per-song or “Bought some shit from Guitar Center” records being released.

I can’t figure out why that is…

“We just booked our CD release show, when will the record be done?”

Ahhh, scheduling. One of my favorite words…in an apparently masochistic sort of way. In this current climate, making a living off of recording requires staying constantly busy. Being busy requires paying an assistant, rent, taxes, insurance, equipment upkeep, etc, etc, so it may come as no surprise that I’m a bit of a stickler for a well-kept schedule. There is very little room for error, which is hilarious for so many reasons (those reasons are musicians).

Bands: STOP BOOKING YOUR CD RELEASE SHOWS BEFORE YOUR RECORD IS TRACKED AND MIXED.

Seriously, every damned time. I understand you’re eager to show the world your progressive cross-genre metallipop masterpiece, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot. I’ve seen records get delayed for months, sometimes years, due to snowballing scheduling errors, and no other band wants to headline their “CD Release (but not really, sorry about that, lulz) Show” and have to explain why the record isn’t done. One or two missed days can throw off an entire record, depending on what stage the record is at.

And let’s stop blaming the studio for every mishap. There’s nothing like getting a call from a label or management and having to explain the reason the record is behind schedule. We can work under deadlines (I prefer it), but they have to be discussed ahead of time and properly planned out (this is scheduling). I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve had a band come in, 2 weeks into tracking, and tell me they need a record done in 3 weeks for their CD release. I might be able to finish the mixes (and they’ll suffer), but what about mastering and pressing, two things I usually have nothing to do with?

Want to guess what you get when you rush a record? A shit record. Pretty simple. Rushing your band and the production team in order to complete a record quickly is just asking for problems. I’m not even sure where to start with listing them.

Let’s go the other direction: Want to know what you get when you take far more time than is reasonable? A shit record.

Maintain a reasonable schedule and do not let the process lapse. Everyone will be happier in the end, and the product will be much better and much more cohesive. You could lose the initial spark of excitement that was driving you through the long days at the beginning, killing the entire vibe of the record. It’s all about maintaining perspective and the excitement that made everyone want to record these songs in the first place. Stretching it out for months on end, with days or weeks between studio time, can kill that excitement.

Maintain Communication.

Between band members. Between the band and the studio/producer/engineer. Does this need any further explanation?

Check Your Ego at the Door.

This is the last part I’m going to touch on, so let’s get real. Real talk time, as the kids say. Ego trips will murder a recording session quicker than you can possibly imagine. For example: sometimes you need to replace musicians in the studio. It may just be for one part of one song, or it may be for the whole record (bassists!), but it happens. It’s never easy to do it, and it’s definitely not easy to be the one that gets replaced. But remember this is for the greater good of the record.

I’ve been there, it sucks, but it was the right call; the song was better in the end. I’ve also experienced the flip side of this situation: the musician who is to be replaced loses it, has a fit, and his ego wins the battle. He plays on the track, the song suffers, and no one is happy…except Sucky McSucks-so-bad, he’s totally fine.

Knock that shit off. No one has time for it. For reals.

I could keep going, but I think this is a good place to stop for now. I may revisit this topic a few more times in the upcoming months.

 

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