Telling an audio engineer to listen is like telling a doctor to heal. Of course we’re going to listen! How else do we get a great-sounding recording?

You’re good at listening to the music, but how well do you listen to the artist?

I’m producing an EP for a really talented singer-songwriter named Whitney Winkler. She asked me to play acoustic guitar on the project. Once we had the guitar and scratch vocals recorded, she went home and left me to add various elements to the songs to fill them out.

Her songs have a killer groove to them, so I naturally thought some light drums would be perfect. I worked for a couple hours, programming a quirky little drum groove and recording some extra percussion.

She had mentioned that she really liked the song “I Won’t Fly Away,” from my album, which features a very unique blend of acoustic instruments with a hip-hop-sounding drum loop/percussion. So I thought I’d take this song in that direction.

The song quickly took on a very different feel. I kinda liked it, but before I dove in and booked a bass player and really committed to the arrangement, I emailed Whitney a bounce of what I had done so far.

She wrote back that she really wasn’t crazy about it.

As it turns out, she wants the EP to have more of a “coffee-shop” feel than a produced, full-band feel. She didn’t really want drums or lots of extra production. She felt like the songs needed to maintain an acoustic feel.

My response? Did I get all defensive and angry that she would dare to question my production prowess?

Heck no.

These are her songs. I want her to be absolutely THRILLED with the finished recording. The ideas I proposed were fairly over-the-top. I had a feeling she might not like them, but I gave it a shot anyway.

Have I given up all creative input now? No, not at all. In fact, this process really helped us focus.

Up until that point, I hadn’t done a great job of asking her what exactly she was wanting out of this EP. That was my fault. Now that we’ve heard an example of how she doesn’t want it to sound, we’ve been able to hone in on exactly what her goals are, and things are coming together very nicely.

Moral of this story? Be creative. Take chances, but don’t alienate the artists. Including them in the decision-making process is a wise move, and it makes the entire process more productive, more creative, and more fun. 🙂

[Photo by striatic]

  • Harimander Khalsa

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it. One point about your doctor comment. Most doctors only diagnose. We heal ourselves.

  • TOMMY

    Great artc., [ as usual ] JOE! But here’s a thought I need help on. How do you get yourself to give your music a different feel besides the obvious listening to others? I’m sure they’re so many others like me who write the songs, and play all the inst. on the songs. If I could afford to hire other musicians, but none-theless the tunes will always have my stamp on it and I know it’s good, but to my thinking becomes a monotomy, eventually to sadly end up with a long term writer’s and player’s block!We want our feel on it of course. I can only think of starting up a group but with my age and health it wouldn’t work for the others. Anybody have any ideas?
    Appreiate it,
    TOMMY…&^$#

    • One way I come up with new ideas is to listen to new music, stuff I wouldn’t normally listen to.

  • christopher [chrisw92]

    usually people come up to me before even recording to say what they are looking for, otherwise I ask them. Its pointless setting up a microphone for a soft singer if the person you are recording is going to belt it out (this has happened loads to me live, when I know nothing about the bands I’m going to mix.)

  • Marc

    Your article is very timely as I had the same experience recording a friend of mine who wrote a song that when I was done mixing the various other parts “to my liking” the song lost the feeling/message that he intended from the start. It was not that my work was bad, just did not listen to the singer/songwriter. As simple as this may sound, I find this to be a difficult to do.

    As part of my checklist, I added a section to discuss with the artist the intent and message of the song so that my understanding is aligned with their intent.