Do you struggle with wearing two hats in your home studio? Are you an engineer? Are you a musician? Are you some combination of both? This article addresses those questions. It was written by a good friend of mine over at fathomlessregression.wordpress.com.
Choose Your Headgear
These days it’s extremely common for people in the music industry to wear many hats at once. Chances are good that many of you out there in music land are writing, performing, engineering, producing, and mastering your own projects from start to finish. Thanks to the advent of inexpensive (when compared to their analog counterpart) computer-based recording systems, the vast majority of musicians are stepping into the world of recording.
Part of the joy of that experience is getting to not only have creative control over the writing and performing process, but also the various aspects of recording and mixing. Sounds great, right? You don’t have to be at the mercy of an engineer who may not know what sound you’re going for, or who may “overmix” things. You have complete control over everything.
This, like many things musical, is a double edged sword. Being a great songwriter doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to engineer, and vice versa. Perhaps you do know both, and are proficient at both. There is still a problem that lies beneath the surface.
I’m sure many of you are like me and have a network of musicians, and music lovers, that you share your songs with in the various stages of their development. You seek out the criticism, and hopefully compliments, of those around you. It’s how we grow as artists and how we can get an outside view on one of the most personal things in our lives.
Similarly, if you’re like me, when you receive those criticisms you may be somewhat resistant to them. If someone says to shorten this section, or perhaps move this bridge, or skip a chorus here, etc, you may resist them. This is your baby we’re talking about, right? How dare they! Well, that outside view often times will lead to a much better song if you take their suggestions into consideration.
The same thing happens in the recording and production process. A good engineer or producer will tell you where your song is lacking and will suggest ways to possibly improve the arrangement, lyrics, etc. On top of that the engineer will focus on getting the song recorded in the best possible way. He’s aiming for the best sound, not necessarily the recording method you think you want.
I know that when I’m going to record one of my songs I am not always focused on getting the best possible recording. Many times, I’m more focused on just getting the idea out quickly. I’ll grab a mic I’ve used many times before, put it in the same position as many times before, and then press record. What a surprise, the recording sounds like it has many times before.
This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but if I was thinking like an engineer I would take some time and carefully place the mic. I’d try several angles, heights, etc. I’d also try several mics, several preamps, and all the combinations in between. That way I’m capturing the perfect tone for that particular tune.
The Songwriter Hat
It’s easy to lose sight of this though when I’m wearing my “songwriter” hat. With that hat on (it’s a fedora by the way) I’m focusing on the song itself. I’m working out the lyrics, arrangement, and instrumentation. I work very fast with that hat on and get my recordings down quick and dirty. While it’s not a bad idea to have a scratch track as a starting point, it’s a very bad idea to have that be your final recording. When I’ve got that “songwriter” hat on, the scratch track very often sounds good enough. It could be that the brim of the hat is affecting the sound coming from my speakers just right so that the mix actually sounds good, or maybe it’s because my brain just isn’t thinking like an engineer at that point.
The Engineer Hat
There are also times when I decide to just have a night of recording, and I simply focus on getting great sound. I put on my engineer hat (an Abercrombie skull cap if you’re curious). I’ll grab a guitar, or sit down at the drums, or maybe warm up the ol’ voice, and just play around with mic choice and mic placement. I’ll start piecing things together into a loose “song” in order to get down various sounds.
In this mode I’m not at all focused on the song but simply the recording quality. You can imagine how horrible the song is, and how great the recordings of that terrible song are. Think Jonas brothers and you’re almost there. No substance, but man it sounds great! Then I’ll work into the wee hours of the morning changing out plug-ins, EQ’ing things to death, and tweaking the sounds to the ends of the earth. Around sunrise, my daughter will barrel into the studio and force me to leave and make her breakfast. I leave feeling like I really accomplished something. Then later, while listening to the track, I’ll bang my head against the desk wondering how such a great recording can make such a terrible song!
The Producer Hat
There will also be the time, as much as I despise it, when I need to wear a producer’s hat (I suppose it would be a baseball cap tilted 30 degrees to the northeast for fashion reasons that still elude me). I need to think in terms of my audience (we’ll assume for the purpose of this article that it consists of more than just my daughter), and what would appeal to them.
While I may think that a seven minute song with no musical changes is filled with pure lyrical gold, the average listener will probably lose interest about 45 seconds in. Someone once told me that a “hit” song will change every 17 seconds. Listen to the radio and you’ll find that number to be pretty accurate.
Now I’m not saying that we all need to start making records for the radio. There are plenty of 13-year-olds over at Disney to take care of that for us. What I am saying is that if we consider our audience, and consider what might be musically interesting to others, then it may just inspire a better all-around song.
Recently I had someone tell me to shorten a verse of one of my songs, and add a bridge. I politely said, “I’ll have to consider that,” and went on my merry way without giving it another thought. Then one night, with nothing else to do, I gave it a try. I took out a few lines that were feeling a bit like filler, and added a little change up for the bridge. Imagine my surprise when the song really did feel much tighter after the changes.
Of course I’m not advocating taking the advice of every person you meet and changing your songs to meet the masses. Staying unique and true to yourself is the eternal quest of the artist. All I’m saying is put on your producer’s hat for a few minutes a day and take a very critical look at your song’s arrangement. While a song that is comprised of your latest journal entry laid on top of 3 chords (that lasts 11 minutes) may seem artistic and heartfelt to you, it may just seem really long and boring to others.
Make sure that your song is not only listenable (is that a word?) but also relatable. While a song detailing your family’s history generation by generation may seem like a great project idea, it probably will bore the rest of us to tears. A little metaphor can go a long way at opening up a very personal topic to a very broad audience.
Naturally, 90% of the time I’m wearing a combination of these hats (yes, a fedora balanced atop the skull cap, with a baseball cap staple-gunned to it). During these times, which are the bulk of my time spent in the studio, I’m trying to make the best possible song, get it recorded in the best possible way, and make it appealing to as many people as possible. One of these will inevitably get more attention than the others, and it’s always apparent when listening to the track later on. Worry not, I’ve got my share of tunes that span 7 minutes or more, and I accept that most people won’t make it to the end of them. That’s okay with me though. After all, I’m still a selfish songwriter who believes that every last word I write is pure gold.
My suggestion to those of you who are doing triple duty (which I assume is most of you who are reading this), is to schedule some time for each. Don’t just schedule a time to spend in your studio, but decide which hat you’ll be wearing. Then go in and act only as that person for the entire time. If you’re going to be the engineer, then block off 4 hours to go in and tweak, edit, and scrutinize every last second of each track in your session. If you’re going to be the producer that day, then listen to each song while minding the length, content, and flow from track to track. Finally when you’re acting as the songwriter/artist just focus on getting your ideas out as best as you can. Don’t worry about how you’ll record it, don’t worry about if anyone will listen to it, just play what you feel.
Ideally, by blocking these tasks off like this, you’ll develop a mild case of multiple personality disorder and will be able to scrutinize your three selves without fear of hurting any of your feelings. Then, just maybe, you’ll come out with that one magical track that is an amazing song, recorded perfectly, that everyone can tap their toe to.