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When you’re recording basic tracks, especially in an expensive commercial studio, it’s easy to get off track in a way that not only causes you to waste time, but money as well. These 5 session tips from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook will ensure that not only the tracking session, but all the overdub sessions that occur afterwards, run efficiently.
“There are a number of things to remember when the session gets up and running that will keep every happy and motivated, with their full attention on playing and singing.
1. Start off with the easiest song. This is usually something that the band knows backwards and forwards. It will help everyone to get comfortable in a new environment, get into the groove of recording, and make it easier to move on to the more difficult tunes later.
2. Record a tuning note. This may seem a bit old fashioned, but it could be a lifesaver later. Before each session, be sure to record a 10 second tuning note before each song as something to reference to later, especially if there are no keyboards involved. This way, if for some reason you happened to use a tuning that was a couple of cents flat, you have the tuning note as your reference. Even with today’s tuners, sometimes the tuning note just makes things easier. This seems like such a small thing, but you wouldn’t believe how much time it can save you down the road if a situation arises where you just can’t figure out why everything sounds out of tune.
3. Don’t forget to record a count-off for every song. If someone gets a great idea for adding something to before the song begins, you’ll have a tempo reference point to work with. Even if you’re playing to a click that’s being generated by the DAW itself, recording the click at least four bars ahead of the downbeat is a foolproof way to make sure that any pickup or opening part is easily executed.
4. Take frequent breaks. One of the best abilities a producer can develop is knowing when it’s time to take a break. It’s hard to keep anyone’s attention for more than three hours, so be sure to take frequent short breaks. Sometimes just bringing the band in to the control room to listen to a playback can break it up just enough so their minds don’t begin to wander. A ten-minute break can pump new energy into a flagging session, so the producer always has to keep his finger on the pulse of the players to gauge their concentration.
5. Keep the food light and have it delivered. When it’s finally time for lunch or dinner, going out to eat will waste a lot of time, and sometimes it’s impossible to get back in the flow of things afterwards. If the break is too long, it may take an equally long time for the players to get their focus back. One of the biggest problems to avoid is having a large meal, since normal digestion naturally slows down a player’s ability to concentrate. Keep the mealtime short, the portions small, and allow absolutely no alcohol so that everyone stays fresh and the session is kept on track.
These 5 session tips will keep you session running smoothly and keep all involved happy and motivated.”
You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.
If you’re working with an artist or band, a critical time in the entire recording process is before you actually record, which is known as preproduction. Many producers think of preproduction as working out parts with the artist or band in a rehearsal room, but there’s actually another part of preproduction that can be even more crucial to the entire process, as outlined in this excerpt from the 2nd edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook.
“Getting to Know You
Almost always, the more time you spend in preproduction, the smoother the recording will go. In preproduction the songs are chosen, arrangements are worked out, and parts are learned so well that the only thing to concentrate on during recording is the execution of the performance.
Preproduction is often so much more than the process of working out songs. For a producer working with a new artist or band, it’s a time of getting to know each other. It’s important for the producer to learn the likes and dislikes of the artists he or she is working with—be it food, music, or politics—in addition to their working habits and idiosyncrasies.
Knowing these things can help the producer determine how far to push a singer, or discover what gets the best performance out of the guitar player, or the signs of when the drummer is getting tired, or the hot-button issues of the day to stay away from. If you’re going to be working closely with an artist, even for a short time, the more you know about him or her, the better you can serve the project.
One of the most important aspects of getting to know an artist is learning what music she loves, was influenced by, and is listening to now.
Back in the days of the vinyl record, one of the most effective ways of doing this was for the producer to go to the artist’s house and have them throw a bunch of albums from their collection on the floor and then describe what they liked and didn’t like about each one.
Today, it’s more about looking at a favorite Spotify playlist, but the same thing is accomplished. Among the questions to ask might be the following:
You can add any number of questions to those above, but can you see where this is heading? This is the information that you need to help attain the artist’s vision.
It gives you a common point of reference so that you can say, “Let’s go for a sound like the lead guitar on The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” and have the artist know exactly what you mean because you’ve found out in preproduction that’s one of his favorite songs.
Or if the artist says to you, “Can we get the sound like on The Weekend’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” you’ll know exactly what he’s talking about.”
You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.
Your not a music professional if you haven’t been screwed out of money at least once. That’s par for the course and part of the learning process, but it obviously becomes a real problem if it continues to happen. Regardless of what end of the music business you work in, as an independent contractor it’s your responsibility to make sure that your covered business-wise. Here’s a “getting paid” checklist from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook that as relevant for musicians and engineers as it is for producers.
Before any serious work on the project can begin, there are a series of important questions that the client must answer about your compensation.
1. Who’s paying? Is it a record label, the artist or band, or an investor?
2. How are you getting paid? Will you be paid per song, on spec, by the hour, or with a flat fee for the project?
3. What’s your compensation? Do you get some money up front (an advance)? Do you get a percentage of sales? Do you get a combination? If so, how many points?
4. Do you get paid from the sale of the first unit onward? Or will you be paid after the advance is recouped, or even after the investor is recouped?
5. Will you get an advance? How much is it? Does it come out of the recording budget? If you can’t get it all, can you get at least half your fee up front?
6. Will you be paid on something other than music sales? Since sales are pretty minimal these days, can you get a piece of merchandise or publishing?
These questions may be hard for you to bring up, especially before even taking the gig, but they’re vitally important to getting paid for your hard work.
You can read more from The Music Producer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.
It’s inevitable that it’s going to happen during some point in the project. There’s going to be a strong disagreement between two of the parties involved, and the producer is going to have to diplomatically sort it out. Even worse, the conflict can come between the artist and the producer, which requires a deft hand at getting the job done yet keeping everyone happy. Here’s an excerpt from the latest version of my Music Producer’s Handbook that covers the steps to take when it comes to resolving a conflict in the studio.
“Being in any relationship requires at least some compromise, and working with a group of musicians is no different from what you’d expect between family members, friends, bosses, and co-workers. There are times when you just have to bend in order to keep the peace.
While compromise is easy for some people to do, others have a personality that seldom allows it and a conflict occurs. Here are some effective steps that you can take to state your case in a way that should resolve or mediate the conflict.
1. Cool off first. Conflicts can’t be solved when emotions are running hot. Take some time to get away from the problem for a bit and brainstorm on exactly what the conflict is, how it was caused, and most important, what a possible solution would be.
2. Present accolades, support, and respect. The first thing to do is acknowledge the person’s accomplishments and talent. Something like “I want to start by saying that I think the tracks we’ve captured are really great, and you’re playing your parts way better than I ever thought possible.”
3. Analyze why the problem occurred. If you give a clear explanation of why you think there’s a problem or why the problem or conflict has occurred, you set the initial groundwork for solving the conflict. If the other person knows exactly what your side of the story is, you might find more often than not that you’re both on the same page, but on different sides of it.
4. Take responsibility and use “I” messages. If you are involved in a conflict that you’re aware of, take responsibility and own up to it, but make sure that everything is from your point of view. For instance, it’s best to say, “I think you were flat on that part,” rather than “Everybody knows that you always sing that part flat,” or worse, “You’re singing sucks, man.”
5. Describe what “I” or “we” need so that the problem doesn’t happen again. This is the solution from your point of view. “We really need you to be here a half hour before the session so that you have time to warm up. That way we won’t waste any studio time, which is costing us money.”
6. Support their success. Tell him that you want him to win, because if he wins, so do you. “The better you sound, the better we all sound” or “Do you know how great this is going to sound once you get that part down? It’s going to kill!”
An ever-important aspect of production is mixing, which can make or break a song. A brilliant mix can put an otherwise average production over the top, while a mediocre mix can bring down a brilliant production (although sometimes the song itself is so brilliant that nothing can detract from it). If you’re not an engineer yourself, an engineer without a lot of mixing experience, or you just want to bring in the A-team to finish an important project, it’s important to understand the costs of hiring a mixer when you create your budget. Here’s an excerpt from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook with some advice.
“Mixing engineers are all over the board price-wise, especially in the current depressed music market. At one time there was a mixer (who shall remain nameless) who was charging as much as $10,000 per mix, plus a percentage of the sales to mix just one song. Even more outrageous was the fact that he’d do as many as three mixes a day, since his setting for each instrument never changed much because it was his “sound.” Very few budgets can support that kind of excess anymore, and virtually all mixer’s prices, although still at a premium, have come down in recent years.
While some mixers charge by the song, others charge a daily rate, and so the price can escalate quickly if there are fixes or the mix goes longer than expected. The rates might be as low as $250 a day, and can run up to $2,500 or more (although most rates are somewhere in the middle these days). These rates may not include the studio costs if a mix using a studio console is desired, which are separate from the mixer’s rate. That means that mixing could theoretically cost as much as $5,000 a day with the mixer included, although this is a rate that only a very few A list projects can support.
Because budgets are so small these days compared to what they once were, mixing specialists have been caught in a dilemma—the client (you, the producer) can afford only the studio or the mixer, but not both.
As a result, many mixers have resorted to creating their own mixing environment and giving an all-in price that makes the process much more affordable for the producer. This is one of the advantages of the digital age and DAWs: it was impossible to build and equip a suitable mixing room for less than a half-million dollars back in the analog days.
Since the music business is weak at the moment and budgets are way down from what they were before, present an offer to your mixer. If you’re willing to wait for when the mixer can fit you in during his or her down time, or if you agree to let him mix alone without you or the artist attending, you might be surprised at the rate you can get. Even if the price you offer is below his rate, chances are he can work something out with you that will get you a great mix for a price you can afford.”
The costs of hiring a mixer may be less than you think, and every penny can be truly worth it if it takes your mix to the next level.
Let’s face it, recording budgets are tight these days and we can’t always send our final mixes to a true mastering engineer. With so many of the same tools that mastering engineers use now available to every mixer, it’s now possible to do a pretty good self-mastering job. If that’s your situation, it’s best to follow these following 7 steps excerpted from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook.
1. Don’t master on the same speakers you mix on. If you do, you won’t be able to make up for the deficiencies of the speaker.
2. Listen to other songs that you like before you even touch an EQ parameter. The more songs you listen to, the better. You need a reference point to compare your work with, and listening to other songs will prevent you from over-EQ’ing. EQ’ing is usually the stage when engineers who are mastering their own mixes get in trouble. There’s a tendency to overcompensate with the EQ, adding huge amounts (usually of bottom end) that wreck the frequency balance of the song completely.
3. A little goes a long way. If you feel that you need to add more than 2 or 3 dB, you’re better off remixing! That’s what the pros do. It’s not uncommon at all for a pro mastering engineer to call up a mixer, tell him where he’s off, and ask him to do it again.
4. Be careful not to over-compress or over-limit your song. This can lead to hypercompression. Instead of making a song louder, hypercompression sucks all the dynamics out of it, making it lifeless and fatiguing to listen to.
5. Constantly compare your mastering job to other songs that you like the sound of. Doing this is one of the best ways to help you hear whether and how you’re getting off track.
6. Concentrate on making all the songs sound the same in relative level and tone. This is one of the key operations in mastering a collection of songs like an album. The idea is to get them to all sound as though they’re at the same volume. It’s pretty common for mixes to sound different from song to song even if they’re done by the same engineer with the same gear. It’s your job to make the listener think that the songs were all done on the same day in the same way. They’ve got to sound as close to each other in volume as you can get them, or at least close enough so as not to stand out.
7. Finish the songs. Edit out count-offs and glitches, fix fades, and create spreads for CDs and vinyl records.
If you see a self-mastering job on the horizon, you’ll find that your results will be far closer to that of a mastering engineer if you follow these tips.
If you’re a producer, engineer or musician, chances are that you’ve been asked to work on someone’s recording. That’s all well and good, but how do you get compensated for your efforts? This excerpt from the just released 2nd edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook gives you 5 ways that you can get paid for your production work.
“What if the members of a local band ask you to produce them? What do you charge if they’re not attached to a label? There are a number of approaches you can take, although none will have you retiring to the Bahamas anytime soon. You can do the following:
1. Charge a flat project fee. How much should that be? So much depends on the type of project, how many overdubs you’ll need, the artist’s or band’s competency, the artist’s or band’s income level, and the number of songs they want to record. A jazz or blues band that has 20 songs will usually take a lot less time to produce than a pop band of eight will, because of the layering that’s normally required with pop music. And if the band has a marginal player or two, that can almost double the time spent just in trying to get their parts to match the skill level of other players (unless you can persuade the rest of the band to use a session player, instead).
A flat fee is the least desirable way to get paid, because projects have a tendency to go a lot longer than anticipated and will drag on and on when the artist realizes that you get paid the same, regardless of the time spent. If the flat fee is the easiest or only way to get the gig, then that’s what you’ll have to do. Otherwise, avoid it if you can, unless you’re very well compensated.
2. Charge a per-song fee. This approach is better than the flat project fee, but not by much. The per-song rate has all the same problem areas as the flat-fee approach, with the exception that it can sometimes cause the artist to scale back from recording 15 songs to 10 (even though it’s a hit in your pocketbook). You won’t have to worry about the artist wanting to record an extra song at the last minute or suddenly wanting to complete a track originally deemed too weak after basic tracking. With a per-song rate, if any additional songs are recorded, then you have to get paid.
3. Get paid on spec. This approach is the one that most fledgling producers use when starting their careers. The deal is that if the artist or band “makes it” (meaning they get signed by a major label and get an advance), then you’ll get paid your project fee, points on the project (a percentage of the royalties), or both. The chances of that happening are always long no matter how much you believe in the act, so be prepared to spend your time working for free. The one good thing here is that you’ll be gaining experience.
4. Charge an hourly rate. As long as you know you’ll get paid, this arrangement is the safest way to go. When, for example, you inevitably spend that extra week on overdubs or mixing, you’ll get paid for the time you put in. The hourly rate keeps people focused and stops them from adding those extra five overdubs “just to see what they sound like,” or from trying ten more takes when you all agreed that the third take was great.
5. A combination of the above. Many times payment can consist of a little bit of money or a little bit of spec, some items at a flat rate and some at hourly, or some combination. Try not to get too complicated. A simple deal works best for everyone, especially when it comes to getting paid. Just realize that there are a lot of options available.
There are a lot of good books on the subject of how to structure a deal for yourself that are more comprehensive then what was just laid out above. Even if you decide not to read them, get an attorney if you will be earning any money more than what the attorney will cost. At the very least, always get it in writing.”
We’re all pretty good at lending a hand when asked, but most of us aren’t that good at getting paid for it. At least one of the above ways will make sure that you’re compensated for your production work in some fashion.
Before the first session begins, a host of decisions have to be made that range from the mundane to the important. Here’s an overview of the many production considerations a producer is confronted with in a typical project before a tracking session begins. This is an excerpt from the latest edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook.
1. Who is the engineer (or engineers)? Your choice of who engineers the project is critical, and, like many other aspects of production, this is not an element to cheap out on. A great engineer is your safety blanket. He’ll make things sound great even with gear that’s not up to snuff and provide useful technical advice, audio expertise, and even production suggestions when you need another opinion.
Many producers will use a top engineer for basics and mixing, then use a less expensive one, or engineer the overdubs themselves for overdubs in order to save some money. While this can work, the continuity of having the same engineer all the way through a project will keep the quality uniformly high and actually save time and money, since there’s the possibility for confusion when projects are handed off between engineers.
2. Is any rental gear required? Even the most well-equipped studio in the world probably still won’t have something that you’ll want or need for the session, be it an esoteric piece of audio or musical gear, or just something that’s essential for you to get your desired sound. Make sure you plan ahead for when you’ll need the rental, and then schedule around that. An example of this could be the rental of a grand piano or a Hammond organ. You’ll want to use it as soon as it arrives, instead of paying rental time for it to just sit around.
3. What’s the best time of day to record? This question can actually be a loaded one. While most bands would rather start early in the day to stay fresh, many singers don’t feel as though their throats open up until later in the day. While you might need only a guide vocal from the singer when the basics are being recorded, you certainly don’t want the singer to be harmed or feel abused, and herein lies the dilemma. You don’t want to start recording too late in the day, since you’ll end up having everyone burn out early and you might lose the advantage of a few hours of the studio’s daily rate that you’ve paid for. While starting the session at 10 a.m. might not work, try to start no later than noon if possible. Many musicians want or need to get home at a reasonable hour to be with their families, and working too far into the night can upset your body clock if you’re not used to it.
4. Are there any additional musicians required? Once again, it’s best to plan as far in advance as you can so you can schedule the other players as needed. The more players you need to have together at one time (like a string or horn section), the more time in advance you’ll need in order to schedule them.
5. What format and sampling rate will you use? While it’s possible that you might still want to break out an analog tape machine to record your basics, chances are that at some point in the project you’ll return to the comfort and flexibility of a DAW (most likely Pro Tools). Your choice of bit depth and sampling rate can be critical to the amount of hassle that you’ll encounter down the road. Here’s a chart that can help you make your choice.
Once again, the name of the game is efficiency and trying not to overlook anything before you start your tracking session and begin paying for a studio and/or musicians.
There’s always so much going on during a tracking session (especially one with a lot of players involved) that it’s pretty easy to get overwhelmed with the details and demands and overlook some of the things that can really help the session along. Here’s a Basic Tracks Checklist from my latest Music Producer’s Handbook 2nd edition book that will help things go a little smoother.
“Before the basic tracks even begin, ask yourself the following questions to make sure your players will be happy and the sounds will be great.
☐ Do the drums sound great acoustically in the room? If they don’t, change the heads, rent a new kit or hire a drum tuner.
☐ Are the drums tuned properly? Before recording begins, the drums should have new heads put on and have all buzzes and sympathetic vibrations removed.
☐ Do you have a variety of instruments available? The greater variety of instruments you have, the better the parts will fit together and the more interesting the recording will sound.
☐ Are all the instruments in tip-top condition? Is the intonation set correctly? Is the instrument clean of any buzzes, hums, and intermittents?
☐ Are all the players happy with their headphone mix? Can you give each musician his or her own mix? Is a personal headphone mixer available for each player?
☐ Does the click have the right sound? Does it cut through the mix? Is it musical enough that the drummer can play along? Is it so “musical” that the drummer can’t groove to it?
☐ Does the click groove? Does it work better as quarter notes or as eighth notes? Is there a different sound for the downbeat?
☐ Is the click bleeding into the microphones? Can the drummer use isolating headphones? Can you roll the high end off so that it doesn’t leak as much?
☐ Do you have the studio talkback mic on? Can you hear the musicians in the studio at all times between takes?
☐ Is the control room talkback mic always on? Can the musicians hear you at all times in between takes?”
There are other issues when cutting basics as well, but following this Basic Tracks Checklist will go a long way to keeping everyone happy and providing a very efficient session.
One of the things about having your own studio is that you can do a project at your own pace. The problem there is that some artists never know when to declare a production finished and they end up with “the project that never ends,” literally spending years on it. Here’s an excerpt from the upcoming 2nd edition of my Music Producer’s Handbook that looks at self-production and addresses the issue.
“Self-Production is simultaneously one of the most difficult things to do in music and at the same time perhaps one of the easiest. Every artist hears what their music should sound like in their head (that’s the easy part), but it’s sometimes difficult to get it to actually sound that way when it comes to real-life recording.
For many singer songwriters, that can lead the artist to overwork a song until it’s limp like a dishrag, or overproduce it until it has so many layers that it sounds like there’s a 30 piece band backing you up. Indeed, it’s difficult to get it to sound somewhere in between where your project is both exciting and vital, and still meets your vision.
For many artists, working in a vacuum can sometimes lead to new discoveries since you’re not beholden to any previously learned “rules,” or it can lead to frustration from not being able to get the sound that you want and not having anyone to turn to for help.
Let’s look at some ways to stay out of the self-production rut.
Overcoming The Self-Production Blues
One of the biggest problems for an artist is creating in circles. This means that the artist has so many good ideas that the production is never finished. As soon as a version is complete, the artist thinks, “Maybe the middle 8 should have a ska feel.” Then after that’s recorded he thinks, “Maybe the entire song should have a ska feel.” Before you know it there are versions in 6/8, speed metal and reggae (and maybe more), with each one sounding different, but not necessarily better.
If this is what’s happening to you, there are two words to keep in mind to help you out of your rut.
Instinct – Usually, the very first inspiration is the right one, especially if you’ve gone through more than a couple of different versions. You’ve got to repress the urge to keep changing things and learn to follow your initial instinct. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tweak or perfect what you’re doing; it means that you shouldn’t make a completely opposite turn in a direction that goes against your initial inspiration.
The exception to this is if you think it might be cool to have multiple different versions of the song available so you can give the alternate versions to your core fans as an exclusive gift, use them as a promotional vehicle, or because it’s been specifically requested by a music supervisor for a television show or movie. In any of those cases, a wholesale change in direction can actually be particularly useful and even profitable.
Deadline – One of the biggest problems with producing yourself is the fact that your project is usually open-ended time-wise. As a result, you end up with the “project that wouldn’t end” that keeps going for years (no exaggeration here).
The surest way to keep that from happening and to actually accomplish something is to set a deadline for the project’s completion. Many people do their best work on deadlines because they don’t have a chance to second guess themselves.
The final product may not be 100% of what you want, but remember that it seldom ever is, even with all the time in the world available to finish the project. Save yourself some heartache and impose a deadline on yourself so you can finish that project and get it out the door where it can do you some good.”