I Hate Unprepared Musicians
Recording music is probably the easiest job in the world. Any monkey can sit down at a computer and hit a button on a keyboard. So, why doesn’t everybody become a music producer? Simple — it’s not just hitting a button. A common misconception, mostly due to the overuse of the word “recording” (the correct term being tracking), is that all you need to do is record. Music production is a long journey that is not as easy as it may seem.
Several bands have videos on the Internet called “studio diaries” which, ironically, have nothing to do with working in a studio. They often depict the process of recording songs or albums as a time to hang out, play video games, and have the occasional jam session here and there. To a producer, these videos are nothing short of sacrilegious. These “studio diaries” lie to the public by making a recording studio seem like something less than a professional atmosphere. What the camera doesn’t catch is what really goes on in the studio.
Often, new bands and artists come into a studio thinking, “Time to knock out a hit song today,” totally unaware of the massive amounts of preparation required for any song. According to venetowest, “One of the most overlooked and often neglected aspects of production is actually the most vital: Preproduction.” Preproduction is the first step in production, even before recording. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t just sit down, record a platinum album, and instantly become rich and famous. The project needs to be prepared to be recorded. Without this step, it becomes an immense waste of time and money, going back to fix things, rather than mix things. The band brings in drums for tuning, re-tuning, and then re-re-tuning to have the perfect amount of resonance and pitch. Microphone placement being a huge factor in establishing drum tone, there is a need to find a balance between tuning and placement. Preproduction also calls for establishing tones for guitars, including the tuning, retuning, etc., putting on new strings, which from personal experiences, is seemingly impossible for them to do until the “record” button is pressed, and amplifier settings. Musicians often say that guitarists spend half their time tuning and the other half playing out of tune, a stereotype very evident when the first note being played is out of key. If the bassist lives up to stereotypes by not even being there, the guitarist will have to go to the bassist’s apartment and have to set up the bass guitar for them. If not, the group finishes the day with the tracks and instruments prepared, and can progress to the next step in the project.
After pre-production comes the production stage: the only process the public actually knows about, thanks to the infamous studio diaries. Production often begins with tracking drums to lay down the basis of the song structure. Rhythmic accuracy being absolutely essential to the song, a drummer must be able to play along to a metronome. Unfortunately, many can’t. What a wonderful day it is to work with a drummer who practices with a metronome. If they do, the drum tuning and microphone placement aren’t a giant waste of time. If not, the producer will have to program the entire song’s drum parts note-by-note. Drummers that don’t have the mentality of “I am the metronome” quickly become a producer’s best friend.
Luckily, bassists already have a drum track to follow when it’s their turn, so theoretically, being rhythmically correct is a given. Bass tracking can easily be the quickest and easiest part of the whole production. If not, several hours will be spent after the session by the producer, cutting and moving around individual notes to fix mistakes. With solid timing, the bass-line becomes a cohesive component of the mix, and fill in the low end of the frequency range for the guitars, which is next.
Guitar tracking tends to be hit-or-miss in terms of ease. If a band has multiples guitarists, usually only one is needed to track all the guitar parts. An exception being if both have highly independent parts in the song. Guitarists usually tend to know their parts very well, know exactly what they want, and have no problem staying on time (partially due to the fact that they have all the other instruments to follow). However, not all of them are always prepared. Most producers have encountered the nightmare of a guitarist asking the rest of the band “what kind of riff (series of notes) do we want here?” or express concerns about their tone several weeks later after the project is completely done. With a solid set of guitar tracks, the song now has the mid-range of frequencies filled in, leaving room for the vocals.
Vocalists can easily make or break a production. As a writer for Sound on Sound says, “The most certain thing you can say about vocals for a song is that they will invariably be heard above all other elements of the track.” With that, the vocals need perfection since it will be the most heard element of the song. Unless in a status of financial success in which the producer can decline a band, there really is no turning back when you make it to vocals. Some vocalists tend to have an aversion to warming up or writing harmonies before recording, if at all. Thankfully, Digital Audio Workstations (recording software) usually have a digital piano which enables the producer to write the vocal harmonies. Unlike drums, bass, and guitars, vocals cannot be so easily edited because edits are obvious and sound unnatural. A bad vocal performance is a recipe for a bad song, just as a good performance will make a good song. A good performance is absolutely essential to ensure a successful vocal track. With all the long, intimate hours spent on a song, producers often find themselves developing a kinship with the project and want it to turn out at its best, which can be achieved if, and only if the song has a good vocal track. At the end of the day, the band is done, and the producer’s real job finally gets started in post-production.
Commonly referred to as mixing, post production is where the producer’s expertise comes through. This is what the producer is actually there for. Some think of mixing as the process of combining several recorded sounds into one or more channels — a very discrediting definition. Any real producer will say that mixing is not just combining sounds into one sound. It is weeks, months, and sometimes depending on the project, even up to a year of hard work. Mixing is sleepless nights at a coffee-stained computer desk, religiously chanting to yourself, “I will go to bed right after this,” then repeating the process an hour later. In the most basic terms that do not wash away a producer’s efforts, mixing is the manipulation of the listener’s perception of frequencies, dynamics, space, and relative volume through equalization, compression, panning, and gain. Above all, mixing is long, hard, ball-busting work.
Though difficult, being a producer isn’t really such a bad job. After mixing, remixing, and remixing again, you come to a point of progress. Upon arrival, you find all the efforts being worth it and find yourself listening to the absolute best mix you’ve ever done (until next time, of course). That moment of success and relief when a song reaches perfection is what every producer lives for. This alone is why production is a career, not a job, and separates the button-mashing monkeys from the producers.