Top 10 Tips for Record Producers

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I was privileged last week to participate in the NARIP Producers Panel at SAE Atlanta with Matt Still and Billy Hume (with our honorable moderators Lee Morin and Sean McPherson). As part of that, we were asked to collect some of our thoughts on record production. You may recognize some of these from this very blog: As I often mention on the podcast, I believe some of the most compelling tips are the most universal—and indeed most if not all of these apply not just to record and music producers, but also filmmakers, graphic designers, writers, you name it.

I don’t claim to be the ultimate expert, but I think you’ll find these concepts to be heartily endorsed, industry wide…and for good reason!

1. Less is More.

I spoke about this in Episode 3 of my podcast (www.TheMultimediaNinja.com/3), but here are some of the highlights: Resist the temptation to glop on more tracks and parts to make a song idea “sound better.” If the idea doesn’t stand alone with a bare presentation, it may not be all that strong.

The same thing applies to song length, intros, etc. “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus!” is a popular saying, and for good reason. “Leave ‘em wanting more” is okay (assuming the song doesn’t sound incomplete)…but leaving them wanting less is no bueno.

2. Listen!

Not just to music, and certainly not just to music in your genre. Listen to feedback from the artist, the label, and maybe even some trusted outsiders or even “regular folks” if you can. You don’t let feedback from a small sample size guide your course; but don’t reject opinions out of hand. You might actually learn something, even from non-musicians. After all, you’re a producer. Your job is to listen.

(I highly recommend carrying this into networking situations as well. People value a good listener who asks informed questions about them. Nobody wants to hear you talk about yourself endlessly. Just sayin’…!)

3. Know when you’re done.

There are two extremes to avoid: Not spending enough time and effort on a production; and spending too much. The hard part is to know yourself. Do you keep trying to polish the apple a little more because you just know that extra little EQ tweak is going to make a difference? Or maybe it’s because you’re really petrified to get your first production out there for people to judge? In some cases, you may be spinning your wheels because the performances are weak…and in those cases, you may have forced yourself into a little polishing.

On the other hand (again, “know yourself”), maybe you think your stuff is great, and that people will “get it” even without spending enough care crafting the result.

If you’re producing for a major label, budget and deadlines are often going to make this decision for you. But if you’re doing a spec deal or a personal project, it can be harder to judge when it’s ready.

One of my favorite quotes, attributed to Quincy Jones: “You never finish a record. You just eventually walk away.”

4. Get it down, then get it right (during demo/writing phase)

(https://www.themultimedianinja.com/start/) I covered this in my very first post, for TheMultimediaNinja.com, called “Start!” When you are trying to do the idea phase of production (assuming you’re involved in this), paralysis is your enemy. Don’t let your left brain intimidate your right brain. Don’t think about perfection when you’re just sketching. Get it down, then get it right.

5. Don’t think “I’ll fix it in the mix (edit)” (for final production)

(https://www.themultimedianinja.com/never-think-fix-it-in-the-mix-a-k-a-fix-it-in-post/)
When it comes time to actually lay down tracks for the final product, avoid the temptation to accept subpar performances “because we have all these cool tools, and we can make anything sound good.” Make sure each track is as technically good as possible, and is a compelling performance…and that your recorded tracks are well organized and documented. You’ll thank me later.

6. Rehearse!

This is especially true when you’re planning on using a full band in a studio you’re paying for—but it’s even true for individuals, and even to an extent true in your own studio.

Sure, you can use Pro Tools to put things in a better pocket and tuning (IF they were recorded isolated!!!); but you’ll find it’s so much more compelling to have musicians come into the studio prepared to deliver their best performances. It’ll save you money in tracking. It’ll save you money (or gray hair) in editing and mixing. (See also my post on Medium, Death by Auto-Tune…)

Even in your own studio, musicians coming in should treat it like serious business. Give them the tools or the homework they need to come in and nail it…and make your life easier.

(Note: Again, don’t take this to the extreme. I think we all know bands that have spent the last year rehearsing and socializing every Tuesday, who have yet to perform live or record, and who may have turned over some members because they still can’t agree on a band name. Don’t be that band.)

7. Who’s the boss? (a/k/a “Who’s the client?)

This hasn’t been part of my podcast or book yet, but since today’s audience may contain artist management folks as well as producers, it’s worth noting that a producer has to be a politician…and has to know who’s paying the bill…!

If you’re bankrolling a spec project, then you need to be clear with the artist that you will have the final say. (In this case, you should be in good agreement with the artist about the direction you’re going, production-wise, and you should listen and consider the artist’s input; but it’s your baby.)

If you are producing an artist for a major label, then the label is your client. You want the label and the artist to be happy with the results, but you’re going to have a lot more chefs in the kitchen. Making the label happy while trying to keep yourself happy with the results can be a challenge—let alone keeping the artist 100% happy with all production decisions.

If the artist is a band…well, you’ve been warned. Not for the faint of heart.

8. Don’t let the toys run you.

When you’ve got a shiny new hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maybe you need a screwdriver instead. Get to know your tools, decide first what you need to fix or improve, then decide what plugin or piece of hardware you need, if any. You’re not off the hook if you’re producing but not engineering: The results are still your responsibility.

(See also my post on Medium, Death by Auto-Tune…)

9. Use templates.

I don’t necessarily mean for mixing, to make everything sound the same. I mean for [music] writing, for example. If you wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea, will you remember it by the time you crank up the DAW, add a drum patch, bass patch, and keyboard or mic channel? Why not have a Pro Tools, Logic, or Ableton Live session set up, ready to receive your spur-of-the-moment genius ideas?

Similarly, organizing and making templates of your signal routing and busses can save you some gray hair!

You can even use templates in your email to save time for things you do repeatedly. If you’re writing in Logic, Pro Tools, Ableton Live, or whatever, then you definitely want to set up a template for writing: Drum plugin on a track, bass on another track, piano or electric piano…any favorite plugins you always use…whatever you typically start with…and equally important, the signal routing! You don’t want to have an idea and be scratching your head for a half hour wondering why you aren’t getting any sound!

10. Tech Tip: NEVER change/update your DAW or OS during a project.

Just don’t. Don’t add new plugins, don’t update your Mac to Yosemite…just don’t. Do updates and try new plugins when you have down time!

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