the most out of going into the studio
you need a producer?
It is said that the road
to hell is paved with good intentions. For the uninitiated,
recording an album can quickly turn from being a high-flying
joy ride to a bottomless pit of despair, filled with fractured
feelings, emptied bank accounts and compromised art. Don't
get me wrong, even after a couple of decades filled with
almost constant studio work, I still love the process of
creating music in the studio. But beware- good intentions
can quickly evolve into wreckage. I've seen (been in
bands that broke up during recording projects. I've seen
egos fly out of control, I've seen people ridiculed and
ostracized, I've seen player's self-images go up in smoke,
and I've seen people go through piles of money as fast as
if they just set the green stuff on fire.
Making a recording is a tangle of pragmatism, technology,
alchemy and faith. As is the case with any creative
venture, you cannot know what you'll get for your efforts
until you go through the process; it's always a gamble.
Having a plan and a budget can be really useful. Having
the courage to change your plan and amend your budget as
necessary can make or break a project for which the initial
plan/budget doesn't seem to be working
Do you choose
a professional studio and pay through the nose or go to
your friend's bedroom studio and pay through the nose in
a different way? Do you suffer through the dictatorial relationship
with a producer or go it alone with a tyrannical bandleader
or even more terrifying, try to approach it democratically?
For me, there is no musical
experience more exciting than capturing the magic of the
first performance of a newly written piece of music. It
is this love of the creative process that has led me to
migrate from being a musician who used to gig hundreds of
times a year to being someone who now gigs very infrequently,
but works in one capacity or another in a studio, almost
every day. These days I'm much more comfortable in this
creative environment than I am in the onstage/interpretative
environment. But it isn't so for all musicians. For
a band without much experience in the studio, there are
countless opportunities for frustration and failure. How do you choose a studio? Do you need a producer? For
that matter, do you even need an engineer?
Technology has certainly
broken open a field that used to be closed to any but the
lucky few who had somehow managed to get their foot in the
door at a professional studio. These days, if you can afford
a computer and a scant few other tools, you can open a recording
studio, and call yourself a recording engineer. In fact,
many people are making amazing recordings in their homes
by doing just so. The technology
has really helped reinforce that notion that it truly isn't
the medium, but the message. On the other hand,
there is fierce competition to make albums that sound interesting/good.
And just because you own a computer, some music software,
a mic or two and a couple of other pieces of gear, it don't
mean a thing if you don't know what to do with the stuff.
And even if you do own a couple of world-class mics and
pres, and are adept at getting good sounds- do you have
enough equipment to serve the project, as opposed to just
enough gear to require recording the project in a less than
advantageous way? For instance, can you cut your whole band
at the same time? If not, and you go about recording one
person at a time to a click, do you have any idea the toll
that will take on the cohesiveness of your sound? Will the
result sound anything like your band? For that matter, will
the result even sound like music? My experience says rarely.
A bona fide studio with
a creative, attentive engineer can be entirely worth what
might at first blush seem like an awful lot of money per
hour. You can take a well-rehearsed band into a well-equipped
studio, play simultaneously into world-class signal chains,
in a room with good isolation and good acoustics, with good
headphone mixes for all and cut a whole album in one day.
It's not just a good idea, it's been done many times in
the history of music recording, often to stellar results..
But you have to be prepared to make it work this way, and
if you've never recorded your band before you won't know
if you're prepared or not until you're actually doing it.
Many successful producers
have become so precisely by just being the person in the
band who intrinsically understands how to oversee the process
of recording. My personal opinion is that this is a skill
that you're either born with or not. If you're in a band
and one of your bandmates has this skill, the first hurdle
is to find out if the band's socio-political chemistry will
allow the person with the skill to do their thing without
a major power struggle/ego eruption from one of the other
band members who isn't this person. At least as often as
not, a band's internal politics make it impossible to hand
the producer's reins to one such member.
So then, is
it possible to produce a record democratically? I suppose
it's possible, but having been a band member, engineer and
producer, sometimes more than one of these roles at the
same time, sadly, the occasions have been rare indeed when
I've seen democracy serve any purpose other than to compromise
a project's artistic integrity, slow it to a crawl and dig
chasms in relationships. So if you're in a band that gets
on famously and can let each member shine in their own right,
and there's a budding producer among you, let them do the
job. If this isn't your situation, then you probably
need to begin pursuing someone outside the band- someone
who can see the big picture, knows a good performance from
a bad one, and knows how to capture the best performances.
Someone who has a musical vision that matches the band's. This person can be found by reading liner notes of your
favorite albums or by talking with your peers- asking around
as to who might fit this description. This is a producer.
Is it imperative to have
a producer? I believe the answer to this question is
ultimately yes- production decisions must be made along
the way and whether it is by one person or committee and
whether or not this person or these people are explicitly
being called "the producer" matters not. As a
player, I love working on a project when a talented producer
is at the helm. In such a condition, musical decisions can
be made quickly and effectively and the project can move
forward quickly and decisively. There's risk in choosing
a producer- will their vision ultimately serve the band's
music/career? Only time will tell.
The only thing better than
working with a good producer is working with a good producer
and a good engineer at the same time. There is a really
good reason why throughout the history of recording, many
of the best recordings have been made with a producer plus
engineer team. Ultimately the two jobs are very different.
Certainly it is possible for one person to do both jobs,
but take it from someone who has worn both hats simultaneously
- it is demanding enough to do either job well. Doing both
well at the same time requires intense concentration and
a lot of technical good luck.
is usually a band's budget that is going to dictate the
project's parameters. Is it better to spend $5,000 on
enough gear to twist yourselves into a pretzel, using techniques
determined by the limitations of the gear and its novice
operator, or would it be better to hire a bona fide producer,
engineer and studio for a couple or three days? Or does
your success lie somewhere between? Without knowing the
particular details of your situation, I don't have a clue
what's best for you and your project. I'd need to talk it
over with you and learn what's important to you- this is
one of the first steps in any production in which I take
part. If you're embarking on a project with your band,
this is what you need to do amongst yourselves- start talking
over these issues now.
Bruce Kaphan is a freelance engineer/producer, composes and produces
music for CD (Slider- Ambient Excursions For Pedal Steel
Guitar) and film (most recently Bob Dylan's Masked and Anonymous),
and as a multi-instrumentalist specializing in pedal steel
guitar has appeared or recorded with American Music
Club, David Byrne, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., John Lee
Hooker, The Black Crowes and others. For more information,
go to www.brucekaphan.com.
ready before you enter the studio
to people and
can get a lot of free advice from pretty much
anybody in the recording industry. Look for engineers, studios, producers who really like your music. Talk with your
band mates about options and make a plan.
Have a budget!
a plan and a budget is imperative (every business
starts with a budget! Your band is a business!).
Having the courage to
change your plan and amend your budget as
necessary can make or break a project.
all the options and
can go for the studio or the diy route, or
for a mix of the two - you don't need to record
everything in one place, but good studios do sound better and allow your band to play
together - they often also provide precious
your band need a producer?
producer intrinsically understands how to
oversee the process of recording. Some bands
successfully produce their own music. Some
others think they do so... Bad production
= recordings that don't make your songs shine.
to hire musicians?
artists (singer songwriters in particular)
need to hire
to play their records. Remember
are expensive but get
the job done fast. Non pros are cheap but
they might take forever and need a ton of
editing. What is more convenient? hard to
equipment is made to capture faithfully
the sound coming out of your instrument. If
that sound is bad, there's not much expensive
equipment can do to improve it. Tune your
drums! Change your guitar strings! Service
your instrument! Tune up on every take!
should get into the studio with your song 100% ready, as it's very hard
to fix song or arrangement glitches while
you're being charged $40/hr or more. Producers can be very precious at this stage.
musicians get really nervous in the studio
and waste a lot of time because of mistakes
due to lack of confidence. A little bit of
psychological training can help.
"Having been a band member, engineer
and producer, sometimes more than one of these roles at
the same time, sadly, the occasions have been rare indeed
when I've seen democracy serve any purpose other than
to compromise a project's artistic integrity, slow it
to a crawl and dig chasms in relationships."