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Learn the basics of music production for songwriters—how to capture inspiration rather than destroying it

By Gary Tanin  


Why is it that so few singer/songwriters make recordings that stand up to commercial standards? It can’t be due to a lack of equipment when there’s all this great and increasingly affordable gear out there. The answer probably lies in the fact that a singer/songwriter producing his or her own recording for the first time has no prior experience to rely on. Recording magazine, books, DVDs, and websites offer helpful information, but sifting through it all can be overwhelming. Here are some tips that can save you valuable time and energy.

Working methods, left-brain and right-brain

The recording songwriter needs to deal with both the creative (right brain) and the technical/logical (left brain) aspects of generating a recorded product. The goal: becoming more self-reliant without losing perspective. This common-sense approach requires discipline.

In the creative mode, it’s important to allow yourself the freedom of making mistakes. In a writing mode it is capturing the idea and the spontaneity that needs to be documented. Many times I have lost the flow of the “muse” by rewinding the recorder for a “better” take. Tape or digital bits are cheap, so in the writing process I often record multiple versions of a song in progress and choose the best one later. Sometimes waiting a day or two helps to put distance between the inspiration of the moment and the later perspective.


Stay productive

Staying productive in the process of writing and then recording/mixing is key to maintaining inspiration. If I spend too much time on a song in one sitting, I risk getting bored with the material. When that happens it’s tough to be motivated. I limit the time I spend on (for example) work on the chorus of a newly written song to one hour. If it isn’t happening in that period of time, I move on to something else.

Likewise in recording. If I’m performing a song for a demo or for the master recording, I limit the amount of time I’ll spend recording the song to an hour. In recording I like the 3-take approach. I will start recording until I get a good first take. Then I move on to record a second version that is hopefully better than the first take, and likewise with take 3. Then I choose one of the three to continue working on (adding vocals or additional instrumentation).

With today’s easily affordable equipment, the limitations are no longer in the length of time available on a reel of tape. Commitment is a discipline that becomes paramount. One needs to develop the ability to choose “keeper” takes. Limit yourself to the best three takes, and then choose the best of the three to continue and finish.

Getting bogged down has a negative psychological impact on the whole process and/or project you’re working on. Don’t underestimate the power of suggestion. It’s perhaps a bit of self-hypnosis. Moving ahead to the next step/song/take is the antidote.

Coming back to the process is invigorating. It allows you to keep things fresh. It instills the discipline necessary for completion and allows you to detach from the emotions associated with “getting stuck”.


Wearing different hats

As the artist your job is to create. If the mood isn’t there, no amount of forcing makes it happen—come back to it later. The Muse is a fascinating creature. She decides when the time is right. We don’t get to choose. Recognizing that the song, part, arrangement, or idea isn’t happening is a key to disciplining oneself. In so doing you can become more keenly aware of the next ripe opportunity when it occurs. Lose this sensitivity about when the time is right and you lose interest in creativity in general… not a good thing!

As the performer it is your job to get better at your instrument. This takes practice—another type of discipline. Much of this is actually left-brain activity—things like dexterity, confidence, ease of motion, all require the discipline of practice. A great performance comes when the discipline of all that practice is met with a creative inspiration to deliver a result that is greater than the sum of its parts. It can’t happen if the practice hasn’t happened, in my opinion.

As the recordist you have to make use of all available resources and techniques to get great results from the equipment you own or are planning to purchase. Avoid these pitfalls:

• Don’t get bogged down deciding which effect sounds best on a track when you don’t have a keeper take. Instead, record a better take. A great take can sit in a mix with little effort while a bad take will require massaging to make it work.

• Don’t get hung up on the EQ of the instrument track. The right take is much more important than the proper EQ. Remember this: Good records were made prior to 24-bit 192 kHz technology. Inspired performance transcends technology. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded on equipment that is inferior to what most home recordists have in their home studios today. (Although I’ll admit we all dream of the mics they used…)

• Have your work critiqued without letting your ego get in the way—a difficult task. Taking your mixes to someone you trust for their review is an excellent idea. Join a local music industry group in your area, get a sense of what other musicians/writers/performers are doing in your area, and use the great opportunity to network with like-minded individuals.

As the producer your job is to serve the song. What best enhances the musical intent of the song and the artist’s interpretation of the song? Remember, as a recording songwriter, you have taken on a dual role. Your first role is as the writer of the piece. The second role is as the performer (or interpreter) of the piece. As the producer, you have to meld the two. If you are performing a solo instrument, the job is clearer. When a vocalist and/or additional instruments are added, your job increases exponentially.


Production methods to save money and time

Go with your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses. Drums and great sounding pianos are always a challenge for a home studio. You might opt to record those (and other difficult parts) at a studio and bring the tracks back home for completion. With DAWs like Pro Tools, carrying a portable hard drive to a studio of your choosing is a piece of cake!

Consider having an outside studio/engineer mix your tracks for you. Someone with the experience of having mixed many projects like yours can add a level of finish that you’d have a hard time achieving. This saves time and improves quality.

Consider having the final mixes mastered by an experienced mastering engineer. With his fresh and highly experienced ears, he’ll review your mixes and add the necessary EQ, compression, and limiting to have your recording sound like a commercially released recording. Be willing to make changes to the mixes if the mastering engineer suggests that you do so. Preferably communicate with the mastering engineer even before you mix.


Using loops and such

As discussed in depth in our magazine, using loops—musical phrases that are chained together to form a song construction—can be a good way to achieve a great-sounding track with a minimum of fuss both in songwriting and in recording. Creative use of loops is always refreshing, though cliché uses are the norm. Don’t be afraid to consider replacing the loops with real musicians once you decide to record the song you’ve written with loops, if it’s appropriate for the style.

Hip hop and EDM rely heavily on loops as a basis for the recording. Staying fresh without sounding cliché becomes a challenge. Record your own phrases to be used as loops, or have a musician friend come in and record a few tracks of drum loops, guitar loops, and bass loops for use as a songwriting construction kit.

Remember that if you sample significant portions of other recordings you risk copyright infringement. Read the fine print: Even loop libraries that have commercial-free use may have limitations on your resale of a new recording you created containing their loops. They might allow you to create a home demo with the loop but require you to license the loop if you intend to release a product for public consumption.

Programs and hardware that use the “Band in a Box” (www.pgmusic.com) approach are also effective compositional tools; they allow you to pick a style, a key signature, and tempo to generate an accompaniment to vocalize and/or solo with. I’ve used these on many occasions to provide demos for songs I’d written and generate lead sheets (music notation) for musicians to follow at a later time in recording of the song.


Make it happen

If you’re a songwriter new to the practice of recording your songs, and you follow the advice I outlined, there is no reason why you can’t produce recordings that adequately and productively represent your music. Keep it simple, don’t get ahead of yourself, stick to what’s important, be loose and playful with your creativity but disciplined where it matters, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Gary Tanin is a producer and engineer in Milwaukee whose client list includes Sammy Llanas (BoDeans), Victor DeLorenzo (Violent Femmes), Roger Powell (Todd Rundgren/Utopia), and Daryl Stuermer (Genesis/Phil Collins). Learn more at www.garytanin.com.

For Songwriters