It's a long road from the genesis of an idea to its actual realization, with many steps along the way. In my October "Final Mix" column, I took a look at where ideas come from; this month I would like to talk about what often turns out to be the next step.
An idea might be nonspecific, in which case it will usually require a period of thrashing before it starts to take shape. Alternatively, it may be more tangible, such as a lyric or instrumental riff, which frequently suggests some direction. In either case, one of the things that can guide the process most effectively is a vision of what the raw idea can become once it is fully realized. I like to call the ability to be exposed to an undeveloped idea and envision it as completed "producer's ears," though it could just as easily be called "composer's ears" or any number of variations.
One's picture of the fully realized idea varies in its explicitness. Some musical ideas come to me in a "Mozartian" vision, with every detail of orchestration, feel, and mix in place. In my mind's ear, I hear the piece as I would listening to a playback of the final mix. Other times, I have a sense of direction with only a few specifics.
Perhaps the clearest example is when working with singer-songwriters. A good singer-songwriter's greatest strength is usually style. The artist often finds a source of power through lyrical phrasing or delivery in performance. When a songwriter plays me a new song, I listen in two passes. On the first pass, I try to just hear what is played, taking in the lyrics, composition, and performance. The second pass is when I try to hear the most potent and pertinent aspects of song and artist, and project what those suggest about where the production should go. Should it be as simple as the version I'm hearing? Does it need a little bit of backing to fill it out, or would it shine best as a full production, with oodles of overdubs? Would the song be at its best if someone else sang it? How about if it had more of an R&B groove?
Most of the time, I prefer that the process takes place entirely within my head because that gives me the most flexibility to try radically different settings without garnering reactions from anyone else. Once the vision becomes more clear, I can present it to the artist and discuss whether it feels right.
If the artist has already worked up a demo of the vision for the piece or pieces, it can cut both ways. If the setting clearly works for the idea, a demo is extremely helpful in pulling the specifics together quickly. However, if the song sounds different to my producer's ears than what is on the demo, the momentum of an existing conception may have to be overcome before another approach can be accepted.
This same philosophy can be applied to bands that don't know how to record. With producer's ears on, listening to a rehearsal or a live gig can be enough to hear how the band could translate in the studio and even what some of the issues will be in making that happen. You might realize you have to deal with something dumb - say, that someone besides the band will have to tune the guitars - or something vital, such as the fact that the vocalist will never deliver a top performance while listening through headphones.
Producer's ears are a fusion of existing reality and imagination whose importance is twofold: first, they present a road on which to travel, even if that road changes at some point. Second, they provide a source of cohesion which can tie a bunch of songs together as an album. Producer's ears are not a sixth sense one is simply born with, but a skill acquired through observation, listening, and imagination. So put your producer's ears on and play it forward.