When I came up the ranks as a session musician, I had the opportunity to work with a load of producers in all genres off music. I always learned something from each of them, and, curiously, much of what I learned was what not to do during a session once I climbed the ropes and found my way into the producer’s chair.
I still make mental notes of pros and cons after every project, as there are always things that happen that teach me how to sharpen my skills for the next session. At the end of a project, I will usually go over these points with the artist, and it is always greeted with appreciation. A smart artist will evaluate sessions or projects for what went well, and for what fell short of the mark, in an effort to aim for getting better for each and every session they do. And so, as we all have to prove ourselves every day, here is a starter kit of five things to reflect on after any recording project.
People First. Music Second.
How well did everyone involved get on during the project?
In the end, our common goal is to communicate something brilliant collectively, and if our individual communication is weak, the product will be weak, as well. An open and honest playing field with a good dose of mutual respect will provide an atmosphere where great ideas can grow. Conversely, one can assemble all the biggest musicians in the world who have attitudes even bigger, and find there is no chance of any meaningful music being born. Believe me, this has been proven enough times!
If there were problems communicating, address them kindly, and go about trying to set a better stage for the next project. Nerves, insecurities, and all other bugs can be understood and worked out if you are all involved enough to talk it through. As a producer, such discussions are part of my life in the studio. I call then my “shrink raps.”
Music First. Artist Second.
Did the best music you could make get made?
Great teams understand that everyone on board is needed for what only they can bring. In the case of a band in the recording studio, it sometimes works out that members of the group play many different instruments. I usually encourage this because the results can be amazing (usually mostly to the band). There is a general rule with me that whomever can express whatever idea is going on is the right person (or persons) for the job. There may be a person who has a great feel for a part that they would not normally play on stage with the band. Case in point: If the vocalist has done a lead vocal, and the sound of his voice doing the harmony on top of it sounds smokin’, as opposed to the lesser singer who usually sings it on stage, why not go with your strongest suit? The best music needs to come through the studio monitors. The egos can wait in the car. After all, if Paul McCartney were relegated to only playing the bass parts, those later Beatles albums would be entirely different than the classics they are. The same case can be made with most successful artists—they were there to do killer work, no matter how it got done.
In the case of singer/songwriters, the casting of session players is essential to build your signature sound. There can be a mixture of outside players and the artist, or 100 percent one or the other. But in the end, one needs to know where the experiment worked, and where it didn’t. Casting is king.
Was the overall recording environment contributing to, or taking away from, the greatest end result?
These days, artists are renting studios or recording with their home setup. Any way one can achieve what they ultimately want for their music is the right approach. There can be monetary reasons forcing one to record at home, or it could be that the feel and ambiance is more prone to the creative process than a sterile studio with a pricy clock ticking. With so many options available for recording, listen closely to your finished product, and make notes as to what things could have sounded better from a purely audio-quality point of view.
For the stay-at-home recordists, it may make sense to rent a studio to record drums, or utilize a larger room for group performances, and then do all the rest of the recording at home. If the home experience proves to be holding back the creative process, and compromises your efforts, it may be time to seek out a studio that fits your budget, and provides the vibe and sound quality your music demands.
Did your choice of instruments live up the challenge of the sessions?
Too many times, people discover after the sessions that their musical instruments and equipment were not exactly ready for the task. The studio is a microscope, so you may discover intonation problems you never heard before on stage, or that it took forever to get a decent sound out of the drums. Let each of these lessons teach you about how to get your gear in “record ready” fashion.
Did you do 14-hour sessions that ended at 3:30 A.M., only to do it again the next day for several days in a row?
If so, either you are Keith Richards, or stark raving mad. Keith, (and I know you are reading this), please make sure the song is worth recording in the first place, and then remember that my studio—Tiki Town in Mill Valley, California—is here for you. Stay as long as you like. As for the rest of you—what are you thinking?