Music Production F.A.Q.
What are some advantages in hiring you as a producer?
I’ve learned a lot. I could make a record now for almost, depending on the cost of musicians, but at least one-fifth of the price that they used to be able to make a record for. You get somebody with some experience that has learned a lot of lessons that’s cut to the chase and that really brings some wisdom to the situation – not just some knowledge, but some wisdom. You get a combination.
With anybody you look at their track record. You look at what they’ve done and how much what they’ve done relates to what you want to do. If you feel a simpatico with that, then that’s your man.
What happens at pre-production? What do you do?
What I do is to try to envision what the recording is going to be, who I am dealing with, and who the artist is. Specifically, who they really are and if, in fact, they know who they are, and want to say because you’d be surprised how many don’t. Often, they’re just out there doing it. When they arrive to the studio, they just jump in, “Yeah, you just jump up there and start singing.” You’d be surprised – a lot of people don’t have the kind of conscience you’d think they do.
I try to make sure that I understand all those aspects. Then, I try to make sure the most important thing on a record is the songs. If you don’t have good songs, you have nothing. I don’t care how good the musicians are, how good the studio or the engineer is. None of them makes any difference. You got to have that song.
Of course, before that song, comes the person singing the song. So, I make sure to get them in a good space. You have to get them comfortable, and confident. As a producer, it’s important to understand them psychologically, how they think, how insecure they are or aren’t. A lot of times, you’re up for a battle. You’re up for people that think they know everything and they want to just tell you what to do. As a producer, you’ve got to deal with that.
I’ve done all kinds of crazy things to get out of people what I want out of them. I’ve been successful at it. It’s happened in a variety of different ways, so I can’t really say there’s any one particular method.
Unfortunately, for artists, that’s what happens, too. Many artists end up with the wrong producers. Also, the artist might have to deal with a record company person, or some guy that calls himself an A&R person. Often, the artist gets told what to do by these people who have no clue what they’re talking about. It’s like asking the guy that’s collecting garbage down the street how to make a record. Maybe, that’s a bit extreme. Truthfully, you get these situations. I’ve seen it often.
Often, it’s easy to know when you’re doing the wrong thing or when something is not right, but it’s difficult to know when something is right. It’s very difficult to know when you’ve got a hit record. You get a feeling. There’s a certain feeling you get. You get this out-of-body feeling like you’re visiting somebody else’s session. You hear a playback and you feel like you had nothing to do with it. When that happens, you tend to have a real record, but that doesn’t happen very often. In other words, you do know when it’s wrong but you don’t know when it’s right.
How do you evaluate musicians in pre-production?
That’s really simple. There are two things about that question. Number one: I erroneously used to think that rehearsals were a really valuable thing.
With rehearsals, you just don’t know. You think things are good in the rehearsal, you rehearse a band to death, and you go in the studio. The minute the playing gets put under that kind of studio microscope, everything changes.
I learned not to rely on rehearsals, Basically, I look at the drummer. If you have a problem drummer, you might as well just blow up the whole building. You might as well just forget the whole thing. If the drummer’s no good, it’s all a waste of time and money – period. Like it or not, that’s the way it is.
When the drummer is good, it’s almost as if there is no drummer, he is not even there. The frosting on the cake is when a drummer’s just spectacular. You get goosey about it and go, “Wow. This is just wow. Listen to that. Listen to this fill.” If the guy is just really good, not flashy, then you’re able to concentrate on the songs.
The other thing that I found is when you’re doing a record with a band, what happens is in the first take or the second take (but usually the first take), all the great ideas come out. They come out disorganized, they come out in incorrect keys, there are bad notes, and there are parts that are in wrong places, but the ideas are there.
It’s easy to just not record those things, let that go into the wind, and be gone. You work on it, keep working on it, and do eight overdubs. Then, the musician is ready to pull their hair out – “I’m lost, I had it at one point, I can’t find it anymore.”
I found I could only extend about one or two sessions with that sort of stuff and then I realized, “Wait a second. We’re going to record on two track everything that anybody does – period.
You don’t want to tell anybody what to do because there’s a big problem there, so you let them do their thing and, if they get it, fabulous. Nothing else to do. If they don’t get it you say, “Guess what? I’ve got the first couple of takes and there are some great ideas there. Let’s go back and listen to them and let’s pick out the good stuff and let’s build the part.” 80% of the time that has worked and worked incredibly well.
How do you help me choose a studio?
First of all, you’re talking to a guy that grew up loving recording studios like some people love churches. That was the ultimate place to be: a recording studio. I used to sit out in that damn lounge at Gold Star for six or eight hours just for that door to open and see those reels spinning around and see those VU meters going. I got 15-20 seconds of music when the door opened and closed. I got nothing. All I got was this vicarious thing that did something to me. It was weird. I must have some kind of connection to that in some other way, some other time.
I always say that the most important room in the studio is the lounge because the producer has to have some place to go to get away from the session and should be comfortable.
If he’s going to be any kind of a person that’s going to help the situation at all – because if you stay locked in the studio the whole time with the band, you’re as useless as everybody else. You can get used to anything. You could become hypnotized. No matter how good I might be, if I sit and listen to something long enough, I get bludgeoned to the point subconsciously where it just all becomes a big mishmash. Whereas if you get away from it for ten minutes and you walk back in, immediately you’re withdrawn. It’s amazing.
How big does the budget play into determining what studio are you going to use?
That depends. In the old days, people would want to use the Power Station or those kind of studios that had really big good setting drum rooms. They would be expensive. The ones that have the expensive consoles for mixing if you like using automation, which I don’t but some people really do. Some people depend or rely on it. Those are going to be more expensive studios. But the way I would help choose a studio – it’s funny.
I was talking to Bobby Whitlock and I said to him, “Honestly, I don’t like studios. I would prefer recording at your house. I’ll just bring some gear and we’ll just record at your house. We would get a much better sound. I don’t know about finishing it there, but I’d cut it there.” He was thrilled to hear that.
Should I record in analog or digital?
If you know me, you can record in digital, save money, and prevent yourself a lot of headaches. If you don’t know me, you’d probably want to record in analog and spend your last dime on analog to digital converters.
Analog to digital converter is this. Imagine analog is a scene – not even a photograph – and you’re taking a snapshot of it. That snapshot of that scene is what’s digital. The more accurate that snapshot is of that scene, the closer you are to the truth.
What do you do when go into the studio?
I go and look around the room and try to imagine something good happening there, try to envision something good. Then I think, “What do we need?” I try to do it beforehand. Do we need some candles? Do we need some different lighting? I’ve actually done that, where I’ve actually had them change the lights in the studio.
Just make sure everything is working well and that part of it is good. That’s really what I do when I go into the studio. I think about those things. I know in advance where the equipment is at in the control room. I can suss that stuff out in two seconds. Not everybody can do that, but I can just because I build studios. I know equipment from inside out, and so I’m different than a lot of people in that respect.
How do you develop a vision for our production?
That’s a good question. I don’t develop your vision for your production. You do it for me. In other words, if the raw materials are there – say the song is haunting, then you think, “What’s going to make it more haunting?” Or say the song is sad, what’s going to bring out the sadness?
You want it to be like shifting gears in a car. When you go from the verse to the chorus and from the chorus to the bridge, you want it to be like shifting gears. You’ve got to make sure that that’s going on in some way. Could be the drummer changing up his part or the bass player just playing on the root note during the verse. There are many different examples, but that’s really what it is….shifting gears.
You don’t want it to just blaze through like a freight train although that works for some people. John Lee Hooker could sit there and play one chord for five minutes and you’d never think twice about it. But he was John Lee Hooker and he can get away with that. Usually, that isn’t the case. That’s really the kind of things that you have to think about.
Then you’ve got to ask questions. You have to ask the artist, “What are you thinking? What do you want to say here? What do you want to feel like? What do want to try to invoke in the listener?” There are a number of questions that could come up. Those questions present themselves just with experience. You just know what to ask when you hear something.
I would put it like this. What I want to feel like is that I’m standing in a room full of people, but I’m by myself. There are ten people in the room, and I want to feel like nobody bumps into me, pokes me in the shoulder, or does anything to me for the whole time that that song is going on. If anything disturbs me, I know I have a problem. I know either something needs to be fixed, needs to be added to, needs to be rewritten – something is not right if it makes me think.
If I can sit there and be numb as a tree for four minutes, everything is good. But if not, then I got a problem. That’s basically how I feel it. I can feel it like somebody’s poking me in the shoulder.
That’s something that’s been with me my whole life since I started doing this when I was doing it in a garage. It was almost like there was somebody standing behind me poking me and saying, “That’s no good. You accept this?”
If I go ahead and boil it down to one thing that would be what I’d had to boil it down to right there.
How about picking an engineer?
When I go to a studio, I ask for the best second engineer. I don’t ask for the best engineer because the best engineers are going to be full of opinions. He’s going to have the ways he wants to do things, and I’m full of opinions and ways I want to do things. The way I like to do things is different than the way most people do things. Of course, this can create arguments and who wants to spend time arguing about anything in the session? You’re there to make good music and concentrate on the songs, not talk about how to make a record.
I’m not being arrogant. I don’t say that somebody that has a good idea is going to come along and tell me something I don’t know. I’m just going to say that I know quite a bit and I’d rather start from there. I’d just have a second engineer than an engineer. That’s how I feel about the engineer.
If an engineer is particularly close with an artist, they really trust each other and there’s some kind of a relationship there, I’m not going to do anything about that. I’m going to go along with that. I’d make sure that the person was there when we did vocals with the artist. I just feel like in a lot of ways, engineers can add a lot of extra hours to a session and a lot of unnecessary grief and I just don’t need it.
How do you assist with arranging in the song?
My favorite way to hear a song is a pre-production demo, like one instrument and a voice. Then let my imagination kind of run wild a little bit and see where that goes. You’ll get songs from people who don’t have arrangements. They may have full arrangements. It’s funny – I’ve seen a lot of record deals go down or not go down because of that. Where the song was good, but they had the wrong producer, engineer, and arrangement. The people at the record company couldn’t hear past it and they didn’t sign the person because of it. I’ve seen that happen a lot. So, you’ve got to be careful.
I assist with arranging the song. I had a number one song with Jennifer Warnes and I heard the song. I said, “This song is a hit song. It’s something you just can’t get out of your head, but it needs a bridge.”
So I called Andrew Gold and I said, “I got a great song. It could be a hit for Jennifer but we need a bridge. Would you write a bridge for the song?”
Often, it’s quicker to try things than it is to talk about things. You can talk about things until you get into an argument, but you can try things in five minutes. If somebody wants to try something you just try it. It takes five minutes. Just go ahead and try it.
What I’ve learned is that the harder you have to work on a song, from where it starts to where it finishes, the weaker the song becomes. When the song is strong, it’s there and everything just falls into place like magic. It’s like the song just makes itself. You just stay there and make sure that the tape’s rolling and everybody’s got enough food, and everything takes care of itself. That’s really it.
Who does the mix?
Sometimes the song does the mix, literally. I’ve done records where I’ve had to battle the mix.
I prefer to do this mix myself. You could put that right on my gravestone. Not that I want one, but in the end I do prefer to do mix myself because I know to leave stuff alone.`
What if want to do the mix myself?
I would let you do it. I have done that. It’s always ended in disaster because the band don’t have enough chops to mix.
Take it from me. I remember the first time I ever did a mix. I was scared to death. I really was scared. It was like I was in the middle of the forest and didn’t know which way to turn. I didn’t know the way home. I didn’t know where I came from. I didn’t know where I was going. I knew nothing. I was completely and totally lost.
I had no reference point. You only need one reference point, but I didn’t even have one. That was a big problem. I recognized that and I was called to the carpet because of it. I never forgot that.
Do you do the mastering?
Yes, I do. I do like mastering them when I don’t do anything to them, when I know enough they don’t need anything done to them.
I feel like the problem with me mastering a record that I produce: I start to cross a line that I’ve drawn a long time ago for myself. Knowing where to stop and I keep thinking, “Geez, I could get this a little bit better. Geez, I could get this a little bit better. Geez, I could get this a little bit better.” Then it’s like, “Okay, wait, wait, wait. The record’s stuck.” In a way, I don’t like doing the mastering myself. I’d rather have a friend master.
I have a friend who masters. Does this create any problems?
Yes, if he’s no good. What do you do to him? Send him on a trip to China one way and say, “Have a great trip and I hope I never see you again.” It can definitely create problems because no mastering guys – including me – are perfect.
With mastering, the idea is to stay out of the way. Your whole goal in the thing is to stay out of the way and get the music across as best you can.
There are so many things about mastering. If you don’t have that perspective, then you’ve got yourself in a difficult position.
How much does it cost to hire you as a producer? How much do your services cost?
As much as you could afford within reason. “Within reason” means there’s a cut-off point at which I won’t work for less, but if you’ll be honest with me, I’ll be honest with you.
In other words, if you’ll tell me what your budget is, I’ll tell you if I can fit in there the right way and then I’ll have an intelligent discussion with you about what my services are worth. We’ll say, “You can get XX for so much and you get me for X amount. If you get me for X amount, you get this. If you get the other guy you get that.” But I’d say, “As much as you can afford within reason.” We make some kind of a parameter.
One thing I’ll say about production, mixing, and mastering. Nowadays, with all this equipment, you’ve got to be differentiated. Certainly, as a performer, you don’t want to pay for equipment you don’t need.
Having built studios and having been in studios and all that stuff and all these studios have tons and tons of gear, and the bigger the studios the more gear they got. It serves to be helpful maybe, but more than that, it serves to be confusing (and expensive). You get too many choices, and unless you’re really an expert and know what you’re doing, the too many choices screw you up especially if you’re a client.
That’s why I choose not to have a lot of equipment because you don’t need it much.
I still believe that this whole damn business is not just driven, but mis-driven by equipment manufacturers. They’re all out there in these magazines saying “You need this, you need that, you need this, you need that.” You need one-tenth of it, if you need even that. You probably need one-twentieth of it.
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