January 31, 2013, by Matthew Weiss
The original idea for this article was to write something on getting great vocal production. But as I started formulating the ideas, I realize they kind of apply to music globally.
I feel that the basis of great music is fairly simple. Recorded music is a transcription of feelings. Much like how a microphone converts sound waves into electricity, and speakers convert electricity into sound — emotion is converted into music, and that music translates emotion to the listener.
The idea here hinges on the musicians being in the correct state of mind to engage in the feeling of the song. The players must invoke so the music evokes.
The first step, therefore, is keeping emotional feeling at the forefront of your mind. If feeling is the compass, the rest is just preparation and execution.
If you are the producer, think of yourself as a coach. Some musicians are just brilliant. You can hand them music, tell them the idea, and they do that.
Not all musicians are that way. Many musicians, like normal humans, need inspiration. The pep-talk before the big play, if you will (and even if you won’t).
Set up your recording space right. Things like lighting, decoration, comfortability, and temperature matter. Even though it seems like some esoteric nonsense, these physical cues help people tap into their emotional references.
Get to know your players. Everyone is different. Some people benefit from a confidence inspiring chat. Other people need to be left alone with a few minutes of clear air and clean space. And others show up just ready to go.
Assess who the players are and anticipate what will put them in the best mood. If your bass player needs to settle in before playing, but the guitar player is just rarin’ to play — schedule the bass player to show up a little earlier. Then get set up and have everything ready by the time the guitar player arrives.
Emphasize connection. One of the coolest things about music is that you can have multiple people interpreting the same idea, or even have completely different ideas coming together.
Rather than getting a simplified feeling, music can reproduce the multi-layered complex emotions that people have. This only works when you have people vibing off each other, complimenting or contrasting what’s being laid down. Something as simple as the way the bass player locks with the drummer can make the difference between something feeling suspenseful, relaxed, driving, angry, or any other host of emotions.
The players need to be able to clearly hear each other and preferably see each other as well. Similarly, when I record vocals as an overdub, I pre-mix the record. I play up the key emotional ideas and key rhythmic elements to inspire the vocalist. This even works for song-writing. I find when the mix is really happening the lyric writers are able to tap into the song much quicker.
As a quick aside — don’t have the vocalist record to a squashed mix. The vocalist will naturally adapt to this by straining and fighting to cut through the music.
Get them in the zone. If music is a story, then tell that story.
I find, particularly with vocalists, if they connect with the lyrics the listener will connect with them. If it’s a love song, have the musicians think about their love and internalize the meaning of the song. Having specific focal points helps the musicians access those things that can’t really be put into words.
Think of it as method acting. If the song is angry, get the players to draw on experiences that made them mad — enraged — and that emotion will come through in their performance.
Matthew Weiss is the head engineer for Studio E, located in Philadelphia. Recent credits include Ronnie Spector, Uri Caine, Royce Da 5’9” and Philadelphia Slick.
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