Have you ever wondered why some recording artists and producers are more successful in the studio at accomplishing their goals than other people who are equally or more musically talented?
As a recording engineer, here’s what I’ve noticed about successful people in the studio.
I’ve found successful people come in all personality types from the very shy and soft-spoken to the boisterous extrovert but they all share a common trait: they have a very specific “vision” of their songs and what they communicate and emote to the listener.
An artist’s middle-of-the-night epiphany about a lyric or melody or the concert audience’s reactions to a song all contribute to the formation of that vision.
Besides good songwriting and performance, the practical side of the vision for the producer and artist includes the process of getting the song finished and recorded in the studio — hopefully communicating and emoting the vision to a music-buying audience.
Part of the vision is a game plan — anything from a very strict production schedule to a more typical simple list of realistic goals to attain in the studio in a given day. Sometimes an artist obsesses over the vision and the plan — is it any good or how can it be better?
I’ve never worked with anybody who had all the pieces of the “vision puzzle” in place when they came into the studio — it’s impossible. Besides, it’s generally good to leave room for experimentation and modification. A good vision is a strong musical outline written in pencil.
When I worked with Daryl Hall and John Oates, they had a very specific vision of the entire album and every individual song. They called it a “concept album” and wanted each song to pay ‘homage’ to their favorite R&B songs they grew up with.
Confident in their vision, they had the temerity to announce on the very first day of tracking that we would be recording the first hit single during that session! The song was fully arranged—all of the instrumental parts and every drum hit and hi-hat accent carefully notated.
In addition, all of the guitar and keyboard sounds were carefully worked out beforehand, and they played a couple of old records for me as prototypes to follow when shaping the track’s overall sound. They had this certain vision and never lost it through all the overdubs and final mix.
That song we ended up recording three times to get it “right” and it turned out not to be a hit. Nonetheless, their vision was for the whole album and another song, the third single released and a total surprise to us all, ended up a winning success for them.
The fact that Daryl and John went through re-recording their vision of the first hit single three times showed they were not afraid of a lot of hard work. Super hard work by everyone involved is one of the common denominators for all the great records I’ve worked on.
Great recordings of great performances come at the price of physical and mental labor—and for me anyway, there is not much luck involved except for my good fortune to be there and in record mode capturing it all.
A lot of the hard work does not pay off directly. Sometimes weeks of work go by on songs that end up being left off the album. However, in the middle of all that seemingly waste of time and energy, there was a take or a germ of an idea uncovered and recorded that ends up becoming something special.
Succeeding, at times, means frustration and digging a lot before you find a gem and sometimes, hard work is the only way you’ll do it.
Focus is the mental part of hard work. I’ve found the ability to focus for long time periods and avoiding distractions (that waste time) day after day on the pile of work in front of them is common amongst the successful people I’ve worked for.
Successful producers focus more on the most important parts of the recording process and a lot less on other areas. Delegation of less important jobs to others allows space and time for better focus by the core production team.
A good focusing ability is a real asset when doing final mixes. Good focus keeps the vision alive and on time and on budget.
Respect is easy. Treat everyone, from the studio gofer, the pizza man, the engineer, the producer, musicians, backing singers, the A&R guy, the manager, and the artist all the same — with the utmost of respect.
When I met Mick Jagger at the beginning of a tracking session I did for one of his solo albums, he repeated my first and last name as if to memorize it — at least for the duration of the day. I found him very respectful to me. The whole level and vibe of the session was elevated from that point onward and we all had a great time.
Givers Not Takers
Another personality trait found with a lot of successful people in the studio is that they are mostly givers and not takers.
A giver gives of him/herself fully to the recording process and is willing to do and give almost anything to achieve his/hers and the artist’s vision. So working long hours, being patient and helpful are all attributes of the giver. A giver contributes to the whole without necessarily expecting anything in return except a better record.
Givers love music and love working on it.