Want pro sounding, radio friendly productions? Tip #1: Use great players like David. Need more? Try these:
Music Production Tip:
How To Arrange Your Song and Choose the Right Musicians
Although I now produce music for Nashville Trax I started out years ago with a little 4 track cassette machine doing home recordings. I can relate to all the problems you’re experiencing in attempting to achieve a professional sound.
One area you’re almost certainly falling short in is musicianship.Back in the day I programmed a drum machine, played bass guitar, then added a couple guitar tracks, then played keyboards, sang, added background vocals and voila, a one man band!
It didn’t sound bad, in fact it was usually very good. I was a decent player, session quality on bass, and understood drumming to a degree. But there was no way I could play some of those instruments as well as a dedicated studio player who had focused on that one instrument for years, every day, eight to twelve hours a day.
No way could I, a hack keyboard player at best, get a sound out of a $500 keyboard that equaled the tone of a pro player’s $5,000 keyboard, let alone play it near as well. No way could me playing bass to a drum machine match up with a rhythm track created by a session quality live drummer and bassist. Drum machines or drum loops will never deliver the feel and expression of a live drummer playing a custom track on your song.
There are plenty of articles out there about how to mix, how to use EQ, etc. all saying “this is what you do to achieve a great sound”. but if you don’t have groove, pocket, pitch and the basic musical elements, you’ll tweak those knobs until ten days after the world explodes and never get that pro mix you’re looking for. Here’s my tip: Start with pro musicians. If you play, play your best instrument and hire the rest.
Not only will you have trouble making your $500 bass match up to the tone of a $5,000 professional grade instrument, unless you focus on bass guitar to the exclusion of almost everything else in your life, you’ll likely come up short on the performance: the tightness, the note selection, the groove! You most likely can’t and won’t deliver the definitive performance the song you labored over deserves.
If $350 microphones through a $500 preamp typical of the gear used in a home recording sounded as good as a $10,000 microphone through a $2.200 Avalon into $10,000 of software in a vocal chain, no one would buy a $10,000 mic or Avalon or expensive software. But they do. Think about it.
This shouldn’t discourage you, this should encourage you: Just like great quarterbacks don’t play defensive tackle, few people are a one man band and when you get to the “big leagues” of music, almost everyone is a specialist.
What I learned when I moved to Nashville is that live playing and session work are two very different animals; some people are born with a rare talent to play perfectly in pocket, all the time, every time. Many great live players who are good enough to play for major recording artists are not session quality players. So if you’re doing everything yourself, or using your live band’s local drummer to play on your tracks, it may be fun, it may sound “pretty good”, but it probably won’t give you a truly pro recording.
I do understand you want to produce your project at home or you wouldn’t be reading this post, you’d be reading the one that explains why the smartest thing may be to let me produce your track start to finish. You probably want to play on it, and I know you want your hands on the buttons. But strong caution: if you want a pro sound, if you want to truly compete with demos where specialists are involved in every step and hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment are used, choose your best instrument or two and hire session quality players for the remainder. These days you can do that right over the Internet. Need a session quality drummer? Simply click here.
In fact, the rhythm section is a huge factor in determining how pro a recording will sound. If you play guitar and/or keys then I think you’d be wise to order a session quality drum and bass guitar track, then use that firm foundation to build on. Even better, hire out a basic rhythm section of rhythm guitar, drums and bass guitar, then build your project on that, adding acoustic guitar, keys, lead guitar and other instruments.
And if your song needs other instruments, they’re easy to add also!
Perhaps the biggest decision you’ll make on any song as a producer is choosing the right singer. In my opinion, the singer IS the song! You need a great one to put your song across. You know as well as I do that while you might “sing great” you aren’t the right choice for everything!
Keep this link in your back pocket: Vocal Tracks Online It may bail you out the next time you are trying to record a tune and know you don’t have quite the right singer available.
So back to my roots: after the 4 track it was 8 track reel-to-reel, then 16 track then 8 track digital, then two 8 track digital units midi’d as master/slave, then 16, then two 16 track digitals midi’d to make 32 tracks, a real 32 track digital machine and finally, the king daddy: Pro Tools HD. As I progressed through every configuration known to man, lol, I kept thinking, “Okay, so if I just had more tracks, then I could make this sound like the recordings they play on the radio.”
Guess what? Even with unlimited tracks and a state-of-the-art recording platform I still came up short. It’s probably not more tracks you need. In fact, it’s not any one thing, it’s almost everything! It’s skill, experience, musicianship, outboard gear, microphones, the rooms you record in, your mixing skills, your tracking skills, your experience with arranging, your musical knowledge, microphone placement…man, I could go on for days…okay, minutes at least, lol.
So if I could go back and talk to myself at the 4 track stage I’d tell myself what I’m going to tell you now: “Instead of chasing gear, learn to use what you have better, continually improve your skills at what you have a natural talent for, figure out what you do best, and interface with others who can fill in your weak areas.”
For most home producers, their greatest weakness, their biggest downfall, is mixing. They don’t have the experience, the room, the gear, the expertise, training or more importantly, the ears, to mix at a pro level. So even if you choose to do the one man band thing or hire local live quality musicians, you might want to consider hitting this link for your mix.
As far as arranging a song, the first hurdle is to be sure the songwriting is sound. If your chorus sounds almost indistinguishable from your verses you need to do some rewriting. Arrangement can certainly enhance chorus/verse separation but it shouldn’t have to carry the ball by itself! I may introduce a new instrument at the chorus but I want the note values in the melody or the number of bars on each chord…something inherent in the song structure, to change! If you play the song on acoustic guitar do listeners know when you hit the chorus?
Another good arranging tip: Cover the entire musical spectrum somewhat evenly. How even can vary song-to-song but if you have a ton of guitar tracks and other mid-range stuff, consider helping the cymbals out with a high pitched keyboard pat or a mandolin EQ’d to favor the high end, etc. panned to a different space in the mix than where you’re placing the cymbals. Typically the overheads are panned hard right and hard left so maybe place your mando at 2 o’ clock….experiment to see where it sounds best!
You also have to be very careful there aren’t any “dogfights” going on. That’s where the guitarist and the bass and the sax player are all trying to fill the same spot or worse, playing on top of the vocal. For the most part melodic fills should be played only in between vocal phrases and by only one instrument, unless two instruments are doubling the same part or playing in harmony.
So hopefully some of this helps you achieve higher quality recordings. I’d love to give you more but this post got long in the tooth quite a while ago. Thanks for hanging in and I look forward to giving you additional home producing tips in upcoming posts.- bill watson