From Song To Record
A great song is great and all, but if it doesn’t get recorded not too many people will be able to appreciate it. The art of songwriting doesn’t end with a finished gem of a song. In many ways, that is where the real craftwork begins.
Producing a record is an art all it’s own. There are many ways to go about it, just like there are many writing styles and techniques. You can record a band live in a room, or overdub in Pro Tools. You can record in your kitchen, or a million dollar studio. You can go for that one magical performance, or edit dozens of tracks together to create something altogether new. There is no one right way to do it. But to sum it up, I think the one goal of making a great record is about capturing a feeling. And production can make or break that goal singlehandedly.
A great record makes you feel something. It makes you feel like dancing, driving fast, or crying. I believe that feeling lies in a raw, honest performance.
For a singer-songwriter who has little interest in engineering and producing, like myself, choosing the right producer is extremely important. Who you choose to work to produce your record, and how you work with them is going to be one of your most important creative decisions. It is all about creative chemistry. That producer has to essentially be able to finish my sentences for me. They have to take my song, bring out the best in it, and my performance, while taking it that extra mile. I’ve been fortunate to have found an amazing collaborator in my producer Garth May. We have been working together for over a decade. What I love most about our creative relationship is how he can take a simple guitar and voice performance and transform it completely without undermining it’s core. An example of Garth’s production magic is the recording of my song “Glitter Gone.”
“Glitter Gone” began as an acoustic composition. The vocals were soulful, the guitar was simple. We laid the foundation of the recording by laying down a rough vocal and acoustic guitar performance. I left the studio for a couple days. When I returned to the studio next, Garth had completely eliminated my guitar tracks, altered the chord progression, added drum loops, synths, and electric guitars, and took what started as a folk song and turned it into an exceedingly catchy down tempo electronic groove that became the bed for richly layered vocal performances. I could never have imagined this treatment.
A good producer adds something to the artists vision that enhances it. As an artist I can’t be egotistical, and over controlling- I have to give the producer some room to express their ideas. But it’s a fine line. I am not always willing to let the chords be altered, or my acoustic guitar eliminated. It all depends on the individual song, and of course the specific ideas a producer brings to the table. Over time, if you are working with the right person, a creative trust is built, and that is when real magic can happen.
Capturing the spirit of music is not about “perfect” performances. I believe great performances have nuance, depth, character, heart. Honesty is more important than perfect pitch and timing. Most often these honest performances are peppered with imperfections, but they convey the feeling of the song. I am personally a fan of intricate editing, but many of my favorite musical heroes ironically have the opposite approach to capturing great performances. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, all aim to capture the magic in one earth shattering performance. I have to feel it when I sing, and especially when I am listening back. But most importantly, people I don’t know have to feel it the first time they hear it. There is no one right method to get there. When I am in the studio, I just trust my ear, my gut, and my producer.
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