Project studios that allow ordinary musicians to produce demos and even finished tracks, to a very high technical standard, are now within the reach of many self-financed artists and bands, these days. Sadly, the expected wave of new and interesting music produced by musicians, freed from the dead hand of the big record label A&R departments, hasn’t really materialized. There is a lot of imitation going on and very few artists going their own way, stamping their own signature on their sound. I generalise grossly, of course, but compared to the number of half-decent project studios now in existence, the return on all this individual investment has been pretty low, proportionately speaking.
Most people readily acknowledge that live performances generally have more life, vitality, spontaneity, novelty, excitement and verve than your average home studio production. Capturing that evanescent spark is still hard to do, even in a live recording. I have some suggestions for why that might be and what a musician might be able to do about it.
I think the missing ingredient is imagination. Here’s why: Most people that have a project studio are so pre-occupied worrying about the technical perfection of their work, that they forget about the performance. Traditional record producers understood this well, of course. The best record producers were all about coaching, coaxing, listening and nurturing the artists in their care, to get the best possible recording of their art. The recording itself, from a technical point of view, was delegated to a technician – the recording engineer. If the recording engineer knew his job, he would get in the way of the creative flow as little as he possibly could, while ensuring that every note recorded was technically pristine. The more unobtrusive the engineer, the better the production. In a project studio, however, the artist is generally also the engineer and nobody is the producer. It’s hard to have three heads on your shoulders at once, so what’s the answer?
I think the answer lies in how you mentally prepare for your performance (whether live or in the studio). Mental preparation takes imagination. In the first place, do all the grunt work to set up your studio for good technical recordings, some time before the session. Get your project studio so well sorted that the you don’t have to worry about levels, noise, pops or distortion. Prepare so well that the only thing you have to do is press “Record”.
Having simplified the engineering so that you don’t have to think about it, you can then prepare to be the performer you always wished you were – by imagining that you really are that performer. If, in your imagination, you are that brilliant artist that soars above the rest and renders a flawless performance, your real performance will tend to be just that. You’ve just become your own record producer!
Of course, the more rehearsed and skilled you are with your instrument or voice, the easier it is going to be to turn in a credible performance that matches up to your imagined version of yourself. The more frequently you turn in performances that come close to the performance you imagined (that ideal, flawless one), the more authentic your music will begin to sound.
To quote my friend Sharon, “It takes a great deal of energy to keep up a shield, put on a mask, maintain an illusion. If you are authentic and have nothing to hide, you are loved for yourself, your relationships are real and strong, and you have much more energy to create your life with.” So start by envisaging the perfect performer, but back it up with the work to really become one and then you can be who you think you are and who you would want to be, without challenge.
If you’re in a band, play as a band. In a project studio, that might take more engineering, in the first instance and you’ll have to invest in more microphones and related paraphernalia . You might need a multi-input FireWire audio interface on your digital audio workstation (DAW) and you might have to construct some simple sound separation aids (screens and so on). However, it will permit you to capture the groove of the band playing as a unit, at the same time. That groove and the interplay between musicians is irreplaceable, even with today’s technology. It’s the bedrock of an exciting track.
You might get some spill and crosstalk, but who cares? If you mix carefully, it won’t matter much. It rarely matters more than putting out a sub standard performance. If each track goes down dry and you add effects and equalisation only during the mix, the spill and crosstalk can be minimised.
Record everything. Most DAWs allow you to loop record and capture each and every take without stopping. Storage is cheap. Removable drives with a Terabyte of storage cost barely £60. Keep it all. There will be time enough, later on, to sift through it all and edit together the best takes or parts of takes. The important thing is to capture interesting things in your performance that can be mined for gems later, after the tracking is complete.
Avoid “demo-itis”. Too often, the demo recording sounds great, but when the artists return to the studio to do it again (but “properly” or “cleanly”), the life and soul is bludgeoned out of the song. Far better to keep what you can of the demo (and with modern project studios, this is entirely possible and actually easier than ever before), then replace as little as possible. If anything, embellish the demo, rather than carving the song to pieces like a Christmas turkey and obliterating the sparkling spontaneity.
When you perform, be lost in the moment. Close your eyes and imagine you are an integral part of the music, not apart from it. Imagine you are in the place you feel most comfort or most passion. Let the sound come from your heart and let your mind follow. Don’t think, play.
Start with a groove. Let it excite you. Dance while you play or sing. There are many useful studio tools for making instant grooves. You can use sample library loops, drum machines, semi intelligent drum part makers like Jamstix, or Band In A Box, if you are alone in your project studio. Otherwise, unleash your band’s rhythm section. Wind them up and let them go. Get the feel of the song first and add the arrangement, harmony and melody to that. Work quickly. Don’t let the groove become boring to you.
Make yourself sound great in your headphones. Use effects like reverb, EQ and limiting to create a wondrous sound in your cans, but record both the clean signal and the effected one. Why not? DAWs have unlimited tracks and as long as you have the CPU cycles, the storage is cheap. At least that gives you a guide and some options, when it comes to mixing the track.
Don’t worry about the mistakes. A great performance with a few small errors can be relatively easily corrected in most DAWs, but a poor performance with no errors, but no risks either, is not worth saving. It’s safe and dull. Who wants to listen to safe, dull music? Leave that for Muzak 🙂 Editing, pitch correction and time correction tools come as standard, in modern DAWs, so you have lots of ways to clean up the mistakes. There are even tools to remove noise and hum, or to take clipping out of the signal. You’re covered.
Match your mood to the mood of the song. You can do this through judicious lighting, the right ambience (lighting some candles, bringing in some fresh roses, filling the room with beautiful scents from essential oils), recording in an interesting place (DAWs run on laptops, after all), wearing clothing that matches the feeling of the track, or by having experiences appropriate to the music, prior to recording. If your music calls for raw sexuality and you have the privacy, there is no law against recording in the nude, in a solo project studio, if that gets you into the right mood to perform the song! There are many other examples, of course.
Sing or play with love. Give generously to your audience, even if they are currently unseen. Your aim is to connect emotionally with the listener, so put your feelings into your performance. Don’t be stale and lifeless, unless that’s the mood you are trying to evoke. The music you make will have meaning to your audience if it can belong to them, in some subtle way. If it marks a significant event in their lives or captures their feelings of the moment, the song will remain beloved forever and your performance will last a long time. All the more reason for it to be a good performance!
Don’t over-work your track. Too many takes makes it become stale. You ideally want to capture that initial moment of discovery. It’s why demos, when done well, are not too finished, when you take them into the studio to begin working on the track for real. You want to leave room for serendipity, collaboration, musical tensions, accidents and useful mistakes.
Confidence is the key, as is focus on the musical performance and not the technology. The technology can ride to the rescue later.
I hope these tips help you create better musical performances and that they enhance and enliven your musical art.