If you are ever in a position to put a record together, there is something unexpected that happens to your thinking, in my experience. I don’t know if this is a universal experience, because I can only comment on what happens to me, but I suspect it might be. It would be nice to think that it was.
If you choose to engineer, produce, mix, master and record your music, as well as arrange and write the songs, pen the lyrics, play the guitar parts, lay down the bass parts, create the grooves and rhythms, play the keyboards, write the harmonies, compose the melodies and sing the songs, you realise that each and every one of these fields is populated by people with a deep knowledge of what they’re doing, who have worked very hard to perfect their thing. You can’t treat any one of these tasks disrespectfully, or dismissively. There is a lot going on and if you want to participate, you’ve got a lot of learning to do, before you can do each thing competently. There is some further distance to go to make it from competence to excellence.
We all think we know what a song “hook” is, but few know where the term originates. The term came into currency because James Jamerson, of the legendary Motown Funk Brothers, played his bass with just one finger on his right hand – his index finger. The nick name for his single finger style of picking out bass notes was “the hook”, because his single index finger resembled a hook, when he was playing. He hooked the strings and released them, to sound the notes. Every song that had a great James Jamerson “hook” was bound to be a hit, at that time. There is a lot of this kind of long forgotten information that pertains to every part of making a record. Knowing about each thing informs how you go about making music. If you know what a hook originally was, you know where to start to create one. You start with the bass part.
With your engineering hat on, you absolutely must understand the technical signal path, how to structure gain, how to fit the recording into the available head room, how to seek and destroy extraneous noise sources and where to put the microphones and which kinds of microphones to use. There’s much more to it, but this is an example of what you have to care about, when you’re engineering.
As a producer, you’re looking for novel sounds, good effects, nice arrangements, outstanding performances and a pleasing blend of sounds. You are the guardian of the feel and artistic unity of the record. You care more about the aesthetic impression made by the music, than the technical quality, although both are interrelated.
When you are mastering, you have a different set of critical listening skills at play and a different set of engineering knowledge. Once responsible for ensuring the music could be transferred to vinyl without asking for impossible excursions of the cutting needle, beyond the authority of the motion of the cutter, these days you care about how it’s going to sound on radio, television, on MP3 players and when heard in headphones.
Arrangement is all about writing the parts and instrumentation. Choosing your timbres and how they interact, plus how the calls and responses are sculpted. You care about the structure of the song. So does the songwriter, who also employs the skills of putting melody and words together, in a way that remains interesting and emotionally affective, but which still respects the groove.
The musicians in the rhythm section and the backing singers are always the engine of the song. They make it danceable and memorable. They keep the song moving along and lay the foundation for the solo or lead performances. They apply sheer technique and introduce the stylistic elements that take a mere arrangement and bring it to life. What they can do with an outstanding arrangement is nobody’s business.
Not a single part of making a record can be done with contempt or disrespect for all that we have learned about each part. You have to get into the mindset of the practitioners and to study each discipline with reverence for the depth of information available to learn. You have to partition your approach to ensure that each element is being created with care. Any single failing in any single element of the music can render it forgettable or mediocre. To create something outstanding requires pouring heart, soul, sincerity and expertise into each of the component elements of the music. You cannot scrimp on a thing.
For some people, who are very rounded musicians, it appears to come easily, but the reality is that a lifetime of listening and understanding are brought to bear, the moment the creation of a piece of music commences. Nobody arrives in the studio like they were just born or with a cavalier, casual attitude to their field of expertise, as much as they may try to put on that affectation. Serious musicians care about what they contribute to the music – a lot. Everybody brings their love and passion into the room. If you are creating music solo, completely on your own, there’s a lot of caring to be done. There’s a lot of knowledge to know. There are a lot of skills to master. You can’t treat anything with contempt, if you want to get a great result.
My advice to anybody making music is to learn as much as you can about every element in the music making chain. It will serve you well. Even if you leave the tasks to others, you’ll be able to speak their language, you’ll know what they care about most and you’ll be able to collaborate with more respect and have a better interchange of ideas. You’ll leave your ego and your arrogance at the door and get on with the collective enterprise. You won’t be ignorant.
If you, on the other hand, are trying to do it all, then you have to take each element seriously and study each with diligence. Above all, you must listen. You must listen to how the greats did it and then move beyond that and work out how you will improve upon what was done before. It’s a challenge.
Once you get to the point of reverence for each element, you’ll be free to enjoy the music making. Ultimately, music making is all about joy and enjoyment. You create it and you share it, to give joy to every listener. To do that effectively, you need to be having a good time too.
Respect it all, with reverence, but don’t take it too seriously either.