I Can’t Believe I’m Saying This, But I Think They Got it Right 50 Years Ago
Recording technology has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Making records can be done at an extremely fast pace, and people no longer even have to be in the room together to create something great. But there are some things about human nature that NEVER change, and the longer I work in this business, the more it occurs to me that some of the traditions of the record making process should be upheld. What humans need to do good creative work is the same as it has been for generations, so here’s what I have observed as the key components to creating something you’re proud of:
#1 - Take Your Time
Obviously no one has the budget to book out a studio for 6 months like the golden days of tracking, but this does NOT mean that you can’t find ways to take the time you need to make sure your final track sounds perfectly polished and perfectly YOU. For me, this is a huge focus on pre-production. The traditional process of worktape → demo → master gave artists 3 chances to make key/tempo/arrangement decisions with 3 different groups of people. By the time they got to the Master stage, they had tried a few different approaches and assessed what worked/what didn’t. Now the best process looks a little more like voice memo → pre-production → master, with a heavy emphasis on pre-production in my case.
The multitracking process usually has to go at a pretty fast pace to stretch every dollar the indie artist has, but the pre-production process can involve a lot of “marinating” on zero schedule. I like to work songs up in my home studio and email clips back and forth with the artist over a few weeks, giving us both lots of time to think about the tempo, the key, the general approach etc. Have I still had some last minute key change requests after the second studio day take? Hell yes I have. But recording wouldn’t feel quite as magical without a little chaos, would it?
#2 - Don’t Romanticize The Demo Vocal
People love to read in interviews about how an artist “just used the demo vocal because it was so great,” and that does sometimes happen. However, in the vast majority of cases this is just not the best vocal performance…the artist doesn’t know the song, they are looking at lyrics on their phone, they’re still figuring out the pocket, and their placement is all over the mic. Nothing feels as GREAT on a recording as a well-pocketed vocal that is so in-time that even the breaths are musical, and in my experience getting that on a demo vocal is rare. So many older recordings are infamous for taking weeks to capture “the right performance,” so that’s really the process that we should aspire to. If a vocalist has practiced a song and played it live a few times, it’s much more likely that a great take will just magically fall out.
#3 - Be Intense About It
I’m a person who really likes to immerse myself in a project. When I’m inspired by an artist, a few wheels in my brain are always dedicated to spinning around their work and what ideas would work for them. I’ve thought of a lot of cool things in the shower before I’m even technically working, or at 3AM when I woke up in the middle of the night. Don’t be afraid to write doubles when you’re prepping for a record. Sometimes wearing yourself out makes you just a little bit too tired to overthink things, and that’s when some magic can happen. There are many legendary stories about artists who wanted to track in the middle of the night, and half of me thinks that’s insane but the other half of me has to admit that I kinda get it.
If you’re going to be intense, however, breaks are just as important. 3-4 days of grueling long hours should really be followed but 2 days of absolute nothing…stupid TV shows, popcorn, and lots of naps. Go hard but then ABSOLUTELY go immediately home to recharge...that pace is productive but not necessarily sustainable.
There are many ways recording technology has improved drastically and I would honestly never want to go back to the 70’s and track the way they did. However, I think there’s really something to be said about taking the best parts of the traditional process and making them work in modern life. The wisdom of the older generation is real (except when it comes to the housing market). Cheers to another week of making great art!