Every once in a while someone comes to me and they want to know how to do what I do. They ask: “Hey I want to learn more about mixing and mastering and recording, and what you do. Can you help me out with that?”
What they’re actually asking is, “Can you teach me to produce? Can you teach me to make great music?” I have to tell you that it’s A LOT more than mixing, mastering, and recording. It’s way more than the gear you use.
I’m going to walk you through a scenario where I have to teach you how to be a great producer in only 31 days. I’m not going to map out every day for you, but if you do the things I recommend you’ll become a half decent producer. You won’t be world class; you won’t be ready to jump out and make a great record, but you’ll be headed in the right direction.
1. Get a basic education of the craft of recording and the art of production
I’m going to recommend that you read a big stack of books. The first time you read them, I want you to blaze through then without taking notes. Focus on absorbing the information.
This book is going to teach you how to analyze a recording and reverse engineer what’s happening. As a producer, you don’t need to know how to record but you need to know how to communicate with recording engineers. You need to know what a great recording is. You need to learn how to tell a story using the elements available to you such as level, EQ, panning, spatial depth, etc.
Mixing with Your Mind is going to take you even further down the rabbit hole of crafting a compelling mix. You don’t need to know how to mix, but you need to know what a great mix so you can direct a mix engineer to the desired end result.
These books are a collection of first-hand interviews with some of the top producers of all time. You’ll learn about everything from mics to coaching a nervous singer. Through reading these books you’re going to start to understand how producers think.
I want you to read every issue of Tape Op that’s ever come out. Tape Op is a monthly recording magazine that focuses on creative recording techniques. Tape Op has also published 2 books:
This book will help you begin to understand how sound works in the air. It’s a technical book that will help you figure things out with your recording setup.
The Beatles pushed the art of production and recording to a new level. This book digs into each piece of studio gear used and how specific songs were recorded.
2. Listen to and study the best music of all time
Pick out 100-250 albums that you’ve never heard from this book and start listening. Everything he has in there is gold, and you need to steep your brain in what good music sounds like. Start doing this and don’t ever stop …except for when you’re reading these books.
Now you might be thinking, “I’m not a songwriter. I don’t need to know about songs.” Yes, you do. You need to know how to take a half-written song that an artist brings in and make it complete. You need to push your artist to write better songs, so you must know how to write songs.
This book is a series of interviews with the best songwriters of all time. It is going to further your education of what a great song is. You need to understand phrasing. You need to understand rhyming. You need to understand how a second verse should feel, and the only way you’re going to do that is by studying this.
3. Continue your study of songwriting
Once you’ve read all those books, you need to continue your study of songwriting in a different way. Take the entire catalog of The Beatles, James Taylor, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen. You need to sit and listen to their songs and copy the lyrics down by hand. I’m not talking about Googling the lyrics and printing them out; that’s not the same.
You need to write down each line, and if you miss it, rewind. Take the time to go through the entire catalog of songs like that. You need to know what a good song is at its core. You need to know what it feels like to write a great song, even if you never will write a song.
4. Learn what a great recording is
Once you’ve got an understanding what a great song is, you’ve also got to study what a great recording is. For that, I’m going to direct you to go back to Understanding and Crafting the Mix, by William Moylan.
In that book, he talks about this process of visually mapping out a recording. You’ll learn how to map out the highs & lows, different instruments, and when they enter. You’ll also learn about where instruments are panned and what the spatial depth is.
Go through this process with the late Beatles catalog, Pet Sounds, and a record that inspires you. This is going to help you understand what makes a great recording.
5. Learn to record from different angles
Once you’ve visually mapped out those recordings, put them into a DAW and use mid/side processing to only listen to the side. It’s very crucial that you learn to hear a record from all the different angles that you can listen to it. It’ll make sense when you do it.
6. Start recording
At this point, you’ve read, listened to lots of great music, analyzed lyrics, and analyzed recording. Now you’re ready to actually begin to do some recording. You’re not even close to being able to produce anyone yet, but you can start doing some recording.
You’ll need to set up your own little studio workshop somewhere, in a bedroom is fine. You will actually create carbon copy recordings of all these great recordings. So take Sgt. Pepper’s and try to record it from top to bottom. Play all the instruments, sing the lead, do everything you can to make it sound and feel as good as the original.
You’ll never achieve it, but it’s a worthy effort much like it’d be a worthy effort to trace the Mona Lisa if you were a painter. Your trace is never going to be as good as the original but you’re going to learn something along the way.
This might take you years to work through but you will be close to being able to produce someone. There is a crucial component you’re missing that we haven’t covered yet. We’ve worked on your listening, and skills but we haven’t interjected other people into the mix.
7. Study behavioral psychology
At this point, you need to completely let go of your ego and you need to study behavioral psychology. You need to understand what makes other people tick.
Your job is not to run the recording equipment; your job is not to be a one-man show. Your job is to translate the artist’s vision.
You must understand that you are not the artist. It isn’t your vision; it isn’t your record. You are there to help, serve, and guide. Anything other than that is taking away from the art. Your job is to help get the art made as high quality as it can be. Your goal is to keep it as close to the artist’s vision as humanly possible. The only way you can do that is to learn how to coach an artist.
You’ll need to learn how to look for subtle signs in their body language when they’re not telling you the truth. You need to be able to tell when they’re a little scared or when they’re about to shut down and you need to back off. These kinds of things cannot be taught through a book like everything else I’ve listed.
At some point, you have to actually get in the room with an artist. You’ll need to be sensitive to the fact that they’re in a very fragile state. They are bearing their soul and they have taken a huge leap of faith. Artists often risk their own money to create their art and you don’t want to make it uncomfortable for them.
To sum it all up, you’re going to…
- listen to music
- read books
- copy down songs
- recreate songs
- map out recordings
- learn about people
After that, you’ve actually got to do it. The fact of the matter is, you’re probably not going to get it right on your first try. It’s probably going to take you a decade of working with people and making every mistake under the sun.
I’m not just talking about the relational mistakes. You’ve also got to be able to balance a budget. You’ve got to be able to deliver something on time. You’ve got to be able to market your services and sell them. You’ve got to make sure that everyone gets paid. You’ve got to weed out the good session players from the bad. There’s a whole world to this work, it’s not just buying the right microphone.
If you’re reading this and you think “I can do that, that sounds interesting,” let me encourage you to go down the path. It’s a hard but very rewarding path to follow. If you’re thinking, “I just wanted to know the right microphone to buy,” you can finally understand that it’s not about the gear.