May 7th, 2015

get it out there

As an independent producer/engineer, I work in a lot of different capacities on a lot of different types of projects. Sometimes I’m just putting a mix on something someone else has recorded, and sometimes I’m intimately involved with every aspect of a project from a piano/vocal demo through to mastering. Most projects fall somewhere between those two extremes, and as such I’ve gotten to work with a lot of different types of artists.

I’m currently working with an artist who’s been working on the same record on and off for close to three years. We’ve spent well north of a thousand hours on this project over that period of time. We’ve produced the record once, completely remixed it twice, and are currently on our second round of mastering. It’s an epic project, sort of insanely so.

(I want to take a sidebar here to say that, in this very specific case, it may actually end up being worth it, because the artist in question is extraordinarily talented, is doing something musically unique, has a tremendous long-term vision, and has raised herself a formidable budget. She wants to debut this body of work at Disney Hall with a 100-person dance troupe, and you know what, she’ll probably pull it off. She’s one in a million.)

But what about the rest of us? What about normal artists, singer-songwriter types, who have written some songs on their acoustic guitar, who don’t have infinite budgets, and who are embarking on making recordings? Is this type of obsessive long-term epic recording project healthy? Is it a good idea to take a long time making and releasing recordings?

I want to make the argument that no, it’s absolutely not. In a recent and somewhat related piece, I talked about how it can be difficult for budding artists/producers to know when a recording is finished. In a computer-powered world of infinite possibilities, it’s all too easy to become paralyzed. What if I change this drum sound? What if that acoustic guitar were an electric guitar? Now what if it were a piano part instead?

You can go in circles. Any song can be recorded and re-recorded in any one of a thousand ways. No recording is going to be the perfect, end-all statement on a particular song. We’ve all heard enough great cover songs to know this to be true. So why on earth should we be obsessing and reworking and exploring every option? It’s so time-consuming. And our time is limited, and should not be wasted.

So I want to use my space here today to encourage you when you’re working on recordings to:

1) choose a path,

2) go down it as purposefully and efficiently as possible until you’ve finished what you’ve started, and then

3) put it out in the world asap and move forward.

This last point deserves a little expanding upon, because I think it’s the most important point here. Your goal as an artist is to tell a story of yourself, and to get that story in front of as many people as possible.To do that, you need to have your work out there, working for you. Every day that you’re revisiting a work in progress is a day that it isn’t out there in the world doing the work you need it to be doing on your behalf, pushing your story forward.

None of us is getting any younger. Time is fleeting. The best time to put out work is when it’s fresh – not just fresh for the world, but fresh for you. Because you’ll be more excited about it, and therefore more enthusiastic about it, and therefore you’ll tell your story in a more compelling way.

Further: I have this idea that the best records are snapshots of where the people who made it were at a particular moment in time. If you take too long working and reworking a record, by the time you put it out, that record may well no longer reflect who you are as a person. And I think there’s a real danger there.

My obsessive friend has devoted three years of her life so far to this record of hers. By the time she puts it out, it’ll probably be closer to four. That’s over 10% of how long she’s been alive. Will the record even still be relevant at that point to who she is as an artist or as a person, four years or more after composing this body of work? I think that as a unique, extreme situation, it’s a good opportunity for some abstract reflection. She’s betting that it’s going to work for her, and I’m taking that bet with her. But I’d also bet that taking four years to make a record won’t work for most people.

Indeed, I’d suggest that for most people, taking any significant amount of time to put out a recording could be a significant impediment, perhaps even a career-killer. Forward momentum is a real thing.

So: make lots of recordings, make them quickly, get them out in the world quickly, and continue to build your story. That’s my thought for the day. Email me if you have thoughts or want to talk about this further …

{ originally published at Pyragraph }

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April 30th, 2015

six tips for successful self-producing

Recently I wrote an article about how hard it is when you’re self-producing to know when you’re done with a recording. It’s hard! But despair not; in this week’s article, I’m going to offer some ideas on how to make well-produced recordings.

The easy and obvious way to make good recordings is to find a good producer to work with. Good producers have developed a 6th sense that tells them when a recording is working. It’s pretty impossible to communicate – for me it’s sort of like a sensation of something that was itching having been scratched. I assume it’s different for everyone, and similarly nebulous. But if you have one of us working for you, we will let you know when that’s happening for us. That’s a large part of what we’re there for.

But what if you can’t work with a good producer? Well, first of all, hint hint, you can – email me. But let’s say that you don’t have a budget, or you like doing things yourself, or there is some other circumstance that’s precluding you from engaging a professional. What should you do then?

My single biggest piece of advice would be: focus on the song. I know this probably sounds like “duh” when I write it out all straightforward like that, but it’s amazing how many people get all caught up in the process of making a recording and totally lose sight of why they’re making the recording in the first place. Without a song, you’ve got nothing. So put the song at the center of your vision. What does the song need? What are you trying to communicate with this piece of art you’re making? Refer back to this thought constantly and you’ll be in decent shape.

Idea number two: under-produce. Or, to put it another way: when in doubt, go minimal. The single biggest cause of getting stuck and not finishing records is the “It just needs one more thing” trap. All of a sudden you’ve got 40 tracks of acoustic guitars and keyboards and everything’s muddled and nothing’s making any sense. So: why don’t you try to see how few tracks can you use, and still communicate what the song needs to communicate? Again, it’s all about the song.

Idea number three: place artificial constraints on your means of production. Computer recording is a double-edged sword. Its infinite possibilities can be overwhelming. Something that can work wonders is to pretend that you’re working on tape. Limit yourself to 16 or 24 tracks. This will force you to get honest fast about what’s essential to a recording and what’s not.

Idea number four: place artificial constraints on how much time you have to spend on the record. If you have a fixed amount of time in which to work, you’ll be much more focused. Hiring a producer, by the way, is a great way to limit the amount of time you have, as most likely you don’t have infinite money. Although, if you do, email me.

Idea number five: trust your gut, and work quickly. This is another big one. If you can habituate yourself to working quickly, and if you can be critical and continually edit and refine your work as you go, you’ll make good recordings. Period. And you’ll make a lot of them, improving and refining your skills with each successive one.

Idea number six: be you. I see a phenomenon constantly with bedroom producers, in which they compare their work to records made by world-famous people with essentially unlimited resources, and the recordings they’re making don’t stand up. Well of course they don’t! Because it’s not a fair comparison. And that’s OK.

Just do the best you can. It’s seductive to dream about your painstakingly crafted bedroom recordings competing sonically with million-dollar major-label projects. That whole “If only I keep working on this just a little longer” thing. But, let’s be honest – that’s a long shot. So my advice would be for you to set yourself a more realistic goal of making the best recordings you can with the tools and skills you currently have – without setting up unrealistic points of comparison.

So to sum up: 1) make the best recordings you can, that 2) honor your songs as best you can, and 3) do so as quickly as possible. Then get out there and sell some copies of what you’ve made, so that next time around you can make a better recording with the skills you developed while making the last batch. Onward and upward!

{ originally published at Pyragraph }

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April 18th, 2015

know when to stop

Okay, quick show of hands. Do any of the following describe you?

You’ve been working on your record for over a year, and you’re feeling stuck.

You’re creating your masterwork. It’s special, and it needs more time than average records.

You’re into your 25th round of mixes. They just need a couple more tweaks!

You keep hearing different ideas for what the left-hand could be doing in the piano part in the verse of this one song.

You can’t release this album yet. It’s not perfect yet. But it’s really close!

You keep thinking you need to change little details. Then a week later you’re changing them back.

You’ve been working on your record so long that you’ve lost all perspective, and you have no idea how anything really sounds any more.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, take heart: you’re not alone. Knowing when a recording should be finished is probably the single hardest aspect of producing records.

Now that we all have computers, recording has become to a large degree untethered from constraints of time and budget. We can just keep opening our sessions and tweaking things, in the comfort of our homes, for free and forever. On the (tremendous) up side, this is a truly revolutionary case of putting the means of production squarely in the hands of the proletariat. We all now have access to virtual studios in our laptops that can turn out results that twenty years ago you needed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear to make. Not to mention total recall on session files and mixes. It’s amazing.

On the (also tremendous) down side, if you don’t have well-developed production instincts, then every song has the potential to be a never-ending rabbit hole of infinite choice. And this is bad, for a bunch of reasons:

On a purely aesthetic level, I have a strong belief that the strongest recordings serve as snapshots of where the people who made it were at in their lives at a specific moment in time. If you work on a record for too long, you can lose that all-important feeling of zeitgeist.

You can destroy an interesting recording by over-analyzing it. This is a deceptively simple concept that some people fail to grasp over their entire careers. Read this paragraph again.

Related: if you keep going back and endlessly revising things, you run an ever-increasing risk of polishing out all the quirks that make your recording unique and interesting. You know when you hear some shiny piece of crap on the radio and it’s so perfect that it’s completely soulless and devoid of any human connection? You don’t want to make that record.

Your best work is always going to be in front of you. You have to believe that; it’s the essential definition of what it means to be an artist. So, given that: the more time you spend endlessly reworking the record you’re currently working on, the more you’re depriving yourself of the chance to move forward and discover what’s in store for you next. And why would you be purposefully depriving yourself of the chance to progress as an artist?

I sense you nodding in agreement; these things are all indeed bad. So, how do you avoid them? That’s next week’s article. See you back here then!

{ originally published at Pyragraph }

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April 16th, 2015

so this happened

Note the play count. Holy shit!

"I know, I know; I've been there, too."

That's the message of this video and song – the first single from my upcoming…

Posted by Shannon Curtis on Tuesday, April 7, 2015



February 21st, 2015

no, your record doesn’t have to sound like your live show

Today I’m going to go on a mini-rant for a moment. Thanks for bearing with me …

More times than I can remember, I’ve been talking with an aspiring artist about the process of recording, and they’ll assert that their vision and priority for their record is that “it has to sound like my live show.”

I just want to take a moment to say: that’s totally not true. Who said that? There isn’t a rule anywhere about that. Especially because your live show is probably just you and an acoustic guitar. And that would be a boring-ass record. Second most boring: you and your acoustic guitar at the front and center of a minimal guitar-bass-drums arrangement. I’m sure you know great players. But everyone’s heard that record about a thousand times. And we don’t need to hear it yet again.

Unless you’re making a live record, “I want my record to sound like my live show” is an apples-to-oranges comparison. A recording is an opportunity to write your feelings on a large screen. It’s a chance to use a much bigger and more ambitious sonic palette than you would have access to in a typical live situation. (See also my previous post on differentiating yourself in the marketplace via sonic adventuresomeness.) And, most importantly, it’s a chance to make a statement.

And, really, do you want that statement to be, “I have such a low opinion of my audience that I want to make sure they can connect the dots between my live performance and my recorded output in the most reductive, literal, obvious way possible?” Geez, I’d hope not.

Give your audience a little credit. And give them a treat when they take your record home. Take them on an adventure. Give them something special to form a bond with, not a reconstruction of what they just heard you do on stage. Take the conversation to the next level.

Rant over. If you have a recording you’ve made recently that has adventurous leanings, find me on Facebook at the link above and share it with me; I’d love to hear it!

{ originally published at Pyragraph }

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February 13th, 2015

Jonathan Belanger – Patterns EP

Here’s something brand new that I produced last month. Experimental alternative singer-songwriter pop, I guess I’d call it? In any event, it’s excellent.



February 11th, 2015

A Thought On Artist-Producer Communication

When I’m considering working with a new artist, I generally suggest that we do one song together first to see whether the relationship works. So in this spirit, last month I had a singer-songwriter come by the house. There was something in this woman’s writing and voice that really resonated with me, and that I thought I could contribute something positive to.

She came over and played me a bunch of songs, and we picked one to start with. What I typically do next is to demo up some production ideas in the computer, to get the conversation started. But before that, it’s important for me to get a sense of what the artist is hearing in their head production-wise. Especially when an artist has started a song with just an acoustic guitar, it could go in any one of a dozen directions.

So I had her play me some inspiration tracks in Spotify. I had been hearing a Beth Orton sort of thing for her material; she played me Meiko and Lucy Rose. Which, if you think about it, are pretty compatible vision-wise with my Beth Orton idea: a tightly produced balance of acoustic instruments, electronic instruments, and drum programming.

So based on that, I got started on a production template. I did an acoustic drum kit and upright bass in the verses, and then brought in some drum machines and synth bass to make a dark scene change into the choruses. Then I had the artist over to start fleshing it out.

And she hated it. Hated it! She had a viscerally negative reaction, specifically to the drum machines and synthesizers. Which, of course, were directly cued from her inspiration tracks. So I probed on that point, asking whether it was the parts the electronic instruments were doing, or perhaps the sounds I’d chosen. But no, it was the very fact of their existence. “My sound is folky-jazzy,” she said by way of explanation.

Huh.

I have two thoughts here. The first one is that this artist did exactly the right thing, in that moment. If you’re an artist, and you’re working with a producer, you have to be your own best advocate. If something is happening that isn’t resonating with your vision of who you are, then it’s critically important that you speak up. Only through your fastidious curation will you end up with a record that’s the best possible representation of who you are.

My second thought is that this artist could probably have communicated way better with her inspiration tracks, which turned out to be highly misleading. It turned out that what she liked about those tracks was that the acoustic guitar was front and center, and that both singers were husky altos like her. Which is a very different story than the one I’d been ostensibly presented with, given that I specifically had asked to hear songs whose production and sound she found inspiring.

Collaboration is challenging, and fraught with the potential for misunderstanding. Therefore it’s extra important to be as clear as possible with your communication as you enter into a new creative relationship. Get your expectations and hopes clear with yourself before bringing them to someone else, communicate them unambiguously, and you’ll get started off on the right foot.

{ originally published at Pyragraph }

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January 23rd, 2015

mosaic quartet: bugs ep

Here are 6 songs I recorded with The Mosaic Quartet over the last year or so, collected as an EP and released today. Great material.



January 13th, 2015

sound different

Full disclosure: I have an adventurous and wide-ranging sonic palate, as a producer and also as a listener. It’s probably a product of when I grew up. Every song on the radio when I was a kid sounded pretty wildly different from every other song. This was thrilling to ten-year-old me; I spent hundreds of hours transfixed in front of the radio, wondering exactly how each otherworldly combination of sounds had been achieved. It was mind-blowing. Every song – and, by extension, every artist – had a distinct and unique personality, as expressed via its sonic imprint.

That’s a bit of context for today’s observation: I see a phenomenon constantly with up-and-coming artists, wherein they are very concerned with emulating very precisely a particular style or sound or textural palette (or, worst of all, a specific artist). I think a lot of really talented songwriters are doing themselves a huge disservice by taking this approach, and so I want to use my space today to encourage songwriters to embrace a spirit of sonic adventuresomeness, both in their live show and, particularly, in their recordings. Here’s why:

If other people are achieving success with a certain sound, that means that you have less chance of succeeding with that same sound, not more.

I was at a party a couple weeks ago, and I found myself sitting in a group of 5 female singer-songwriters. This can happen in LA. Anyway, I went around and asked everyone what their sound was. Every answer was some variation on “acoustic something or other.”

And you know what? Most likely none of their recordings will be listened to by anyone outside of their small core group of supporters, because a) they’re all making similar-sounding recordings, which b) are going to sound like a bunch of other recordings that are already in the marketplace. Tons of people are making acoustic-based recordings right now; acoustic-based music has been really popular for the last few years. Which means that the marketplace is becoming saturated with recordings that all have essentially the same sound.

This observation is by no means limited to acoustic music. There will always be a market for acoustic music. The point is that when you go to a show and all four artists sound basically the same, they’re cannibalizing each other’s markets. Why would I buy each artist’s EP, if they all sound basically the same? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m always looking for the thing that sets itself apart from the pack. I don’t need a record that sounds like another record I already own.

Or, to put it another way: if an artist says to me “My sound is like Matt Nathanson,” my first thought is, “Oh, I should listen to that new Matt Nathanson record!” Because why would I want to listen to a cheap knockoff of an already-popular artist, when I could just go straight to the source?

Or to put it yet another way: the world doesn’t need another Matt Nathanson. The world already has Matt Nathanson. What the world needs is your unique voice.

I was working with a band last year, and we went through this interesting period where they were trying to insist that they wanted some very specific EDM production flourishes in their recordings – drops and so on – because “that’s what’s on the radio right now.” And I understand the impulse. But if something’s on the radio right now, here’s the thing: it’s already yesterday’s news. Audiences don’t want more of the same – they want what’s next. As an artist, you want to be like a wide receiver. You don’t want to be where the ball is now; you want to be where the ball is going to be. If you’re making a record right now, it will be 3 months minimum before those recordings hits the streets, right? Potentially much longer. And by then all those of-the-moment sounds that you put in your recording will sound badly behind the times. And you don’t want to sound dated, do you?

Also, industry doesn’t want more of what it’s already got. No one at a record label is going to sign someone who sounds exactly like an artist they already have – because they already have the original, and they don’t want to cannibalize their profits.

If you’re thinking of your career like a small business – and you should be – you should be constantly thinking about how to differentiate yourself in a crowded marketplace. What makes your music stand out? A good song isn’t enough. Everyone has a good song or two. What’s going to make people prick up their ears? What’s going to call attention to what you’re doing?

So that’s my thought for the week: I want to encourage you to figure out a way to differentiate yourself sonically in the marketplace. Get a new guitar pedal and figure out a new dimension to your personal sonic landscape. Hell, get a drum machine. There aren’t any rules! Experiment with some synthesizer sounds in GarageBand. Listen to some dub. Expand your horizons. Making electronic music? Experiment with some acoustic textures. It goes both ways. The point is to push your boundaries. Make something interesting and forward-looking and unique.

You probably have a couple of fantastic songs that deserve to be heard on a wider basis – but if your recordings sound the same as a thousand others, they’re not going to stand out. And you want to stand out. Right?

{ originally published at Pyragraph }



December 19th, 2014

merry diss-mas

Here’s a Christmas song featuring Fabolous that I did additional production on and mixed. Funny shit.