Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Identity Crisis

I’ve been thinking lately about identity. More specifically, an artist's identity or lack thereof. I think many artists have an identity crisis going on and they don’t even know it. What they think they are is often what they are not. And this is very important when we are all trying to be on the same page as far as production and mixing goes, because it all eventually ends up in how you are marketing your music. This is one of THE biggest problems I run into with new artists.

Let me use some examples to illustrate:
I had a band a few years ago that I needed to produce a few songs for. On their rough demo cd there was this one song they'd added as an afterthought that was actually the best song in the batch. It was a mid-tempo rock ballad. Out of the 4 songs we ended up recording, that song came out the best and got the band a lot of attention. Everyone I sent it to lost their minds (even to this day if that song is on a producer reel I give someone, the first question from the listener is “Who is that?”). At the time we did these songs Creed had kind of dropped of the charts and Nickelback hadn’t hit yet. I explained to the band that there was a hole in popular music for that big ‘fake’ metal rock stuff (I didn’t quite use those terms with them but that IS what it is) and that they could fill it. They had the sound, the singer had the voice, the timing was right and the interest was there.

The problem was that the band thought of themselves as a technical rock band more along the lines of System of a Down. They had NO songs that came close to sounding like that, and the few that were technical were very weak in the actual songwriting department and weren’t even interesting in the technical department either. (The singer had some pipes, but the musicianship was very weak - another misconception in the band). What they did really well and what they sounded like was the big Creed/Nickelback thing. I couldn’t convince them to do more songs like that, and in spite of the attention the ballad was getting they wouldn’t even play it at all of the gigs! Needless to say they toiled for a few more years, actually got an indie deal and recorded another album of misdirected songs (without using any producer) and they went nowhere.

Sometimes a band needs to step away from their egos and realistically look back on what they are doing, question their assumptions about themselves AND listen to the advice of their elders.

Here is another example: I was mixing for a band and the music was kind of a pop/rock mishmash. Not recorded or produced very well, which always makes mixing so much harder. They kept bugging me to put weird effects on things that seemed incredibly inappropriate for the songs and was making everything sound worse and ridiculous. I kept asking them to explain what they were going for and was told “We want to sound like the Beatles”. Man.... how could they be more off? I had to explain that I was not a magician. If they wanted to sound like the Beatles they needed to write songs that sounded like the Beatles first, and then record and produce songs as well as the Beatles did. How could they have gotten all the way to mixing and not realized this?

More recently I was at a rehearsal for a band I’ll be working with soon that has a very powerful modern commercial rock sound. They're a very good band, have great songs and the singer can belt (very Jeff Buckley-like). During a break the singer says he wants the drums to sound very garage band or maybe like Hendrix or Led Zeppelin and explains that he has spent a lot of time playing blues and old school rock. Now I LOVE those bands, but what he doesn’t recognize is that he has grown up in the modern age and IS a product of now. I think what he really wants to do is pay homage to the legends, which is honorable, but not a true representation of what he actually IS.

This project is in it’s early stages and I have yet to see what will happen. It is very difficult to make young artists see that what they grew up listening to and dreaming about becoming is not usually realistic because the times, sounds and music business have changed and, most importantly, you must find your own voice, your true voice, to speak through.
- Do you really know what you’re best at?
- Can you accurately identify the things that are connecting with your listeners?
- Are you trying to be your favorite band from your childhood or are you trying to be what you should sound like in 3 years?

Be honest with yourself. I’m not saying don't reach and stretch who you are, but do sit back and try to be objective. Be real about the things that ARE working and have worked. Stick with what you are good at.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mix Compression: Two Approaches

I was on and came across a very heated discussion about mixing compression on the mix bus. Someone had made a comment about not using it and it went on and on about whether you should, how you should use it, what gear or plugins you should use, and so on. I really don’t want to get into all that right now, but I will re-post what I posted on gearslutz here:

There is no one answer to whether you should use compression on your mix buss or not. Everyone has a different approach and I have gone through my own phases where I did or didn’t compress the mix. (Presently I’m off it, but I do happily compress about everything else and I’m using a slight limiter on the mix.)

I once had the honor of moderating a panel for NARAS that had Brendan O'Brien and Jimmy Douglass on it. What a treat! I threw away the questions that had been prepared for me and asked all the things I had heard rumors about and wondered myself for years. One of these was about mix compression. When asked what each of them used on their mixes Jimmy's answer was "None", Brendan's was "YES! Lots! Sometimes 2 or 3 compressors in a row".

Now I think this shows a fault in how people ask these kind of questions- or rather, the results they hope to achieve. They want to find an answer or technique that they can just plug in to their current routine to get the same results as the one that they are getting the advice from. But it is totally out of context. Whatever Jimmy is doing in other parts of his mix means he doesn't need to use comp on the buss. Brendan on the other hand is working towards using that, and I'll bet is running some sort of compression from the start.

Mixing (and production) is like cooking. There are lots of ingredients that must be added at the right time, in the right order, in the right amounts to get the right results. Yet strangely it might come out differently the next time. And someone else might cook something equally as good, but take a different route.

* * *
A few other interesting notes from that panel:
I asked both of them how long they spent mixing a song. Jimmy: 2 or 3 days. Brendan: 5 to 6 hours.
Was it true that Brendan uses the same bass guitar that he’s had for years with the same original strings on every song? (this based on a rumor I’ve heard around Atlanta from a few people) “No!”, he laughed. While he does have a favorite bass and the strings might be old (he didn’t really know when they’d been changed, so they are probably old) he doesn’t use it on everything, just when appropriate. Again, think of the context. I’ll bet there are several rock producers who heard this rumor and stopped changing their bass strings.