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Audio Toyes #2 - Hammering out a Tune

Brian Toye
January 08, 2011

When a band or singer/songwriter comes forward with a song(s) and requests that I record those songs that is exactly what I will do. I am playing the role of the audio engineer and my job description involves capturing the best quality audio. An audio engineer does not focus on “the song” that is being recorded. He/She just knows what microphones capture what instruments best, where to place these microphones and how to best record the band. A producer/engineer however will meet with a band long before the recording process occurs. He/She will for a short time become an nth member of that band. All songs will be analyzed. Arrangements, lyrics, chord progressions, riffs, percussion and vocal harmonies. Depending on the agreed upon “goals” of the recording the band and producer will strive to best mold the songs toward the direction of this “goal”. My next few articles will focus on an example of my production/engineering process for a “fake” song I have written and will record/mix and master. The purpose of this is to enlighten bands and singer/songwriters what they can expect once they decide to work with a producer. Here is an example of something a singer songwriter may bring to me, a rough demo, to work with and re-record:

The first thing I do when approached as a producer 1) listen to the songs about ten times
(this is usually played live on acoustic guitar or piano, or from an mp3 recorder of sorts). 2) I then ASK WHAT THE GOAL OF THE PRODUCTION WILL BE. If the goal is not professional, ie. for fun/personal use to give family and friends copies then you can do whatever u want as far as arrangement and length of song. If the purpose is going to be shopping to record labels...well then you need to give them a radio worthy product. Something that competes in the radio market is usually under 3:45 in length and has a specific arrangement.

From here on in let's assume the goal is to shop our finished product to a record label.

So, I look at the song arrangement and adjust if I feel it can be improved upon. This can include deleting whole parts or including a new bridge where one was not originally present. I then listen to the lyrics and make sure that every phrase belongs and does not sound forced. Finally, I make sure the chosen vocal melodies are the best they can be for the particular song and choose the best tempo. As a producer I will write lyrics if its best for the song. For instance, producer Gavin Brown (Three Days Grace, Big Wreck/Thornley, Billy Talent) came up with the line "I hate everything about you" in the popular radio hit by Three Days Grace. You may also be aware of a little band out of Toronto called "My Darkest Days". I have toured/worked with these guys, great band. Check out their song "Porn Star Dancing" on you tube (Zakk Wylde, Chad Kroger, Ludacris). This singer from this band co wrote some of the Three Days Grace tunes. So if your the band leader/songwriter...don’t get stuck up on keeping it your way or the highway. Most of the time letting other minds add their two cents to a song you have brought to the table can lead to great things.

Once the artist and I come to an agreement on all the above fore-mentioned I start the pre-production. Creating a session in pro tools I will lay down a scratch piano or acoustic guitar guide at the tempo agreed upon. I will then sequence midi drums and bass. Then i will have the artist come in and track scratch vocals (guide vocals). I use transfer these vocals into a program called Melodyne and use it as a tool to try out different vocal harmonies. When I am happy with the harmonies and the artist agrees upon them we now have for the first time a complete “outline” of the song. It is fully written and arranged, the pre-production stage has been completed.

The next step will be to go into the studio and record all these arrangements with the best quality gear and session players possible (that the budget we have to work with will allow). Next week I will pick up here where we have left off. The take home message here this week is this: A) An engineer differs form a producer/engineer and B) Fully prepare before you go into a studio and don't leave any arrangements or writing to finish in the studio.