Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thoughts and Suggestions From A Fellow Veteran Musician

I have been making a living at music my whole adult life and had to learn on the fly. I grew up way before blogs and I thought I'd offer some of the little things I learned along the way.

What are our strengths and weaknesses as musicians? We all have correctable  tendencies and over time with lots of practice we can learn tricks of the trade to help mask our weaknesses. It's vital to remember that nobody does everything great, so as in life, each of us needs to discover and then improve upon what is needed to make us the very best that we can be. As a lifetime musician, I know of which I speak. There is always room to learn but but must first decide who and what we are so we can set our course. You will be refining and re-inventing that course your whole life but you must stay on course. 

There are three major skill sets we need to master if we want to be successful as a professional musician. First we need to write good songs. That will take a lifetime for sure! Secondly, we prepare for and execute our songs at live shows. It's really good preparation for the eventual recording. The third and arguably the most difficult is how do we become skilled and professional studio musicians and producer/arrangers?

Although we play and sing the same songs live and in the studio, these skill levels are miles apart. Most of us spend the majority of our careers performing. Performing live takes years to conquer and always keeps evolving. We all try to learn the best of our songs and rehearse them over and over until we feel great about our skill level. There is also the crowd rapport and how we set up and end our songs. That is every bit as important as the songs. We all are constantly honing our writing skills and learn to write as efficiently as possible, "don't bore us, get to the chorus" kind of thing as well as many other techniques as inner rhyming and on and on. Remember, listen to the songs that inspired you to want to write and try to understand why those songs are so great. Once our song is finally ready, we want to record it!

Nowadays, many of us have our own studios and we can make and release our own records with having a record deal! Because we usually have 0 budget, we must learn skills that we once paid others to do when we had a budget. I have been recording in my studio now going on 15 years give or take a few. Because I now engineer and produce myself, I have learned about my and other singers/players' tendencies. Becoming aware of sloppy work is the first step in correcting it. We all sound great in the shower but there is no "playback button" to hear how it really sounded! Here are a few tendencies that I have discovered and have worked hard to correct.

 First off, it becomes quite apparent when we lay down a guitar track or piano or whatever you play, most of us tend to rush. It feels like we are playing with the click track until we look at the bar lines and see how ahead we are. Our immediate reaction is that the click track must be slowing down! It's extremely difficult to play an exciting part and keep it laid back. Musicians that spend the majority of their time in the studio have great rhythmic time. Performers spend so much of our time playing live that floating time, flat/sharp notes and other flaws are very expectable because of the visual aspect of performing. Take that away and we have to sing and play great in order to make a professional recording. Rehearsing to a metronome is great practice. 

One of my other recording tendencies was to come in flat for the first note and by the second note I was locked in. I just didn't prepare properly for the entrance. Start focussing on the opening pitch that you need to hit before you start to sing. It's all about preparation and execution. Others I know will throw away pick up notes which is OK unless you plan to harmonize down the road. What note does the guy singing harmony sing when you ghost your note? Singing in tune the majority of the time takes practice and more importantly, it takes an enormous amount of concentration. Any drift away thoughts will affect your singing or your playing. Stay focussed as much as you can. Also, learn to be consistent with cut offs again so when and if you sing a harmony there aren't multiple cut offs with rouge consonants that become a mixing nightmare. Fix it now, not in the mix. Be consistent with your proximity to the mic. You would be amazed at how different your voice sounds if you are a little off axis when singing. Another mix nightmare. Take notes on your mic pre and compressor so that if and when you you have to re-record something, you won't spend hours trying to match the sound of the original recording. Another technique I like to use is when I am punching in an existing instrumental or vocal track, I always start recording before the punch spot just to get into the feel of the track. Digitally, you have the ability to peel back to the original track and just keep the new punch but it doesn't sound like one.

 Another tendency in players and I am guilty of it is that we tend to rush more right before a b-section or chorus change. I suppose it's because mentally we know a change is coming and start preparing for it before it actually gets there. Just try to lay back as much as you can and even though you may think you're lagging behind, more often you will be much closer to the pocket. 

Here are a few more things to ask yourself, "Do I do this". When you play guitar be aware of what strings actually fit into the chord. I have heard musician after musician for example play an D chord and include the low E string in the strumming. Not a good thing! Mute the strings that don't fit. If you were playing a piano, you wouldn't play those notes so be aware of that when you play guitar. You probably aren't even aware that you are doing it. 

Another live performance thought is how to sing harmony. Usually in the studio, we sing harmony to an existing lead vocal so all we need to focus on is singing our part correctly and with purpose. The mix will make the blend happen but when you sing harmony live, most of us don't have engineers mixing the performance. It is up to the singer and or player to mix themselves as they perform. Remember no matter how much you love your part, if you're not the lead then you need to sing and play your part so that the featured part takes the lead. If your secondary support track sticks out, then you need to refine your blending technique. Remember, it's not a contest rather a team effort where everyone performing needs to now just where they fit in and stay there!

This is my final suggestion but one technique that seems to be overlooked. When we record a guitar track, on the last chord of a song, we want it to ring out as long as the instrument still is making sound. It's much like when you throw a rock into a calm lake and we watch the circle get bigger and bigger until it's gone. Let the instrument do it's thing when you finish a song live. So many musicians I watch on stage are so anxious to tune up or get to the next song that they don't let the last chord ring out like we do when recording. Let the beauty of the instrument's final chord ring until it's no longer there. It's a beautiful thing to hear!

There are so many more but my fingers are getting tired!

John Batdorf