Wearing the Three Hats in Production

I’'ve been hard at work on another one of those projects, the kind where a company has invested a pile of money to have a group of pop songs written and recorded for a soundtrack and the results just aren’t quite making it. The clients come to me and ask, "“Can you make this work?”" My job is to get rid of "“almost,"” you know, almost good, almost professional. My first task is analyzing the songs and determining where they'’ve gone wrong: – is the flow or the tension structure not working? Is some instrument getting in the way or missing? In order to get started I ask for isolated multi-tracks files and I rework them, subtracting parts when needed and/or adding whatever is necessary by performing the parts or bringing in musicians. Then I produce a final, modern mix. These jobs require that I wear the three hats of producer, engineer, and musician simultaneously, and that can be quite a challenge. Tres Sombreros!

The latest job is a raft of four songs in very different genres. I’'ve got to say that the songs, the basic frameworks, are quite good this time, by and large. I'’ve got a Doobie-esque island song like the song "Mamaloi" off their second album Toulouse Street. Another song has the makings of a Toto-esque power ballad with strings, electric guitar, and synths. There's a dance/trance piece with a quick 4/4 beat. And finally there is a peppy, guitar-based, Ryan Adams-esque straight-ahead-pop-rocker. Each has its own problems that I'll have to address individually but all share at least one common problem.

As usual, the drums are the foundation. Drums are the heartbeat of rock and pop. – If you miss them in either groove or sound, the whole picture will just be... off. You can waste a lot of time trying to bring life to a piece and find yourself stymied at every turn if you don’t get the drums right to start with, so that’s where I always begin. If the groove is off I have to rebuild the drum parts in the DAW to make them carry the song and talk to one another. I've got a couple of drummers I keep in mind and try to emulate when I am sequencing the drums. Another factor I need to consider is whether the drum sounds are contributing to the movement of the song and whether they are up to date. If not, I replace the affected sounds with Wavemachine Labs’ Drumagog plugin and adjust them until they establish that groove the song needs..


In this raft of songs I took on the dance piece as my first challenge. My thought was that I was going to have to venture a little outside of my wheelhouse on this one so I'd better give myself the most time to do it. The first problem was that the drum sounds from the demo mixes were absolutely out-of-date, thin-sounding, and simply wrong for dance or trance, so I replaced some of them with thicker, fuller sounds to match the current market. Most important was finding a kick with character and girth, because modern dance really emphasizes the kick. Next, it felt as though the rhythm section wasn’'t bouncy or punchy enough when it expressed the basic rhythmic hook that was repeated between sections throughout the song. Lately analog synths are all the rage in dance and trance so I brought in my vintage 1970s MiniKorg analog synth and added parts. The basic rhythm figure needed some impact so I built a Korg synth bass patch with some “pluck” and recorded a part that doubled the existing line. Next I ran this track through the Waves Renaissance Bass plugin to synthesize some further low-end sub-harmonics. To give some definition I added a second iteration an octave higher to allow me to blend between the two for definition and low-end “chunk” once I got into the mix phase.

Mid-1970s MiniKorg

Next, the two transitional measures between the rhythm intro figure and the verses just held a note and allowed the tension to sag too much so I added some growly filter sweep sounds to fill them up and maintain tension. The rhythm hook is repeated throughout the song between each chorus and verse without any change, so it gets a bit repetitious. I used the modern Roland GR-20 polyphonic guitar synth to add a nice little melodic riff over the second and third statements of the figure to develop it and add complexity. Then it was time to treat the vocals. The verses are sung by a solo female vocalist who does this interesting little signature climbing hook in the middle of each verse with a space following it so I thought, '“Why not make that even more ear-catching?'” After hand-leveling her performance with automation, I brought in a ping-pong delay synced to the tempo of the song. I automated a send to the delay and wrote the send level so that it caught only the last syllable of the climbing hook and repeated it in the space, also sending the output of the delay to the reverb. Instant hook and interest! Finally, I spent a while cleaning up and blending the chorus sections that are accompanied by a small choir. et Voile’! With a modern mix, we'’ve got a dance piece. Click HERE for an edited excerpt. (All clips Copyright © & ℗ 2016)


On day three I started on the Doobie-esque song. There were a lot of interesting percussion elements on the multi-tracks but I needed to establish a funky swing as the foundation for the song so I put up the drum kit tracks and got a basic mix. Next I replaced some of the drum sounds for greater impact, brought the percussion back in, and built a conversation between the kick, snare, shaker, and congas by adding some syncopated kicks and hits. Whenever the Doobies did an island feel they included strummed acoustic guitars, so I added a pair of acoustics panned outboard, strumming the chords with plenty of funky backbeat emphasis. In order to get just the pick strokes with little body sound I went with a Taylor x14 played with a lighter pick to get the scrape. Some hate light picks but they do have their place in recording. I recorded it with a reasonably bright AKG C451B mic set back by about twenty inches from the tenth fret to avoid proximity effect. I performed the part twice and panned the guitars away from the center to give room for the vocals. Once the parts were located in the mix I put them on a stereo group fader with a stereo EQ plugin and dipped away a bit more of the lower-mids. With a little peak in the upper-mids, the “chirp” of the guitars cuts through nicely without excessively swelling the mids in the mix.

For some unknown reason the composer/arranger created a middle eight solo break three-quarters of the way through the song coming out of the chorus, but he supplied no solo. As a result, the song'’s tension just bleeds out during that passage. Time to ply the Telecaster. I recorded it in stereo from a Line6 HD500X modeler using my patented Fender Deluxe Reverb® model that I'’ve tweaked up with some special sauce including a pinch of reverb and delay. Since I didn’'t have a lot of time to think ahead, I developed the solo right there in the control room. I began by creating a chordal beginning section that semi-quoted the vocal melodic and harmonic figure from the chorus so that the solo would follow on nicely from the chorus. Then to develop the tension, I decided to spend the rest of the solo going into a sort of free-flying walk up the fingerboard over an octave and then work back down to rejoin the final chorus. It was a challenge getting the old fingers to pull off in real time what I had just created in my brain but “challenges 'r’ us.” After trying to perform it in sections to save time because it was easier, I just didn’'t like the feel. There was nothing for it except to work through several takes, encouraging and cajoling myself and improving my performance until I was able to get it in one take from front to back, cleanly and with feeling. Once I got a good take in the can I was able to relax and track a second one that duplicated the first. When mixed and panned together their tiny differences imparted an interesting warble to the sound. Click HERE for an edited sample including the guitar solo.


The next song was the Toto-esque ballad. It was a great basic song but the quiet passages were too rhythmically simple to hold interest, the build-up passages didn’t build enough, and in the guitar solo section the keyboard and string tracks ballooned and nearly swallowed the guitar alive. It was a real "lion in mouse's clothing!" My first task was to rebuild the drums with new sounds, once again selecting a new, modern-sounding kick that had some bottom but really strong upper-mid click. With the basic drum sound in place, I worked through the song section by section. In the quiet verses the drums just dropped out and the song meandered without a rhythm drive other than the kick. To keep up interest and propel the passage along I added a side-stick snare on the backbeat that kept up the drive.

Next I began to work on the guitars, beginning with the intro. The main guitar riff was cool enough but as recorded was thin and performed on only one guitar. Out came the Telecaster again and I beefed up the riff by adding a complimentary part played twice and panned outboard. The same riff was repeated under the choruses so I repeated the treatment there. I did the same for the build sections and then added a chunka-chunka rhythm part very quietly during the verses to drive them along. Next I had to consider the guitar solo. The solo supplied by the composer was a pretty good “played for the song” piece so I felt no need to come along and replace it just to stroke my own ego. It did, however, need to be highlighted so that it could “be all that it could be.” It was recorded mono and didn'’t command attention, so to spread it a bit and make it command the space I added a stereo tape echo (UA Powered Plug-ins Roland RE-201 Space Echo) and a pinch of reverb.

To give room in the arrangement for the guitar solo to breathe I started by grabbing virtually all of the keyboards, guitars, and strings, and yanking them way down in the mix. Of course, with virtually none of the "gravy" instruments at all it sounded too empty, so I brought back in the simple electric rhythm guitar part to quietly carry the chordal structure of the song with the bass. Next, as we progressed through the solo to the peak I gradually worked the strings and keys back in and laid down a bit of chunka-chunka chugging rhythm guitar and brought it in gently to build the passage to a crescendo. The effect was to create a breakdown at the beginning and then build the rhythm section back up to the climax. Then I automated the lead guitar’'s send to the reverb and echo and subtly brought both up when the guitar reached the last, held note. Just for good measure, I also automated the reverb time and took it up very long, imparting this really epic feel to the held last note of the solo. Bam!

Still, as I reviewed the resultant song from top to bottom it still just seemed to lack something, some rhythm section motion, in the verses. After leaving work that day I toyed with the notion of adding an arpeggiated acoustic guitar part. I turned it over in my mind overnight and came back ready the next morning. With the Taylor 314kce guitar I arpeggiated the chords, playing fingerstyle on the sixteenth notes overlaying the 4/4 tempo. I applied the same sort of mic’ing and EQ as I had on the previous song so that only the top-end articulation of the part could be heard with only a little body sound so that I didn’t swell the midrange of the mix. Voile’! Instant, pretty, forward motion for the verses and a feeling of completion. I spent the rest of the day cleaning up and organizing the voices and working on the preliminary mix. You can click HERE for an edited sample mix-minus-vocals.


The next day I began on the Ryan Adams type pop-rocker. I loved the basic song and thought it would serve as a great little “reward” for me at the end of the project. The very first thing it needed was a good kick drum replacement via Drumagog. I was amazed at how much that added. As arranged it just started, rather abruptly, without any preamble. Whack! In your face. In this case there needed to be some sort of drum intro on the three and four beats of the count-in measure preceding the ensemble to lead us in, so I built a nifty little drum figure via editing, using parts from later in the song. Next, the verses were stranded without a drum kit once again. The kick only landed on every other beat and the verses just lagged. I added a side-stick snare again and put a kick drum hit on each beat and it cheered things right up.

The next consideration was the main guitar riff. Once again it was an adequate figure but as executed it was just too thin and unexciting. I brought out the Tele and Line6 modeler again and re-played the riff adding some excitement and,… um... swagger. Let’s face it: sometimes nothing sells a song like a little swagger and bravado. That means some little bends here and there and a little… aggression. Of course, to fit the mix and not compete with the vocals in the center it needed to be tracked twice and panned outboard as well. Bam! That took it up a notch.

And then it was time to consider the guitar solos and fills. This song was supplied with a synth lead and fills play with a synth sound that was, um, annoying and shrieky. At the first production meeting the clients and I all cringed together when that sound came along so I decided to replace the synth solos and fills with guitar parts. There were also a short break after the first chorus and a longer solo portion in the middle eight that would need composed “playing for the song” sort of solos to fill. A guitarist friend who I’d been telling about my job had asked to come in and see me work through the process of writing a solo from start to finish so I brought him in. I sat down in front of the console and between the monitors with the guitar and my friend sitting next to me, and began working up the beginning of the solo. I decided to have the solo occur during a “breakdown,” with the rhythm instruments taking a break and mostly bass, drums, and simple brushes of the chords as they changed by the rhythm guitar as accompaniment. To match the lowered tension of the breakdown and then do a build-up, I started the solo with a couple of lazy, simple sliding figures and then built up from there. Four or five passes allowed me to construct everything except for the exit, which I intended to do as an improv. Then I settled into the business of doing takes to hone the precision needed on the new part I’d just dreamed up. After a few takes I got the basic part down but came to the conclusion that the ending needed to be as structured as the rest of the solo in order to dovetail with the harmonic changes as I exited. With a couple more takes I was able to come up with a slide off from the last note that notched right in. The next take nailed the part and I was done!

Next it was time for fills. Despite being played on an annoying synth, the very first synth fill was actually a decent little figure so I semi-quoted it on the guitar with palm-muting and then doubled that. For fun I tried it out an octave up on a third track and found that it the three provided a neat little effect. Done! The first short solo wanted a classic singer/songwriter "“fill this up but don’t distract"” thang so I worked out another, shorter slidy thang and dropped it into the allotted five measures. Bam! We were done except for one thing: the ending, just one measure, sounded a little too sterile and wimpy. It just... ended. Confound it! How about a little more attitude? I re-performed the ending figure with a little swagger and with tight echo on the guitars and wrote the fader automation to clamp down on the echoes really quickly, giving it one of those “"this song just fell apart"” vibes. Voile’! Mischief and attitude added. At the end of a packed two minutes and fourteen seconds that exit left the audience hanging on for dear life and wishing for more. Click HERE for a music minus vocals mix of the whole song including the solos and fills.

The next day was reserved for honing the mixes. There was a lot of voice tweaking needed, mostly in the form of leveling, smoothing, and blending. Then it was time to export scratch mixes and “shop the mixes” around to several listening systems. I took them home and listened on my hybrid UREI 811C/Sony subwoofer monitor system. I tried them out on the Harmon-Karden stereo in my car. For a modern feel I played them on both an integrated JBL LSR4300 system and a Genlec 1032a system and only found a couple of little tweaks were desirable. After the tweaks and before presenting them to the clients, it was time for focus testing. I made up a CD with the original mix of each song delivered from the composer immediately followed by my mix and played the four comparisons for several friends and colleagues. I was extremely pleased to get absolutely favorable reviews on this project. Finally I brought in the clients to audition their tracks. As the songs played back they too were thrilled, even throwing in a “whoop!” or two and some exclamations as the songs played. The looks on their faces said it all for me. No tweaks or changes needed. Mixes approved!!!

Once the clients were pleased it was time for the final exports. I cranked out a CD quality, mastered .wav file for listening purposes, another entirely un-mastered to go to the mastering house for the upcoming CD, a copy leveled to -24 LUFS for inclusion in videos, an MP3 listening copy to go to a choreographer for the video, and then WAV and MP3 mix-minus-vocals copies for translation to other languages. Once the official copies were distributed to the clients’ servers I created the mix-minuses and excerpts for this page. Done. Surprise! I finished just in time to begin production meetings for the next project.

And so, another successful and fun production goes into the books. I'm exhausted, but I am settling into wearing the tres sombreros of production, engineering, and performance. It is a win-win scenario. Or maybe a win-win-win? Venceremos Compañeros!