Producer's corner...

Not long ago a young producer came to me for mixing a couple of his songs. He plays piano, he’s a pretty good player, and the songs he came with are very nice, chill music with some funk and reggae flavor, a very interesting combination.

Effect pedals all around 1

He told me that he tried to mix, but the sound is weak, and he was not happy with the results. I listened to his mixes and he was right, which also made me respect the man: he was objective enough to know that something is not right. He used a Motif and quite some libraries and software instruments, and I have to confess that the arrangements were very good, with a beautiful Ying and Yang, if you know what I mean… However, something was missing there, that feeling of sound being “it”, kind of hard to point exactly, but you definitely feel something is not there.

Effect pedals all around 2

I asked him to follow me and I took him in my pedal effects vault. He asked me right away: “why do you have so many?” to which I answered with another questions: “How many hardware effects did you use when you crafted your sound?” The software instruments or the Motif sounds were OK, and he used some plugins for effects…

What happened was something typical for many of the new music producers these days. They have less experience with the old way of producing, where getting the sound was a major part of the production; it usually happened in the studios, between amps, pedal and rack effects, with a certain creative energy, when people played and they reacted to the way their band mates were playing, which created definitely some sound signatures … as technology makes it so easy to do it today, you get sounds from libraries or virtual instruments, you choose whatever you think it fits, but actually you rarely experiment and get to that point where it sounds unique and great. Part of it is that when you use samples it is hard to get that feedback reaction to the way the other musicians are playing because, in fact, you are the only musician, so there is a single creative mind, and the small things that come from different hands and minds are missing and they are still essential.

The other part has to do with the way the sound is crafted. The plugins nowadays are good, they sound excellent… however, there is something about the hardware effects and pedals, maybe the fact that, when you use one, you are forced to explore the sound in a different manner, with a different mindset. You also are forced to commit to tape, which can be a great thing, because, like everywhere else, it makes you do what generally people hate doing, and that is making a decision! (Ha ha ha!!!…) But that is the difference between creators, artists, leaders and the others: they are willing to take responsibilities so they can free their mind, and, in doing so, they are able to really express themselves.

You see, the Foster and Lanoix and Jones and Albini of the world, beside their musical abilities, got their feet wet working with musicians, experimenting, having the intuition of what makes an artist unique and recognizing that quality in an artist and bringing it upfront. They worked in an era when most of the music was recorded in professional studios, dealing with a whole range of equipment and methods so they amassed an invaluable experience when it comes to how an instrument should sound.

Where are we today? Well, for once, technology offers so many advantages and possibilities… but so many of the large studios are long gone, now that everybody can make a song at home with a laptop and some software. And with those studios gone, a lot of the people with tons of experience were forced out … those people, beside being so good at what they were doing were actually fantastic educators… at that time if you wanted to work in a recording studio you first had to be an expert at smiling, making coffee and cleaning, and, eventually, with the proper attitude, talent and patience, one day you would get your chance behind a console… but until then, you would observe what the other people were doing, and that was THE best school.

Many of today’s producers did not deal with these aspects; I know, they’re generally not the ones that are handling the superstars – like Dr. Dre, DJ Khaleed, Max Martin, etc – but there is a whole new generation of guys with real talent, and they adapt themselves to what’s out there.

The young producer asked me to let him sit in during the mix. He wanted a good mix, a good job takes time, and he agreed to that. So, I was so amazed to see his reaction when I re-amped some of the tracks, and use some of my pedals. He couldn’t believe what can be achieved; I actually had a lot of fun when I was trying the phasers (Moog 103, Analogman Phase 90 moded and Eventides), and they all have their signature, their sound was different. Then, combine it with some analog rotatory speaker simulator (Rototron Pigtronix) going stereo out in two amps/cabinets, and somewhere along the line a Vick Audio Overdriver for a bit of grit, and back in the DAW through some tube (Pendulum MDP-1); it was like a different planet! Then, when I use for the same track at different moments in time two different delays, a Moog 104 and then the Boonar (a Binson Echorec recreation), and playing with the swell in real time….

There are tons of sound libraries and loops. In many cases the sound is heavily processed, and, while it sounds nice, it could be hard to achieve something unique without some creative ways. Some producers, having a reasonable budget, can afford to sample from some famous songs, and, actually, this is common nowadays. There’s so many ways, you need to be aware and explore all the avenues... Like in almost every area of the human activities, technology had a big impact on the way producers are working today, compared with 20 or 30 years ago; what it doesn’t really change is what every real producer wants to achieve: something unique, different, that has an impact recognizable from the very first moment…

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