Thursday, November 3, 2011

5 Keys To Succesful Collaboration In The Studio

Over the course of my career in music, I have discovered one incontrovertible truth: the best music is always a product of collaboration. And no, I don't just mean collaboration between artists; I am also referring to the interactions that an artist will have with producers, engineers and session musicians over the course of putting together a recording project. There is just something incredible that happens when you have a room full of talented, creative people all focusing on the same project, but from their own unique perspective. It has a way of lifting the music up to a level that would never have been possible with just one person running the show. But there is always the danger of the collaboration turning sour, especially if one or more people aren't used to working in that situation. Collaborating presents its own particular set of challenges, so in this post I have put forward what I believe to be the 5 most important keys to working with other people in the studio environment.

Before we get started let me say that, in an effort to avoid redundancy, I am writing this post from the artist's perspective. But everything here is applicable, regardless of your role in the recording process...just use your imagination and extrapolate.

#1: Don't Be A Control Freak

Many artists have an understandably guarded attitude when it comes to their music. Their music is their baby, and like nervous parents, they are constantly on guard trying to protect it from people who might want to take advantage of it. But some artists take this natural inclination to protect their music to an extreme. They are terrified by the idea of someone changing their music in any way because they believe that any outside influence somehow makes the music less "theirs", or that they somehow lose credibility (or self-satisfaction) by relying on other people to help them along the way. This is an incredibly counterproductive attitude to have. The simple fact is that working with others to help elevate your music to a higher level can be one of the most rewarding experiences an artist can have. Yes, it's true that anytime you bring another individual into your project, they will leave their fingerprints on your music. But generally, it's not because the person wants to change your music to suit them, or use you as some kind of puppet; it's because they are a unique individual who is going to hear your music in their own unique way, so any contributions they make will naturally reflect their particular interpretations and style. But this is no reason to be afraid of working with others. Instead, it should serve as a motivation to make sure you hire the right people for your project. Only bring in people that you trust and respect. And once you do bring them in, trust them to do their job. Listen to their ideas, and if you aren't sure about something, it's probably best to defer to their expertise. Artists are great at writing music, but most don't fully understand the more technical aspects of recording and music production. That is why you are paying someone to handle those things for you, so don't assume that you know their job better than they do.

#2: Communicate!

At its core, music is simply a form of communication. Songs express emotions and ideas in ways that other art forms cannot. So given that music is communication, that makes musicians great communicators, right? Well, in the sense of communicating a song to their audience, yes. But it takes an entirely different set of communication skills to interact with people that you are working with in the studio. For starters, you always want to be clear and concise when communicating your ideas and your goals for the project. Being vague leads to miscommunication, which leads to frustration. To help out with this, try to learn some of the studio lingo. Most studio personnel are used to speaking in fairly technical terms, so asking your engineer to make the vocal sound more "dreamy" may not be altogether helpful. Being more specific about what you want will always get you closer to your vision for the project. Also, be friendly, polite and upbeat. If you constantly come across as negative or disparaging, or if you berate someone for their ideas or suggestions, they're probably not going to want to speak up the next time they have something to contribute. Remember, too, that communication is a two way street. You should always listen carefully to what the producer or engineer is telling you, and if you don't understand something, ask questions. Don't be afraid of looking foolish. It's much better to ask them to explain something than to get to the end of your recording project and find out that you agreed to something you really didn't want or understand because you were too afraid to ask about it.

#3: Don't Expect People To Work For Free

Earlier, I referred to recording artists as "parents" when it comes to being protective of their music. Well, to continue that analogy, many artists feel that their "baby" is the prettiest baby ever, so they can't understand why anyone would not want to spend countless hours doting over it, with the sheer joy of being so close to something this wonderful as their only recompense. Well, I hate to break it to you, but your music is always going to be more special to you than to pretty much anyone else. That's not to say that your studio team won't treat your music with respect and give it the full attention that it deserves, but understand that they aren't fans...they are working professionals trying to earn a living. And to do that, they have to charge you for their services. So be realistic about your budget and what you expect to get for it. Don't try to stretch a demo session into a master session unless you have the extra money to spend, and don't expect the studio to give you heavy discounts or put more attention on your project than they would for any other client. And don't assume that because they won't do those things for you that they are heartless suits that don't care about your music. They do care very much, or they wouldn't be doing what they do for a living. There are much easier ways to earn an income, believe me.

#4: You Aren't Hiring Puppets

Some less experienced artists have the notion that all studios are essentially the same; that any professional studio should be able to make your project sound like any record that you wish. But the truth is, musicians, producers and engineers are all artists in the same way that you are, and they have probably spent a great deal of their career perfecting their particular sound. So walking in asking them to mimic the sound of a recording that they had nothing to do with is essentially telling them that you think they are nothing more than a technician or a juke box. You don't hire people to sound like someone else, you hire them because you love their particular sound and their particular approach. So do your homework before you hire someone, and once you do hire them, let them do what it is they do. Your project will be much better off for it.

 #5: Be Generous With Credit

This one will earn you a lot of good will with the people that you collaborate with. They depend on word of mouth for much of their business, so don't be a scrooge when it comes to sharing credit and letting people know who helped make your project possible and what they did. And it's not just about being nice...if you leave someone out of the liner notes of your CD, they may not be as eager to work with you the next time you want to record. Or, you may find that their rate has suddenly tripled. Either way, you've burned a bridge that you may never be able to rebuild, and in a tight knit industry such as this one, that could be devastating to your career, especially if you are just starting out.

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