recording origin stories – I guess I should thank my parents (they would say) – guitar as an investment into social proof (unsuccessful) – these songs don’t sound….right – mud in a blender – the 5 S’s – how do you compare to Joao Gilberto? – an awkward conversation at a party – enough subliminal messaging, contact me to help you with your songs
Most people who record and mix music probably have somewhat similar story arcs or origin stories or prequels or whatever. If you’re reading this, you might be one of those people.
Here’s my story, see if it sounds familiar
Coerced into piano lessons at a young age by an unflinching but generally well-meaning parent
Spent (shmuh) years tricking piano teachers by practicing just before the lesson and by learning songs from watching their hands instead of reading the sheet music – still can’t really read sheet music – have now also lost the ability to learn songs by watching hands – parents still generally well-meaning though now smiling weakly as they wonder if there was something they maybe could have done differently.
Heard rock ‘n roll. Life changed forever.
Convinced parent that electric guitar was more mobile, lighter weight, and easier to tune. Quietly thought that it also had more sex appeal at the parties I would eventually be invited to (wrong on both of those last counts)
Learned popular songs – great joy
Wrote a few songs
Recorded the songs – hey these sound awesome!
Accidentally played a professional track right after the track I recorded to bitter and confused disappointment. Um, my tracks don’t sound anything like the professional songs I like.
Spent 15 years figuring out why
Looking back on those 15 years I can chart my own progress through five discrete step change improvements – though it was really a gradual process without clear definition between phases as I was going through it. At each point I would eventually realize that the next stage is what was missing in my songs. I recently realized that these five step change improvements actually (kind of) correspond to the five stages of good song production.
So here they are:
1. The Spark
The idea. The inspiration. The 3 second guitar riff. The catchy lyrical phrase (“these hips don’t lie”). The kick/snare drum beat you beat box into your cell phone while driving so you don’t forget it.
2. The Script
This the arrangement. It’s taking your inspiration for a song (see: The Spark) and fleshing it out into a cohesive progression. Maybe your The Spark was for a chorus riff. Now if it only it had a verse…in the same key…at the same tempo…with lyrics that kind of made sense. Should the song open with the chorus or with the verse? Or with an intro? Hmm, people don’t have much patience for intros. Should there be a guitar solo or three guitar solos? (That last bit is applicable to songs I was writing as a teenager).
3. The Support
You need other instruments, friend! You’re not Joao Gilberto with his magical nylon string acoustic guitar and smooth-as-homemade-vanilla-ice-cream Portuguese. So you come up with the other instruments and parts of the song. Drums, bass, lyrics, etc.,
4. The Static Schmix
I’m trying to keep all of these stages as S’s. Alliteration my friend. Don’t blog home without it. People LOVE to read stuff like “The (bluh) S’s to Shmank without Blanking the Mank”. Or, at least people love to write it. Anyway, this is the part where you blend all of the parts you recorded into something that doesn’t sound exactly like mud in an old blender. Larry Crane (of Tape Op Magazine fame) said something like “mixing is like shoving kittens into a funnel” – which I never really understood (why kittens? why a funnel?) but I think he’s basically saying that it’s hard. You ultimately have two channels of audio (Left and Right) and you need to fit all of these instruments and parts into these two channels in such a way that they can all be heard clearly and have the desired impact on the listener.
5. The Sauce
This is the layer I was missing for a long time. You can get to a point where the (sch)mix really does sound good. Everything is clear, balanced, full, etc., and for a few years I would call that a finished mix. The Sauce layer is about those little extra bits that catch a listener’s attention. It’s about accentuating the tension and release throughout the song. Maybe building a little more tension before a drop. Maybe taking something away only to bring it back even stronger in the next section. It’s about automating the pans on the high hats to get them just move subtly back and forth and create some movement that people will not notice directly but will feel. It’s about sneaking into the neighbors’ yard and recording their wind chime because it’s the perfect backer for the 3rd guitar solo (thank audio god you kept it in the arrangement!).
For me, this was the hardest step to incorporate into my work process but it’s also become my favorite part. Adding little bits and pieces to improve 1 or 2 seconds of a good song is both satisfying and important for achieving a professional quality mix.
When I explain this to people, I like to tell them that I can take them from The Spark to The Sauce – which sounds weird if I haven’t explained this: “So what do you do?” “Um, so basically people bring me the spark or the script and then in like a week or two they leave with the sauce” “oh…ok….hey I need to catch Blermey before he leaves but let’s talk soon!”
But yeah, that’s what I do. Take songs from any of the stages above and Sauce them. Sauce them good. Where in this lifecycle are the ideas for your next project? Send me a note if you want to discuss.