The Process of Producing a Song: It’s harder than you think

A few months ago, I watched the movie “Sing Street”. The movie kept showing up on the “what to watch now on Netflix” lists, and it was written and directed by John Carney, the one who brought us “Once”, one of the most beautiful and brilliant movie musicals ever (which later became a Broadway Musical and cleaned up the Tony’s). So, of course I had to watch it. It was only slightly annoying that John completely disregarded the enormous problem these kids would have had back in the 80’s of recording these catchy tunes they were writing. John showed the kids recording in this teeny living room by a large window … with … a …. portable …. cassette…...recorder……


Yes. Like that one.

Sigh. I shrugged it off and tried to enjoy the movie. Which I mostly did. But it kept bugging me. And bugging me. I ended up buying the soundtrack because it was great. Now I listen to the songs through my headphones while working out at the gym and now it REALLY bugs me. Because I can hear all the detail of the mix of these songs that we’re supposed to just “accept” were recorded with that one little device.

 

Now, I know when we watch movies, we are asked to disregard a lot of things. Oh, it only took 2 hours to get the DNA results back? Awesome! You’ve never cooked a day in your life and you just made the girl a gourmet meal? Sweet! I can easily shrug off the all too frequent musical blunders where it’s obvious the person playing the piano is not playing the music our ears are hearing. So why can’t I shake this one? Because this music production he so callously disregarded is what I do for a living and I encounter misunderstandings of it almost every day when artists interested in recording and producing music reach out to me. That’s why!

Every person who makes music had to go through that first experience of hearing a song in all the stages of creation. It’s usually shocking. Most artists and musicians I work with have never heard music in it’s rough stages. Like...ever. Except for their own rough versions they are used to hearing in their bedrooms. Sure, you’ve all heard the well thought out and recorded “acoustic” version of a song but even that has been worked through, cleaned up, mixed and perfected. Think about it, as we’re growing up listening to music, it’s all been “finished”. With social media, you might see an artist throw out a clip of themselves sitting in the studio listening through monitors to their “song in the works”, but guaranteed they are not going to share that with anyone until it sounds at least close to finished.

As a music producer, I’ve experienced artists wanting to shut down a song when in its rough stages because it doesn’t “sound right”. So as a preemptive strike, I show artists that I’m about to go on this creative journey with the process that we are about to go through. My process is probably different than another producer’s process. Some producers who are “beatmakers” will usually have a finalized track with all of the sounds fine tuned to perfection before you ever hear it. But if you are writing a song from scratch and not to an existing beat, which is normally how I produce songs with artists, then this is generally the way it goes down:

Creative stage

During this stage it is all about being creative! We’ll make rough sketches of the song frequently, laying ideas down, trying new ideas, until we start to zero in on what the song is calling for.

Fine tuning lyrics, melody, rhythms, structure

Chord/chord progression

"Vibe"/Instrumentation

Drum beat – sketch out in order to establish “groove” and “feel”

Scratch vocal to get us started

Experiment with sounds (drums, musical instruments)

Rough arrangement and overall outline of the song

 

Pre-production

Make final sound decisions

Arrangement more solidified

Carefully scrutinize vocal performance

Another scratch vocal if needed

Arrange backing vocals

Select effects and how to process vocals

Mixing ideas being played around with

Carefully scrutinize all decisions

 

Final stage

Final vocal recording

Final recording of backing vocals and any instruments

Final scrutinizing of all decisions (it's still not too late!)

Final mix (making sure everything sounds clear and the overall sound is balanced and clear) and mastering (mastering is the final stage of the mix which brings the volume up to commercial release levels, adds some polish and “fatness” to the song.

Manufacturing (if applicable)

Digital Distribution

In a future blog post, I’ll explain to you the most important tool that you and I have and that is Imagination. If I can’t hear approximately what the final product is going to sound like when I begin production, it will be a difficult journey. It’s much like reverse engineering the song, but in your head. Like trying to create your favorite dish but you don’t have a recipe. You know what it’s supposed to taste like and look like and you have the ingredients. Now you need to figure out how to get it there. That’s all for a future post in “Producer Lingidy-Ling”!

Becky Willard

Vox Fox Studios, Orem, UT 84097, USA