Self-Production is simultaneously one of the most difficult things to do in music, and perhaps one of the easiest. Every artist hears what their music should sound like in their head (that’s the easy part), but it’s sometimes difficult to get it to actually sound that way when it comes to real-life recording. That can lead the artist to overwork a song until it’s limp like a dishrag, or overproduce it so it has so many layers that it sounds like there’s a 30 piece band backing you up. Indeed, it’s difficult to get it to sound somewhere in between where your project is both exciting and vital, and still meets your vision.
One of the biggest problems with a creative artist is going in circles. This means that the artist has so many good ideas that the production is never finished. As soon as a version is complete, the artist thinks, “I think the middle 8 should have a ska feel.” Then after that’s recorded he thinks, “Maybe the entire song should have a ska feel.” Before you know it there are versions in 6/8, speed metal and reggae (and maybe more), with each one just sounding different, not necessarily better.
If this is what’s happening to you, there are two words to keep in mind to help you out of your rut.
Instinct – Usually, the very first inspiration is the right one, especially if you’ve gone through more than a couple of different versions. You’ve got to repress the urge to keep changing things and learn to follow your initial instinct. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tweak or perfect what you’re doing; it means that you shouldn’t make a right turn in a direction that goes against your initial inspiration.
The exception to this is if you think it might be cool to have multiple different versions of the song available so you can give the alternate versions to your core fans as an exclusive gift. Then, a wholesale change in direction can actually be particularly useful.
Deadline – One of the biggest problems with producing yourself is the fact that your project is usually open-ended time-wise. As a result, you end up with the “project that wouldn’t end” that keeps going for years (no exaggeration here).
The surest way to keep that from happening and to actually accomplish something is to set a deadline for the project’s completion. Many people do their best work on deadlines because they don’t have a chance to second guess themselves. The final product may not be 100% of what you want, but remember that it seldom ever is, even with all the time in the world available to finish the project. Save yourself some heartache and impose a deadline on yourself.
AHD: How did you get your start in the music business?
JR: Went to college and studied music. Got slapped in the face with the reality that I didn’t have the chops to cut it as a serious player. During that same semester I was interning at some studios in Dallas and it all sort of clicked. I knew what I was supposed to be doing and all of the practice finally made sense. I worked with Geoff Rockwell and Forever the Sickest Kids on their first record with Universal Music and I was off and running. Haven’t looked back.
AHD: For readers who may only consume music, how do you describe what being a music producer entails?
JR: A record producer is probably the most important dude in the record making process. The finished product sits in his head and he has to communicate that to everyone else. He controls the budget, the food, the flow and vibe of the process and now days the mixing, tracking and songwriting. He’s the guy the label trusts to make sure their money doesn’t get squander away on dumb ideas that they can’t sell.
AHD: Does recording, mixing and mastering fit under the mantle of “producing”? If not, how are they related?
JR: It honestly depends on the project. You have to understand the gear. You have to understand the entire process from start to finish. Some budgets and projects I do everything. Sometimes I just write and produce the session but we hire a tracking engineer and eventually send the baby off to mixing and mastering. Sometimes I do it all from writing to mastering and everything else. These days with budgets the way they are thats not to uncommon in my world.
AHD: Does a producer rely more on natural ability or formal, technical training?
JR: It depends. I’ve seen dudes with no musical training make some of the best records you’ll ever hear in their basement. I’ve also heard dudes with a masters in composition not be able to make a decent song to save their life. It really is an art. Some guys are super technical and work by dials and numbers etc. Some guys work by what they feel and speak in very abstract ideas. I like to think I fall somewhere in the middle of all that.
AHD: What do you most enjoy about the work you do?
JR: Other than being an almost 30 year old man-boy and working in the music biz everyday? Ha. For me it’s all about the connection you get to make with people. People never get that, and it’s something I see all these college and universities missing out on teaching. Music and Art is an emotional connection. Thats all we are selling. 3:30 of a connection someone has. Being able to relate to someone else is the main focus. I like that. Figuring out what makes a particular person tick and then crafting a song or idea that speaks to them.
AHD: How has the Fort Worth/Dallas music scene enriched your experience as a producer?
JR: I learned how to be good at what I do back home in DFW. There were enough talented players pouring out of UNT and other places that I could build a team and get songs cut well and done quickly. It’s a big town. I think people that live there forget that.
AHD: What is your opinion of the current Fort Worth/Dallas music scene?
JR: I think most bands in DFW are lazy. They lack drive to really make something remarkable. When most people look at Forever The Sickest Kids or Owl City they see some cheesy pop group and write them off. I see a different side. I see a group of guys that stopped at nothing to get everything they have. They’re some of the hardest working people I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around. These guys worked with passion and were completely authentic with what they were saying. They built an incredible team, sacrificed it all and kept swinging till they hit it out of the park. Thats what it takes.
AHD: You’re one of the many guys behind the scenes with Owl City. How did you meet Adam?
JR: Myspace! I love the internet. Adam hit me up way back in 2006. He was making tracks on his laptop in his moms basement and was asking with help mixing down parts. The first time I heard his voice I knew there was something really special about him and had to be apart of it. You can call it god or the universe or whatever, but something def hit me. We started chatting and sending tracks back in forth. It’s been a crazy ride ever since.
AHD: What insights have you gleaned during your time with Owl City?
JR: Adam is really unique. The way his brain works. Everything you hear is Adam. He doesn’t try to be anyone else but that. If you like it then great. If you don’t no big deal. I love that. He’s a very devout Christian. I’m talking like, we pray before we start tracking most days. I’ve never really felt as moved as that towards religion but it’s nice to be around people that are. I love that sort of passion towards anything. It’s really inspiring to be apart of.
AHD: What do you consider to be the music’s highest aim for people trying to make it?
JR: Well thats kind of 2 fold. You have art for arts sake and a lot of people operate on that and it’s great. But those people don’t sell records for a living or ever get jobs with the people I have to work for. Thats not a bad thing. It’s just the way it is.
My job is to sell records. Commerce dictates the art, and commerce always wins. It’s just the way it is. It was that way for Miles Davis and it’s that way for Katy Perry. If my projects don’t make a return on their investment I don’t get a call back. Thats the way the game is played. I have 45 seconds to connect with someone emotionally. I have to know their insecurities better than they know them themselves.
We write love songs because who hasn’t been in love before on some level? everyone can relate! We write songs about loss or heartbreak because who hasn’t been kicked and shoved emotionally. We all go through these things on some level everyday.
AHD: How can readers get in touch with you?
AHD: What advice would you give to the up and coming artist about to enter a pro studio for the first time?
JR: Everything in life is in the details. From relationships with your closest peoples to making records. Know your parts. Be able to play them. Clean. Like really clean. Like really really clean. Be prepared to learn. I try to educate all my artists. so that when we’re done with the record they’ll leave better and smarter players than they were when we first met. Thats what its about.
Also be open to ideas. Thats my only real rule when I make records. The best idea wins. I don’t care where it comes from. Your mom. My mom. The bass player. The lead singers girlfriend. I don’t care. If its better than anything else we’re going with it.
Steve Jobs came up with the quote “Real artists ship”. Ship as in shipping and shipping as in getting product out the door on time to the market.
You have to get your records finished. So many producers / artists / bands / people procrastinate on their projects for 6 months to a year. This is so counter productive. Stop focusing on the details and get the project finished in a timely manner.
Sometimes you’ll spend forever focusing on tiny details that don’t matter. Background string parts. More layers and filler. Maybe you’re waiting on that perfect microphone preamp.
Other times you’ll take on a project that is simply too large. 10-12 songs is insane on so many levels. Please stop trying to release full length records as an indie artist and use your little cash flow to develop 5 AMAZING songs rather than 12 songs that are incredibly lacking.
Its smart economics. You’ll never recoup on a 10-12 song record as an indie artist. You’re going to be looking at a bill of around 8-10k minimum to get something like that done. It’ll take you way too long to make that back and by the time you do you’re back in the hole on the next record…or your band broke up 🙁
If you’re just starting out as a producer or composer or artist or whatever you have to get a portfolio together. You have to get things out in a timely matter in order “to win” or get that job you want.
Apple did this same thing with the iPad. When it was first released it lacked tons of features like video, processing speed, etc. but it hit the mark as a viable product – so guess what? They shipped its ass out. They also made a ton of cash. Then started in with the upgrades. Version 2, 3, 4 and so on.
Get your songs done. If you’re a band, take 2 months and write the best 18 songs you can. Then pick the best 5 and go make an EP. Record this EP in 30 days and then hustle your ass off. In 9 months start the process over.
If you’re a producer / writer / mixer. Start a song and finish it. Do a song a week. Tracked, mixed and mastered. No exceptions. This is how you make progress. This is how you develop your craft.
As you start to develop projects and get them completed you’re going to start having a feeling of accomplishment. It feels good to get things done. Get your record done. Get the photos done. Get the Facebook / twitter stuff set up. Get the youtube videos done…You get it? Set lots of goals that are short term and reachable.
They don’t have to be incredible with every little detail. If you can only afford to get a website built with 2 pages that looks great. Do it! Get a website and move on. As time goes and you start making money at your craft you can develop and expand. For now…ship!
Here is that part that is going to hurt. As an artist or producer or mixer or mastering engineer or whatever. You’re going to suck at first. You’re going to suck for a long while and the only way to break through all of this and get better is by “shipping” tons of work / songs. My first 100 tunes I worked on were god awful and mostly un-listenable.
It takes 10,000 hours to develop your craft. You better get started. If you spend your whole life focusing on 1 thing you’ll never get there. Ever.
Anyone who ever decided to start making records or writing songs was horrible at it when they first began. It’s just the way life is. They became great by sitting down and banging their head against the wall night after night until they finally started making things that were good.
“Real artists ship” – Google it. There are tons of books and blogs out on the net talking about this concept.
Hopefully this helps and motivates you to pull up that mix you’ve been staring at for 2 months. Finish it so you can load up the next song and go that much further. Ship.