Top Ten Ways to Make Better Records
ome context to begin: it’s well over a hundred years since Emil Berliner invented the lateral-cut recording disc; nearly sixty years since Columbia Records developed the 33 1/3 rpm vinyl LP; almost fifty years since Audio Fidelity and Pye invented stereo; and twenty-five years since Philips and Sony created the Compact Disc. It’s also just over forty since the Beatles and the Beach Boys started competing to make albums that were cohesive artistic statements rather than just collections of songs, pushing each other to new artistic peaks in the process (and sending Brian Wilson gibbering into a sandbox, too). So you’d think we might be practiced at the art of making records by now, but we’re not.
Having spent years watching bands I love make seemingly insane decisions regarding what goes on an album and what gets left as b-sides, about what gets picked as a single, about sleeve design, production values, and a thousand and one other things integral to the process of making a record, I’ve come to the inevitable, ineffable conclusion that musicians are often fumbling in the dark during the recording and production process. It’s a well-worn cliché, but many musicians don’t know what their best material is, and even if they do, they don’t know how to make the most of it half the time anyway, and so the ostensibly simple process of making good records gets repeatedly cocked-up by people who ought to know better, if they could only remember the things they loved about records when they were just fans themselves.
I’m not an engineer or a musician, so you could easily dismiss my armchair punditry as uninformed bleatings, but as a music journalist, and more importantly as a music fan, I’ve spent a lot of time paying a lot of attention to a lot of records, researching how they’re made and talking to the people who make them, and the same things crop up time and time again as obvious mistakes and flaws in peoples approach to making records. So I’m going to offer some theoretical advice about how to make better records, from the point of view of someone who loves records, rather than someone who makes them.
01. Work Sensibly. The Studio Is A Workplace.
While I’m not advocating a Thatcherite work ethic, it’s important to remember that typically lackadaisical and indulgent rock-star behavior is more conducive to running up bills than it is to making great records. Booking three months of studio time and cramming everything into the last few days because you spent the rest of the time mountain biking, taking drugs, or playing Wii, is just plain silly, as is trying to accomplish too much in any one day, whether that’s at the start or end of a session.
So don’t work more than eight or maybe ten hours a day, for instance; mammoth 18-hour recording endurance sessions screw up both your temper and your ability to concentrate on what you’re doing. You wouldn’t want to be examined or, heaven forbid, operated on by a doctor who was practically falling asleep standing up. If your guitarist is going out of tune or your drummer is losing the beat because they’re tired, if you can’t concentrate enough to listen critically to what you’ve done, your record will sound like shit. Call it a day. Come back fresh tomorrow.
It’s important to work at the time of day that suits you best, too. It might not be very rock ‘n’ roll, but some people are genuinely more creative and focused at 7am after a good night’s sleep than they are at 2am after a bad day’s idling. Likewise some people’s physiological rhythms will make it best for them to work in the early afternoon or evening. Learn what suits you best, and don’t just stay up late because it’s what’s expected.
Also keep in mind the fact that the studio is your workspace, not a drop-in center where your mates can pop by at any time to offer some “creative” advice in exchange for a cup of tea. Outsiders generally bring more confusion and distraction than they bring ‘fresh ears’ and objectivity.
02. Listen Back At Low Levels.
Everything sounds better loud, if only because loud music gets you more excited than quiet music does. People think their ears ringing after a show means they’ve had a good time. It doesn’t. It means you’re going deaf. As such, when you’re pumping it full-on in the studio to check your work in progress, you’re likely to miss things in the maelstrom. The MC5 legendarily neglected the bass frequencies on Back in the USA for instance, such was the volume they mixed it at; they simply couldn’t tell there was no bass until the final master was pressed onto vinyl for the release, by which time it was too late. If it sounds good at low and moderate levels, it should sound terrific turned up, so try them all to be sure.
03. If You’re A Live Band, Record Live.
It’s tempting to fall back on the click-track, the overdub, and the Cubase timeline these days, but while digital editing techniques may make mistakes erasable, they can also delete the life out of a performance. Why build a song up from the bottom in separate layers like a Lego house if it ends up sounding flat and dull compared to those shoddily-recorded but passionate and spontaneous live bootlegs? I’ve lost count of the amount of times that a band’s early demos remained more enjoyable than the cleaned-up, sanitized studio versions that ended up on a debut album.
Sure, for some artists the digital micro-management approach can work incredibly well, especially if “songs” are studio constructs rather than specific compositions (just listen to the current output by Swedish duo Studio at one end of the approach, or Jim O’Rourke at the other), but if you’re a live band then I’m unreservedly on the side of Steve Albini; record live, not to a click track or by overdubbing. You can always add other elements later if you absolutely must have a Moog part that only the guitarist can play. But beware; even a great, one-take live performance can be killed by overdubbing, compressing, and micro-editing it until the original performance has all but vanished.
04. Don’t Work In A Bigger Studio Than You Need.
Aside from a vague suspicion, borne out by testimonial from a couple of musician friends, that big, bustling studios are often too busy to pay full attention to their clientele, and that much of their equipment is frequently over-used and under-maintained, there’s also the question of what’s appropriate. There’s no need for a band like Arctic Monkeys to book into a big, busy studio equipped with grand pianos and orchestra spaces when their back-to-basics garage-rock-poetry ought to be far better suited by the raw ambience of a local joint, for instance. A little common sense is all that’s needed, and an awareness that necessity is the mother of invention, not opportunity. Using an engineer who knows the studio you’re in might be a good idea, too—it’ll save time judging room acoustics if you’re working with someone who already knows, for one thing.
05. Be Economical With Time.
Studio time isn’t just expensive because it costs by the hour; spending too long on any one project can seriously damage both your passion and your perspective. Decisions can be overthought, proximity and familiarity can numb appreciation, and the search for perfection can often get you so involved in cleaning up mistakes that you throw the baby out with the bathwater. Ever spent too long thinking about or saying a word over and over, and got that weird sensation of not knowing what it means or how it sounds anymore? Be quick, be ruthless, take a break and come back with a fresh perspective later.
06. Don’t Be Predictable With Content & Sequencing.
So many albums seem to follow the same basic patterns and habits of sequencing that it’s no wonder so many bands get accused of sounding the same as each other or even themselves. Common practices that quickly get tiring and predictable include shunting out the big single as the opening track, front-loading singles in general, closing on an “epic,” and straining so hard to avoid “filler” that you end up battering your audience with ego songs that have no break in pace or tone. The common complaint that an album “dips in the middle” generally just means “all the songs sound the same and after twenty minutes I was bored.”
Oh, and a word on instrumentals in the context of predominantly vocal / song based groups; don’t be afraid of them, please—they break up an album nicely, conversely adding cohesion by establishing themes beyond the literate and giving pause for thought between vocal songs. Believe it or not, sometimes we like a break from your caterwauling too. Not to mention that having no words is better than having bad words.
Also, please, please, please don’t fill 80 minutes of a CD just because you can; a concise 40 minutes is almost always preferable to a meandering 75.
07. Consider Presentation Properly.
Packaging seems so often to be either an afterthought or an overthought; I’m sure a lot of musicians in the MP3 age think of it as unimportant (just glance at the new Hard-Fi cover), but once the novelty of purchasing MP3s has worn off, people will realize that legal downloads with no artwork, no credits, awkward Digital Rights Management and shoddy bitrates aren’t worth 79p per song (that’s about $10 in the States).
Another word of advice; if you are releasing a physical disc, don’t waste time and money preparing free DVDs which we’ll watch once at best and never at worst. Think of the carbon footprint, if nothing else. The same goes for bonus tracks, too; they’re not a bonus if they’re not as good as the rest of the album.
The main thing to remember is that if you concentrate on making your album as good as possible, people won’t need the ‘added value’ of a DVD or bonus tracks or some fancy fold-out die-cut digipak that disintegrates inside 18 months. A record is not a Kinder Egg; we don’t need chocolate, a surprise, and a toy; we just want music.
08. Don’t Consider Your Demographic At The Expense Of Your Music.
This doesn’t mean “don’t think of your fans”; quite the opposite in fact. It means “no one ever made a great record by trying to fill a marketing niche.” You’re a musician, not a direct sales guru, and you should be concentrating on making music that blows you away under the assumption that it will also blow other people away too; if you play it, they will come, so to speak.
Because being ‘marketed to’ is only a step away from being coerced which is only a stumble away from being duped; no one likes to think of themselves as a target market, even if Pavement fans are as identifiable a demographic as S Club 7 fans. It’s not your job as a musician to consider whether you might shift units to single mums in supermarkets during week one; it’s your job to make a wicked album.
09. Sound / Production / Engineering.
Ah, sound. People want records that sound good on the radio, and better when they get them home, whether they’re cranking them through a multi-thousand dollar hi-fi or a pair of budget headphones; if an album is only as good on CD or vinyl as it is on radio or MP3, people are very quickly going to feel short-changed—why buy it if the experience of listening to it is no better then when it was free?
I’m of the opinion that the word “production” gets thrown around all too easily without people fully realizing what it means, and that recording, mixing, and mastering engineers don’t get the credit they deserve; they’re even less recognised than the cinematographer, editor, and sound designer in a film, even though their input to the final product is analogous. Often a producer just controls the purse strings and offers their artistic opinion, while engineers do the actual nuts and bolts work of getting the sound onto tape.
I’m also duty-bound to say don’t overcompress everything—it sounds crap, and furthermore all that work you did getting the ambience of the big hall or the intimate room is ruined if you squash everything together like it was recorded in a lift shaft once you mix and master it. Once again, it’s about remembering what you fell in love with about music in the first place, and I’d wager that records which revealed more of themselves to you over time were a big part of that initial music-lust.
Don’t be afraid to follow, or ignore, any and all advice you may be privy to, including this. It’s your record after all.