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Sounding Off: How Many Hats Can One Person Wear?

Matt Houghton By Matt Houghton
Published September 2012

Just how many hats can one person wear when they're making a record?

Whether you're the one producing the music or are simply listening for pleasure, the music itself must always be an emotional experience — because if it isn't, what's the point? Hopefully, there are times for all of us when music stirs feelings that we can't explain: maybe when we pick up our instrument and create something new and wonderful; perhaps when we're on stage and pulling out a performance that interacts with the audience's enthusiasm. Maybe when, after hours of frustrated tinkering with the elements of a mix, the track starts to take on a life of its own and make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Magical, mystical, magnificent, marvellous musical moments.

Just how many hats can one person wear when they’re making a record?

While this might strike you as a statement of the bleeding obvious, it seems to me that many people are losing sight of this fundamental principle. So whatever it is that floats your musical boat, as a music maker you must do everything you can to foster this sense of excitement, both for yourself and for anyone else you want to experience your work of art.

That means maintaining a ruthless focus on what's most important to the track, whether that be the lyrics and main melody of a pop or rock song; how you retain attention and a sense of suspense while drawing out the build of a dance track, before the inevitable explosive four-to-the-floor climax; or simply how the dramatic atmosphere in a film score combines with the moving image to enhance or change the mood. Whatever the technical aspects of the production, they should all play second, supportive fiddle: I mean, when's the last time you heard anyone remark "the song sucks, but man, that hi-hat sounds amazing, and the bass edits are sublime!”?

And therein lies a modern-day production problem. How can we retain this focus when so many of us — myself included — try to do more and more all by ourselves these days, simply because the technology enables us to do so? I might be composer, songwriter, arranger, musician, vocalist, recording, mix and mastering engineer, for example, and some of us even try to be a record label too. Going down this road is a huge mistake, because even if you don't end up as "Jack of all trades, master of none”, you're never going to be master of all at once — which, alas, is what a great track needs to bring it to life. It's no coincidence that the songs I consider my best have been the fruits of at least two people's labour, and usually many more; or that the artists and engineers whose work I most respect tend both to collaborate and pick and choose the people they work with.

With online collaboration now a reality, there's no excuse for ploughing a lonely furrow. But if you must work alone, I'd urge you to be very clear what 'hat' you're wearing at any given time. Don't let your inner mix-engineer screw up your recording session with the endless tweaking of processors when your focus should be on capturing the performance. Don't try to finalise a track while you're still mixing it. And don't be in a rush to record before you've written and rehearsed your track — or, in those genres where that's just not possible, at least try to develop a vision for the track before you start auditioning the effects. Sure, you want to capture ideas as they occur to you, but you don't always need to react to them immediately. Keep a notebook and make a note if another thought for another part of the process occurs to you. You can always come back to it.

Stick to these basic guiding principles and your various inner artists and engineers will thank you — and I guarantee you'll end up with a more emotionally rewarding result. Or I suppose you could sit there alone, uninspired, and do just a wee bit more tweaking of that hi-hat sound...

About The Author

Matt Houghton is a Sound On Sound Reviews Editor with a cunning plan: by working with other people, not only will the music get better, he figures he'll get more time to relax in the hammock...