The human head was not designed to wear two hats at a time.
Like so many music makers these days, I have to be co-writer, performer, producer and engineer for most of the projects I work on. As I mostly work with singers that don’t play instruments, I end up playing virtually everything. Until recently, I’d been pretty happy working this way and had always thought I was performing all of the various roles perfectly well. But when I stepped into a commercial studio — the kind with pictures of famous people and platinum records on the walls — to play guitar on a collaborator’s EP, I began to realise that maybe I hadn’t been doing things quite right.
When I arrived at the studio, the producer greeted me with a hug. He was already enthused by the project, and I was immediately made to feel comfortable and valued. I was presented with a selection of beautiful instruments to play — instruments that I didn’t feel I had any business playing. A ‘50s Gretsch White Falcon, a Gibson ES-335 and various others.
And because I only really had one job, I could completely focus on playing. It was liberating.
Being in the presence of talented musicians and a seasoned producer meant that ideas were flying around, and the immediate feedback they were giving made everything happen in no time. Because the other people in the room were listening to my performance, I could concentrate on playing it to the best of my ability. I wasn’t wearing my producer’s hat. I wasn’t wearing my engineer’s hat. Just my guitarist’s hat... and it was much more comfortable.
It’s hardly surprising that this was the case. Recording studios exist to capture performances, and the producer’s goal is to coax the best performance out of a musician. But because I have been self-producing for a while, it came as a bit of a surprise.
To achieve a similar result working at home on my own, the process would have firstly involved trying out a lot of different potential parts; then, while playing, I would have to figure out which part or take was the best. Naturally, I’d do the same during playback. I’d then switch from performance mode to editing mode — usually while hunched over the guitar — pick out different takes, create a comp and then play with flex markers to make the ‘ultimate’ performance. By this point, I would already have changed hats various times, and probably attempted to wear more than one at a time. As any milliner will tell, this is not good form. One will usually fall off.
It’s not just the constant changing of roles that’s the problem, though. I think your attitude towards yourself is also vital. If I’m working by myself and not nailing the part I’m playing, I can get frustrated and will fairly often catch myself muttering curses. If you deconstruct that for a second, it’s completely mad. I, the producer, am swearing at the performer. The guy is still learning his part, and I’m goading him, telling him to play better. It’s not exactly the reassurance and nurture that I’d afford other artists. And it’s a million miles from the experience of working in the commercial studio surrounded by supportive voices and enthusiasm. But it’s easy to forget that when you’re wearing all the hats.
Working on a recording as a session player, rather than as the producer/engineer, really shifted my outlook. If it’s not something you do, I’d highly recommend it.
The bit I’m still working on is how to translate the liberation you feel when being produced by someone else back into solo working in the home studio. Maybe the answer is to try and treat yourself as you would treat an artist. So that means having two hats and splitting yourself in half to wear them both.
Maybe the answer is to work more with others, so you can focus properly on one thing at a time. That means sharing the hats around.
Maybe it’s to carry on being a jack of all trades until some of those skills become automatic, and take up less of your headspace. So what would that be? Shrinking hats and wearing them as a necklace, perhaps?
Maybe it’s to just try to be more disciplined when performing, and not allow distractions when recording your own instrumental parts, ie. only wearing one hat at a time. Who the hell knows? Maybe it’s totally impossible, but I feel like there must be a better way. If you figure it out... I’ll eat my hat.
When he’s not thinking about hats, Will Betts is News Editor for Sound On Sound. He also records and performs under the name Will Betts, for whom he is both writer and co-writer.