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In The Studio

How To Become A Record Producer, Part 6 By David Mellor
Published June 1996

Half teacher, half technician, as a producer you're going to have to coax the best from your charges, identify their strengths and conceal their weaknesses. David Mellor dons the velvet glove...

In the studio, the recording process differs according to the style of your music. As I mentioned when I covered pre‑production, a guitar band may prepare in a rehearsal studio, or even on the road, but they will come into the studio with nothing actually recorded. A dance act, on the other hand, will probably have a significant amount of pre‑programmed material, which only needs to be dumped from the MIDI gear onto tape. Tape, by the way, is still the preferred storage medium for most producers. Those who rely solely on their sequenced MIDI systems right the way through to the mix are very much the exception. For the purpose of this article, I'll talk about recording a band with a drum kit, guitars and keyboards — but just about everything I shall say can be applied to other styles of music too.

Backing Tracks

Any dictionary will tell you that a band is a group of musicians who play together. 'Together' is the operative word here, because in a multitrack recording studio it is quite possible to record each instrument separately. If you do it this way, however, you will probably end up with a recording that has all the instruments playing all the right notes in all the right places, but which lacks that indefinable something that makes it sound like a band [Togetherness? — Ed]. It is usual, therefore, to record the basic instruments — drums, bass and rhythm guitar — all at the same time, to get the feel of a real band playing together, and then add vocals, solo instruments and embellishments one by one, as overdubs. The basic instruments form the so‑called 'backing track' or 'basic tracks' — often referred to simply as 'the track'. 'Tracking' is the process of recording the backing tracks, although some people use the word to cover overdubs as well, so it can mean the entire recording process, apart from the mixing.

Setting up to record the backing track takes some time, and it is common to finish recording all the backing tracks for an album before starting on the overdubs. Setting up the drum kit alone, with however many microphones the engineer chooses to use, could take the best part of a day, depending on how picky you are about the sound. As a producer, you obviously want to get a really good sound on the record, and a skilled engineer will be able to offer you a good drum sound in a couple of hours. But if you have a particular sound in mind that you want to achieve, then it may take some time experimenting with mics and mic positions, to achieve precisely what you want. You are the producer, so you're in charge. Take as long as you like, but remember that you're responsible for sticking to the budget too!

Setting up the other instruments and the mic for the guide vocal is straightforward in comparison, and you should be able to relax and collect your thoughts, while the engineer and his or her assistant work on the mics and mixing console. When everything is ready, one of the key moments in the production process has arrived. The band are going to lay down the backing track for what will hopefully be their next hit single. This has got to be right, and you are the person who has to make it so.

Let the band play through the song a few times, so that they can get used to the headphones, and check foldback levels with the engineer. You will be thinking about the sound of each instrument, and each drum of the drum kit, from both technical and musical points of view. While realising that you are not hearing the final mix, you will be considering how the instruments blend, and whether the tempo is the same as it was in the rehearsal studio. You may need to discuss subtle musical points with one or more of the band. Maybe the bass player is dragging notes out when they would be better cut short. Perhaps the guitarist hasn't settled into this rhythm yet, and will need a few more runs through. Maybe they are all just a little bit nervy, because they don't have much studio experience and have forgotten that if they make a mistake, the engineer can wind back the tape and they can try it again.

Take Five

How many takes will the band need to get it right? As many as are necessary, of course. There is no point in going any further and overdubbing to a backing track which isn't absolutely right. This is where your skill as a producer comes in. Probably the most important part of your role is to be able to know when something is right, and this isn't nearly as easy as it seems. Absolute perfection is unattainable, but many successful records are less than perfect technically, with wrong or missed notes and rhythmic inconsistencies. Yet despite this, they sound great!

The producer should be able to spot a great take, even when there could be some musical errors. If you have captured such a take and recognise its quality, you then have to decide whether to use it as it is, or try and fix the problems. You can fix the odd duff chord in a guitar track with punch‑ins. Punch‑ins in a backing track can be noticeable where the spill from the other instruments suddenly disappears, then comes back again. Listen carefully, and have the engineer bounce the original take and the punch‑ins onto a new track for safety, if possible.

If the band has lost the rhythm at some point, this is a bigger problem. The same thing applies if a take has started really well and has then broken down. In both of these cases, the solution is to edit the multitrack master tape, and use sections from two or more takes spliced together. The engineer will do this for you if you prefer, while you pace up and down, chain‑smoking in the corridor. Taking a razor blade to 2‑inch 24‑track tape is not a task for the faint‑hearted, since if it goes wrong, you have lost all. It hardly ever does go wrong, however, because the engineer will know from experience whether or not an edit will work.

One reason why it might not work is if the tempo has changed from one take to another, and there is a sudden gear shift. You can avoid this by getting the band to listen to a metronome ticking at the correct tempo before each take, or even getting them to play to a click track. This latter solution is rather drastic, and it is something that really needs to have been planned for at the rehearsal stage. Some producers regard editing as a creative process in its own right, and will actively seek out the best parts from all the takes the band has done.

This brings us back to the question of how many takes is enough. There's no set number, but let's just say that some bands have as few as three takes in them. This means that if they don't get it within those three takes, then 33 won't be enough, and it's best to move on to a different song and have another go on another day. Other bands really can keep going, and once they know that they have one take in the can which is good enough, they'll relax and get better and better.


When the tension of recording the backing track is over (or in a MIDI‑originated recording, when the tedium of dumping the backing tracks to tape is over), the overdubbing stage can begin — and this is when the creative juices flow thick and fast. Being creative is fun, fun, fun — as long as the ideas keep coming. It's when the ideas stop flowing that everyone looks at the producer. It's no good calling yourself leader of the gang and then turning to someone else to ask, "What shall we do now?".

Usually, overdubs get off to a good start, and things seem to be going well. That's because you and the musicians are using up the stockpile of ideas that has been built up during pre‑production and the early part of the recording process. There will come a point, however, when it is obvious that the recording needs something, but no‑one knows quite what that something is. Often it is very difficult to be creative when you know the clock is ticking and you are effectively flushing £50 notes down the toilet, but there are strategies you can use to allow the collective creativity of you and the band to shine through. Here are a few ideas:

  • If you have recorded all the backing tracks for the album before starting on the overdubs, then you can skip backwards and forwards according to which song you most feel like working on. If you run out of ideas on one, change over to another one.
  • Equip the band with multitrackers (they probably have them already) before starting recording sessions, and let them work with copies of the rough demos. Tell them that you want as many musical ideas as you can get — the crazier the better. You can pick and choose later.
  • Use the same cassette multitrackers to give them copies of work in progress. Send them away to work on their ideas, instead of hanging around the studio's pool table.
  • Unless you think there might be a clash of egos, let the musicians swap instruments where possible. The guitarist might bash out a simple idea on the keyboard that the keyboard player himself might not have thought of.
  • Encourage a climate of experimentation and receptivity to new ideas. People often jump on an idea and say it won't work, after only a few seconds' consideration. This hardly encourages creativity. Have 'brainstorming' sessions where all you come up with is ideas, and no‑one criticises them until later.

You may of course have the opposite problem, where there are too many ideas, and you need to refine them down into something that is simple, but exactly right for the song. This is very much more difficult than it sounds, but if you listen closely to successful records, you will realise that they are usually very simply constructed. Don't underestimate how difficult it is to achieve that simplicity. A successful producer is someone who can encourage the generation of many ideas, and then discard the vast majority of them, leaving only the ones that will blend together to create the perfect sound.

Recording Vocals

And so the nightmare begins. Since the vocal is the most important component of the recording of any song, it has to be exactly right. But getting it exactly right is the most difficult part of the entire recording process. Singers come in three basic types: First, there is the top class performer who always gets it right, and the only other possibility is that he or she might go for another take and sing even better. Among people who call themselves singers, people like this are one in a thousand! Usually, you will be working with the second type, who is someone who obviously can sing, but doesn't like to do so under the studio spotlight. The third category of singer is someone who has been chosen for his or her looks or personality, and sings like a donkey. You're in big trouble here, but you've got to pull through!

There are certain actions you can take to make sure the vocal is recorded as well as possible. Let's start with things that help even the best singers, and then work up to more drastic solutions.

It isn't widely appreciated, but even the top singers need help to allow them to sing the way they do. We take it for granted that a champion tennis player needs a coach. A top singer needs a coach, too. There are two types of people who work with singers to improve their performance. One is a singing teacher, who will help with the production of the sound, and the other is a voice coach, who will help with the performance of a song. For our requirements, a basic singing teacher is probably the best option. (Bear in mind that some people who advertise themselves as 'voice coaches' work with speech rather than singing, so be careful not to get confused).

Most singing teachers specialise in West End musicals or classical singing rather than pop, rock or death metal, but the principles of voice training are very similar. Anyone with a weak, wobbly voice, lacking in range, will benefit enormously from two or three months of weekly lessons. Even if the teacher doesn't understand the style of music in which you are working, and thinks your singer wants to be the Phantom of the Opera, it will still work. It's like going to the gym — you do exercises that bear no relation to any activity you would perform in real life, but if you go regularly you will end up feeling fit and looking good. Go to singing lessons, and your voice will feel fit as well as sound good, in any style of music.

Once you have taken steps to make sure that the singer's voice is at the peak of condition, then it is up to you to decide how to tackle the recording. With the help of the engineer, you will select a microphone that works well with the singer's voice, and sort out other technical matters. Many producers these days record a number of takes of the vocal, maybe as many as six or eight, and then sort through them later to get the best version of each line. With a little bit of skill, you and the engineer will be able to compile the best of all of these versions, perhaps to the extent of swapping between takes on every line, or even the odd word where necessary. After this, there may still be the odd line that doesn't sound quite right, so you'll have to get the vocalist back in again to correct it.

You may worry that since it can take quite some time to compile several takes into one, the vocalist may come back with a different tone of voice. This may be a problem, but it is better than leaving a line in an unusable state. If you listen carefully to records made by people chosen by the record company for their looks or personality, you'll almost certainly be able to hear these inconsistencies. If it was possible to record a perfect vocal in one take, everyone would do it. Unfortunately, singers capable of doing this are few and far between.

If the worst comes to the worst, and you just can't get a satisfactory recording, then you will have to use a little studio trickery — or a lot, if necessary. This can range from pitch shifting out‑of‑tune notes using a Harmonizer, or sampling a line and tweaking the pitch bend control as you record it back to tape, to a total reconstruction of the vocal, using an audio sequencer with time and pitch correction software. If you think this sounds extreme, let me assure you that to get a perfect vocal, the motto has to be 'by all means necessary' — because that is what is going to sell the song.

The Producer's View — Gary Langhan

Gary Langan is a well respected engineer/producer, with credits including Paul McCartney, Public Image, Scritti Politti, Hothouse Flowers, Spandau Ballet, and The Art of Noise.

    "If I was recording a band, I would like to have all the band playing in the studio, and the vocalist singing. Without a vocalist, you don't have anything. Then I'll work on that and see what, if anything, needs rearranging or repairing. If I am working with a band, it is very important that I have all the information there all the time. Also, a musician in a band is getting off on what his mates are doing. You can't really get off on sitting in a bloody great room with a pair of headphones strapped to your head looking at nobody. To me, that just cannot be fun, and if you are not having fun, then you are not going to give me the ultimate performance, which is what I need. I can get around every other problem, but there is no substitute for the ultimate performance."
    "If the performance is good enough and it is recorded well enough, there is no reason why it can't stay. It may be that only bits of it will stay. I'll certainly hang onto it until the end. I won't erase it, because there may be something that occurred while that was going on that might be useful when we come back later to redo the vocals. Even though the guide vocal might not be perfectly in tune or in time, maybe the sense of what the singer was trying to put across was right, so I can always go back and show him what he was giving as a performance when everyone was playing together.
    "I don't have a problem with putting a razor blade through the tape. On average, I'll do around three or four takes and edit from that. I much prefer to use an analogue machine, and I enjoy editing tape. I recently recorded a track in four takes, and portions of all four takes went to make the master."
    "I listen to the bits I am going to put together. Maybe I would preview what I was thinking of doing on the multitrack on quarter inch, if I was uncertain. If the band is OK at playing to a click track, then you wouldn't have tempo changes — but I wouldn't force them to play to a click. That's like making someone who is left‑handed write with their right hand."

The Singing Teacher's View — Helena Shenel

People whom Helena Shenel has helped with their singing include Paul Young, Annie Lennox, Peter Gabriel, George Michael, and recently the 'boy band' Upside Down.

    "I don't teach people a style, I teach people how to use the voice and the muscles involved in singing correctly, so that they don't strain anything — and get the best possible development out of their particular voice."
    "They are all using the same instrument. I show them how to use it without damaging it."
    "To make sure that they do nothing to strain the voice. They might be going on tour or have a heavy recording schedule, and they would ask me ways of strengthening the voice, and making sure that it doesn't get tired."
    "They were all quite good. They all had voices. Sometimes, I get people from managements or record companies saying, "This person's got the right image — can you make them sing?" I've done my best, but I don't know what happens to them afterwards. It was much the same with Upside Down, but all four of them had voices to start with. They were all quite bright, and they didn't need to have very many lessons."
    "That's a bit difficult. A student of mine first came to me saying that he really really wanted to sing, but I had to ask him if he realised that he couldn't sing in tune. Added to that, he made a noise which was somewhere between a bull bellowing and a donkey braying — painful. We persevered for about three years, and he eventually became a very good singer. It is amazing what you can do with someone who really wants to do it — but you need patience. Sometimes people can't sing in tune because they are pushing and forcing the voice beyond what nature intended it to do. One of my most important things is that you can't pronounce words the same way as you would speak them, because you run the risk of singing out of tune."
    "Breathing should be as natural as possible. I never give people special breathing exercises. I teach them how to sing, not how to breathe. You can breathe very well and be a long distance swimmer, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you can sing well."
    "It depends so much on the individual. A young man singing with a band came to me for an hour‑long consultation. I told him about putting his head and neck in the right position, opening his mouth correctly and all the various things. At the end of the lesson, he said, "I can't believe it, it's absolutely amazing the difference it makes". A few days later, after a gig, he told me that his voice felt so much stronger, it didn't get tired or hoarse and the band all thought he sounded better. That was after one lesson. It depends to a large extent on whether the person has an open mind and is willing to accept my ideas. I do occasionally get a bit of resistance if people are unwillingly sent by their managers or record companies, but generally I find that people with the most outrageous public personae are really very nice people with a very good, professional attitude."

The Producer's View — Ian Curnow

Keyboard player and programmer Ian Curnow, together with his engineer partner Phil Harding, came through the Stock, Aitken and Waterman PWL 'Hit Factory', and now have their own studio at The Strongroom, which allows them to offer a complete production package to record companies. Their most recent success was co‑producing East 17's Up All Night album.

    "I know musicians who can play fantastic things that can just blow me away, but whether it's right for the record is another thing. It's part of the producer's job to limit players of awesome technical ability to just doing the right thing — especially drummers."
    "Many of the people we work with have problems. Since our PWL days of manufacturing records, as people have accused us of doing, we have got used to working with people who can't actually sing very well. For the last two years, we've made full use of Steinberg's Time Bandit with Cubase Audio. Quite often, we will only push a singer until we have what we feel is a good performance, knowing that we can retime and retune it later. You can correct tuning, timing and volume with technology. The one thing you can't get from technology is the performance. If the performance is there, and the singer is delivering a message to the listener, we can make it palatable by putting it in tune. It's nice if they can sing it in tune, but once you recognise that you are not going to get that, it's a question of going for lots of takes and getting as much of a performance as possible."
    "Both of us will sit there during a vocal session. Phil will push the singer to the limit of their performance, while I will consider whether I can retime or retune it. We try and record a vocal quite quickly these days. If we have a performance there in two hours, we'll leave it and and work on it later for six or eight hours. We usually record the vocal in chunks. We'll record the chorus and then tackle the first verse. Anything that is going to be repeated, we will only record once, and use that performance each time."