Tips for Maintaining Focus
So I’d like to talk to you today about something that I get asked a lot about. People ask me all the time about how to run recording sessions. Whether they’re engineers or producers, because quite often these days, bands are hiring engineers, you know, on the pretense that they’re going to produce the album on their own, so what happens is you as an engineer with your DAW and your equipment are sort of pushed into this role of sort of being a producer, credited or uncredited, and then of course, there are some times where you are the producer.
Now, this makes it very interesting for us, because one of the biggest things that we have to deal with when we’re working with artists, especially more than one artists in a band situation is maintaining focus.
Now, it’s important to have artists feel that they have the ability to express any kind of idea that they have. That’s the number one most paramount important thing. I have done sessions which have sounded absolutely amazing, and they’ve been really, really great material, but they haven’t come back to me.
Years ago, I’ve had people come back to me, and what I realize was happening, they may have gone to someone else that did something and it doesn’t sound as good, but that person made it easy for them to express what they wanted. So it’s kind of a balancing act. You need to maintain focus and make sure you’re always recording — you’re always recording, always capturing all of the best stuff, but in order to do that, it can’t just be your way and the highway.
Now, that brings up quite a few points together, and one of the biggest ones is you have to be the master of your DAW. You really do. You have to master this DAW, because it can’t just be a one way or the highway situation.
Now, obviously if you’re doing EDM music on your own, or you’re writing and recording songs on your own, you’ll have a way of working, which makes perfect sense, but when you’re working with others, they may challenge you to step outside of a mentality that you’ve got.
When I first started using Pro Tools, the first thing I did was record a drum kit — this was in the ’90s — then edit it really, really tight to the grid, thinking, “Oh my god, this is going to be incredible, because now suddenly the drummer is going to sound like he’s really in time.”
Well, what he ended up sounding like is he had absolutely no feel, and any kind of loose shuffle feel he had was completely lost, and I ended up with this really stagnant drum sound, but I didn’t — or drum performance — but I didn’t know any better, because I only knew how to do it one way.
So master your DAW. Know it inside and out, so if it’s a case of recording something and correcting it, you can correct it. If it’s a case of letting some stuff go, understand when stuff feels good and doesn’t feel good. The last thing you want to be doing is staring at your screen the whole time, when you should be listening to ideas from an artist and helping them realize those ideas.
One of the most important things I’ve learned when doing recordings is to indulge an artist, because if you sit there and debate them for 20 minutes on an idea that would literally have taken 30 seconds to do, you can see the logic to it. Don’t sit there and debate for absolutely ages when you could’ve just tried out the idea, and that idea may have lead to other great ideas.
Quite often, that small idea that they had expands into something fantastic that could really help improve the song. So I think it’s massively important to keep the focus, but also remember, that focus is about indulging the artist, so that they can get creativity across, they will feel good about working with you, and they will come back.
With the bigger question of maintaining the focus, it’s about listening to the artist as we’re talking about, but it’s also about making sure that you’re always getting down the ideas, and you’re not just getting lost in too much of your own personal self indulgence, because one of the biggest faults I used to have was chasing a sound that may or may not happen, but in the process, I lose the artist’s interest.
So again, know your DAW really well, know your equipment really, really well. By that token, if you know your equipment and your DAW really, really well, you’ll be able to get from A to B so much quicker, so if you have an idea that you want to show them, you can get there without watching them disappear, and their focus going, and their ability to have a great performance.
So it’s not always just about keeping the artist focused, it’s about your own focus as well. One of the most important things that you can do to do that is to work a lot on your own material. You know, when I’m not working with artists, I play guitar, I practice, I do ear training exercises, I’m always trying to develop my own skills so that when I’m in a studio, I can communicate better with an artist.
If an artist brings in a four chord sequence on a song that doesn’t vary, it may be amazing, but it also might be nice if one time on that four chord, it went to the minor or something to just setup the chorus.
Now, that might sound like gibberish to me, but my point is like, that understanding of great songs and songwriting that comes from your own pushing yourself in your own way to learn other people’s material, and understand other forms of music outside of a very small genre will have you bring so much more to the party.
So don’t be afraid to have a larger palette of music. There’s an old phrase that’s attributed to many people, like Duke Ellington, Elvis Costella, all of these different people have been said to say it, but the phrase is there’s only two types of music, good and bad. What that means is there’s no genres. A lot of us like EDM, a lot of us like Country, a lot of us like Rock, a lot of us like very heavy Rock, but within all of those genres, they all share one thing. A great song is a great song.
So whether it’s an Iron Maiden song, a Black Sabbath song, or a Keith Urban song, or a Kanye West song, if it’s a great song, it’s a great song. So identify greatness and borrow from it and learn from it. It’s going to really, really help you.
I think lastly in talking about focus is one of the main ways to keep focus is to keep it light in the studio. Let the artist feel like they can be creative, and if they’re not being creative, take them out of the moment for a second. Just take them out of the moment. I find with singers — and I’ve talked about this before in my singing video, was distraction is really good.
If you’re funny with them and you’re playful enough, and you can just take them out of their head, they can just perform, and then when you need to focus them on specific ideas, do that in a very concise way. What I often have is lyric sheets, and I’ll sit down, I’ll mark off a word or two that I’m not getting, but I won’t focus in on that until I’ve got enough meat and potatoes of the song. So if I’ve got three or four good takes, and then there’s words, I don’t focus in on that really early, because if I focus in on that too early, I might lose them, and they might start thinking they’re making tons of mistakes.
No, they’ve got 90% of the song right, but they’ve got these three or four words here and there that have to be corrected. Get the bulk of the song down. Get them feeling good. Maintain their focus and their enthusiasm, and then go back and fix the small stuff. Go back and work on a way they perform that first verse if you want to be more intimate to suck them in, but let them be themselves, first of all, and put themselves into the song.
Same thing with guitar players. Talking as a guitar player myself, when I’m playing the guitar part, if I’m literally like, four bars into the first verse, and a producer would stop me and go, “No, you should be—“ that’s not filling me with confidence, because if he would have let me go through the whole song, I might have played this incredible chorus part that would’ve just been wonderful.
Now I’ve introduced self doubt in that first verse, and they look at everything they’re playing, and so you need to encourage, and the best way to encourage sometimes is to just let them express themselves, and then guide them. That is a way to keep focus. Guidance.
It’s like anything in life. If you’ve got kids, you don’t tell them exactly what to do, you try to guide them towards what you think will help them, and then they’ll find their own path. It’s the same kind of psychology. I get asked by people a lot about the psychology of sessions. This really is it. It’s about encouraging and maintaining focus, and not getting too much of your own self and your own ego in there, because you’re just part of the process.
We as producers and engineers are just part of the process. It’s about the artist. We are fortunate. In our careers, we may work with hundreds or thousands of people in our whole career. That artist may only have one or two chances to be successful. They may have a record deal, and it may be their first and only record deal, so your job is to facilitate and help them make something great. They may be just an up and coming local artist that has put all of their savings in to come and work with you in their home studio, and you may work with another hundred people like that. Local artists.
But that might be their tipping point. It might just be the point where they give up, because they didn’t have a great experience. So be aware of that, that our jobs as producers and engineers, and mixers and songwriters is to help other people. We are to be of service to other people, and if we’re of service to them, they will come back to us time and time again. You’ll end up working with the same people over and over again.
I got to make two albums with The Fray, I’ve made two albums now with Ace Freely, and I’ve got loads of independent artists that I’m two, three, or four albums deep on. I’m very blessed, and it is through hard work and good work ethic, and me learning from my own personal mistakes, and understanding that the artist is the most important person in the room, not me. Putting my ego aside.
There’s a phrase by Quincy Jones where he talked about Stevie Wonder, where he said, “Stevie Wonder allows enough room for God to be in the room.” Now, whether you’re religious or not is not important, the point of that phrase is to say that Stevie Wonder doesn’t let his own ego get in the way.
Stevie Wonder, last time I checked, is probably one of the most talented musicians of all time, so if he has no ego, I don’t see why I should have an ego.
So these are all things we have to work on. None of us are perfect, but it’s a good roadmap to understand our roles, and if we are encouraging and we’re able to get great performances out of our artists, we will really be a person and a resource that people will come back to time and time again.
So have a marvelous time recording and mixing of course. As ever, subscribe, go to producelikeapro.com, sign up for the email list, please if you can, try the free trial on The Academy and let me know what you think, and I really appreciate you watching.