Production Reel
Artist Song Title Play
Peter Schmitz Glory Train
Jen Spool How Love Goes
Palm Wine Boys Laughing Spirits
David Maloney Time and Again
The Jonah Kit Amarillo Girl
Vukani Mawethu Bahleli Bonke
Sourdough Slim Way Down in Arkansas
Tracy Miller Lives In Hopes
Qadim V'Ahavta
Gary Wade McCray Chocolate Brown
Celtic Elvis Little Head
Palm Wine Boys Hard To Know
Caren Armstrong Origami
Jen Spool Corners
The Lorin Rowan Trio Paco Bell

 

A case study


I am often asked "So what can a Producer do for me?" There is no pat answer. Each project is different and the Producer's task varies greatly with the needs of the specific project. However, very often, the most critical work is done during what is known as Pre-Production. Below is a case study explanation of how we took a raw song and develop it into the finished track. In this case study I will be discussing Jen Spool's album "Soul Threads". To illustrate the process, I'll use her lovely ballad titled "The Cup".

The Cup by Jen Spool, from the CD "Soul Threads"

The raw demo:  
The finished track:  

First things first
When Jen Spool and I first sat down (over lunch) to talk about her first recording project, we discussed many things: what her influences were, how she approached songwriting, what she was doing with her life, etc. We also talked about the songs she wanted to record. Not in any great detail (that would come later), just enough to give us an idea of how we wanted to proceed. Like many singer/songwriters (particularly those relatively new to recording), Jen didn't have fully developed songs yet. She had her lyrics pretty much down (she is a fine songwriter) and the basic melodies, but the songs were more sketches than completely realized paintings. For example, the instrumentation hadn't been decided as yet, there were few instrumental solos or breaks, no real intros and outros, even the tempos weren't set.

We knew we wanted to flush out most of the songs. We wanted the main focal element to be her beautiful voice and the lyrics. Her guitar would also be prominent and we would fill things in with mood setting instrumentation and arrangements. Nothing heavy (so as not to distract from the vocal and lyrics), just sparse but tasty. All in line with Jen's vision for the record (and, of course, the budget).

The demos
We spent an afternoon and evening in my studio doing quick, no pressure recordings of each song. No editing, usually just one take and very little discussion. We weren't interested in getting perfect recordings or perfect performances (although one of these demos did end up on the finished CD). We just wanted to have something we could listen to, think about, and discuss. We recorded sixteen songs which we thought were candidates for the record. We eventually recorded fully realized versions of thirteen of those candidates, of which twelve appeared on the finished CD.

Pre-production meetings
I knew I was going to need some help with arrangements, so I called in my partner in crime, Richard Linley. Richard is pure genius when it comes to instrumentation, arrangements, harmonies- just about anything musical one would want to put on a CD. Jen, Richard, and myself each took a copy of the demo home and spent some time with it. Then, over the course of three evenings, we gathered in my living room. With guitars, voices, a large notebook, a small recorder, some wine, a little chocolate, and a lotta love, we went through all sixteen songs, one at a time. We discussed many things. Where we wanted solos to go and how they were to feel. What the intros and outros should be like. We worked out tempos and breaks. We tossed around different ideas for supporting instrumentation. We played and/or sang idea after idea. There was a lot of furious note taking, lots and lots of guitar playing, a few disagreements, and more wine. But eventually, we came up with mostly complete instrumentation and arrangements for thirteen songs, eliminating the rest from consideration (for various reasons).

At the end of these working sessions, we felt we had solid arrangements and we knew what instrumental help we were going to need. Not that any of this was cut in stone. We realized that we had to be open to changes in our plans as the project progressed from pre-production through recording and mixing. Such changes occur often and can occur at any point in the production process. That's the nature of the game and a Producer's job entails being able to identify when a change is called for. One interesting example of a change in plans, albeit not related to "The Cup", was the following. Our original idea was to use a distant, plaintive trumpet for the solo in "Corners". Part of the Producer's job is to select musicians who come into the studio prepared for the session (this is the hallmark of a true studio musician). In addition to his trumpet, our trumpeter (a fine studio musician) brought in a flugelhorn (something we had not originally planed to use). After listening to the song at home, he thought it might interest us. So, after we did a couple of takes with the trumpet (and not really satisfied with what we were getting), we gave the flugelhorn try. Before the first take was over, we knew we had changed our plan. Listen to "Corners" (on the production reel samples) and you will hear how perfectly that flugelhorn solo fits the song.

We also wanted to stay alert enough to catch the occasional happy accident. There's an interesting story about "The Cup" and one such happy accident which I'll explain in a little bit.

The final step in the preproduction process was to select the side musicians and come up with a schedule for the recording sessions. Jen had a guitar player that she had been working with and wanted him to appear on the record. Beyond that, she left the selection of side players to Richard and I. I drew up a big chart which had all the songs on it, each song matched with the instruments to be used on that song. Next to each, we wrote in the names of players we wanted to use (keeping in mind, as always, the budget- that's part of a Producer's job too). I then started making phone calls and before long we had assembled our cast of characters and created a schedule.

The recording sessions
"Soul Threads" was recorded using a layered approach (one of several popular approaches to recording this kind of music). In general, we first recorded a rhythm guitar part with Jen singing a "scratch" vocal (just for pacing, not something we intended to keep). The we overdubbed other instruments one by one (or, occasionally, a couple of instruments at a time, as with drums and bass). When we had the primary instruments recorded, I made rough mixes and gave them to Jen to take home and sing to. Jen then came in and sang her vocals while listening to the roughs on headphones. Finally, we added some sweetening things, such as various percussion sounds, to complement what else was going on during the track. It is part of the Producer's job to keep track of all of this, keep things running smoothly, on time, and (of course) on budget.

The Cup by Jen Spool, from the CD "Soul Threads"

The raw demo:  
The finished track:  

Ok, so what did we do to "The Cup"?
If you listen to the demo version and then the final version, you'll immediately notice a number of changes. Structurally, you will notice that the demo has no real intro or outro, just a short, repetitive guitar pattern for each. During preproduction we had decided that the main solo instrument would be a nylon string guitar. Pairing that with a fretless electric bass would give us the warm velvety feel we wanted for the song. We added an eight bar intro which featured this pairing, setting a nice tone for what was to come. We also slowed the tempo down for the entire song (compared to the demo), reinforcing that warm mood.

The demo has no break between the second and third verses. We added an eight bar nylon string guitar solo. Originally, that was going to be it. The chant which backs the nylon guitar on the final version was added later, during the last days of the recording sessions, but I'll get to that in a moment.

The demo has a short section for a solo after verse four. We lengthened that break to sixteen bars and featured the nylon (after originally considering marrying it with a flute, but we changed our plans; the warmth of nylon with fretless gave us everything we wanted). No chant in this section, just some smooth backing "oohhs". After this break, the demo repeats the first and second verses. We eliminated these to make the song flow better.

Throughout, I had Jen work on her vocal consistency and her diction. We were after smoothness and warm here- and we wanted the lyric to be very clear. For example, during the next to last verse on the demo, listen to how Jen alters her vocal delivery. This detracts from the mood. In the final, she sings consistently throughout the verses, keeping things warm and mellow. In comparing the demo and the finished, you can hear the result of Jen's hard work.

The demo ends with a short guitar pattern. For the finished version, we lengthened the outro to sixteen bars, added the chant, and finished with Jen repeating the mystical Dharmic sound "OM"- for which there is a happy accident story.

The "OM" sound was not heard on the demo. It was added while Jen and I where recording the vocal overdubs for "The Cup". At that session, we had done a couple of takes and I was busy making some equipment adjustments. Jen, perhaps to occupy some time while I twisted knobs, started repeating "Om, Om ". I heard that in my monitors and a light bulb went off. I said to Jen "do that again- we are going to record and use it." Next day I visited Richard, played him a rough mix with the "Oms", and ask him to write a "new" chant to go along with them. A week later, Richard shows up with this marvelous, thousand-year-old-sounding chant and we had our outro. Indeed, we liked the chant so much that we paired it with the nylon during the first (short) solo break. And Jen's song was ready for mixing.

End of case study. Some projects require less, some require more. Ultimately, the job of the Producer is to assemble a team that will achieve the best possible results for the artist and then direct that team in such a way that the magic happens. Whatever it takes to do that- that's the Producer's job. If you have any question, please feel free to contact me.

Finally, I am very please to report that The Cup has been featured in a number of wedding ceremonies.