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Sound Advice

It’s All About Communication by Karen Kane

In my opinion, one of the first necessities for being a good Producer /Engineer/Arranger is to establish good communication with the artist. You really need to understand what the artist desires musically. Only then, can you work together and create a production that’s appropriate for the music. One of the biggest challenges in recording music is to not only pick the right musicians for a particular project, but to communicate to them exactly what we want from them musically, (in terms of the arrangement of their part). Contrary to what some people think, a lot of producers today are NOT arrangers. Either they are not qualified to be arrangers or they choose other options to communicate specific musical ideas to the musicians. In today’s world of computers and keyboards, where you can create a bass/drum/keyboard part without extensive arrangement skills in a matter of minutes, the producing/arranging arena has changed drastically. This is not to say that this is bad, it’s just a different world then it used to be.

One of my own personal styles for “arranging” works in this way. After pre-production, when the song structures are finalized, I make a home recording and a bar/chord chart of each song (even a boom box will do for this). I send each musician a cassette and charts of the songs that they are playing on. They then can get familiar with the music on their own time before coming to the studio session. One tip here: make sure the cassette machine that you use records at “concert pitch”, so that the key of the songs on the tape matches the key of the chord chart. I like to send these tapes 5-6 weeks in advance of the recording sessions. If budget allows, rehearsals with the studio players are helpful but not always necessary. Usually, these kinds of musicians are so talented and experienced, that they play amazing things even seeing and hearing a song for the first time.
After working closely with the artist during pre-production, by the time the studio session comes around, we have a very good idea of what we are wanting from each musician. As each musician comes in to do his/her part, I am confident about communicating to them what it is that we are after musically. With the valuable preparation time that the musicians have done rehearsals with the studio players are helpful but not always necessary. Usually, these kinds of musicians are so talented and experienced, that they play amazing things even seeing and hearing a song for the first time.

After working closely with the artist during pre-production, by the time the studio session comes around, we have a very good idea of what we are wanting from each musician. As each musician comes in to do his/her part, I am confident about communicating to them what it is that we are after musically. With the valuable preparation time that the musicians have done on their own and the combination of artist and producer knowing what they want, the production ‘team’ can usually fine-tune a musician’s part right there on the spot. All it takes is good communication skills. On a rare occasion, if the musician can read music, a capable artist or producer will write out a specific part that they hear in their head during the session. On other occasions, I have seen fully written out charts scrapped completely for a more “improvised” feel.

Some producers who are exceptional arrangers (like David Foster), will most likely write out all the arrangements. Similarly, other producers who do not like input from musicians, and want them only to play what’s written – whether it’s what they have written or a hired arranger’s part – I’ll also use fully orchestrated parts. One nice thing about the less strict, written out method is that I can integrate a musician’s creative input to the project. In fact, it opens up the field of producing and arranging to anyone with good musical instincts and communications skills. Never again will producing or arranging be just for people who can read and write music. Since the studio musicians that I hire excel at this kind of creative format, I always get amazing results. All in all, in my opinion, it makes for a richer project.

Freelance Recording Engineer and Producer Karen Kane is a transplanted American, now based in Toronto, ON. She can be contacted via e-mail at mixmama@astral.magic.ca

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