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“So, you’re in a band, huh? You have any music I can hear?”
This question has long been the gold-standard in follow up questions to band members everywhere. This is because, for a very long time, the music was it — the end product on the long path to becoming a band. If learning your instrument, meeting band members, playing shows, networking, shooting videos, creating merch, meeting fans, writing, recording, and every nuanced detail in-between were the Yellow Brick Road, the album was the Wizard of Oz you were off to see. It was Kansas. In the New Music Industry, things have changed quite dramatically. We went from an industry where the album was the product to an industry where you are the product. You’re Kansas (no, not the band Kansas). And although the role of recorded music has shifted, it’s still the single greatest promotional tool you’ll ever have as an artist.
This is why it’s absolutely essential that when you’re headed into the studio, you’re prepared to get it right. I’m Tyler Smyth, producer and mix engineer for bands like Falling in Reverse, Blessthefall, and my own band Dangerkids. I’ve toured the world, had Billboard Top 10 records, and know exactly what it takes to succeed in today’s industry.
Here are my top five biggest tips for getting your band studio ready.
Choosing a producer is a lot like choosing a new band member, and like choosing your band members, you want to make sure you pick the right one. Producers come in all sorts of different flavors: Some digital, some analog. Some prefer high production value and others want you to bring the heat with your instruments when you show up to record. Whatever the style, you want this to be ultra-complementary to your band’s music and personalities.
I will add this: in my experience there are plenty of mix engineers capable of making music sound great, but a producer will actually create little moments. It’s a difference of intent and a difference of mindset, but the music that goes on to achieve the success you’re out looking for are the songs that connect to people. The average listener doesn’t give a shit about the fidelity of the kick drum or the saturation of the vocal; they want to feel it in their bones.
Recording all of your music before heading into the studio (also known as pre-production) is sadly becoming more of a lost art form, but nothing will impact the quality of your songwriting and production more. Think of scratch recordings as the musical equivalent of writing all of your ideas on paper. There are several advantages to doing this, but the biggest by far is being able to actually listen to the song that’s in your head and decide objectively what’s good about it and, most importantly, what needs some love. There is nothing exciting about this part; it takes serious work. You say you want a career and music but won’t take two seconds to study your own song? Act like you want it! Focus up, discipline yourself, and dig into every single nuance of your song before you take it to your producer.
This is the most beautiful thing about the studio: if your band truly cares about the group and not just the individual, you’ll be dropping so many truth bombs that by the time the smoke clears you’ll either have the best album ever or be broken up. Welcome to the big leagues!
Now more than ever, this is the time to double down on the things you’re good at, and delegate the tasks that you suck at. This is no place for tip-toeing around other people’s emotions! If you suck at recording all the guitar parts, let your other guitar players do it. Let your singer do it! If the goal here is to be the team player you claim to be, you might have to get your feelings stepped on, or even worse, get stuck doing all the work while the rest of your band plays Xbox.
In songcraft, there might be some hard-and-fast rules for what makes a song good, but the only way to arrive at something special is to mess with those rules. During the creation stage, I try to encourage my bands to stop editing themselves. Do you know how many great ideas never get articulated because people were so afraid of the embarrassment of a bad idea? Who freaking cares! Yell your ideas at the top of your lungs! Try everything – the stupider the better, because in my experience it’s the truly ludicrous recommendations that actually lead to the one idea that anchors the song, or sometimes even the album. Don’t be afraid to suggest doubling this part, cutting that part, adding a saxophone, recording a real choir instead of a programmed one, tracking with the lights off, doing the whole song with a handheld mic, or anything else you might dream up. Try to create at least one (or more) lasting moment on every track! Your best ideas are the ones you’re hiding behind your teeth.
I saved this one for last because the success of everything I’ve mentioned above is anchored by your ability to communicate with each other. Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4 Hour Workweek, says, “A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have,” and I have to agree. Think of how many times you’ve fallen short of greatness because of your fear. What will my singer say if I tell her those lyrics she loves aren’t good enough? How do I tell my drummer that he’s not on time on that part? How do I tell the producer I don’t like their idea?
Every time you instinctually hesitate to speak your truth is a moment you could’ve steered the ship towards smoother waters. What kind of captain sails towards certain death? Only the one who’s too afraid to tell his first mate that he sucks at reading a compass. Do the right thing now, speak all of your truths, and encourage the same open communication with the rest of your band. If everything goes according to plan, maybe you’ll find the treasure you set out looking for after all.
Yeah, this too. Now go out there and crush it.
In addition to playing in the bands Dangerkids and Let’s Get It, Tyler Smyth has produced Billboard charting albums and songs, and even written and produced songs for AAA title video games. Learn more at http://tylersmyth.com