As I put the finishing touches on my upcoming album Cosmos, I’m dealing with a lot of very fine details. I’m listening to the songs as I’m out and about and then opening up the projects back up to change a hi-hat pattern, or the length of a fadeout, or the tone of a synthesizer.
And it got me thinking about how much control we have over our music production now, and how that forces us to be pickier. Technological advances have given us exponentially more creative choices to make now compared to any other time in the history of recording. Are MIDI strings fine or should we hire session players? Where should each of these 28 harmony vocals be panned? This sample pack has 500 kick drums in it...which one is right for the song we're working on?
I think it makes for better music, ultimately - no more using that last take because it was the best one before you ran out of tape - but it means a lot more things have to be done deliberately. In music you’re dealing with harmony, not only in the technical sense, but in striving toward a complementary balance between all these different layers in time, working toward a unified whole. We all know singing a single note off key can ruin a whole melody, and I think to a certain extent the same principle applies when you’ve chosen a synth patch that isn’t quite right or put too much reverb on your vocals. For me, Justin Timberlake's “Sexyback” was just a little less sexy because they used such a chintzy snare. Nelly Furtado’s “Maneater” is a great production, other than the open hi-hat being way too loud for my tastes. I wince every two bars. Maybe I’m pickier than most, or maybe my musical background allows me to more easily pinpoint the reasons why some songs or parts of songs just don’t do it for me. Probably both.
Of course, all of this doesn’t mean that there’s only one right answer, and it doesn’t even really mean that there are wrong ones, because we’re dealing with such a subjective experience. My gripes with the above two examples didn’t stop them from becoming hits. But, keeping in mind that you can’t please everybody, you do have to be purposeful about what you want to achieve. You have control over nearly every parameter you can think of these days, so don’t settle for the defaults.
With that said though, I’m thinking next week I’ll talk about the times where I’ve found it great to let go of control… Until then!