“Where is this coming from?”

My first task as a producer or recording engineer is related to the question “where is this coming from?” A client and I can sometimes spend hours putting together a Youtube or Spotify playlist of tracks they want to emulate or happen to enjoy. One of three things will happen after that: 1. I’ll spend hours listening to one album zeroing in on tiny aspects like stereo field or wondering what type of distortion is happening on the bass. or 2. I remember just the impression of how the song felt the first time I heard it and aim for that emotion for most of the progress of recording. 3. Always, one or two of those songs become the reference tracks during the final mix and mastering of a project to see just how close to the mark we came throughout the journey.

Most of my clients come to me with a song that consists of an idea, chords, a melody, and a riff or two. They want the production added to it that comes from isolating the instruments, recording with better equipment than an iPhone, throw in the added touch of reverb, and the excitement from more instruments. It’s been humbling that a couple of my clients have said they enjoyed my production style on Farewell Friend recordings and it is helpful that I can use that as a starting point. What’s most interesting is exploring their more fundamental influences as, to be honest, my own music is sort of a scrapbook of my learning process in recording: “can I make this sound like that brass band I heard in New Orleans?” ‘I haven’t recorded brass on anything yet…I should try writing some parts’. I ask the same questions as a producer: ‘I haven’t recorded a cello yet…does one fit here?’. Or I’ll ask “Can I get a wet/clean parallel distortion effect for this lead part? (Similar to what I could get from a Chase Bliss Brothers Gain Stage?“) These questions lead to small realizations like “If I send clean signal to one amp and vibrato to the other and pan them left and right I’ll get a very wide chorus similar to a Roland JC-120.” This process is all about squeezing recognizable, referential sounds out of the equipment I have right here in my studio when a client and I are emulating work as diverse as Tom Petty, or Coldplay, or Wilco.

I recently wandered down a rabbit hole of musical scenery that started with City and Colour and their Little Hell. When I really listen to that album I’m struck by how the album is unified sonically despite dramatically different songs. I finally took the time to read up on the production and discovered Alex Newport who has mixed, produced, engineered, and performed on probably hundreds of albums with bands I honestly have never heard but immediately love for the complexity of guitars and the stereo image and punch of the percussion. The title track of the album The Rescue by Codeseven is a great example of moments where throwing the drums even more dramatically into compression with some wild stereo treatment makes the whole track seem more seem more artistically thoughtful and aggressive…pulling a passive listener back into the song for a vastly different moment of focus on the lyrics. The next track moves your head from the inside of the kick drum where you hear the center of the syncopation of a great beat to the almost head spinning mix of the room and the tom fills while synthetic drones and guitars. 4 minutes in and the stereo echoes muttering what could be French or Italian are a bewildering reprieve before the escalating frenzy of noise that is somehow kept from becoming too harsh by…suffice it to say artistic vision and recording awesome sauce.

What are you listening to lately? Comment below and tell me how you worked to get certain sounds or mixes with what you had on hand. Especially, internet tell me if you ever got useable metal rhythm tones out of a Strat…or what is your favorite snare tone and what is the signal chain you use to accomplish that sound?

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