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How To Be A Positive Music Producer
Written by Bill Gibson - © 2006, Cengage Learning. Reprinted with Permission.
This article is an excerpt from the following book: The S.M.A.R.T. Guide To Becoming a Successful Producer/Engineer.

There is almost always a positive way to present creative input. If you tend to be a negative person, start paying attention to the way positive people communicate. Musicians are typically pretty insecure, and once someone destroys their confidence by insulting them or their talent, every aspect of the recording process suffers.

When you need to help a musician fix a problem, realize that the cause of the problem might have nothing to do with his or her ability or musicality. Musical problems are often a result of a poor monitor mix. If the artist can't hear correctly through the headphones, he or she is likely to play or sing out of tune or out of time. In addition, his or her musical sensitivity will be adversely affected. Musicians feed off of the musical sounds they hear along with the ones they create.

Keep these considerations in mind when producing music. Place blame on everything else other than the musician when constructively shaping the musician's performance. When the first take is completed and everyone within earshot knows it was really a bad performance, react by asking probing questions that seek the root of the problem without placing any judgment on the performance. When I'm in this situation I typically follow the same list of questions to establish that the artist is given all the tools possible to succeed:
* How does your headphone mix feel?
* Are you hearing the piano (or whatever instrument is providing the primary tonality and pitch reference)? Can you hear yourself in the phones?
* Do you like the sound in the phones?

Often, you'll discover that the headphone mix is causing all the problems. Once you provide an inspiring sonic environment, the musicality of the performance will dramatically increase in almost every case, Ideally, you will solve the problem without ever having to question the artist's ability, accuracy, or creative gift—and you will have been very positive and placed no blame on the artist while discovering the root of the problem.

If an artist is having an intonation problem, you need to make a decision. I am a stickler for accurate intonation, but with the tools available today, I am constantly making judgment calls in this area. What we're really after is an excellent emotional and musical performance. If stopping at a certain point and fine-tuning the actual performance helps the emotional delivery of the song, it is well worth the time and effort. If stopping gets in the way of the creative flow, I'll make a note of each error and return to it later—I won't even mention there was a problem. With modern pitch-manipulating tools, it's not a problem to fix an out-of-tune vocal or instrumental solo track, so use the time you have with the artist to build the performance musically and to support the artist emotionally. Be positive at every turn.

Suggest changes in the performance that will get the results you want. Often you don't even need to refer to a note as "flat" or"sharp" or as being out of time. This is where your musical experience and proficiency has its greatest value. If you are a good producer, you will learn what causes problems in the artist's performance so you can attack the root of the problem without attacking the performer.

Here are a few tricks that will help you maintain a positive attitude in the studio while still addressing creative and technical problems—of course, I'm assuming that you've already established a perfectly inspiring headphone mix.

If a vocalist is singing flatly:
* Suggest that the artist support the sound from his or her diaphragm. The energy for a vocal performance should come from deep within the performer's soul and physically from within his or her body. Many pitch problems are caused by a lack of physical support. A singer who sets his or her physical support correctly typically produces steady pitch and accurate intonation. If you're not technically trained as a singer, take some vocal lessons—it will greatly add to your production skills. Understand that fundamentally, the muscles used to create a good vocal sound are much the same as the muscles used to push bodily waste out.
* Suggest that the singer add a little bit more of an "e" sound to words that contain long a, e, or i vowel sounds: meet, state, flight, and so on. The "e" sound tends to bring the pitch up because it brightens the sound. A vocal instructor might get a little offended by overuse of this sound, but in the heat of the recording battle this produces quick and audible results.
* Suggest that the singer brighten the sound. This simple mental image often pulls the pitch right into place.
* Adjust the musical phrase. A simple adjustment to the interpretation of the phrase often repairs any musical problems. Sometimes the specific word or note that causes the problem needs more emphasis rather than less emphasis.
* Suggest a change in vocal texture. Sometimes singing louder adjusts the pitch in the right direction and other times it adjusts it in the wrong direction. The same is true for singing lighter. Look for the approach to singing the lyric that is most expressive for the song—that will typically produce the best results in all areas. I'll often ask for more air in the vocal sound, but at other times I'll ask for more tone and less air. Sometimes I'll ask the performer to build the phrase throughout the performance or to peak at a specific lyric.
* Suggest a break or ask the singer if he or she needs some water or tea. Sometimes a simple break will produce the best results. Singing is a very physical and emotional activity, and it takes a singer with great strength and stamina to maintain effectiveness for hours in the recording environment.

If a vocalist sings sharply:
* Suggest that the singer use proper support for the sound. Some vocalists tend to go flat when they don't properly support the sound, and others tend to go sharp.
* Suggest decreasing the "e" sound in words that contain long a, e, or i vowel sounds: meet, state, flight, and so on. Thee" sound tends to bring the pitch up because it brightens the sound, so changing the long "e" sound toward more of an "eh" or "ah" sound can help darken the pitch.
* Suggest that the singer use a little darker tone. This simple mental image often helps pull the pitch back down into place.
* Adjust the musical phrase to help draw out the best performance. Sometimes a note or phrase is out of tune because it isn't getting enough emphasis.
* Suggest a break.

If a performer is playing or singing out of time:
* Be sure the vocalist has a rock-solid time reference in the headphones. Most players and singers will lock into the beat if they can hear it well enough.
* Use terms such as "more aggressive," "less aggressive," "laidback," "on top of the beat," "push it a little harder," "go for it," and so on to inspire the type of musical feel you're trying to help the singer achieve.
* Suggest that the performer listen for a certain beat in a problem measure. Most rhythmic problems resolve themselves when the performance is anchored on the right beat. If you instruct a performer to be sure that he or she says a specific word or plays a specific note precisely on beat one or two (or whatever is appropriate), everything else will probably fall into place. Downbeats (counts 1, 2, 3, or 4) work the best for this approach because they are usually the most obvious to locate.

In the course of a complete production there are many obstacles to overcome. In many ways the producer is schooling the artist in the best way to get the most out of the recording experience. Each of these suggestions is designed to help the performer realize his or her best performance for that moment in time. Notice that each constructive comment is positive and in no way attacks the performer as an artist or a person. The best production techniques build the musician and performer up throughout the process. Most musicians are insecure, and anyone who tears them apart during the recording process is destined to see failure.

As you help the artist contribute his or her best to the production, while maintaining a positive and supportive tone throughout, a level of trust and respect will build that is powerful, efficient, and synergistic. For more information, see The S.M.A.R.T. Guide To Becoming a Successful Producer/Engineer.

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