How to make it in the music business (part 1)

21 04 2013

My father playing the violaI often have to record bands that are just starting out. I like that, because with young bands you can really make an impact on them and guide them in the right directions. Older musicians who are often dazed by years of being exposed to their own bad music are not open to advice. They think they know it all. But they are wrong.

Young aspiring musicians however, are eager to learn. Every little factoid that you drop, sometimes by accident, they suck it up like a dry sponge.

As a stonecold pro I often get asked about how to get a foot in the music business and possibly even make a living doing what you like most. My answer is always: it depends. Sometimes there is no one simple answer you can give to somebody who asks you a question. It’s not a matter of bad intentions. Being a pro is a complex subject matter. I often respond to such question by asking them back: „It depends on whether you want to work behind the scenes or not, have you made up your mind, yet? Are you absolutely sure about your decision? Are you prepared to take the journey and, most importantly, do you think you are up for the task? Think again!“

Finding your place in the music industry…

The real stars of the show are the recording pros without whom there would be no pro recordings. The recording pro is the tip of the iceberg, so to say.

If you picture the music industry as a whole as a ladder or a pyramid. The groupie and roadie are on the very bottom. One step up and you have the various managers and agents and other greaseballs. The next step up are the musicians themselves. But why aren’t they on top of the hill you ask. Well, because at the very top you find the recording engineers. They are the undisputed kings of the whole business. And I’m not talking about any old recording engineer, who can hit a couple of buttons and knows where the on-switch on a SSL console is. I’m not talking about people who just started out with a Beringer console and try to look professional with their cheap gear and lack of understanding of basically everything. What I’m talking about are stonecold recording pros. Guys who paid their dues and worked their way up. Guys whose ingenuity, creativeness and expertise make records sound the way they do.

They are the ones who know what is best for a band or a particular piece of music. They make it happen. You probably have heard of the notion “We’ll fix it in the mix.”, and that’s what I’m talking about, baby!

So you are new to the business…

So let’s assume you want to make it as a musician. You want to be on stage playing, with a frantic crowd cheering you on. You want to live your dream!

The most important part of making it in the music business today is to familarize yourself with the instrument you play. It doesn’t matter which instrument it is really. You have to master the instrument you play. It could be a tuba, a guitar, a keyboard or whatever! The possibilities are virtually endless.

Two_F_tubasFor example, there is no point in trying to become a professional tuba player if you don’t take the time to learn where the various controls are on a tuba (buttons and stuff), how to pick up the instrument, how to hold it and so forth. Basics are key, bro! You have to pay your dues if you want to achieve anything.

Don’t be confused by the fact, that I picked the tuba, I might have picked any other instrument instead. The tuba is just the random instrument for this example. A sort of blank space, where you can fill in the instrument YOU want to play.

Let me give you another example. Let’s say your name is Rudi, you are 12 years old and you want to play guitar. The first step is to learn a couple of beginners guitar chords to get you started. There is hardly a better way to learn the guitar than learning the basic chords for beginners and then go on from there.

Due to the various snakeoil-sites on the internet, a lot of people have been mislead into believing that you can teach yourself how to play.

And many a fool has found out the hard way, that this doesn’t work…just listen to the pathetic solos on many recor ds and it becomes overly clear, that there is something missing in the equation. And that something is skill.

There is no way around learning the fundamentals of the guitar, if you want to achieve total dominance in your field. And that is what you should strive for. If you settle for anything less than that, then – no matter what anyone tells you – you have no chance of winning the big pot. Playing guitar is for winners, which is why it is all the more astounding how many losers are crowding the field. Don’t let that distract you from your goal. You have to stay true to your  vision and make the impossible happen.

Guitar_1Pro Example:

Let’s say you were to play an audition for a spot in a world-famous rock band. You would probably have to fly a couple of hundred miles to even get there (hey, it’s not like there is a famous rock band around every corner, is it?). You would have to book a hotel or maybe somebody would invite you to stay at his place for as long as you are in town. Now, when the great moment finally arrives and you are standing there with your favorite band, you open your guitar case and it turns out you don’t know how to hold your guitar properly and cannot even play basic chords. The job will probably go to someone else – someone who took the time it takes learn the skills from the ground up.

That’s when you realize that you only had this one shot at it. There are no excuses and no second chances. It’s kill or be killed, eat or be eaten – pure survival of the fittest. The music business is a jungle and you are lucky if you make it out alive, buddy.

That’s why it is so important to do just that: pay your dues and learn the craft! You can do the fancy stuff later, don’t worry.

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Case study: recording an electric guitar

4 06 2012

I recently went to Nashville for a high profile studio job. I already knew the studio because I had worked there countless times. Your typical big Nashville studio…
No need to familiarize with the gear they have. As a recording pro with years of experience under my belt I can tell you: I know my LA-2A, believe me.

I had the studio techs put the mics where I wanted them and ordered the guitarist to play some riffs so I could make my basic settings and simply get in the mood. It soon turned out that this guy was not exactly a session cat, I can tell you that much. His playing was sub par to say the least.
His clumsy and unoriginal riffing was of the sort that makes you want to become a guitar player yourself. Just because he makes it sound so easy. Because it is. At least the stuff he was playing.

To top that off, the guitarist did not care to have his guitar tuned when he showed up for the session. The reason he gave me: ‘my guitar tuner is broken.’ Now, back in the day this might have been a superb excuse, but nowadays, in the age of http://www.org.net this certainly does not cut it.

There is a website for everything. There is a website solely devoted to Eb tuning and how it affects the sound and the feel of the guitar. And finally there even is an ‘online tuner Eb (E flat)‘ giving reference note that you can tune up against.

As a musician, and even more as a recording engineer, you have to utilize the power of the internet. There are so many great sources of knowledge, like this very site, where you can learn in hours what would normally take a lifetime.

If all the knowledge I give away for free here, would have been given to me when I started out…boy, I don’t know where that would have led me! It is beyond all imagination.

So, the guitarist played his riffs and the first thing I did was to engage the high-pass-filter of the SSL console. This way less of the guitar signal is coming through, which is exactly what I wanted.
But this only affected the lower frequencies, of course. To target his signal from the high frequencies as well, I used a low-pass-filter in an old tube EQ they had lying around there. Now he was cut from both sides. No escape here.

I then engaged the Massenburg EQ and cut some 18dB at the 7kz range. This put a serious dent in his sound.

To get the sound I was going for I dialed in at 2kHz with a Q of .5 and lowered that by 9dB.

I then grabbed the fader and started to lower it until the guitar signal was barely discernible. I was looking for the point where you couldn’t tell the guitar is there, but when you mute the track, you can tell something is missing.

Needless to say the guitarist did not like the result, because he thought he should be clearly audible. As a pro recording engineer it is you has to make the decision. And you have to be ready for it. No messing around. If you have envisioned the sound, you have to go after it.