I didn't start producing music because I loved the craft of making records. I started producing out of necessity.
Going to a fancy pants recording studio has never been in the cards for me. The cost of hiring a production team, mixing, & mastering is so high that I would have to go into serious debt to make a record. I've never felt like I've lost out. In fact, not being able to afford to pay other people to make my albums for me has been a huge blessing for me.
I started making my own recordings when I was 16. I figured out how to record multiple parts on my stereo in my bedroom. Rudimentary, yes...but eye opening. I quickly learned that layering guitars & vocals could make a bedroom recordings sound much less bedroomy.
Over the years I gradually upgraded my recording equipment until I built up to my current home studio set up. All the while I was making my own music & gradually getting better at it.
By 2015 I was really good at making music. People who heard what I was working on were now telling me that my music sounded as good as anything on the radio that came from those fancy pants studios. So I made a record - Nowhere, New Mexico.
Shortly after releasing my record, I started getting calls to make music for other people. Here, I'd like to highlight some songs I worked on with other artists that I feel particularly proud of.
Dan Manly & I made his EP "Write the Book" in a period of about 2 months.
When I first met Dan he mentioned to me that he was considering letting other people sing the songs he wrote. I was very opposed. Dan has a uniquely throaty voice that fits perfectly with the songs he writes. Other people singing his songs...just wouldn't feel authentic. So without needing to find another vocalist, we started cutting tracks. He sent me over 30 demos & I started helping him pick the songs that would become "Write the Book." One of my favorites was "So Alive." When Dan brought the demo to me he said he wanted a 12 String Guitar to be featured on the song. I happen to have a beautiful 70's 12-String in my guitar collection (thanks dad), so that was no problem.
The original demo had a fantastic, delicate piano intro, that led into a soulful song about feeling alive while following your heart. As you can imagine, this really resonated with me. (see my song Beat of Your Heart) However, a ballad style song wasn't what I was hearing. This song was an acoustic rocker & we needed to push the energy through the lyrics into the music & out of the speakers. After tracking energetic drums & having Dan teach me the acoustic part he was hearing we layered a driving bass line that had more to do with Van Halen than James Taylor. Pretty soon we had a rocking song where the music reflected the hopefulness of the lyrics. I can't help but feel excited every time I hear it. It didn't turn out like like we thought it would...but I'm thrilled that Dan trusted me enough let us push the song in a way that was unexpected at the time.
Kelly Spicer & I have have been peers in the Colorado Music scene for some time now.
We play a lot of the same venues & she played in the 1st house concert I held in my Castle Rock home. She had written a batch of great songs & wanted to capture them in a way that was true to her folk singer/songwriter roots. All of the songs were clearly in Bob Dylan style, except for Rattlesnake Kate. That song was going to clearly need to be an up tempo country-rock style tune. However, if we made a straight-up Aerosmith-style burner, it would not fit on a record filled with songs that highlighted Kelly's great lyrics.
After playing a show with Kelly (as her bass player!) we were able to really dial in the sound we were after. Kelly wanted locomotive like propulsion to the song. Next rather than having the bass drive as hard as the drums I added country-style bass & guitars to keep this rocker true to Kelly's roots & our vision. Once it was done we were both able to sit back an appreciate a song that stretched the boundaries of her sound without feeling out of place on her record,"Queen City."
Jeremy Facknitz & I recorded People in Places in about 1 day. 10 songs, less than 12 hours of recording.
This guy is a machine.
I love the entire album but my fondest memories come from working on Quit You Day-Job (Unemployment? Check!).
We recorded the whole thing live, with Jeremy playing guitar & singing at the same time. This was great for making a vibey record that showcased Jeremy's ability to perform, but presented some challenges getting the whole thing to sound full & clear. Quit Your Day-Job was the one song that I took a little producer liberty on when I was mixing & mastering the song.
I had used 4 microphones to record Jeremy's performance. One for his voice, one for his guitar, & two that were set up in the back of the room to catch the whole performance as an audience would have heard it. As the song starts the mix is only the two room microphones. I wanted the sound of the recording to show how Jeremy was distancing himself from his day-job. As the song continues I gradually brought in the independent sounds of his guitar & vocal. At about the 2:00 mark the sound consists of the close up microphones while fading out the room mics. I wanted the shift in the song's feeling to be reflected in a different but unobtrusive vibe in the mix. This gave the 2nd movement of the song a much more up front & present sound, contrasting it with 1st part of the song that was spacey & intentionally detached.
When you listen to the song, listen to last 30 seconds. When I listen to that part I imagine Jeremy walking out of his day-job for the last time & turning out the lights. I wanted the sound of the song to reflect that vision. So, as the song winds down I start using more & more of the room mics again to bring back that distant feel again.
The whole thing is very subtle but I'm proud of it.
Of course, I can only take so much credit for how these albums turned out.
If a songwriter comes to me with a bad song, I can't make it good by putting microphones in the right places. A bad song is a bad song. Part of my job as a producer is helping artists pick out their songs for their album. Dan Manly & I had a lot of fun running through 30+ songs to arrive at the ones that arrived on his album.
As a producer I also am responsible for helping to craft an album that takes the listener on a journey & make sure that an album sounds consistent. Consistent in quality & theme. But again, without a quality artist & a quality song......I'm not a miracle worker.
The musicians I've talked about here are supremely talented & most of the time my job was to not mess up their great songs. Sometimes the best production technique is staying out of the way.
I'm always on the lookout to work with musicians to make the albums that make them (& me) proud. If you ever want to talk about making music or have questions about music production you can find me on twitter or you can email me at Sloan.Zak@gmail.com.