Balancing time and money when planning projects

With a project plan, you have an overview before you begin. You know how long it’s going to take, how much it’ll cost, who’s involved and what the outcome is going to be. Delving one level deeper, you know which parts will take the least time, which parts will take the least money, which parts will take the most time and which parts will take the most money.

With that overview, you can quite easily see if you have the right balance. And if you need to adjust the balance, you’ll know how to do it. But sometimes it won’t be clear. Sometimes you’ll have several competing priorities that aren’t even a simple either/or scenario. If you need more clarity, consider the following questions:

  • Can I hire people? Hiring extra help can allow you to translate money into time. It’ll cost more, but it can save you time – either by allowing some work to be done in parallel, or by using an expert who can get the job done faster than you.
  • Must I hire people? Sometimes you want to achieve something that you simply can’t do on your own. Maybe you need a drummer who can play better than you can program samples. Maybe you need a mix that’s a whole level above what you’re personally capable. Maybe you need a mentor or guide (a.k.a. producer) to hold your hand through a bigger project than you’ve previously attempted.
  • Can I do it myself? This is the opposite of the first point. With today’s technology, tools are readily available for almost every stage of production. And with a bit of hard work, you can quickly become competent at almost any stage of production. If you have a project where money is tight but you have plenty of time (and/or friends willing to help), think about opportunities to avoid outsourcing by developing the capabilities yourself.
  • Will hiring a better studio help? This can be an important question to ask yourself if you’re recording an ensemble of musicians. If you try to record them one at a time in your home studio you might have to fight suboptimal room acoustics and inexperience at recording complex instruments (such as strings or drums). Hiring a properly-equipped studio can make a big difference. You’ll also get the extra vibe from having everyone playing together at once.
  • Will purchasing new equipment for this project help? Sure, new gear is fun and you don’t need me to give you an excuse to buy more. However, the right project can be an opportunity to make a purchase that you’d find useful but keep putting off. I’m talking about unsexy purchases like extra SM57s, acoustic treatment, headphones, multicore snake, etc. I’m talking about things that will increase your capabilities in future projects as well but aren’t usually at the top of the ‘things to buy’ list.
  • Can I reduce my time commitment by collaborating? If time is tight, you can gain a lot by teaming up with someone else. If you plan out the workflow and divvy up with work you can achieve a lot more in the same time. This is also a great way to create or enhance relationships and open up other opportunities further down the track. Remember – collaborators can have a variety of motivations. Some people are happy to take part just to be part of something exciting. Some people are happy to donate their time in return for some help on their own project. Some people will ask for payment but reward you with high professionalism.

Most importantly, you need to always consider the creative outcomes of the project. Don’t lose sight of the goal and don’t introduce efficiencies for their own sake. For example, if might not make sense to hire extra help if you’re recording your solo album and you want to do it all yourself. Similarly, it might not make sense to record a band in your living room if they want a slick professional sound. On the other hand, you might have an artist with not much cash but a lot of creativity and willingness to experiment – and quite happy to get a bunch of friends together in your living room for a few weeks.

Ultimately, as the producer, you’re in charge. It’s your call. But don’t be afraid to make the wrong decisions. Get in there, roll your sleeves up and make some mistakes. And have fun doing it!

-Kim.

 

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How to develop a melody from a simple idea

Sometimes you’ve got the beginning of a good melody. Just a few notes that seem to work well with the chords or bass line or other parts in y our song.

Don’t just loop it!

Turn that little melodic motif into a melody! Develop it into something that grows and moves and pulls the listener forward. Make something of it. It’s unfortunate that so many great-sounding songs are let down by their lack of melody. A melody is not just a one-bar monophonic line voiced above middle C. Melodies span several bars. They have contour. They have phrases. They interact with the other parts of the song.

So how do you turn your few notes into a melody?

If you’re stuck for ideas, you can start with the duplicate-and-vary approach. Quite simply – start with the short idea you’ve got duplicate it so it plays twice. Then change the duplicate so that it’s recognisably different and also recognisably derived from the original idea. Simple, eh?

Of course, that wouldn’t get you very far if that’s all you did. The trick is to take it further. For starters, you can create multiple variations and sequence them in a way that makes musical sense. If you’re not sure what to do, think about contour. Some variations will be busier than others. Some will be high-pitched than others. Some will be more recognisable than others. Think about the ways in which you can make variations and organise them into a sequence that makes sense to you.

This might take a bit of practice. Don’t worry if your first few attempts sound a bit weird.

Once that makes sense and you’ve got a good grasp of how it works, you can start to start thinking about other factors as well, such as:

  • Using more than one original idea. Start with two or three different melodic ideas, create some variations and then explore what happens when you combine them in interesting ways.
  • Dividing your melody into phrases. Rather than creating a long string of constant notes, divide your melody into shorter sections (try 4 bars) with each section separated from its neighbours by a beat. This can make a melody feel more natural if it loosely mimics the length of time a singer can hold a note or phrase before needing to take a breath.
  • Harmonic complexity. Think about where your melody uses the tonic (the same note as the key of your song). Phrases that use the tonic a lot will feel more stable than phrases that don’t use the tonic much (or at all). Use the circle of fifths to understand how stable/unstable different notes are.
  • Rhythmic complexity. This is very similar to harmonic complexity. Think about how many notes are on the beat and how many notes or off the beat (or in between beats). Phrases that have a lot of notes on the beat will feel more stable than phrases that have more offbeat notes.

And here’s a little secret: This approach works on more than just melodies. It’s a valid approach to take for basslines, drums, background parts… almost anything. Just keep asking yourself: How can I take this further?

-Kim.

Don’t build a structure by just muting/unmuting parts

It’s pretty tempting.

You’ve spent days developing your utterly brilliant eight-bar loop.It sounds full and thick. All your EQs and compressors are perfectly set. It almost makes you want to get up and dance.

But it’s only sixteen seconds long.

And you didn’t want to make a sixteen second song. You want to stretch it out over five minutes. So first you duplicate your eight bars until it fills five minutes. That’s almost twenty repetitions. And your eight bars already has a lot of repetition in it. So you start muting parts. Let the intro be pretty sparse. Then bring in some more synths. Then the kick drum. Then drop it all away for a bit. Then build up and suddenly drop everything in. Sit on that groove for a minute or so, then tear back the layers until the track ends.

That’s how it goes, doesn’t it?

Except the end result is a bit lacklustre. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but it’s not *special*. Maybe add a few whooshes, a few risers, tweak things a bit here and there… And then what?

The problem is that you’re still thinking in layers. You’re hearing the music as a stack of simultaneous components. You’re arranging your musical ideas by layering them on top of each other. Most listeners, however, hear music as a sequence of sections or landmarks. They prefer to hear musical ideas one ofter the other. In other words, you’re thinking vertically and your listeners are thinking horizontally. You think you’ve got five minutes of music, but your listeners are hearing the same sixteen seconds twenty times.

The solution is not in how you mute or unmute your parts. It’s not in where you added your whooshes and risers. It’s not even in the way you set your EQs and compressors. The solution is in changing your workflow of building a track by stacking musical ideas on top of each other.

Try to build your initial musical ideas side by side. Think about developing sections (you don’t have to worry about the order at first). Give yourself more than sixteen seconds to express your musical ideas. Develop several different ideas, and then put them in the blender. See what happens when you mix and match them. Build some transitions from one section to the next.

And then – once you’ve got some reasonably well-developed musical material – you can start to assemble the structure of the track. Pay particular attention to the contour of the track. This is the time to think about rates of change, primary and secondary themes, listener expectations, momentum, etc. The key difference is that if your starting with a lot more musical material, you have a *lot* more scope for doing interesting things with your track. Your ideas are the building blocks. You don’t have to use all of them, but you’ll be glad you gave yourself the options.

-Kim.

Workflow for collaborative projects

Workflow for collaborative projects is different to workflow for solo projects. When you’ve got two or more people involved, you need to be more careful about how you balance the workload and manage the sequence of tasks. For example, a typical workflow for a collaborative project might look like this:

  1. Preproduction / demo
  2. Initial vocal recording
  3. Instrumentation
  4. Instrumentation
  5. Final vocal recording
  6. Edit+mix

You will need to know ahead of time whether you need your collaborator for the preproduction/demo session, and whether this can be combined with the initial vocal recording. You’ll also need to know whether the final vocal recording will take a whole session for the song. If it will only take half a session (or less), there might be an opportunity to save time by recording final vocals for two songs in a single session – if you can sequence your sessions correctly.

The same considerations apply if you’re using other musicians to assist you in the instrumentation sessions. It might make sense to record guitars or percussion for several songs in a single session. To make this work, however, you need a good estimate of how much work is required for each song. You’ll also need to sequence your sessions so that you have the songs available at the appropriate stage when your musician comes to the studio.

Working on each song in parallel

For particularly complex projects, it can make sense to work on every song in parallel, and progress them in lock-step. This mean, for example, that you’d do the preproduction and demo recording for all the songs before starting to recording initial vocals. Then you’d record initial vocals for all the songs before moving forward to record additional instruments.

This can be particularly effective if you are coordinating several people and they are only available to you for a limited period of time. There are, however, some drawbacks to this approach. Firstly, the rate of progress at each stage is limited by the least-productive team member. That means you (and any other faster workers) will be sitting on your hands while you wait for the slower member(s) to finish their bit. This can be particularly significant when musicians or artists need several weeks (or more!) to rehearse a song before recording it.

The other drawback is increased existential risk to the project. Quite simply, working in this way means there might be much less to salvage if a key team member leaves the project partway through. If production of an album stalls halfway through, would you rather have twelve half-finished songs or six finished songs?

Working on each song in series

The opposite approach is to work on each song one by one. This means that you’re not waiting on one song before you can progress another one. It also means your musicians and artists can have a comfortable period of time between recording sessions for rehearsing and preparing.

This approach works particularly well when you are working with people who need considerable preparation between sessions – either because the demands of the contribution are high (eg writing evocative lyrics or performing expressive lead vocals), or because your collaborators have other projects and life commitments that prevent them from devoting large blocks of intensely focussed time.

Where this approach falls short, however, is that your collaborators need to be committed to the project for the long haul. Your whole project relies on your artist or musicians showing up every week, having done their homework. Someone taking a surprise overseas trip for several months (yes, it happens!) can disrupt everything.

The other drawback is consistency. If you’re in constant practice, your skills and abilities are constantly improving. For a project that spans twelve months or more, you might have an album that sounds disjointed or fractured. Your vocalist’s abilities are improving. Your recording and mixing skills are improving. Your musical taste and creative direction are evolving.

So which one’s best?

In most cases, it makes sense to choose one approach in line with the broad project constraints and desired outcomes. Don’t forget, however, that either approach can often be strengthened by incorporating elements of the other.

-Kim.

 

Kitchen Consultation: Hayling Price – The Rhythm

This consultation has been published with the kind permission of Hayling Price.

Download or listen to the song ‘The Rhythm’ here:

http://dl.dropbox.com/u/8068578/Kitchen/Hayling%20Price%20-%20The%20Rhythm.mp3

–==–

Composition

Overall, this song hangs together pretty well. The first two verses and choruses maintain momentum and give the song a clear contour.

Where I think you could direct your focus is to the bridge/outro after the second chorus. This is where the song seems to fall apart a bit – we suddenly lose the structure and shape of the first half and instead meander off into unknown territory. At first it feels like a regular bridge that will return to a final third chorus, but it just seems to lose its way.

Of course, this is very much a creative decision, and I’m not suggesting you conform to a regular pop song structure just for the sake of it. Instead, I suggest you carefully consider what you’re trying to do here. From my perspective, you have a few options:

1) Frame this section as a regular bridge by closing it off with a return to a final third chorus. This will feel satisfying for the listener, but might not be creatively satisfying for you.

2) Extend this section, and make it into something quite different. If your intent is to use this section to take the song into new territory, do so more clearly. If you want to introduce new musical material, do so dramatically. If you want an extended freeform jam, give it a fresh driving rhythm section. What I’m saying is: Make something of it. Make a musical statement – don’t just let it limp away into the distance.

3) Combining both those approaches can be very powerful. Make something special of that extended section and then either return to the chorus as it was presented earlier or express the chorus using the new musical language of the extended section.

Mix

Overall, the mix is not bad. It’s got a good sense of depth and focus.

To improve it, the first thing I’d address is the lead vocal. It’s just a bit too heavy, and could do with a bit less energy in the bottom octave (below about 250Hz). You don’t have to be as drastic as to use a highpass filter – a low shelf EQ will be fine. You probably only need to take it down by about 6dB-9dB. Thinning the vocal like this will help it blend with the mix better, rather than feeling like it’s tacked on top.

The lead vocal could also do with some stronger compression in the chorus. This is because the mix becomes thicker and some of the quieter syllables are getting a bit lost. The verses could take a bit more compression too, but it’s not as necessary because the verses are sparser, allowing even the quieter syllables to come through easily. I don’t know what compressor or settings you’re already using, so I can’t give you specific settings to use. The approach I’d recommend taking is to lower the threshold, increase the ratio, and lower the release time. Again – you don’t need to be dramatic about it – you just need enough to make the level of each syllable more consistent.

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This is an example of a single Kitchen consultation. If you would find this kind of feedback useful for your own music, get in touch with me.

– $20 will get you one consultation (basically the same as this example, but in private, with your music).

– $50 will get you three consultations or one studio demo (where I do an example edit or mix of your music to better demonstrate how some concepts would apply to your music)

– $100 will get you seven consultations or two studio demos.

The consultations can be for multiple songs or multiple revisions of one song. It’s up to you.

You can read more about the Kitchen here: http://kimlajoie.com/site/kitchen.html

When you’re ready, send me an email to kitchen at kimlajoie dot com.

-Kim.

Developing work ethic

If you want to do big work, you’ll need a good work ethic.

I’ve touched on work ethic previously. It’s your ability to get things done. Having a good idea is a start, having a plan is great, but the real difference is in doing the work. That’s what separates the dreamers from the achievers. I see motivation as the combination of three things:

  • Motivation. This is the willingness to do the work. It’s the bright light that drives you forward and fuels you.
  • Commitment. This is the promise to do the work. It’s more than just saying it – commitment is the belief you have in yourself and in you ability to do the work. It’s also the courage to allocate the time and money and mindspace to make it happen.
  • Discipline. This is what gives you the power to follow through on your commitments. It is the stamina and mental strength to keep doing what you said you’d do – even if you don’t feel like it on the day.

It can be pretty frightening to see it spelled out like that. It can be confronting to think about the necessity for work ethic. It can be discouraged to think that if you haven’t done big work yet, it’s probably because you don’t have what it takes in the work ethic department.

Yet.

Work ethic is – like most productive activities – not a talent. It’s a skill (or actually, a set of skills) that can be learned and practiced and developed over time. If you want to get better at it, just simply have to do it. Put your mind towards practicing it and developing a body of experience.

There will be setbacks. There will be discouraging moments. There will be times that you feel like it too hard and it’s better to give up… Don’t give up. Keep going. Keep doing it. Keep the faith. Expect the setbacks. Expect the failures. Look forward to them as learning experiences.

You can have your dream come true, but you’ll work harder for it than you ever imagined. Work ethic is how you get there.

-Kim.

What artists need

What do you think artists need? As a producer, this question should be at the top of your mind. Before I go on, have a guess…

Do they need time to practice and hone their craft? High quality instruments? A record label to provide funding and expertise? A good rhyming dictionary? Oh, I know – they need a producer to guide and organise them!

Ahem.

I’m going to ask you to take a step back. Ask yourself – why is your artist making music at all? Why even embark on this journey? For most artists, it’s because music is enchanting. It’s because listening to their favourite songs has compelled them to use express their own stories through music. It’s because they’re inspired.

And so your artist is sitting or standing in your studio and they’re about to sing or play something that’s quite personal. And, quite often, unfinished. If you’ve been in this situation yourself, you’ll know how nervous and intimidating you can feel.

The first thing artists need is belief and support.

Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do for someone is believe in them. Standing where you are, it might be so obvious that you’ve overlooked it, but any journey, any career, any recording project starts with (and is enabled by) self-belief. A lot of it. If your artist doesn’t have as much belief in the project as you do, your first job is not to start reassembling lyrics or setting up microphones. Your first job is to develop your artist’s belief in themselves and in the project.

You can do this in a number of ways, for example:

  • Show that her/his personal expression is valid and legitimate
  • Allay any fear that the songs are not good enough (after all, your job as a producer is to make them shine!)
  • Take the time to really understand what the artist is trying to express and how their personal taste is shaping the way they do it
  • Provide constructive guidance and advice that helps their music sounds more like how s/he wants it to sound.
  • Be positive – focus on what s/he is doing well and what s/he can do to make it even better.

Remember – if you’re working with artists, you’re working with people. Artists, just as much as anyone, want to be loved and nurtured and taken care of. If you can create a working environment that feels like this, you’ll create a positive working relationship that will allow you to create amazing music together.

-Kim.