Author: Andrew Rodriguez

The Collaborative Studio: Suggestions for Your Next Recording Project

So far throughout this series on the recording studio and the collaboration within, I have provided a primer on what producers are and what they do, my process of producing non-classical music, how classical music production differs from non-classical, and ways in which classical music production could evolve with contemporary composition trends. For this last post, I’d like to offer up five suggestions for those who may be new to the studio experience—either as a producer or performer—or for those who would like to take their future projects in a new, collaborative direction.

Communicate

A point that deserves to be reiterated is the importance of communication in creating a healthy and successful collaborative environment. This means talking through ideas, providing feedback, asking questions, as well as being an active listener. Communication is a two-way channel. Not only is it important for you—whether you are the producer or the artist—to communicate your thoughts, but it is equally important to listen to others involved. As the producer, this is crucial for creating a strong working relationship. I have been in sessions where the producer only gave orders and hardly listened to the artist’s ideas. It creates a bitter relationship and a hostile environment in which no creative process could ever be fruitful.

From the producer’s perspective, listening to the artists you are working with will give you a better understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve. If you are working with musicians who are not as familiar with studio processes, their ideas may not work out the way they are imagining. However, listen to their ideas to help them achieve the end goal they are envisioning. For performers, it is important to go into a project understanding that the producer is there to help you achieve the best outcome possible. Listening to your producer and offering feedback only strengthens the project and deepens your understanding of what is possible in the studio.

Trust your team (i.e. don’t take your engineer for granted)

Part of the communication process I listed is to ask questions. What I mean by this is that, specifically as a producer, you should not feel like you need to have all of the answers. In a studio session, you are collaborating with a team of professionals. Whether it be performers, songwriters, or engineers, each person has a wealth of knowledge to contribute that you may or may not have. Take advantage of these resources and ask questions. Every composer knows how important it is to consult with performers about the extensions and limitations of their abilities on an instrument. This is the same for producers; ask questions and learn about fields you may be unfamiliar with. If a performer needs to adjust their tone to better sit in the mix, defer to their expertise on the instrument and ask what options there may be.

On more than one occasion, my engineer has provided invaluable insight that changed the course of the session and created a better end result. There have been times in which I was so focused on the musical material of a song that I wasn’t thinking about the sonic impact of each section. Suggestions about which areas of the sonic spectrum were lacking have pushed me to change the way I approach a section—sometimes by writing new parts to complement existing parts, other times by omitting parts I thought were necessary but realized were just a distraction. All this is to say, never take engineers for granted. They are more valuable than just turning a few knobs and hitting record. Even if they’ve only been in the role of engineer, they’ve been in the room with countless other producers and performers. They may just have a few tricks up their sleeves.

Have a plan (but don’t get too tied to it)

When preparing to produce a project, I always begin well before the first day in the studio. This includes doing research, studying references, studying scores, pre-production, and general conversations with the performers about what it is they are wanting to do stylistically. I always come to the first day of recording with a plan. This plan isn’t always extremely detailed, but it is an aid in organizing the upcoming sessions to ensure that everything gets done in a timely manner. The reason I tend not to prepare an overly detailed itinerary is because these plans almost always change once recording begins. It is valuable to be flexible and not get tied to a set way of doing things. These changes come about once a solid workflow is established and it is evident where the most time will be necessarily spent. However, having the initial plan will help you stay organized once things are set in motion and pieces of the schedule begin to move around. Performers will look to you to lead the way and get things rolling in the studio, and having a strong start sets you up for a successful and organized project. One of the roles of a producer is to maintain organization and keep the artists on track to meet their deadline. Doing your research ahead of time and having a foundational understanding of what the artist is wanting to achieve will keep you from wasting time during the recording process.

From the artist’s side of things, one way to help prepare for your studio sessions is to have at least an initial reference for what you are wanting to achieve sonically. Your references can be a combination of sources and they don’t necessarily need to all be things that you like. Knowing what it is you don’t like is also a helpful resource for the producer and engineer. Having an idea to get the conversation started is a great way to begin the pre-production process.

Push boundaries

One thing that I often see get lost in the studio is the spirit of exploration and experimentation. Of course, time and budget constraints can limit what people will be able to do, but, for those who are willing, the studio is an ideal environment for pushing boundaries. In a studio setting, you have the luxury of being able to hear an idea come to life in real time, and nothing is permanent if you don’t want it to be. As a producer for non-classical artists, I love offering up suggestions that are outside of the box. Sometimes they stick and sometimes they get shot down, but if an idea is easily executable there is no harm in trying something new and seeing what sort of creative impetus spawns from it.

In the previous post, I talked about ways in which contemporary classical production might evolve. Take some of these ideas or come up with your own and try them out. Maybe it won’t work, and that’s okay. I have no shortage of ideas that were left on the studio floor because they just didn’t work out, but there was no harm done. I take those experiences and learn from them. Sometimes I tweak the ideas until they finally do work, and other times I just move on entirely.

Trust yourself

Not only is it important to trust your team, but you must also trust yourself. If you’ve established a solid foundation of communication between all parties, you shouldn’t feel apprehensive about speaking up when something doesn’t sit right with you or you have an alternative idea. In a healthy collaborative setting, respect between all parties should be strong enough to hear out and work through any ideas presented. Ideas will never come to life if they aren’t presented in the first place.

As a performer, being in a studio and surrounded by studio equipment can sometimes be intimidating. We have years of experience as musicians, and all of these experiences are different from one another’s. Studio production teams are small and every person plays an integral role. Your knowledge and strengths make you a unique expert in your field. The engineer will handle the equipment, the producer will take care of organization and management, and the performers will know their instruments better than anyone else in the room. Know your field and know your limitations; you will have a team of people there to fill in any gaps and to support you and the project till the very end.

The Collaborative Studio: The Past, Present, and Future of Classical Music Production

The previous post in this series took a look into my production process for non-classical projects such as rock bands and singer-songwriters. Although my process changes significantly when I produce contemporary classical sessions, there are a few core philosophical similarities in how I approach a classical project. For this post, I want to walk through what changes, what is similar, and in what ways contemporary classical production can evolve.

The starkest difference between the two worlds of producing independent artists versus contemporary classical is the inclusion of a composer and a written score. When working with independent artists, you are usually working directly with the songwriter, and there is flexibility for changes. This flexibility doesn’t generally exist for classical music, so the focus then shifts almost entirely to the performance.

In classical recordings, there is an emphasis placed on producing a flawless performance with technical facility becoming the focal point of the recording. However, the inability to alter the content of a piece does not mean that production must solely focus on playing the right notes at the right time. During a recent project I was producing, the performer and I had an in-depth discussion about one piece that didn’t quite feel as satisfying as it could have. The performer was executing it flawlessly as written, but it took a deeper dive into the music to understand the best way to portray the work emotionally. Certain rhythms were flexible enough to be interpreted differently, and phrasing was altered to imbue a sense of drama that was previously lacking.

This is a drawback of working from a score; the details aren’t always as clear as they could be on the page. In these situations, a producer should assist in providing direction for the performers. As a composer myself, I can confidently say that scores often times fall short, and using your musical instincts can clear up any insecurities a performer may have about what’s written. It’s much like a performer coaching an ensemble, you dig deeper than what is on the page to understand what the piece is and where it is going. Not to mention that studio time is not free (nor cheap), so decisions need to be made as quickly and confidently as possible.

Good producers will do their homework for an upcoming project. Score study is only one aspect of preparation for classical music recording sessions. Other ways to prepare for a session could involve researching instruments that you have less experience with to gain a basic understanding of how they produce sound. This is a necessary practice for composers. Without an understanding of how an instrument works, a composer cannot effectively compose idiomatically. Producers can use this same knowledge—in dialogue with the performers—to make suggestions, coach, or troubleshoot sonically problematic passages.

Preparation should also involve researching the performers you will be working with, which will provide insight into how those performers sound and what they are capable of. When producing a classical project, I spend a lot of time listening to recordings. I listen to any previous or live recordings by the performers as well as other recordings in the same field, e.g. string quartets, solo flute, solo violin, etc. When listening to other performers’ recordings, I’m not as interested in the performance as I am interested in how the music impacts me when I listen to it. If I really enjoy listening to a record, I will deconstruct the production of the record. Or, transversely, if I don’t like how a particular record sounds, I will know what it is I want to avoid as I prepare for the upcoming project.

Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself.

One of my first memories of working with a producer was at a pre-production meeting where the producer asked me what records I was listening to at the moment and what I really liked about them. At the time, this idea of taking ideas for the sonic imprint of my own record from other records I loved had never crossed my mind. This is now a consistent practice for me. Any time I begin working with new artists, one of the first things I ask is about which records comparable to their own work do they enjoy listening to. This frame of reference provides a tangible source to study for the producer so that they can confidently execute stylistic choices that are in line with what the performers prefer but may not know how to articulate.

Listening through recordings from previous decades, the production style of classical music has only very recently begun to change. The biggest differences over the years have been the improvement of recording technology which produced higher quality recordings. For the most part, producing classical music has been as much about capturing the space as the performance itself. However, when you look at the history of pop or rock music, the production quickly moved away from capturing a sonically accurate live performance recording, and instead creating a unique aural experience on record that, in some ways, intends to replicate the live image but utilizes recording techniques that isolate instruments and add an immediacy to the sonic landscape. Music listeners never think twice about this approach. You hear a band on record and when you see them live you usually never think about how different the sonic experience is. Whereas, with classical recordings, what you hear on the recording can sound almost identical to what you would hear live if you were to witness the performance in the same space.

The idea of creating a unique aural experience on record that differs from a live performance without changing the content of the music itself is an exciting notion both from the perspective of a composer and a producer. Instead of the recording acting as an archival document, it can become an expansion of the music itself. On record, you can provide a unique look into a piece of music that can’t be replicated live, especially in the present day where most people listen to music through headphones.

There is a growing trend among contemporary composers of creating works that ignore the arbitrary boundaries of genre. These works—such as Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Unremembered and Gemma Peacocke’s upcoming record, Waves & Lines—are ideal canvasses for modern production techniques, and a glimpse into what the future of contemporary classical production could be. The isolation and immediacy of the instruments in these recordings and the liberal exploration of the stereo field leaves behind the fixed spatial recordings of past classical recordings. Listeners are able to aurally navigate dense instrumental textures as if they were a part of the ensemble. The intimacy of this type of production also creates an emotional relationship to the music, much like the way a pop singer’s voice is recorded to hear every nuance of sound created. For as much as classical music harps on the emotion and drama embedded in works, it could benefit from this type of intimate production style.

My final installment in this series on the potential of the collaborative studio will offer up some suggestions for taking full advantage of your studio project and how to be a better collaborator with the rest of your production team. Every studio experience is a learning opportunity, and with the right positive mental attitude, everyone involved can benefit and learn in different ways.

The Collaborative Studio: A Look into the Process of Producing Non-Classical Music

My first venture into producing was with a Texas punk rock band whose main songwriter is one of my closest friends. The relationship we had was the perfect foundation for me to explore and sculpt my voice as a producer. I had done much work as a songwriter and a composer, but producing required me to give up creative control to respect someone else’s artistry. Not every project can be with your best friends, but it is important to create some sort of relationship with the artists you work with. Let them know that you are as invested as they are in their work.

When I sign on to a non-classical project as the producer, it is important for me to know how involved the artist wants me to be. Each project requires a different process based on what the artist is comfortable with or what they are hoping to achieve. Often I’ll try to be as involved in the pre-production process as I am in the studio. What this means is that before a band or artist enters the studio to record I am collaborating with them, helping them to mold the material that they have into the best possible version of itself. My background as a songwriter makes me an effective collaborator early on in the process, and these qualities are further augmented by the knowledge and skills I gained through my formal education as a musician.

My college education provided me with practical skills to complement the songwriting craft that I had developed prior to music school. Being able to analyze and understand form and theory helps to eliminate a lot of the time-consuming trial and error I underwent as a young musician. Although the school I attended only ever applied critical thinking toward works in the classical canon, I kept an eager interest in applying this knowledge to the non-classical styles that I loved. During undergrad I was still working toward becoming a better songwriter, so I used the analysis techniques I had learned in school to analyze my favorite records in order to better understand what made them so special to me. Analyzing non-classical music gave me another set of tools that I would be able to use as a producer when needing to fortify or expand a song that didn’t quite feel complete yet.

Studying composition taught me how to reconceptualize material that isn’t working in its current context. This technique has been invaluable to me as a producer.

In addition to the general music curriculum, my composition studies also provided me with a unique perspective on music and its materials. As a teenager, I had discarded countless songs because of mental roadblocks and I hadn’t developed ways to get past this. Studying composition taught me how to reconceptualize material that isn’t working in its current context. This technique has been invaluable to me as a producer. Not only has it saved songs from being discarded entirely, but it has taken perfectly “okay” songs to another level without sacrificing the artist’s intent. The material being reframed is still unique to the artist, and nothing gets changed without the consent of its creator. None of what I do as a producer revolves around me and my creative ability. Rather, I am using that ability to enhance what an artist has provided me to work with. The ability to perceive the material in new contexts is merely a way of seeing the true potential of what an artist has created.

Maybe my favorite aspect of being a producer is how similar it is to being a good teacher, whether it be in composition, violin, etc. The goal of being a producer or a teacher isn’t to create carbon copies of yourself or your tastes. Instead, you work harder to help artists or your students achieve (or sometimes to develop) their visions. It’s a more involved and difficult process than it would be to just change everything until you’re satisfied, but the end result is a product that is a true representation of someone other than yourself. It is a work that, as a producer, you helped to develop in order to fulfill another person’s vision, and that is a unique type of satisfaction.

Once I am in the studio with a band or an artist, things start to move quickly and it becomes necessary to focus both on the minor musical details as well as the broader picture of what the project is intended to be. Organizational skills, time management, and the ability to provide constructive feedback all come into play in a studio session. Not only am I monitoring the recording process, but I am also making decisions regarding where the most time will be spent, understanding how each part will sonically fit into the whole, and coaching performers when it is needed. It’s important to remember that each of these tasks involves a conversation—whether it be with your artists or your engineer—and the more you communicate, the more efficient your process will become.

When monitoring the recording process, there are two primary goals in mind. Capturing a technically proficient take and capturing the right performance. Music is an emotional force regardless of the genre you are working in, and it is important to portray that emotion in the performance. With indie artists or bands this is most evident in the vocals, which is why vocal tracking is one of the most involved processes. A singer may nail a passage technically, but if the performance doesn’t portray the right mood, it does nothing to serve the song. This is where a bit of coaching may be required, but just because a performer is being coached does not imply incompetence. It is simply the benefit of having an outside perspective weigh in on the effectiveness of a performance. Perhaps instrumental performers can relate to this type of coaching the most. Even though you may not always be coaching on the same instruments, a good coach understands how to articulate a mood or a character in the music so that any musician can understand. This ability to effectively talk about music is an invaluable skill that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The final processes that a producer is typically involved in are mixing and mastering. It is not uncommon for your recording engineer to also be your mix engineer, and having developed a strong communicative relationship will make mixing and mastering smooth and stress-free. In the mixing process, the engineer relies on clear and concise directions from both the producer and the performers. There’s no reason you can’t begin communicating with your engineer during the recording process about mix ideas. These ideas can range from topics such as balance between instruments, the use of special effects such as delay, or the overall timbral qualities of a song, e.g. dark, bright, warm, etc. Engineers who know where you intend to go sonically can begin to lay the groundwork before the recording process is finished, which makes mixing easier on everyone.

In the next installment of this series, I will discuss the ways in which classical music production differs from what has been described in this post. Contemporary classical music has continually shown little interest in the boundaries of genres, the next installment will also dive into what this could mean for the future of classical music production and ways in which I believe contemporary classical music can take advantage of what non-classical music has already been doing.

The Collaborative Studio: Roles and Expectations

For many classical/new music projects, the recording process is seen as a conclusion—the culmination of hours of rehearsal and preparation. Instead, your time in the studio can be utilized as another collaborative opportunity to further refine a project and prepare the work for a life both within and beyond a performance. On multiple occasions I have entered a studio feeling fully prepared to record the tracks as I had written and known them for months, only to be enlightened to new possibilities and ideas from a producer or engineer. The recording studio is its own creative space that provides a new perspective not only from the process of recording, but also from the team involved in that process. Taking advantage of this unique environment can be liberating and has the potential to elevate a project to another level that may have been previously unknown.

My background as a musician began like it does for many other people: playing in bands with friends. I was a guitarist in a variety of different rock, metal, and hardcore bands as a teenager, and was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to record three albums with one of those bands. It was then that I had my first experience working with an experienced producer. Over the course of those three albums, I absorbed as much knowledge as I could about the studio experience—everything from workflow, expectations on both the performing and producing end, studio techniques, and any secrets of the trade that I could remember. These experiences stuck with me because I enjoyed the process of working in a studio, although at the time I couldn’t imagine that I would do anything other than write and perform the music. Eventually, in college, I began composing concert music, which provided me not only with a new skill set, but a fresh perspective on music entirely. The communal aspect of music-making disappeared as I continued to compose, but I was suddenly involved in all determinant aspects of how a piece would sound and be performed. These varying experiences would eventually coalesce to inform my role as a producer, a new step in my development as a musician.

The definition of a producer can vary from person to person and for each project, but there is a certain foundational mission that you can expect to be a constant. Producers help artists achieve their vision for their work. They guide the way and keep artists on track and productive while also offering outside opinions—sometimes even providing creative input. While all producers have their own strengths and tendencies that define their production style, a critical attribute of their job is the ability to decenter themselves and put artists first in their decision making.

Andrew Rodriguez in the studio

This decentralization of personal artistry can be difficult, but it has personally transformed my creative process into a much more collaborative effort. When I first began playing music, it was a way to spend time with friends and share something together. Becoming a composer changed all of that, as the creation process became solitary. The primary aspect of producing that drew me in was the ability to collaborate again, yet this time in a supporting role rather than as the central creator. Working as a producer taught me to trust in the people I was collaborating with. This practice bled over into my compositional process and has given me a new sense of comfort in communicating and workshopping ideas with my performers. Just like a performance of a concert work, a studio production involves a team, and clear communication founded on trust is crucial to achieving the desired outcome.

Just like a performance of a concert work, a studio production involves a team, and clear communication founded on trust is crucial to achieving the desired outcome.

In a modern studio session there are three primary roles: the performer, the engineer(s), and the producer. In a best-case scenario, these roles are fulfilled by different people. It has become the norm, however, for one person to embody two of these roles. Often you will find that an engineer will also serve as a producer. This is a stereotypical assumption by the general public, but in the modern age it is not entirely out of line. I can recall my first experience in a professional recording studio and being confused about who the producer was because I was unaware that having a separate engineer was an option. In some cases, performers may even opt to produce the project they are performing in.

One reason, outside of financial limitations, that the producer for a project may also serve as the engineer or even a performer is that an effective producer often has a wealth of experience as an engineer and/or a performer. These varying experiences and skill sets contribute to the producer’s impact in the studio. Having been involved in projects where I wielded dual roles (engineer/producer or performer/producer) I can say that it is not easy. Although there are overlapping skills, producing requires the ability to move between perspectives continuously. Performers and engineers have crucial jobs to execute that rely on focus and detail-oriented technical skills. A producer, on the other hand, is constantly switching between focusing on these details and recognizing how the pieces fit into the larger picture of the project. A trusting relationship with a producer can alleviate the pressure of having to focus on all aspects of the process.

Throughout the remainder of this series I will offer up some suggestions on how to be an effective producer and collaborator in the studio for those who may be new to the studio process. I will also be detailing the ways in which my formal music training has informed my production style for non-classical music, as well as how my non-classical background has informed my production of classical music. Working in a studio environment has been one of the most beneficial experiences in my musical development, and I want to encourage musicians to take full advantage of the possibilities of a truly collaborative studio environment.