Tag: studio

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.


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: 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.

All Up In Your Space: Billie Howard on How Artists Live

I’ve been a fan of Billie Jean Howard’s blog By Measure ever since I noticed her profile of violinist Austin Wulliman not long after I moved to Chicago. In each post on By Measure, Howard photographs the home/studio environment of a Chicago musician and asks the artist a few questions about life, work, and space. Although the photographs are never posed, and Howard states unequivocally that she is not a photographer, By Measure has a stylish, sun-splashed, unfussy aesthetic that’s drawn me back as a reader for years.

A studio shared by eight Chicago musicians.

A studio shared by eight Chicago musicians.

By Measure also offers the voyeuristic pleasure of vicariously poking around another artist’s home. Is there a mess on the desk? Evidence of vice or obsession? A disruptive cat or two?

Howard essentially created By Measure as a way to inspire herself and others–to find and document positive role models of functional, working artists. “I do this project so I can understand what motivates musicians and composers to keep producing,” she explains. “I like to see how they work with what they’ve got, since many of us don’t have a big budget.”

Howard photographs not only airy Chicago apartments but also the dark practice rooms of rock bands. “I especially wonder about bands who have tiny, drab rooms with no windows. How do they write songs and not get into fights?”

When I spoke with her, Howard was vacationing at her grandparents’ home in North Dakota, fresh from a week volunteering at the Girls Rock! Chicago summer camp.

Ellen McSweeney: So, you do this project in order to see what motivates people to create. What kinds of things have you walked away with, in answer to that question? What are some of the things that motivate people to keep working?

Billie Jean Howard: I think some people might just have this inner need to create, so they just keep doing it. Or, in the case of classical musicians, always striving to be better. There’s this innate thing—to keep on going. For other people, it’s just where they get their enjoyment. They have day jobs, and they spend their free time doing it.

EM: What drew you to photograph artists in their home environments?

BJH: I felt like there weren’t many options to see how musicians actually work. You see them on stage, performing, but that’s not where they spend the majority of their time. So I wanted to see how people spend the majority of their time, how they work, to motivate myself—and take away more positive ways that people work with their space, or work with whatever situation they’re in, to stay motivated. And I’m also always interested in little details: what art they have on the wall, what little trinkets they have collected. Everything has a little story and it’s just interesting to see what people surround themselves with.

EM: Yeah! The blog sort of has a delightful Pinterest-y, Apartment Therapy quality—except for real people.

BJH: That’s what I wanted—to get away from this sense of Apartment Therapy or Dwell, or those really high-end interior publications where everything looks so pristine and you wonder how long they spent staging it. I like to come in—sometimes I’ve never seen the space before—and start taking photos; I don’t change anything. I’m interested in seeing how people live and work, rather than some floral arrangement.

I was really inspired by The Selby blog. It’s blown up—he has books now, and it’s quite posh—but the early posts are my favorite.
EM: Have you ever photographed an idea on your blog that you ended up really wanting to take back into your own space?

BJH: Recently I went to Fred Lonberg-Holm’s place, and it was like you could feel the layers of the years of his performing and working in that space. I loved how cheerful it was—he had so many posters and things on the wall, and a setup for him to play cello with all his pedals. But he also has a little table with a sewing machine on it! I guess that’s what he does when he’s listening to music. He has a space within his creative space to get away from his own music. That showed me that it doesn’t have to be all about work, or practicing.

What I want in my band practice space is to have a little area to sit that’s not at our instruments. Sometimes we don’t want to play—we just want to talk for a long time.

Fred Lonberg-Holm in his studio.

Fred Lonberg-Holm in his studio.

EM: I love the picture of Matthew Shelton sort of squatting in a room that looks like he just moved into it. I’ve read a lot of conflicting things about whether a messy workspace is a good sign or a bad sign for an artist. What has been your experience with artists whose space is messy?

BJH: When I started the blog, I was hoping to get more of those messy shots. I get the feeling a lot of people, when I come to their space, they’ve cleaned up. Or we hang out for an hour while they’re cleaning. And I’m always a little disappointed, but I understand they don’t want certain things on the Internet. Matthew doesn’t live in that space I shot—that’s just his studio—so maybe he feels more free to make a mess.

Matthew Shelton

Matthew Shelton

EM: When you’re photographing those small details that capture the musician’s personality, what kinds of things do you look for?

BJH: I like to get shots of the desk—usually there’s a desk, or a surface, that has a laptop and then tons of other little trinkets, or things that they need for their instrument, or books or CDs that they happen to have out. That shows what they’ve been thinking about or listening to: what’s been influencing them. Whether they have lots of little tiny toys from Kid Robot or they have more folky things, I find it usually goes along with their music. And then I try to get a photo of the space as a whole, which is maybe the hard part. Sometimes the space is small and I can’t back up far enough to get the whole room in.

Detail from the studio of Ronnie Kuller

Detail from the studio of Ronnie Kuller

EM: How about artists who share space with others, whether a partner or roommates? Have you noticed differences there? I feel like this photo of Jeff Kimmel immediately suggests that he lives with a very neat person. Or else, he’s a neat freak improviser. Do you remember which it is?

Jeff Kimmel

Jeff Kimmel

BJH: Right! Sometimes they’re married or they have a roommate, and so the living space—which might be where they practice—is shared. In Jeff’s case, I think he always just puts his stuff away. He’s got a small instrument that he can just pack away, so you don’t notice it. If the musician is a pianist, the piano is always out—you can tell it’s a musician’s space.

There’s other situations I’ve seen where they clearly split up the room, because the other half belongs to another band. Sometimes I’ll photograph the “other artist” because it looks so neat. Emma Dayhuff is a jazz bassist. She was sharing a space with a harpsichordist who also repairs harpsichords, so there were bits and pieces of harpsichord everywhere, and a workbench, and tools. She’d play her bass in the middle of the room and there were these harpsichord bits everywhere.
EM: I loved how Alex Temple, in your interview a few years ago, described having a U-shaped desk because she needed to go back and forth between different media, between keyboard and manuscript. It’s so evident in these portraits that artists are floating back and forth between digital and analog.

A detail of Alex Temple's studio

A detail of Alex Temple’s studio

BJH: Yes. Many people have a computer out. Seems like everyone is trying to record themselves, whether to release it, or for a demo, or to hear themselves.

EM: Do you feel like there’s anything distinctly Chicago about your blog? I do.

BJH: I’m curious that you think that, because I’m not sure about whether there’s anything distinctly Chicago about it. Except that most apartments do have the same layout, and most bands do rent these little tiny rooms. People have more space than New York.

EM: That’s exactly what I was thinking. People in New York would probably marvel at the amount of space we have, while people in the suburbs or other parts of the country might feel like we are living in cramped quarters. It’s that sort of sprawling Midwest urban happy medium.

BJH: That is a nice thing about living here—you can find affordable places and the space.

EM: I think it’s also very Chicago in the way that so many of these musicians exist in multiple scenes: pop and classical, notated and improvised, acoustic and electronic. There’s an unpretentious, non-dogmatic way that the musicians conduct their careers, and it’s evident in the photos.

BJH: That’s true! And I’ve been trying to branch out and photograph older musicians, with more established careers. But I get shy.

Making Space

It looks like Q2 will soon be unveiling a new series of video guided tours of composers’ homes and studio spaces; the preview looks intriguing, and it’s a really good idea. Who doesn’t want to check out the workspaces of creative people? It’s like being a fly on the wall, sneaking a glimpse of what goes on in the daily life of an artist.

In fact, one of the best parts of traveling around to interview composers for NewMusicBox is often having the opportunity to see their living spaces! It’s always interesting, and in many cases surprising to see the spaces that composers create for themselves. Favorites of mine include the beautiful and serene workspace of Bunita Marcus, the big table overflowing with bits of paper, cables and electronic gear, drawings, and treasures—otherwise known as “deskpocalyspe”—in Nat Evans‘s living room, and the jaw-dropping Liberace-meets-Prince studio of John Mackey.

Some spaces have ghosts attached to them, like the studio of Chou Wen-Chung, who works amidst many of the belongings (including some fabulous gongs!) of Edgard Varèse. During my last trip to the MacDowell Colony, I fell in love with my studio, which was named after Irving Fine, and apparently it had also been the favorite of author Willa Cather. Every morning when I came in and turned up the thermostat, the heating system made such a huge and excellent gamelan-esque racket that I got into the habit of saying out loud, “Good morning, Irving!” Perhaps that’s crazy, but no matter; I really enjoyed the company of those ghosts, not to mention the grand piano, the enormous worktable, and the fireplace! Heaven.

Happiness is a HUGE desk.

Happiness is a HUGE desk.

Like a lot of people, I’m pretty sensitive to the energy of whatever space I’m in; not just the energy of other people who are in that space, but also the feeling of the space itself. As with the weather, a physical space can affect one’s mood, obviously one’s creative output, and even one’s physical wellbeing. For the first time in many years, my composing studio is an actual room, with walls and a door and everything! Although I have never really minded sharing workspace, or having it located in a common area of my home, this situation feels really luxurious. Although I prefer things to be neat and tidy, it’s honestly not my natural state, and every now and then I have to expend a little effort to avoid my own deskpocalypse explosion. My dream is to someday have a studio that is a separate space from my house—a place that requires going outside to get to!

My composing space, taken about 6 months ago.

My composing space, taken about 6 months ago. Still in progress!

But I wonder if the spaces in which we feel the most comfortable are always the best for composing? Maybe it’s not necessarily so great to always be in control of one’s physical creative setting. Some of my very best pieces were composed in odd locations, under unfamiliar circumstances. More than one work has been created while in the process of long-distance moves; in hotel rooms, in unfinished warehouses with only sawhorses and a chunk of wood for a table, on trains and/or airplanes. Although composing under such circumstances is not exactly enjoyable, I’ve learned how to do it and deadlines often demand it. A group of composer friends rent a space that is located just outside of their home city and alternate spending composing time there. It is an absolutely no-frills space in a very small town where there is not much to do, so outside distractions are minimized. Shaking things up can really work—maybe the jostle to the brain that being in a different space provides can also serve up some new ideas.

What is your composing space like? Are there particular arrangements of furniture or gear that you really need in order to compose? Do you have a private space, or do you share one? Do you have a dream working situation that you aspire to? If you have pictures of your working space, feel free to post or link to them in the comments section!