As producers, mixers, engineers, and artists, we’re all living in a world that’s evolving every day. Now, more than ever should uniqueness and change be eagerly accepted, and if I told you I thought the way to survive and better the future of this business was to be safe, I’d be lying. History has shown that breaking barriers and leading the way takes risks. Risks that should be backed up with a conviction, honesty, and most importantly, experience and talent.
As a 25 year old who has been working professionally in this business for 12 years, I feel too many people around me are walking on eggshells. Could this be a factor in the demise of the record industry? I’ll leave that for you to decide. For now, I’d like to go over some points that I think will help producers, mixers, and engineers take more risks, because after all, aren’t we the “new rockstar?”
1. The Golden Rule: The Song
There’s no way I can talk about the producer, mixer, or engineer’s job without a preface about "the song" itself. It has to be memorable. What’s the story line? Is the arrangement moving in a way that helps tell the story? Is the lyric unique? What's the market? None of these 4 questions have a formulated solution, but what they should have is a definitive answer. An answer that has to be reached by you and your client. These thoughts should be a major component of your pre-production process, as your answers will dictate how to approach things moving forward. Being conscious is the first step and as it may not seem like a lot, it’s sometimes everything.
As a producer, I find myself working with artists’ arrangements almost 95% of the time. Should the structure and transition from section to section flow nicely? Absolutely, but this is only a quarter of what can enhance an arrangement. Song's structure is another topic where there are no rules, leaving us to be as open minded and unique as possible. Once you've given your input on the song's structure, start looking down other avenues. I personally, like to think of all recordings and mixes like an orchestra. Placement, use of instruments, where a chord is played on the neck of the guitar, what should be doubled, what is syncopated or very straight forward, and most importantly, use of space. Being aware of these things allows me to take someone's arrangement and bring it to a place they never expected, without even moving their structure around.
3. Engineering: When to f*ck it up
I won't even get into how important understanding microphone placement and signal flow is. When I'm engineering, I always have an intended mix in mind. I want my source to sound the way I hear it in the room, as it's being recorded. Once you've got the part recorded beautifully, there's nothing wrong with leaving it as is (and sometimes you should), but there's also a time and place to take something perfect and f*ck it up. Remember, sometimes "perfect is the enemy of good." Growing up and working with Grammy Award Winning engineer, Butch Jones, I’ve learned that there are also no rules when it comes to engineering. The job is to get the sound. I've seen Butch listen to pianos with his ear against walls in the room to find the sweet spot for mics, I've seen him put microphones inside of construction cones, and it's all motivated me to go even further to make my own sources special. I've been known to make a tiny battery powered amp sound bigger than a Marshall stack or record something using a headphone instead of a microphone.
It's no secret that Lo-Fi usage has become a trend in modern music. I personally love it, but I have to warn you; If you're gonna go for it, go for it. There's no half ass efforts allowed when you're adding Lo-Fi elements into a recording or mix. With plug-ins, Lo-Fi is such an easy vibe to capture, but don't be afraid to go for the real thing before you hit record. I mentioned a few tricks in the last paragraph, but your options are limitless. Despite my age, I'm a true believer that the real thing always sounds better. If you want a megaphone vocal sound, buy a megaphone. Take any idea in the world and apply this logic... I double dare you.
Ever put something subtle in your mix and have someone ask, "what is that cool sound I hear back there?" Use your instincts. Grab the fader on that track and turn it up. Remember, as the creators, we know what's going on in the mix. This doesn't mean it will translate to the listener the same way. Try to listen to your mixes as open-minded (or open-eared?) as possible. Exaggerating elements in your mix sometimes will feel ridiculous, but it will almost always be worth it. If you want a particular hook, color, or part to stick out, turn it up... And not +1.5db. Turn that sh*t up.
6. Rubs & Rides: Harmonic Distortion, Overtones, & Automation
Ever hear a song and feel your body instantly develop goosebumps? A flushed dopamine brain and a tingly chill whisking down your back is one of the best feelings in the world. The beauty of sound is that this feeling can happen unintentionally. As artists, I think it's what keeps us making music every day like addicts. I hear a lot of upcoming mixers and engineers who have super clean sounding recordings and mixes filled with hype and volume, but lacking the natural magic of air and movement. I think this is because of fear. Fear of not sounding as good as you think you should. Don't be afraid to let frequencies overlap and blend. There are so many colors within the sonic spectrum. Rumble, Punch, Warmth, Mud, Honk, Crunch, Edge, and Pierce. Cutting frequencies like Edward Scissor Hands or over-boosting will start to make things sound stale and lifeless. Ever hear isolated Beatles' or Beach Boy vocals? If you ever touched those tracks with Melodyne, you'd lose everything that makes it organic and magical. The blend between those individuals when they hit a harmony is truly magic. Allow things to rub in a musical way and don't forget why all the guys we learned from always had their hands on faders; Movement...
7. Subliminal Effects
In the paragraph above, I spoke a little about sound affecting the brain. How could we do this on purpose? How could we give people the chills, feel good, or feel sad when they're listening to a mix? Sure, the artist has to convey these feelings, but it shouldn't end there. There's been studies saying Hitler used infrasound (a frequency lower than 20Hz ) to incite anger in crowds. You'll also see young girls go completely bonkers when Bruno Mars secretly projects low frequencies from the stage during his encore song "Gorilla." These are both drastic examples of how you can intentionally alter a person's emotions through sound. In my case, I use subliminal effects quite often when I mix. If you experiment and find certain tones, colors, and rubs, you can duck them into the mix so that they're nothing more than a feeling. What feeling you want to evoke is obviously up to you... Use with caution!
8. Stacks & Sounds
As someone who owns a ton of virtual instruments and samplers, I never want to roll through a preset menu and say, "oh, there's the sound so and so used." I'm seeing a lot of stock sounds being used lately, especially in the EDM world. Presets are probably better than ever, but you should use them as a starting point and nothing more. Stacking tracks is a great way to bring your sounds to the next level. Quite often, I'll take maybe 5 or 6 synth parts and blend them using different samplers. Experiment with the sounds we're all familiar with and make them your own.
9. Character & Self Expression
Unfortunately, I think that character and honest self expression have been severely lacking in this business over the last decade. Not only with artists and songwriters, but also with recordings and mixes. Having a safe sounding mix will suffice, but who cares? Is it going to get someone's attention? Is it really going to inspire future generations? I think less focus should be put on clean, hyped mixes, and more on adding character and what defines you as a creative individual. It's all about vibe, and your sole purpose is to make it translate to the listener.
10. No Rules
I think we all joined this business to escape the conformity of social and professional standards. We're in a business like no other... Everything is subjective. We can follow how things were done in the past and use them as a map, but don't be afraid to take some detours and explore. Don't be afraid to take risks, and most importantly, don't be afraid to fall on your face.
(Matty Amendola is an American musician, producer, songwriter. Amendola is a Brooklyn native. He began playing drums at age five and was a professional drummer by age 13. Amendola founded 825 Records, Inc. He is well known for his artist development work throughout the years with various independent artists, has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, and has written, composed, and performed for both events and worldwide broadcast commercials for clients such as MetLife, IBM, & Nike.) www.mattyamendola.com - www.825records.com