Music Blogs

So you want a recording contract...(Part 5)?

  • By Trev@circlestudios
  • 9 August 2013

This week Trev from Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham, our industry insider, talks about how to make your record sound as good as it possibly can and the importance of teamwork.
Now this is a bit longer than my usual blog.  But hang in there.  I think you'll find it's worth it.  Last week I mentioned a top metal band I was working with. I realised during the course of the intervening week that they reminded me of something I hadn't previously referred to: the importance of teamwork.  They not only understood the importance of the team in getting them and keeping them at the top, but they expressly said so at the outset of the session. 
Now it occurred to me recently that a big difference between signed and unsigned bands is how their songs come into being.  I realised that after a signed band (certainly one on a major label) comes up with the song it goes through a process of pre-production (during which the band, their producer and their A&R rep mould it into something which is capable of becoming a commercial hit) before it is recorded (during which time it is honed further and 'ear candy' is often added) and they then play it live.  For the most part, unsigned bands miss out those two important steps: pre-production and recording) before they go and play it to their mate and his dog in the local pub. 
Why do those stages make a difference? Well, in those scenarios the band has the wider experience of a team of professionals behind them.  People who have worked with, potentially, multitudes of bands in their careers. They'll have seen first hand what turns audiences on and what spectacularly fails.  Now that's not to say they necessarily take a cookie cutter approach (not the good ones anyway) but they do get hands on to help 'shape' the final product.  That shaping may include input on everything from the structure of the song to the sound of it; from the way the hook is written to how it is sung. And finally, they'll be able to take an objective view of the strengths and weaknesses of the tracks in a way that you may struggle with.  It follows that they can then bring their experience to bear to improve on any such weaknesses.
Why do signed bands operate in such a different way then? (Please note that, not being a psychologist, I am about to swing off into wild conjecture at this point but I think there are some key, and pretty damn obvious, reasons for this).  
The fundamental reason, in my view, is money.  When it comes to a signed band (and at this point I mean in particular recently signed bands) the label calls the shots.  All of the power is in their court (the contract between them will see to that). The label will want to give themselves the maximum comfort that they will have a chance of recouping their investment. As a result the A&R rep and the producer will, between them, have the final say on the record. The A&R rep will be an employee of the label so, if they want to remain employed, will put the label's needs first.  The producer, though theoretically independent, has a vested interest in achieving the label's aims: the production of a commercially successful record.  If they don't, they won't get the call next time).  It follows that both will be applying the learning they have taken from previous records they have worked on and applying it to the band they are currently working on.
Now at this point you're thinking: "that explains the cookie cutter plastic crap we get to listen to on commercial radio every day of the week then". To some extent you might be right, but it wasn't always thus.  So what's changed? In short, the industry... But that's a story for another day.
Of course another reason might be mindset.  Unsigned bands work on their songs in a vacuum.  They become their babies.  And, just maybe, they don't want outsiders interfering.  
Let me tell you a story of two bands.  Now I'm pretty fussy about who I work with.  And I generally won't work with an unsigned band unless I've heard them live and have got to know them at least a little. As a result of my self-imposed quality filter I don't do much unsigned work nowadays (largely on the back of my experience with Band A, below). But two bands I have worked with of late couldn't have more different mind-sets.
Band A, let's call them The Flytippers, arrived at the studio telling me they wanted to sound like Oasis.  Quite apart from the fact that they didn't, and that's been done already, well... They didn't, and that's been done already. 
I noted at the outset that the drummer had crap gear including a grubby looking nondescript snare drum and cracked hi hats. The guitarist had the nastiest POS guitar you have ever seen or heard in your entire life.  No problem i thought.  They can use some of the decent sounding stuff I keep in the studio.  To give you some idea, you can see my gear list here:  http://circlestudios.co.uk/gear
When I suggested they might want to swap them out for some better my suggestion was met with a look as I'd they had stepped on something brown and smelly: "but these are part of our sound". It got worse. They insisted that they wanted a really distorted hard edged sound.  The distortion pedals and their amps gave them exactly the opposite: an ill-defined fuzzy mess which clashed beautifully with the ill-defined trashy sounding hi-hats that the drummer spent the entire record thrashing.  Any suggestions from me were met with either the brown smelly reference above or 'that's how it's played man" and a sulky look. The result? The record sounded so crap that I refused to be credited on it. The saying "you can't polish a turd" was made for it.  
By contrast, Band B, let's call them 'Reap' came in with a completely different attitude.  All they wanted was for their record to sound as good as it possibly could.  They listened to suggestions on the song structure during pre-production and went off to re-work the song. When we started recording, the drummer took my advice that his drums (and let me be clear on this, he already had a great kit) would sound better in the overall mix if he used a different snare. He also took on board my suggestions as to how he could add energy to the song at particular points.  Similarly, their guitarist took advice on guitar choice and the bass player took advice on what to play. I pushed the singer to his limit to find the edge and we used that on the record. As a result of all this they not only worked harder as individuals, but their record came together as a coherent whole in a way that it never would have done if they hadn't drawn on the strengths of the whole team. As a result their debut record sounds great.  
More than this though, they took what they'd learned away and applied it to their live set.  The result? They now sound like a major label act rather than a new signing on a dubious label. They have since had some very serious interest on a number of fronts. They also have a slot on BBC introducing, a forthcoming feature in Loaded magazine and, thanks to the public vote here on Supajam, will be opening the main stage at Galtres festival in August. But don't take my word for it. Go check them, and their debut single "You Not Me" out for yourself: 
So to summarise this week's ramblings, understand that while the core of the record must be yours, you should keep an open mind to every other possibility. The goal must surely be making the best record you can make rather than sticking rigidly with something that might just not be working as well as it could.  And that, once you've got the right team on board, it's worth paying attention to what they are saying. Chances are they'll not only have a more objective view of your work than you have but they'll be drawing on many years' experience of what works and what does not.
The author of Machiavelli's Guide, Trev, is a record producer and Chief Engineer at one of the UK's top studios, Circle Recording Studios in Birmingham.  Check it out at www.circlestudios.co.uk. He has worked with clients from major and independent record labels across a range of genres from metal to hip hop. Go follow @circlestudios on twitter if you like the kind of inane rambling you get to read here. Alternatively, look up Circle Recording Studios Birmingham on Facebook.