Have loved all the stuff you have worked on that I am familiar with - Mew, Soundgarden especially - career bests for those bands in my opinion
How do you approach making an album? Do you do lots of listening to demos and make decisions prior? Do you wait to get into the room with the band? Do you find other albums that have similar touchstones or avoid em? Are there things you try and do on every record because they have been successful (eat well / only do long or short days / use a mono smash mic on kit / tape echo on vocals etc) getting a great record out of it. Do you like to take a long time on a record or are you happy to move fast - even if budget is there. Do you get in a room with band to do preproduction and break songs down, or do you prefer it when songs are only kinda there and you can make tons of decisions when tracking? I know these are many questions - just trying to get a good picture of how you get these great records out - what are the constants in your approach as opposed to the variables?
When making a record, I try to do as much prep work as possible. This helps me dig into the music I'm going to be working on and formulate an overall approach to it. I also make a lot of notes- arrangement, structure, re-writes, mic'ing combinations, etc. I don't like to save anything for when I'm in pre-production because the less I know it, the less likely I am to connect with the music I'm working on.
All arrangement decisions are made before the recording commences. This provides an immense amount of freedom to make choices regarding tonal combinations and experimentation where it will count the most. Having arrangement issues looming over one's head while still recording seems pretty daunting and unnecessary. I can't do this- more power to anyone who can and makes great recordings.
The only time I listen to other music in order to influence what I'm working on, it's often far different stylistically and is used to illustrate something general (a mood or an approach), as opposed to something specific to imitate or avoid. As an example, I will sometimes play certain ethnic or folk music for artists because it can inform them about creative expression without agenda.
There are equipment mainstays I will return to, but only because I haven't found anything better for a particular application. If I'm in a studio with a lot of equipment, I'll try everything in order to see what it does, what its characteristics and coloration is. I don't like to stand on ceremony or use what I know either because it belongs to me or because it sustains a famiiar workflow. That's all fine and good, but it can also be a very self-centered way of working which ignores the artist and the music we're working on together.
Further, time is not an issue for me unless it's a major parameter in the process (ie- budget). When I worked with Marilyn Manson, that record took about 2-3 months to make. With Korn and Hole, those records lasted over a year each. Each project has its own requirements and I choose to adhere to this rather than inject my own preconceptions of what they must turn into. I find that working this way turns everything into a blur and I am less able to connect with what I'm working on. **
My only intractible rule is to maintain a high level of quality at all levels and not to settle for anything in any way. From this perspective compromise is a way of downgrading my ability to be discerning and therefore, my true value as a collaborator. That is the kiss of death- especially the mentality of fixing something after it's been recorded instead of while it's being recorded. This is a mindset I don't understand- even though it appears more utile and practical than actually working hard to get great results.*
Further, time is not an issue for me unless it's a major parameter in the process (ie- budget). When I worked with Marilyn Manson, that record took about 2-3 months to make. With Korn and Hole, those records lasted over a year each.
In a months or year-long project, are you completely absorbed in ONLY that project, each and every day, or do you work on other stuff, plan the next one, work with another band, etc?
In the case of those projects, yes- only that project. If I've been retained to produce an artist, I feel it's unethical for me to do any other production work- or anything that will distract me from what I've agreed to do. If a project is more fluid and has less restraints (and I don't feel that any extracurricular work will affect it and I know the artist is comfortable with that arrangement), I'll multi-task (but try to avoid it if I can).
I think certain people are able to multitask because they can compartmentalize their production work, delegate work to others and thereby, not get so involved in the details. That doesn't work for me, because I feel the details add up to the whole picture and someone must be responsible for managing them.
Sure- it varies pretty widely. A lot of people can't hear music from other cultural sources because it falls outside their sensibility and they experience it as noise. For this reason, I try to get a feel for which artists will be able to hear/assimilate it and which ones won't.
A great source for ethnic music is the Smithsonian/Folkways catalog which is really extensive. They have great collections of African/Asian/Pan-European/American, etc music such as- Mbuti Pygmies of the Ituri Rainforest, African and Afro-American Drums, The Harry Smith Folk Music Collection, Sonia Malkine- French Songs from the Provinces, etc. The Nonesuch Explorer catalog is great, too- can't really go wrong with their collections, same with Ocora and Harmonia Mundi. It's an amazing experience to listen to this music- really frees you from preconceptions of Western popular music and how commerce-driven it is.
Thanks! I will definitely check out those catalogues.
BTW, I dove into your blog and it's blowing my mind.
Once upon a time I was a Zappa-inspired recording artist, but I wasn't able to build much of a career. After a difficult 10-year hiatus I found the courage to re-invent myself as a composer/audio pro. Honestly, I can't remember the last time I felt more like sitting down and writing songs than I did after reading "good isn’t actually great/the feeling is everything". Not sure if you meant to convey this, but your essay reminded me that making music that challenges listeners is in a way a powerful act of counter-culture, because it gives listeners options amid the pervasive, unrelenting pressure to accept mediocre consumer culture -- and rejecting mediocre consumer culture can be a the start of, or at least a part of, more profound social change. Wow, I can't believe I managed to lose sight of all that amazing stuff that music can do. Thanks again.