As you prepare to self produce your next recording, take time to study record production that inspires you. We look at tracks by Miranda Lambert and Beck
The role of a record producer is critical to any successful recording project, regardless of budget or intended outcome. In a nutshell, the producer is tasked with helping the artist realize his or her artistic vision in the form of a recorded song or album. And while the producer is often responsible for managing the record-making business processes, it’s the creative guidance and vision of what the finished recording will sound like that makes a producer most valuable.
Most major producers tell stories of spending years studying their craft, interning or learning the ropes of record production serving as engineers and studio hands before landing a break. Some successful artists who started out in the major label system, recording their early albums under the guidance of experienced producers, had the luxury of studying these producers at work and developed the skills and experience to self- or co-produce their records.
But that describes a tiny percentage of working musicians today. For the vast majority of artists and songwriters working in their own home studios or recording at local pro studios, having access to the tools of music production makes you the composer, arranger, performer, audio engineer, and record producer. To be effective in all these roles means developing a strong understanding of album and song structure, genre conventions, and the basic processes of record production.
What makes a producer?
Successful producers quote in detail the records and artists who have influenced their production style and approach to recording. They’ve developed libraries of sounds and techniques through intensive study of successful albums and being mentored by studio professionals. There can be no substitute to developing this knowledge base. You have to put in the time to study the music that moves you and deconstruct what it is that makes it so impactful from a production standpoint. Successful record production advances the artist’s intent for what he or she hopes to communicate to the listener.
To help break down this process, we’ve selected a track from two recent number one album releases that demonstrate different production styles and radically different artistic visions. Platinum by Miranda Lambert, a country album with a healthy dose of arena rock touches, and Morning Phase by Beck, a sonically-sculptured musical meditation that transports the listener directly into a world far removed from the concert arena. As different as day and night, these two albums demonstrate how record production directly supports the artist’s vision.
Critical listening sessions
For the optimal experience, we chose to purchase CDs to use an uncompressed digital audio file. In this way, we’re listening to the stereo mix down exactly as the artist and producer intended. This is the best available format for making fair and accurate judgments about the overall sonic nature of the album’s tracking and mastering, unimpeded by any other audio artifacts that may occur with file compression encoding.
In fact, we took it one step further and imported the tracks from both CDs into a computer using no compression encoding. By doing this, we were able to listen to the audio and view the 2-track stereo file’s waveform, seeing it exactly as it was when it left the mastering engineer’s studio.
For the actual listening process, we took our first listen using a high-quality pair of professional headphones (in this case, $500 open-back Sennheiser HD650s). This first listening environment puts us directly in the center of the mix, getting as close as possible to the recorded images. A second listen took place in the University of the Pacific’s campus recording studio using high-end, near field studio monitors (Meyer HD1s). This helps us hear how the overall frequencies were balanced from highs to lows and also provides a directional perspective on stereo placement and effects different than the headphones. Lastly, we took the CDs to Jeff’s living room and used a consumer stereo system to evaluate the production in a typical home environment.
Platinum and Morning Phase: a study in contrasting artistic intent
As mentioned, Miranda Lambert’s Platinum and Beck’s Morning Phase take completely different approaches to the production process. Platinum is a highly-polished, tightly-produced, progressive country album with 16 commercially oriented tracks, taking the listener on an energized journey through Lambert’s vision of contemporary country and its associated lifestyles. Morning Phase is a conceptual, ethereal, laid back acoustic rock album with 13 tracks of differing sonic textures.
Platinum features Miranda Lambert’s hard-hitting lead vocal supported by precisely played acoustic and electric instruments that are in your face, propelling the listener with the Nashville sound which continues to draw inspiration and licks from current rock and pop productions. Every track on Platinum, even the slower ones, is easy to envision being performed to a sell out crowd in an arena as she tours the album.
Morning Phase is introspective, showcasing Beck’s personal reflection that is big in sonic dimension but intimate in compositional style. The end result is an open invitation to the listener to be drawn into Beck’s sonic paintings – where rhythms, instruments, effects, and careful production decisions all serve to heighten the listener’s immersion.
We started by listening to these two albums a few times, to establish the overall mood, feel and sonic image of each into our minds. Then we picked a track from each album that we agreed typified the production road each artist traveled.
Miranda Lambert: “Automatic”
“Automatic” (produced by Frank Liddell and Glen Worf) has a cross-generational appeal that is featured in both the lyrics and musical approach. Lambert co-wrote the song, which was the first single from the album, with Natalie Hemby and Nicolle Galyon. The lyrics cite traditional country values of hard work and earning your props, making references to audio cassettes, pay phones, snail mail, and other nostalgic elements of Lambert’s life. The song’s refrain laments the sense of entitlement she sees creeping into today’s world, as she sings, “It all just seemed so good, the way we had it, back before everything became … automatic.”
The song opens with a steel string guitar strumming an insistent quarter note pattern with Miranda’s solo lead vocal, fairly dry, jumping right into the first verse (:20) with kick drum underneath. This choice of instruments sets the down-home storytelling feel of the song. As she sings, a complex stereo-recorded and pan modulated slide guitar, soaked in reverb, is played, with long fade-in amplitude attack times, possibly with the player using a volume pedal.
As the songs goes directly into the second verse (:45), the drummer lays down the song’s groove. By the time of the first chorus (1:05), the song’s stereo image is nearly complete. Kick and acoustic guitar close up, front and dry; bass guitar and additional drums sounds centered and foundational; the slide and additional acoustic guitar up high in the mix placed left and right respectively; and tasty keyboard synth textures panned across a full stereo spread.
Carefully listening to the tune’s basic tracks, we hear the extensive work that went into their production. Starting with a kick drum as the song’s pulse, multi-layered acoustic and drum samples are added to comprise the track’s overall drum sound. With kick and high-hat keeping the pulse, the first of two snare drums is introduced. Along with the first snare (possibly a sample) we hear on the left a deep, loosely tuned tom or second kick that provides a nice low-end punch and drive propelling the track forward.
When the first chorus hits, a second snare and the full acoustic drum kit with toms and cymbals enter. The song’s basic backing tracks have been a continuous build so that at the first chorus there are multiple stereo rhythmic keyboard synth textures along with piano and a heavy side-band compressed bass guitar driving the track.
Come the third verse (1:45), the drum tracks are now favoring the toms in both left and right channels with the two snares and kicks holding the center image. Looking at a snapshot of the stereo waveform display, the graphic contour of the track is constantly increasing and by the third verse it’s pumping to the limit, adding crunch and a bit of distortion or edge to the mix. This is a very popular technique sometimes referred to as “maximizing” the audio file.
The song form of “Automatic” is fairly standard with an intro, verse, second verse, chorus (with short instrumental extension), third verse, second chorus (with long instrumental extension), a partial verse arranged as a breakdown, and on to the final chorus. By the end, it has become an anthem and one can easily envision Lambert using this piece as a signature tune in her live show, since it starts out with her telling a story and ends with the whole band driving the song to its triumphant sounding conclusion.
The key production takeaway is that this carefully orchestrated build creates a constantly varying sound field that keeps the listener engaged over the 4:08 of the track. Additionally, the instrumental tracks and arrangement are beautifully mixed, a perfect balance of what might be termed “expected” contemporary country sounds blended with pop music timbres and techniques.
Lambert’s trademark vocals ride on top of the whole mix, becoming the ultimate unifying element that delivers the message embodied in the song. The first and second verses feature solo vocal, while a harmony part is added on alternating lines in the third verse to continue the track’s continuous build. Notice how she varies between solo lead and double tracked harmony vocals to give the vocal performance variety, depth and punch, especially on the chorus. Add the carefully crafted lyrics, intended to resonate with her target audience, and you see that “Automatic” is the “whole package,” a beautifully crafted contemporary country production that delivers a crystal clear, focused message of the artist’s longing for bygone days.
Beck’s “Blackbird Chain”
From Morning Phase, we chose “Blackbird Chain” (produced by Beck Hansen). The 4:27 song is a complex dance of romance and relationships. The production begins with a nicely recorded stereo double tracked acoustic guitar, and after it holds the last intro chord, an electric guitar plays a descending riff to introduce the listener to the first verse (:22).
The song’s underpinnings are comprised of a kick, snare, high-hat and cymbals. It’s important to note that drums play a supporting role, keeping time while subtly accenting exactly where Beck’s vocals call out for emphasis. The kick sound gently thumps, with the drummer using brushes instead of sticks on the snare. On the left is a rhythmic acoustic guitar, in the center are the bass and drums, and on the right, simple electric guitar phrases using a spring reverb, ’60s surf rock sound. This guitar is used to add color and counterbalance Beck’s dreamy vocals.
Additional acoustic and electric guitars are added at various times to fill in the stereo image. When the chorus hits, a pedal steel guitar, guitar harmonics and what sounds like a toy xylophone enter, creating a high frequency, upper-level dimension that gives the finished mix its sparkle.
As we move deeper into the song, other guitars are carefully introduced, such as the tremolo guitar effect on the left (1:53) and again we hear the stereo modulated fade-in electric guitar helping to complete the stereo image. After the second chorus, there is an instrumental verse with a multi tracked string section favoring the cello, and a lower register piano part skillfully blended together, resulting in a unique mixture of beautiful acoustical music timbres.
Two touches reminiscent of the Beatles can be heard in the instrumental verse (2:59-3:30): the highly compressed piano (a la “Lady Madonna”), and the elegant rising string lines that lead out of the interlude and back into the middle eight, which echo some of George Martin’s most effective string parts. (Beck’s father, David Campbell, did the string arrangements for this album.) Overall, like “Automatic” the song does build from its quieter opening to the more dynamic middle eight and chorus sections as seen by viewing the snapshot of the stereo waveform display, though not to the extent featured in Lambert’s track.
As to the song’s form, like “Automatic,” it’s fairly basic with a short guitar intro, a verse, then a middle eight section leading into each chorus. This structure is repeated three times with the verse of the third repeat being the instrumental or interlude. As to the song’s message, it’s not nearly as direct as Lambert’s. Beck appears to be singing about a relationship, but his meaning is open to interpretation, it could be a break up or a make up song. Regardless, this relationship inspired Beck to create the words and music and come up with its memorable production.
The reference to blackbird in the title may be another nod to the Beatles, whose song “Blackbird” also features acoustic guitar and is known for the interesting time changes between triple and duple meter to help hook the listener. “Blackbird Chain” starts each verse with a 4/4 feel, but then plays with the listener’s expectations by dropping two beats before the second half of each verse (:28 and :37 in the first verse). When the middle eight section comes in at :54, (“I’ll never, never, never, never, never, never refuse you”), Beck alternates two measures of 4/4 with a bar of 6/8, giving the chorus a rocking chair feel by alternating the rhythmic pattern. Finally, when the chorus hits, the track shifts to a half-time, triplet feel, to make the chorus stand further apart rhythmically from the rest of the track.
As a producer, when a song’s rhythm pattern varies, it creates an opportunity to utilize various elements to help keep the song flowing. Beck does this beautifully by subtly layering various instruments that span across each of the time changes to support his multi-tracked vocals. The result is a lush soundscape that keeps the listener anticipating where the song might take them next. This results in a sense of near constant motion throughout the track. Beck keeps the listener looking ahead, by using suspended chords and vocal harmonies (in the chorus) to give a sense of floating on top of the rhythm section, followed by the slide back down to the minor chord at the end of each chorus, which in turn, is followed by the descending guitar riff that signals the next verse. Overall, these arrangement choices along with decisions about instrumentation, effects, and dynamics create the overall balance between tension and release, keeping the listener hooked from start to finish.
Like “Automatic,” one of the most important production takeaways from “Blackbird Chain” is how Beck’s vocals are layered and mixed. In the verse, the single lead vocal is close and up front with long pre-delay time, supported with some ambient reverb that is mixed quite low in level. The vocal is speaking directly to the listener (or the person for whom the song was written.) When we come to the middle eight, the unison vocal is tripled, left, center and right with a sense of distance added by increasing reverb amounts and delay times. The effect is one that envelops the listener and creates a sort of cocoon-effect. Sonically and lyrically, this conveys safety or stability. For the chorus, while remaining deep in the reverb tank, Beck adds vocal harmonies resulting in an elegant, clock-like sense of movement that only partially resolves at the end of each chorus.
In a sense, the song never really fully resolves (perhaps like the relationship), but by creating a tapestry of sounds, the production leaves the listener thinking about the song and what it might mean. “Blackbird Chain” is an outstanding example of a finished track that rewards repeated listens as it reveals the dozens of musical, sonic and mixing decisions that were made to complete it.
Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He’s also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.
Jeff Crawford is a recording engineer and producer with more than 30 years industry experience. He also teaches music technology at Pacific.