Don’t Make the Session About You!

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No one writes music like you do. No one pens lyrics like you do. No one makes mixes like you do. Those “truths” are self-evident to many, dominating their creative decision-making processes. Perhaps you’re one of those individuals, confident and convinced that your way is THE way. Maybe you’ve established your sound, methods, and routines and see no benefit in changing them. Well, sit down, because we need to talk.

Often the worst sessions are the ones dominated by know-it-all, gimme-the-ball, I’m-gonna-take-the-shot stars. Producers who won’t budge on the song structure, musicians who play to impress themselves, and engineers who insist, “This is how I always do it, so this is how we’re doing it,” they’re all guilty of interfering with musical achievement. Since music is inspired by the human experience and the human experience is inspired by sparks with other humans, music usually benefits from cooperation with other people. Creative and technical personnel who aren’t willing to compromise or try other people’s ideas can sink performances and productivity. Ask any recording artist or studio engineer about session horror stories; you’ll likely hear about some real characters (to put it mildly).

For example, imagine an alternative rock band with a typical lineup—drums, bass, guitar, synth, and vocals. After recording their first song in the studio, their producer hopped on the talkback to say, “The feel was great, but the guitar is too gritty. Make it sparkling clean, then knock out another take.” The producer (no longer on talkback) turns to the engineer and mutters, “I just don’t like distorted guitars, ya know?” The band’s reaction? Puzzled cooperation. Throughout multiple songs, the producer couldn’t abandon the dream of a clean, chimey utopia and kept having the guitarist turn off the overdrive. How did that turn out? The producer was put out to pasture in favor of a more reasonable person who helped the band develop and fine-tune the sound they were after. What happened to the band, you wonder? They made it quite big.

A classic scenario that occurs over and over in recording sessions, live shows, and even houses of worship is encountering the “more me” musician. For example, a certain drummer craves recognition for their talent and resultantly loves playing fills and complicated beats. Identifying as an ambidextrous BPM machine and often professing to perform mathematical calculations through rhythmic patterns, the drum “master” takes pride in fusing polyrhythms, triplet bursts, and surprise cymbal flourishes in every song. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that for a flashy drum solo, but it’s a problem of sizable proportions in a basic pop tune or worship song. When the drummer is too busy basking in the radiant warmth of a successful tom roll and is already planning the next one, the groove will absolutely suffer. It’s unsurprising that this person is usually the one insisting that their instrument be louder in the mix. “Man, push the drums up! Make ‘em HUUUUUUGE!” Yeah, so much for balance! If instead of playing to earn their own applause, musicians played to serve the emotion of the song, the world of music would be a better place. It’s a swell concept, but it can only happen if the players think and believe this thought, “It’s not about me, it’s not about me, it’s all about the music.”

Another interesting character is the one who presumes oneself to be “Jack of All Trades, Master of All Trades.” Yes, that’s a suspiciously lofty title to assume. The person who claims a lack of value in collaborating limits the reaches of creative possibilities. Although there are rare individuals who can write, produce, record, mix, and more, it is much more common to encounter people who specialize in one or two areas. Even if someone has talent across multiple scopes, bearing the responsibility of all creative tasks interferes with the ability to focus intensely and truly invest in one place. For example, let’s say that Rude Jude the Music Dude decides he needs to write, play, record, mix, and master an entire album to prove to the world that he’s an artistic force to be reckoned with—you should know that this has been done in the past, is being attempted somewhere currently, and will be achieved in the future. Anyway, Rude Jude gets to work on the masterpiece. Though he won’t admit it, he tends to favor certain rhythms, chords, melodies, and sounds while shunning others. He knows what he likes and discards what he doesn’t. After months or perhaps years of toil and trouble, Rude Jude’s magnum opus debuts to the world! Unfortunately, it all sounds just about the same; nothing fresh and nothing new. In the end, it garners an overwhelming response of “MEH.” Had Jude the Rude put his ego in the freezer and worked with even a couple of other musicians, sure, they may have clashed at times, but the opportunity could have ushered in different beneficial musical ideas and feels.

Okay, okay, one more story. This one’s about a recording engineer who I’ll nickname “Skulletgod ’82” to protect the guilty. Over the years, Skulletgod ’82 has collected a bag of tricks for mic selection and placement, EQ, compression, and effects, and there’s nothing strange or wrong about that. However, Skulletgod ’82 lives by them, using them in every recording session regardless of the group being metal, adult contemporary, or fusion. In a casual conversation about recent sessions, a drummer said to me, “Bro, I’m done with ’82. Every time, it’s like we (the band) are the least important thing in the studio. We’re human beings, not mic stands. Plus, I hate the Skulletgod drum sound. You know what I mean? I want my drums to sound like MY DRUMS.” All that talk wasn’t without action. The drummer and the rest of the band decided enough was beyond enough. They switched to an engineer who cares about how they want to sound and have been happy ever since. As for Skulletgod ’82, the destruction of client satisfaction continues.

In reading these tales, understand that I’m not spouting them from atop a mountain of perfection. My self-indulgent ego is so often trying to steer me off on wild detours. We are humans and we each must battle human tendencies. When it comes to what we do in the production of music, it’s important to routinely recalibrate our focus. Ask yourself, “Am I doing this for myself or the music?” Not every cool ideal you birth belongs in the song you’re working on. Welcome the spirit of collaboration and communicate with the people involved. Don’t be ashamed to ask for feedback, direction, and clarification. Listen with an open mind and learn to interpret and follow someone else’s vision; you’ll be a more versatile asset to yourself and them. Go now and play nice with others!

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