The Perfect Collaboration…Sort Of
A few years ago I met an amazing vocalist by the name of Natalie Lynn. As far as raw talent goes, this girl has the stuff. I had always wanted to approach her with a collaboration project, but we weren’t even close to the same music genre, so it just never seemed like a good match.
Fast forward to now — I’ve been working on a dance-pop music collab (weird, I know) and we needed a female singer. Natalie immediately came to mind, and sure enough, she heard a rough demo of the song and was thrilled about the project.
We hadn’t really worked out her parts, but hey, no big deal, right? We’ll frame it up in the studio. I was just happy to get her involved.
That Time I Was Bad At My Job
She was able to stop out to my studio with very little notice. Of course, I was completely unprepared because I haven’t produced a vocalist in several months. I welcomed her in and assumed that everything would go as any other session has. Wrong.
After fumbling around and getting her all set to record, I fired up my equipment and set the levels…and then it happened — a tidal wave of awkwardness overcame the room as reality hit. We were now on the spot to finish writing a soulful music piece. Even worse, she then had to sing it in front of me!
It was a little intimidating for me at first, so I couldn’t imagine how she must have felt being in a new place with someone that she barely knows, expected to sing at her peak. After an hour or so of fairly awkward and obvious stalling, we finally stumbled on a small harmony seed that got our gears turning. This also helped me ease back in to the producer chair after being a little rusty.
From that point on, the session got easier and easier and we eventually wrapped up over a two day period. (The track is now in post production, but it’s a part of a larger music body. When it’s available, I’ll update this article with the link)
So what went wrong? Me. As the producer, I had an obligation to create an inviting and comfortable environment for the performer, which I just failed to do. Her job was to give the best performance that she could, but how was that possible when she wasn’t even sure where to start?
Typically, I make a conscious effort to help the artist relax and gain confidence. Prior to this, I’ve worked with countless musicians who have all told me how they appreciate my producing style. My only excuse is that I was out of practice.
Courtesy Breeds Productivity
The goal as a producer is to give your artist an environment that not only eases tension and awkwardness, but also stimulates their creativity and inspiration. A little rockstar pampering can make all the difference. More specifically…
A bad mood can ruin your musician’s performance. Consider an artist that walks into your messy, unprepared room. Nothing is set up for them and they wait an hour for you to get things in order. Talk about a bad way to start a session, or worse yet, a working relationship.
Now, compare that to being greeted by a prepped studio room that has been clearly tailored for their performance. This instantly gives the artist a sense of relief and trust, which will in-turn keep them in a better state-of-mind.
You can take preparation a step further by doing a little homework on your artist (if you don’t already know them). A few minutes sampling their previous material online can go a long way in connecting with the artist during the session.
To perform at their peak, an artist needs to focus on what he or she does best. Remember that when the artist is there to perform, it is the only thing that they should be concerned with. A dizzying task list and chaotic work environment makes it difficult for them to focus.
It’s obviously important to scale your authority based on the performer’s preferences, but until they say otherwise, it’s safe to assume that as a producer, you are running the show.
Explain WHY there is no need to be nervous
Even if an artist doesn’t seem nervous or has recording experience, reiterate that the creative process gets a bit silly at times and your studio is one place where they can let go and get experimental.
When you make suggestions, explain that it comes from a place of creativity, not judgement. They must understand that you are there to create with them, not just put up with them. If necessary, repeat this throughout the session to keep your performer from clamming up.
It’s also worth noting that you can relieve some apprehension by instructing the artist to run through a few warm-up takes just to get their comfort level up before ever recording a note.
Feed their ego…If it’s hungry
While there’s no need to be a kiss-ass, if you hear something genuinely good coming from the performance, acknowledge it. Scale the amount of encouragement to match ego size.
You know, it’s a funny thing. If kept in check, a healthy ego can produce enough confidence to drive a great performance. That same ego has the power to overtake the creative process and turn a collaboration into a dictatorship. Do your best to sense the tipping point and maintain balance.
Be brutally honest, but kind
Your reaction to their performance WILL make or break future takes. If something isn’t right, sometimes it just takes a quick heads up. DO NOT beat them up about it. Check your frustrations at the door and stay positive at all costs.
Disagreements are going to happen and it’s important to take the time to get in their heads and understand their point of view. Never pressure your performer or make an attack on their skill or performance. Take breaks. Record multiple variations where there is doubt, and keep your artist from brooding.
You can worry about battling it out when the performance isn’t on the line.
Be ready to seed the creative process
Artists choke; it happens. Whether it be stage fright, writer’s block, lack of inspiration, or simply lack of vision, it helps to be prepared to give creative advice.
How do you do this? Assuming you’re a musician yourself, keep an instrument near-by. Take a few minutes to warm up your voice before the session (even if you’re not a singer, this can be necessary). In short, just prepare yourself to perform along-side the performer.
There’s no way to really get around first-day jitters, but these points do an amazing job at minimizing awkwardness when tracking starts. The artist will genuinely appreciate the A-List treatment and it will usually result in better output on their part. That’s what we’re really going for, isn’t it?
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