Is Your ‘Producer’ Ruining Your Band’s Potential?
**Guest post written by John Kay, a touring and performing songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer, and the leader of John Kay & Who’s To Say.
"“The scene sucks.” “We need to fix the scene.” “What’s wrong with the scene?”
If you are involved in a local music community in some way, regardless of your particular area, you have probably heard the above phrases, or similar sentiments, spoken by your friends in bands, their fans, the people that work in bars and music venues, perhaps even yourself or your own band mates.
But the burning question which keeps those who are truly passionate about their local music scene is: Why? Why does “the scene suck”? Why does it need fixing? What is the root of the problem?
It’s more complicated than a one-answer summation, but I proffer that a major contributor to why a local scene suffers—and new/young/up-and-coming bands ultimately fail—is the recording engineer’s decision to manipulate an amateur band’s recorded performance into a near-perfect production.
In this situation, the band is given a false representation of their actual abilities, and because of this, a distorted perception of the band is created both in the audience’s mind and in the minds of the band members themselves. When the band is unable to reproduce the performance quality and sound of the final recorded production—sometimes, not even coming close—the audience, other bands, and even venues, disconnect from the band.
On the other hand, when a band is recorded and represented accurately, their strengths and weaknesses will be exposed, causing them to either work harder at practicing and do better next time when they go into the studio, or receive negative feedback and quit; either outcome helps “the scene,” because both outcomes tell the truth about that band, their abilities and their true passion for their craft.
“Let’s make a record!”
Imagine your typical local rock band. They’ve written six original songs, and performed at a few shows in their home town, mostly for their friends and family, who support them unconditionally. Based on audience feedback, they decide they want to pay to record their songs in a professional recording studio. They go online and look for a local studio. They call one of the studios listed, and are immediately able to schedule as many days as they think they’ll need with one of the in-house engineers.
The band shows up to the studio to record their songs. While recording, a few realities become immediately apparent, but only to the engineer:
– The band’s equipment is at the consumer or “pro-sumer” level.
– The drummer doesn’t know how to tune drums, has difficulty playing in time and/or to a click track, and hits the drums inconsistently
– The bassist and drummer do not perform as a proper rhythm section.
– The guitarists do not know how to tune/intonate their guitars, and have a poor sense of timing.
– The vocalist is unable to perform consistently in time and on pitch.
The engineer continues to record the band, just as they were hired to do, enduring the poor tuning, lackluster performances, wrong notes, off-timing, and pitch issues, recording everything the band needs to complete their six songs, just so long as the band understands they’re paying for it. Once the band leaves, the engineer begins working on what is referred to in the audio engineering industry as “polishing a turd.”
“Fix it in the mix!”
The engineer aligns the drummer’s performance to a grid, as though the drummer performed perfectly in time, and replaces the recorded drums with professionally tuned and pre-recorded drum samples, as though the drummer had a professional, well-tuned kit.
Since the bass/guitars were poorly tuned—and poorly performed—the engineer uses the studio’s collection of guitars and amplifiers and personally re-records the parts for the band, generally without their advance permission and/or knowledge. (Believe it or not, this absolutely happens, and occurs commonly.)
The engineer corrects the timing and notes of the vocalist where necessary—and at many times, where unnecessary—as though the vocalist sang “in the pocket” and with near-perfect command of their pitch.
Once the above operations are completed and the mixes of the songs are to the engineer’s liking, the band is invited into the studio to hear their recordings mixed for the first time.
“It’s studio magic!”
Upon hearing playback of the first song, the band can’t believe their ears.
“Wow! It sounds amazing!!” one member says. “My drums sound incredible!” “Man, what did you do to get our guitars to sound so good?”
“Studio magic,” the engineer replies.
The band leaves with their songs, incredibly excited. They listen to them for the whole drive home, as loud as their car will allow before the speakers rupture. They start talking about booking their album release show, and how much merchandise they’re going to sell; they talk about touring. They believe they are going to realize their dreams.
They show the songs to their family and friends, who are blown away at how great the band sounds; being extremely proud of the band, their family and friends champion the recording to anyone that will listen.
“I can’t wait to play this stuff LIVE!”
The band books their album release show on a Saturday night at a well-known local venue with other local bands, and engage in promoting the show aggressively. They sell tickets, and invite everyone to the event on their social media sites. Local radio stations play their music in the weeks prior to the show based on the strength of the recording. The buzz for the show grows and grows, and the band is more excited than ever.
On the day of the show, the venue is packed. It’s obvious that the band put in a lot of work—they bought a banner, new t-shirts to sell—this is obviously a very important night for them.
50% of the 200 people in attendance came to see the band releasing their album; they heard the songs, and listened to them several times in anticipation of the live performance, even on the way to the show. The band takes the stage to a roar from the crowd, and begins to perform all of the material from their brand new album.
Halfway through the first song, it is immediately apparent that something isn’t right…but only to the audience:
– The drums sound thin and/or dead, and the drummer is speeding up and slowing down.
– The bassist and guitarists have a hard time playing in sync with the drummer.
– The guitars are out of tune.
– The vocalist has timing issues, and the singing sounds “out of key.”
Meanwhile, the band on stage is having the time of their lives. They used some drink tickets before the show and have a healthy buzz on, and their significant others and friends and family are at the front of the stage, singing every word back to the band at the top of their lungs. The band itself has an amazing energy and excitement level that they’ve never displayed on stage before. They sell almost 50 albums; they believe it is their best show yet.
After the album release show, they book a string of shows a few weeks apart in order to play out more and sell more albums. At the next show, they have close to 50 people there to see them. They don’t mind the drop in attendance because “it’s not as big of an event as an album release, and anyway, it’s twice as many people as we normally get to come out to a show.”
At the next show, around 30 people attend. “But it was a weekday, not a Friday or Saturday, so lower attendance is to be expected,” the band believes. Just under 25 people attend the next show, so the band decides they need another new t-shirt to entice fans to come back out to see them, depleting their band fund. At the next show, on a Saturday night at a venue close to where they and their friends and family live, less than 15 people attend. The band performs…angrily.
“This scene sucks, man! It SUCKS!”
The band doesn’t understand what’s happening…why people aren’t coming out to their shows…why other bands they’ve played shows with don’t come out to see them or encourage others to check them out and support them…why, when they text their friends and family asking if they’ll be at upcoming shows, many of the texts aren’t responded to. People aren’t “liking” or commenting on their social media posts, and those that do are the ones that were doing so long before the band entered the studio.
The band decides to put a call out to their music community and tells them to “support the scene." They blame the indoor smoking ban at venues, or inflated drink prices, or how shows that require bands to sell tickets are a scam, and they have meetings and talk about changing their band’s name, logo, and any other thing they can think of that will reverse their fortune.
They play some more shows to small audiences, mostly the same people that supported them before the studio. They feel disheartened, like they wasted their time. They blame “the scene” and everyone in it who doesn’t come to their shows, buy their merchandise, or post about them online. Ultimately, the band breaks up.
But a couple of the members decide to continue on and form a new band, writing six new songs and performing at a few shows locally for friends and family. Based on the feedback from their audience, they want to record in a studio, and since the last engineer they recorded with made them sound so amazing, they go back to work with them again. The band shows up to the studio to record their songs. While recording, a few realities become immediately apparent…
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John Kay is a touring and performing songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and record producer, and the leader of John Kay & Who’s To Say #JKWTS, a progressive pop band with a focus on positively impacting others and delivering undeniable sensory experiences. Join their official fan club (the Bullfighters) here: therealjohnkay.com.