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"Screwin' Around" - Practical advice from Composer, Engineer, Producer Stephen Sea
By Jerry Flattum - 05/20/2008 - 02:20 AM EDT

In my last post, I started tackling the concept of "what is a producer?"  Mick Polich, one of Musesmuse's other columnists, already defined for me how I am, in fact, serving as my own producer in the the current recording project I'm working on. 

Mick is still working on the objective definition of what famous and not-so-famous producers are doing out there in commercial land.  Understanding the role producers play is critical to understanding the inner workings behind the most successful artists and recordings in the 20th and 21st century. 

Both Mick Polich and I will be exploring this area in the coming weeks/months, so stay tuned. 


I've had the fortune to meet an amazing talent, Stephen Sea.  Instead of an objective view on Producers, with Stephen Sea, I'm able to get personal.  Just like how we write songs, a secret to understand the recording, f/x, mixing, mastering, producing process is, well, as Stephen says, learned by "Screwin' Around."  In other words, don't be afraid.  Just have fun!

Everyone is different, with different skill sets, different talents, and different obstacles to face.  For me, I don't need help in the writing, arranging or performance arenas.  Where I need help is in the areas of recording, using f/x, mixing and ultimately, the mastering process.

Expressing this delimma to Stephen, without even trying, he sent me a relatively casual email that turned out to be a blueprint for overcoming my fears.  He starts out with an anecdotal story involving one of his first performing experiences with the late Frank Zappa.

Following is a quote from his email:

"Mountains DO quickly get reduced to little mole hills. It just takes a little hands on experience and experimentation and you quickly learn what works and what doesn't.  I probably shared this with you already, but one of the best experiences I had as a youngster was playing guitar parts for Frank Zappa while he was visiting in Hawaii.  I was 13 years old at the time and just a novice on the guitar.

Feeling a little "inadequate" as a player, I humbly admitted that I could not read music and expected him to say, "well then, be off with you!"  Not the case.  He was genuinely sincere and polite and very grateful to have a couple of musicians (my brother Michael was also there) to assist him in working out arrangements that ultimately were recorded for the albums, Grand Wazoo and Wakajawaka.

He said a couple of times during these sessions, 'It pays to screw around.'  I have a serious propensity for "screwing around" that I can directly attribute to that experience.  If he could do it (and get away with it) then it must be quite OK for me to do the same.

It's always preferable to have a strong idea in your head that you can approach the system with, but sometimes our ideas are really only 'half baked'...and, therefore, require a little 'screwin' around' in order to make discoveries that will breath life into what we are creating.  Play with FX, and EQ, Compressors, etc to see/hear what they do.

You will have a lot more control over what you want your songs to not only sound like, but also what they "feel" like if you use DRY samples.  You can use several reverbs that are set up with vastly different decay times, attack times, predelay settings, etc. to facilitate the FEEL that the listener will get when hearing sounds that are tailor-made to give 'impressions' of 'far away', 'in your face,' or anywhere in between. 

If your samples have 'built-in' fx on them, you're stuck with the affect that the creator of those samples intended instead of the much broader range that you might deem appropriate for the song you are working on.

As far as MIXING goes, there are a few 'tricks' that are commonly used to get 'dense' sessios to render more clarity and definition among the instruments used including vocals.  A common problem that many run in to when faced with 'mixing' all the tracks together on a single stereo track for mastering, is that they can tend to sound muddy. 

It often gets worse with every new instrument/part added to the mix.  One easy way to achieve clarity is to analyze which instruments are 'over crowding' the frequency spectrum (glassy Strats competing with pristine vocal recordings comes to mind).

Once you get a good idea of what instruments TYPICALLY use these areas of the frequency spectrum, you can use EQ to 'move' some of the part aside in order for others to be better defined and heard clearly in the overall mix.

After a while, you get familiar with where the 'problem spots' occur in a mix.  Performances that share areas of the frequency spectrum (and cause problems as a result) are guitars, vocals, cymbals on the drum kit (HiHat included) and any percussive sounds (bells, triangles, wood blocks, wind chimes, etc) that need the high end to come through legibly to accent and contribute the the sound you are going for. 

The Electric Piano sounds of the 80's (DX7, etc) were notorious  for creating great sounds on one hand, yet painting the producer into a corner when it came time to mix.

The other popular trick to gaining clarity and definition in a mix is using 'subtractive' EQ as opposed to the obvious and typical 'additive' approach. 

Rolling off high end is often hard to do especially when your ears have been inundated with the same song/mix for hours/days, etc.

No one likes a muffled or muddy sound when playing back their work.  But if you 'mellow' some of the instruments just a bit by rolling off a little of the high end via EQ, a little goes a long way because as you reduce the high end on several tracks across the board, this result accumulatively adds up.  This can make way for a vocal to be heard much more clearly WITHOUT pushing its fader up at all.

There are a few more of these tricks, but not nearly as many as we all think.  Once you're in the saddle ad actually doing it, it becomes clear that there really aren't that many things that you need to know in this department if you concentrate on getting high quality recordings in the first place.

So, where to start...

I start with a groovin' drum track.  I compose mine with all the kit pieces on one MIDI track [NOTE:  Stephen is referring to the kinds of trax used in Pro Tools] so I can have quick access to a snare, kick or hihat, etc., without having to search for the other parts on separate MIDI tracks.

I know you prefer to do them separately, and I know several others that do the same with some pretty good results [NOTE:  What he means by separately is recording each drum part, snare, kick, hi-hat, etc., on a separate track for each part].  I just find it easier and more expedient to work with them all on one track until it's time to commit them to audio, at which time I record the kick by itself on one track, the snare also gets its own track, hihat, ride too.

The toms (and overhead mics if avalable), I usually record onto a stereo track with panning left to right from the drummer's perspective.

Once I have a solid groove on the drum track, I can start playing the guitar (sometimes I skip the bass if I have an idea that I think will influence the bass part) or start with keyboards to establish the melodic component to the song.

I don't worry about the details of drum fills and other subtleties at this point because I know that 'the drummer' will end up 'playing off of the other parts (guitar, bass, keys, etc) once they have been recorded. [NOTE:  Putting "the drummer in quotes" means that it can either be a real drummer, or Stephen playing the role of drummer.]

This is how I get the brass to 'punch' and 'kick' and dynamically contribute to the track production with taste and finesse.  I can't tell you how many times I have another producer or artist sitting with me while generating tracks where they turn to me and say, "Wow, so THAT's how you get that sound!"  It works, so I use it. (Took some 'screwin' around' to discover this).

If you still have the track I sent you called "Funky Guitar Thing" (No real title yet), you might want to have a second listen to see what I'm talking about here.  [NOTE:  Apologies - the track Stephen refers to is not available.]

Now that I've explained the how and why in regard to track layering (drums first, some guitar, lay down a bass part) you'll definitely 'hear' the concept at work.  The hammond organ on that track was also performed AFTER the 'basic tracks,' but then I went back to the drum MIDI track and added accented hihats and some cymbal hits, etc., to emulate the effect of the drummer 'playing off' what the organ was doing (even though the organ was added AFTER the drum track). 

This technique can best be heard in the interplay between the drums and the BRASS.  The brass track had very little 'punch' to it and actually sounded kinda 'lame' before I went back through the drum track, modifying it to sound like he--the drummer--was playing off of the horn hits/stabs, etc.

The guitar intro was added last by moving the entire mass of tracks later on the timeline to make room for it.  [NOTE:  Pro Tools uses a variety of timelines to organize trax, i.e., hours, minutes, seconds, bars, samples, ticks, etc.]

More later...


PS:  Seems like this track is suffering from a little distortion. Probably because I did a hasty mix just to hear what I was doing and where I was taking the track. The final will be clear as a bell, but this one serves a purpose."

End of Stephen's quote. 

I told Stephen I wanted to quote him for my column because I know there are many others who are relatively new to Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Sonar, and while hurdling over the technical obstacles in learning these sophisticated recording/sequencing softwares, there is also the daunting tasks of understanding f/x, mixing and mastering. 

Expect more from Stephen Sea.  Stephen Sea has worked as a composer, engineer, producer and session player with numerous artists, recording studios and film studios throughout the Hollywood and LA area. 

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