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How to Produce Someone Else's Music

Nov 25, 2023

"It doesn't go through your filter, it goes through your conduit."

Last year, my friend and very talented pianist/composer/artist Marie Awadis reached out to me about a really intriguing new project.

It was her first experiment with vocal-focused ambient, but she felt that something was missing - something she described as "depth and layering."

 

Step 1: Identifying Potential

 

Already being familiar with Marie's piano music, I had a feeling the foundational material would be really solid. I remember being struck by the raw power of the demo tracks she sent me.

There was clearly a lot of emotional potential in these tracks, but as the producer, it would be my job to reveal that potential rather than re-write the tracks or overly cloud them with my own artistic taste.

I was reminded of a quote I once heard from Joshua Homme about the role of producing someone else's work. He said, "It doesn't go through your filter, it goes through your conduit."

I took that to mean that it's not the producer's job to dictate an artistic direction, but to help unlock the vision of the artist - Marie's vision.

 

Step 2: Revelation of Intent

 

So now the work began, as Marie and I talked about these pieces and the mood she wanted each to evoke. These conversations were less about musical specifics, and more about emotional intent.

Once I felt I had a good sense for how each track was intended to make the listener feel, I started to make changes towards that end.

The first track I worked remains one of my personal favorites - "Say."

You can listen to the first demo version I heard of that track here.

....and the fully produced version can be heard here.

Here are the first things that struck me after that first listen:

  1. There were beautiful vocal lines being overly masked by reverb - I wanted to hear how those lines interacted more intimately.

  2. It felt like certain lines were repeating too quickly - what if we spread things out a bit to provide more build as the layering intensified?

  3. There are no low frequencies - Marie had mentioned a lack of "depth." Maybe there could be an opportunity to make everything more grounded with a simple bass line under those ethereal vocal harmonies?

      

Step 3: Making Space and Enhancing What's Already There

 

I've seen discussions lately from producers and mixing engineers stating that you shouldn't need to "carve out space" for instruments or elements to sit properly. While that may be true in certain genres with more traditional instrumentation, it is certainly not the case in electronic ambient music.

Through the process of sound design, each element is usually built from the ground up, and often, we become so infatuated with synth patches or sound design that sounds amazing on its own, we forget how that might exist with other elements.

I feel that a sense of separation helps even the most ambient of tracks feel deeper and more layered - more three dimensional.

I accomplished this in Marie's tracks by narrowing the frequency range of each synth part, and giving each vocal line its own place in the stereo field.

I also ran each line through its own effects chain - usually in mono - which I would then pan opposite the dry vocal. While you might think this would make the mix narrower, it actually has the opposite effect, as you can clearly hear each part as it enters from a new perspective.

Finally, I used totally dry vocals and reverb sends rather than inserting a reverb on every track. This alone can clean up most ambient mixes significantly. Think of reverb as being one room in which you place all the instruments, rather than each instrument having its own room.

 

Step 4: Changing the Bass Line Changes Everything

 

One of the biggest challenges was coming up with a bass line from scratch that would once again complement what was already there, and not change the intent of the piece.

This was done purely through imagination and experimentation - two of the most important compositional tools that I talk about quite often.

I had to imagine what it might sound like with certain bass notes that would support the harmonies above it, and then experiment to see which notes might work best - and then hope that Marie didn't hate whatever I chose.

This is a concept I've explored in my new composition course - changing the bass note changes everything above it. You can learn more about that here if you'd like.

Fortunately, Marie was very happy with the decisions I chose to make, and I was very happy we were ultimately able to realize her vision and help breathe new life into her very beautiful tracks!

If you'd like to listen to the full EP, I think it's well worth your time. And be sure to follow Marie Awadis and let her know if you enjoy it. :)

Whenever you're ready, here's how I can help you:

1. Composition Concepts for Artists - an in-depth look at the process of composition with step-by-step examples SHOWING how and WHY I make decisions. You'll learn to take an initial idea and DEVELOP it into a finished project.

2. Understanding Synthesis - learn to design your own sounds starting with the basics of subtractive synthesis and progressing to more advanced sound design  with semi-modular and various forms of digital synthesis.

3. YouTube Membership - monthly livestreams featuring music making and sound design in real time. Q&As and exclusive videos only available to channel members.

4. One to One Coaching (coming soon) - work with me on YOUR own music. I'll help you take your track from idea to finished product, so you'll come out with a polished track or EP and any knowledge gained from walking through the process with me.