“You cant polish a turd” – anon
So lets talk about production. As usual, I am more interested in the philosophy of it than actual studio techniques. Partly this is because I work via instinct more than by intellect so I cant explain why I do the things I do. And partly because Dj Bexxie definitely leans toward the intellectual side when making music, so I often ask her to do things for me that I don’t know how to do. There is a valuable lesson there, about how you should use the help available to you…or maybe its about me learning to do things lol…but thats another article.
Besides, it has always been true of me that I am more interested in making the music, than in knowing the techniques to apply to the music I am making. Its a weakness and a strength. Kind of. Anyway, we better start with some definitions, so that no one is confused about what I am talking about when I say “production”. This involves a little bit of a detour, but stick with me.
Firstly, lets separate the title of producer, and actual production. There are many ways to name a person who works in a studio. The usual titles used back in the days before electronic music were artist or group, the studio engineer and the producer.
The artist made the music.
The engineer worked the studio.
The producer decided what things needed to be added / removed / bought to the front of the track / changed and arranged.
Put another way, the artist spoke English, the engineer functioned as a translator into German, and the producer made sure the German words were arranged both poetically and so that everything was clear.
Of course, more often than not in modern electronic music, these three separate people / jobs are done by one person. This leads to a bit of confusion when the term “production” is thrown around. So I need to split it up a little more.
I am Luna-C the artist. I have the ideas for the track. To make those ideas work, Luna-C the engineer translates the ideas from my brain and into the studio. Then Luna-C the producer messes about with what Luna-C the artist has done, to achieve the sound the Luna-C the artist wanted. The result is a track written, engineered and produced by Dj Luna-C. And Luna-C usually thinks he could have done better lol.
What I want to talk about is the actual production of the track. This is the bit that Luna-C the producer does, separate from the artist and the engineer. Its not about the idea of the track, its about making each individual part of the track shine. Taking the kick drum and making it punch, for example. The artist has chosen the kick drum, and the engineer has put it into the track. But its the producer that then adds compression, makes sure it is the correct volume in relation to the rest of the track. It is the producer that changes the eq, making sure all the frequencies are in the right place, and that nothing is distorted or too quiet. The engineer plays a part, but the producer makes all the final decisions as to how the music sounds.
Of course, all these definitions blur as there is no “right” way to do it.
It seems like a lot of words to write just to start the article, but it is needed because so many people use the word “production” in a way that muddies the water. As an example, I can quite honestly say that Justin Beiber tracks have brilliant production. And at the same time, I can say that they are awful, awful tracks. I am not commenting on the quality of the production, but the fact that the music makes my brain wish to devolve back to when I was a fish. Nevertheless, the quality of the production is outstanding.
The point of all this is to say that while production is extremely important, it is also the least important thing because in the end, if the actual track isn’t very good, no amount of clever production tricks will fix it. The problem with everyone being so focused on production is that they are forgetting about the actual music part. The other problem with it is that there is a formula that everyone is following, and it makes everything sound the same. And that is the worst thing of all because it is boring, and boring is doomed to fail.
So it goes back to the quote at the top of the page – You cant polish a turd. Having said that, have you noticed how many shiny turds are out there nowadays? This is because people are making a fundamental mistake by always saying how great the production is. What about the actual artist part? When I hear people say that a track “is really well produced” I think what they mean to say is “Its a very good piece of music”. Its just that saying its well produced sounds like you know what you are talking about lol. Really, if the production is good, it should be the shiny invisible coating, the polish on the outside, and if its really good, you shouldn’t even notice it. Unless you are an engineer / producer, in which case you will grind your teeth in envy lol.
Ideally of course, you want it all – your track to have great ideas and musical content and good production.
In hardcore, I think we have a large amount of people that do very good production, but less that are genuinely good artists in the first place. Actually, I think this can be said for the vast majority of the dance music scene. This is possible because you can learn any production technique as long as you have the right vst or plug in and are willing to spend your time using online tutorials and reading manuals. It is a skill that does require some of your own inspiration, but mostly it has been broken down to such a fine degree that its almost a mathematical equation. You can get plug ins that analyze your favorite track, that show you wear all the frequencies are, and then you can compare it to your own tune and edit accordingly. This will make it easier to get your production sounding better. But there will never be a plugin to analyze a platinum selling record, then tell you how to make one.
However, production, like everything else, takes time to learn and implement…and I cant help but think many people spend much more time on that side of it, rather than on the actual content. This is why it is no surprise to me that we have so many talented producers, but not so many talented artists. This is a problem, because progression requires ingenuity, and we are not progressing the quality of music, even if we are progressing the quality of how the music sounds. It’s like we all made the fastest 2008 sports car, and instead of working to make a faster one for 2009, we are just putting better stickers on it. Then for 2010, a new coat of paint. The for 2011, new coverings on the seats. And sure, it looks fantastic, but actually its the same car and nothing has changed.
Let me give you an example of a few artists / producers, starting with one who gets both parts right. Andy C has both artistic and production talents in abundance. He’s a good example because love him or hate him, he is someone who has arguably changed the face of D’n’B three times. Firstly, with Valley Of Shadows (31 Seconds). I remember when this came out, and it did so when Jungle / D’n’B was either very heavily edited amens, or kinda glitchy clever beats. It wasn’t the first D’n’B tune to do the now standard kick / snare rhythm thing, but it was so successful that it made it the only real option from there on out. It was a huge breath of fresh air, and D’n’B has been doing basically the same rhythm ever since. The actual track was also crystal clear, sparse even, and it contained only the elements that the track needed – nothing more. Another example of a person who makes tracks like this would be Scott Brown. Much of his work is deceptively simple. Precise. Perfect. Nothing that isn’t needed is in the track. I admire this a great deal, although I am the opposite and like to have as much noise as possible lol.
If Andy C never made another track after Valley Of Shadows, he would already be high on the list of artists / producers that made a mark on the scene. But years later he made Quest. Once again, he wasn’t the first to do the wobbly bassline, but his track was so good both artistically and production wise that, once again, he changed the direction of D’n’B. Years later he did it a third time with Bodyrock, introducing the world to triplet drums. All of these tracks were both musically superior, and very well produced.
Its my belief that it was the combination of the two things that made these tracks so huge.
Here is the thing though. If you removed the fantastic production, you would still have good music and I think the tracks would still have done well. Maybe not as well, but still they would have sold. I base this observation on the fact that other tracks of those eras had appalling production, and still did well. But if you remove the good music from those three Andy C tracks and leave the excellent production, they would have disappeared without a trace and no one would have heard of Andy C.
Don’t believe me? Have a listen to these examples of tunes that were huge, but were terribly produced.
Pseudo 3 – B-Line Stepper:-
This is one of my favorite tracks. The quality isn’t bad because its on youtube – its bad because its bad. It is also not a very clever track – it is mostly chunks of other peoples work. But it was pretty big for its time. Perhaps it is where 31 Seconds would have been if it had sucky production.
Satin Storm – Lets Get Together
This one is my favorites, because it may well be the worst produced track in the history of hardcore. The stab at the beginning is out of time, the whole tune drifts around all over the place. The “Come On” vocal is also all slipping. Then the drums come in at 39 seconds and are badly looped and too quiet. But the crown on this production turd is at 0:55 when the bass comes in and is completely distorted.
This track gets everything wrong. The production is absolutely awful, so bad that it is virtually unmixeable. It was a huge anthem (at least in London), and I love it. Always have and always will.
Now listen to this:
The Prodigy made this track before either of the two above. It still sounds professionally produced, even today. There are many reasons for this, but part of it is certainly choosing the right noises, which is one of the ironies of production. It is the last thing you need to do to your track, yet you have to be aware of it right from the start. This is because if you want something to sound really good, you have to use good sources. You have to go back to the core building blocks of your track. If you choose a shitty sounding hi-hat, no amount of work will make it a nice sounding hi-hat, juts a less shitty one. So there are better and worse hi-hats…better and worse kick drums…better and worse trancy stab noises…The trouble is, everyone else is using the same “better” things, and the result is all the tracks are sounding like they came from the same place. The tracks that stand out are made by artists who invent their own sounds, and those sounds are as good or better than the “better” ones everyone else is using.
I wanted to show you an example of a track with really good production but crappy music – and I couldn’t think of one. And that kinda proves my point, no? The only other option would be to pull up and example of what I think is a well produced but utterly boring hardcore tune. And that would just be offensive to whoever made it, so I am not going to do that either lol.
Hardcore has some artists that are both musically stunning and fantastic at production. Some are obvious – Scott Brown of course, S3rl, Gammer and Dj Ham spring to mind. Then we have some artists that have the same qualities, and for some reason haven’t broken through into big name status. Hattrixx is a good example of this, as is Jon Doe. They both suffer from the same thing that Dj Ham does – their music is a little bit too inventive for a scene that has been doing the same thing for too long. We have to hope that the scene will catch up with them, rather than they get as mundane as the scene.
Then there are others, and I think I am one of them, who’s music is just as inventive, but the production isn’t always as good as it could be. I have thought about this a lot, and for me it comes down to the fact that I am unwilling to get rid of the kick drum that sounds right, for the one that would work better. I am happy to override the standard perception of good production for an interesting track. And I have worked on tracks that just lose their soul once they have the dirtier (for want of a better word) elements cleaned up.
It seems to me that fewer people are willing to do this, and maybe they are right not to do it. Hardcore music is made for the dancefloor, so perhaps all efforts should be geared to making it as effective on the dancefloor as possible. The trouble is that that has now become how we all judge “good production”. Its a term that has been honed down to such a fine degree that it can actually hinder the musician. Because the thing is, to get really high production quality, you need to have exactly the right sounds. And if you only chose your sounds based on what will work best production wise, you pretty quickly stop using some of the more interesting ones. A good example with this is the Amen loop. It is one of the best breakbeats ever – that is undeniable. So if you want a loud, exciting break in your track, you ought to use the amen right? And there is some truth in that. But while it gives you that edge, it takes away the amount of options available to you. This can be a problem because a scene made up of the same breakbeat gets boring real fast. This can be applied to any element of a piece of hardcore music, the beats, the stab, the vocals. Use it too much or too often, and it gets played out real fast.
So it seems to me that we have a whole scene circling around getting the best production…It uses the best kick drum, the best trancy stab, the best strings, the cleanest vocals with the finest compression. On one level, its brilliant – it kicks on the dancefloor, everything is crystal clear, and all the frequencies are in the right place. On another level, it is boring as fuck lol.
Pop music is where the problem is most obvious. There are mashups online of many of the big tracks of 2012, and they all sound like they came out of the same studio. They all have exactly the same production, like they have been designed by a computer to press all the right buttons. And thats because they have. Throw in Auto-tune and it all just blurs into one perfect sound. Perfect and dull. Interestingly the biggest track so far this year has been Gotye – Somebody That I used To Know. A track which doesn’t have the production-by-numbers sound because it wasn’t produced that way.
I guess my point is that production is a very important, but perhaps we are emphasizing bits that we should be discouraging. For a start, it doesn’t matter how good your production is if the actual track is dull in the first place. Also, it isn’t well produced because you got everything right, its well produced because you got everything right AND it sounds unique. I cant stress the unique bit enough, because without it, the track will just fade into all the other tracks that are produced exacty the same way. Lastly, we should consider the fact that a non perfect interesting release may do more good for the scene than a perfectly produced track that hits all the right points in exactly the same way as all the others.
None of this is easy to do. Production is a steep learning curve, and you can never really know it all because every track requires different things. But if you find yourself loading up the same kick drum, the same stab noises and the same bass line for every track because it makes for good production, then you need to think about this.
But I might be wrong 🙂