A Songwriter’s Guide To Producing Music Online
Producing music online may not be for everyone. But for outside-the-box thinkers who don’t want to be limited by cost and location, it definitely offers some exciting new possibilities. In this article we are going to assume that you know little about music production, have no musicians readily available and are open to producing a finished song using online talent.
Working With Online Session Musicians
Online session musicians are musicians with their own recording studios who work on projects online via file transfer. They work just like regular session musicians, except that they record their performances remotely from their own studios. AirGigs.com is the first platform for online music production talent ranging from Grammy Award winners to up and coming session musicians and engineers.
Getting Clear On The Instrumentation
Sometimes we write a song on guitar or piano and hear a fuller arrangement in our head. It can range from wanting to add a few textures (instruments) to having a full-on band. So the question becomes where do we begin? A good place to begin is to start by putting together a “Production Playlist” of songs that sound very similar to the vibe you are looking to capture. Listen to that playlist a number of times, in the car or wherever, and start to take notes on the instrumentation i.e. what instruments are being played? Learn to listen to each instrument individually while the entire song is playing. Take note of the things that you like. It might be the tone of the bass, the groove of the drums or where the background vocals come in. The key is to develop a decent musical vocabulary so that you can articulate clearly what you want.
Getting Clear On The Sound
Having some reference point for the overall sound can be very helpful as well. It might not be obvious at first, but instrumentation and sound are two different things. A good example of this is the song Sweet Jane by the Velvet Underground. Compare the original version (by the Velvet Underground) to the version recorded by The Cowboy Junkies and you will hear the same song, played with a similar instrumentation, sounding quite differently. From the Production Playlist you already created, start to take notes on what you like about the overall sound of certain songs. Are the vocals very present and close-up or do they have more of a “room” sound. What’s the overall mood or vibe of the piece i.e. is it moody, dark, dreamy, driving, happy, etc. Having a reference point to communicate these things will really help you get closer to the overall sound you’re shooting for.
Creating A Guide Track
If you are starting completely from scratch, then you will need to create a guide track using any basic recording device, i.e an iphone, laptop, etc. Think of this as a rough song sketch that will simply act as a guide to which the online session musicians can play along and record their parts. When making your guide track it’s wise to record it using a metronome. There are many free smartphone metronome apps. It’s good to include a 4 or 8 measure count-in i.e. 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 (don’t be afraid to speak it along with the metronome) so that all the musicians have a clear starting point. If you use a metronome be sure to take note of the tempo that you record your sketch to. One thing to keep in mind is that eventually you will need to record your own parts properly i.e. you will take all the recordings you receive from the online session musicians to a local studio and then record your final parts to them.
If you already have tracks recorded (i.e. not starting totally from a rough song sketch), then you will want to have your engineer make you a “rough mix” of the song to use as the guide track. If you’re rough mix doesn’t include a 4 or 8 bar count-in you may have to ask the engineer to create it for you.
A Quick Overview Of The Process
The process begins by sharing your guide track and any notes on the type of performance you’re looking to capture. Musical references speak a lot louder than words, so if you have something from your Production Playlist to share that is always best. Sometimes it’s best to say very little, and let the artist react to the track without too many verbal filters. You can save your very specific direction for the last take if they are offering a few takes. Leaving a little room for the unexpected can yield great performances you would have never imagined.
After the online session musician completes their part, they should send you back a rough mix with their performance. With many of the gigs on AirGigs.com you can ask for retakes, revisions, etc. Once you agree on a final performance, they should deliver either a “session file” (more on this below) or a separate file containing only their performance.
Before you hire any online session musicians you might want to locate your mixing engineer first. A mixing engineer is going to take all the individual performances (guitar, bass, drums, piano, etc) and mix them together into a finished song. You could say mixing is a big part of where the magic happens, so finding a mixing engineer with a sound you like is totally key. The main purpose for selecting the mixing engineer before any instrumentalists, is that they can advise you on how they want files prepared and delivered to them. It’s better to have this completely clear from the get-go so that everything stays organized.
In most cases a mixing engineer will require what is known of as a “session file”. A session file contains all individual performance tracks within it. If your mixing engineer uses Pro Tools software (for example), they will require a Pro Tools session file. Once you know what the mixing engineer requires, you can then ask the 1st online session musician that you hire to deliver the appropriate session file format. You should actually confirm this with them in advance of purchasing their gig just to avoid any miscommunication. The session file they deliver should contain your guide track and their final performance track(s). You can now share that session file with all the other online session musicians you hire. This way all future work on your song remains organized within one file that your mixing engineer can work with.
Assembling Your Team
Start by browsing AirGigs.com and bookmarking gigs that seem interesting to you. Reach out to the talent to open up the dialogue. The most important thing is to find people who are communicative and who will take the time to listen to your vision. Share your song sketch and songs from your Production Playlist. Ask them about their process, listen to their sound clips and read any reviews they have. Trust your gut and only work with people who you vibe or resonate with.
This is a beginners guide that’s meant to open the door to mavericks who like experimentation. Like any skill or trade, there is a lot to learn when it comes to music production. A big insight is just understanding what you do and don’t want to learn. If you’re genuinely interested in learning the principles of sound, gear, mic’ing techniques, settings, etc. then there are endless learning resources for that online. If you’re more oriented toward simply producing your own songs, then your process might become more about assembling a great team of talent.
May the force be with you.