B-Side Blues… Or how to Kill an Album Project One Overdub at a Time

/May 13, 2016

 

They say time heals all wounds but what it does to unfinished recordings is another thing entirely…

 

There’s a disease gripping the world of singer songwriters that’s gone undiagnosed for ages now. It’s brought on by a combination of things: the natural desire to be the best, a determination to sound amazing, insufficient funds and a lack of free time to finish a project without distraction.

I call it ‘B-Side Blues’ or Killing off an album project one overdub at a time’.

 

THE LONG & THE SHORT OF IT

Here at The Mill I’ve been working with a great number of singer songwriters lately, most of them absolutely amazing. Talent, it seems, is everywhere!

But amongst these, the ones with real jobs and bills to pay – pretty much all of them – share a common problem. They’re having trouble finishing projects – albums mainly – being able to sign off on the recordings and finding time to mix it all.

The main issue is nearly always related to knowing when to stop.

Like I’ve said 100 times before in articles and during panel discussions, knowing how to land a project is vital to the quality of the outcome. Put another way, if you don’t finish something while it’s still relatively fresh, there’s a high risk it will sour before you get a chance to finish and release it. And the longer something takes, the higher the risk.

Being a record producer I’m acutely aware of this particular malady. I do everything I can to make sure everyone feels comfortable throughout the long haul of an album project, but more and more I’m becoming aware that getting too cosy can have an unexpected downside.

When relationships get too familiar, as they often unavoidably do during an album’s development, the process can start to drag its feet and eventually stall, as healthy musical experimentation gives way to gratuitous tracking and general time wasting.

Like a footy fan on a Friday night with beer and a beanbag, albums can slump into a coma before you know it, particularly when a project has no specific deadline or record company pressure.

Striking the right balance with regard to all of this is a real art, but in truth, it’s almost impossible to manage. Like milk, once a recording ‘goes off’ there’s nothing anyone can do to salvage it – it’s destined for the sink.

Sometimes this happens over months, sometimes overnight.

All that can really be done to avoid the risks of a project going sour before it’s released is to make every effort to finish projects off without delay.

Everyone involved should be made well aware at an album’s outset of the dangers and risks associated with an album taking too long to finish. Once the gun goes off and the race begins, pace yourself by all means, but keep one eye on the finish line at all times.

 

RECORD WITH YOUR MEANS

Consider, while you’re working on an album, these five things:

1: That the number of songs you record fundamentally determines the length and cost of the project.

This may seem like an obvious fact, but it’s one that far too many artists and producers ignore in the hope that the scale of their undertaking might somehow seem less daunting. Misreading (or misrepresenting) the ‘scope of works’ of an album can leave you marooned halfway, and with little to show for your efforts.

Understanding the scale of the undertaking at the beginning and limiting yourself to a maximum number of songs is great for the album’s overall health. Six additional B-sides, conversely, can endanger the whole project.

2: Don’t flog a song to death.

This applies to tracking as well as mixing. Don’t, whatever you do, think tracks have the fortitude to be worked and reworked, overdubbed onto endlessly and remixed 10 different ways without you potentially becoming utterly sick of them.

Keeping things fresh is all about moving through the project relatively quickly. Adding 70 extra channels of overdubs or mixing one song for two weeks (or on and off for months), needless to say, mostly has the opposite effect. Without warning, the protagonists involved might wake up one day and suddenly be ‘over it’. When that happens things rarely recover.

So, if you still think that tambourine is half-a-dB too loud or the bongos could come up tiny bit, but otherwise the mix sounds incredible, sign off on it and move on!

3: Blown budgets sour projects like the summer sun.

Particularly when an artist is self-funded, going over budget (assuming you even penned one at the start of proceedings!) can be the source of major frustration and anxiety. It builds pressure on the project and causes many to falter in the home straight.

It’s the job of the producer to keep an eye on budget, and if necessary, reel the artist in if their propensity for endless overdubs has taken hold. Adding stuff isn’t always a bad thing of course – it can make a record great. But a good producer can hear when a song needs wrapping up, and that’s when it’s time to move on. Continuing to work on overdubs beyond that point only adds to budget pressures and ‘ages’ the track.

4: New songs push old ones aside.

This is not a bad thing, per se, but from the point of view of remaining focussed on the work at hand, it certainly can be. New songs will naturally feel more alive and interesting than older ones because they’re fresh, and too many can make work that’s already recorded start to feel old and dated.

Particularly when you consider that for an album to be successful an artist needs to be able to promote it, make film clips for it, play it live etc, new songs can be a very negative influence on the work being done. Obviously no one wants to limit songs being written, or would argue for them to be resisted if they’re there. It’s simply another reason why you can’t work on the same group of songs for too long.

5: Circumstances change, people move on, bands break up… so strike while the iron’s hot.

Everyone’s been through this last one: “Yeah, we love the album and the mixes are awesome, but Jeff’s mum is sick and it looks like he’s gonna have to move back home to look after her. We’re gonna get another bass player, but if we don’t we may have to just call it a day.”

When this sort of circumstance strikes a production, more often than not the album dies a sudden death. Even if it comes out there’s generally less force behind it with one band member missing and the others questioning the future of the group.

Time marches on and circumstances always change sooner or later. If you think your project is immune to this sort of scenario, think again.