Inside the Studio: How Music Producers Collaborate with Artists | Focus... Music | Skillshare

Inside the Studio: How Music Producers Collaborate with Artists

Focus... Music, Grammy Winning Producer

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8 Lessons (29m)
    • 1. Introduction

      2:51
    • 2. A Producer's Presence

      3:48
    • 3. Building Relationships

      3:37
    • 4. Communication with Artists

      5:10
    • 5. Producer's Process

      3:16
    • 6. DAW Plug-ins

      5:11
    • 7. Track Skeletons for Artists

      3:55
    • 8. Conclusion

      1:11

About This Class

With over two decades of experience in the recording studio, Grammy Award-winning music producer Focus... (Aftermath) has collaborated with some of the biggest names in music, including Beyonce, Dr. Dre, and Kendrick Lamar.

Over the years, he has learned all sorts of techniques for getting the best performance out of artists when recording. Now, in this 30-minute class, he passes along insights and gems to aspiring producers everywhere. Key lessons include:

  • Controlling the studio session
  • Building constructive communication with the artist
  • Creating stripped-down tracks for artists to lay vocals
  • Focus...'s favorite plug-ins when producing

This class is meant for producers looking to level up their careers through professional insights and practices. Whether you are working with an artist in a studio or remotely, these lessons will help refine your process, coach the best from the artists round you, and ultimately lead to better productions. 

Transcripts

1. Introduction: How are you guys doing? My name is Focus. I'm a producer with Aftermath. I've been with them of and of for about 15 years, working with Dr. Dre and I've had a career for about 25 years. As a young kid, I came up in the music industry. My father was the bass player and Cole songwriter with a group called Sheep. So, it's all I've ever known. Ever since I was a little boy, I wanted to be just like my dad. My dad was a world renowned producer and it was something that I thought was cool at that time, but now it's life and it's still cool. This class is going to cover a few key points for a producer. We're definitely going to go into the fact that we are servants for the artists. We're servants for the greater good of the project itself, be it a whole project or just one composition. So, we're going to go into that. We're definitely going to go into the creative and the technical sides of the producer, what your job is and how you can make things run smoother. We're going to go into relationships, the importance of relationships, and we are going to go into your personal relationship with the artist and how that's going to also be key for the conversation. So, hopefully this is going to help what you're doing with your career. I believe this class is meant for the person that takes the hobby from hobby to career. This is not for somebody that just wants to make money out of music. This is for the person that has the love for music, and has the love for creating timeless music and understands what they're trying to get out of their career. This is not small gold at all. This is about the long term. This is about the distance. So, I've spoken about this a lot of times, and I think a lot of people think that this is one of those fly by night things. You make one heartbeat when your are a producer and it's not that. This is for that person that wants to stay the distance and make the timeless music. I hope that whoever is watching, I think you need to be definitely in tune with the fact that this is about the love and the passion and the detail of making music. Also, as part of this class looking forward to each student using what we bring to this class and you guys use it in your compositions and submitting it. I would love to hear what you do with it. I would love to hear what you took from this class and how you applied it. Because, I'm sure that each and every student is going to put their own twist on it and that's what makes it creative. 2. A Producer's Presence: For the first lesson, I want to go into something that you probably don't hear a lot of producers talk about. But we're going to talk about your presence in the room and why it's so important. I think producers need to have a control of the room. You need to know the pulse of the room with the artists, whoever the artist may bring. The engineer, you should have a good rapport with the engineer. Even if you don't know the engineer, try to create one in that instance because that's who's going to be your co-pilot. That's your co-pilot for the rest of that project. So, at the end of the day, we're going to talk and go into detail about your presence and how you can gain control of the room, so it doesn't feel like you're some kind of overload. But at the end of the day, you have the pulse going in the right direction and the creativity and all the vibes are going to all correlate and makes sense. One of the things that I used to think was very cool about my father, my dad was a control freak at home, of course, he's the father. But at the end of the day to see that in a studio, to see my father actually run a session with Robert Palmer or Rod Stewart or Diana Ross and to see him actually say something and everybody jumping around trying to make it work for the greater good of the project, was amazing to me. I think that he did it with a greatest of intentions because he wanted to make sure that it was a great project. He wanted to make sure that everybody gave their best. He was giving his best and he wanted to make sure that the entire room was all at the same percentage. Everybody's giving their best. When you're in any kind of instance where it's your music, understand it, you're 50 percent owner of that project regardless. So, if you're 50 percent owner and your name is going on there, your name being your brand, you want to make sure that you have the greatest kind of brand there is. I want to make sure that me and the engineer speaking, I normally use humor. Humor always cracks any ice. Even with those people that don't want to smile. You can turn around and still use humor. You want to understand your engineer and make sure that he's comfortable and then once the artist gets there, of course the artist, it's their project and it's their session, but at the end of the day, you're the producer and you're there to make sure that the artist is comfortable, the engineer is comfortable, the project is going to get done efficiently and everybody is going to be comfortable in that situation. It's about the artist. It's about the song. It's really not about you. In that instance, that's where servitude comes in. That's where you have to alleviate your entire ego sometimes and it's hard. It's hard for people, because we actually think about ourselves and why am I not getting the attention and why do they think that they could talk to me like that. All of that has to be pushed aside. If you want to make the greatest song you can and you're working with a great artist and it's a great opportunity, keep yourself open to the creative vibe of things. If they want to go and be a lot on it fine. Get them to do their job and then let them leave and then you go on to being a producer. Start mixing the record, start editing the record, work with the engineer. Sometimes that might have to happen, but if the artist does want to stay, you're going to have to understand how to be a servant. You might have to sit in there and stew in that wonderful, wonderful thing we call humility. But it will give you a wonderful outcome. I promise that much. 3. Building Relationships: Certain things that I've learned in my career that have helped me create relationships with the artists and various people that might be brand new in projects that I've never worked with is conversation. You don't want to sit down and do a whole same conversation with an artist if they don't know you. Open up dialogue, and just understand what they're talking about. Understand what they may want to bring across in their project. If they don't want to be communicative with you, find a way to create some kind of conversation, and I promise you things will start to smooth out. As they get to see you create and maybe your passion for the song, maybe their passion for the song will be the one thing that you guys are like, "Okay, let's start from here, with our relationship. I love the songs as much as you love the song. How can I make the song better?" You might not have a friendship, you might not be the best of friends, but you will have something to start from. You want a plateau to start from. One instance that I can think of off top is when I got the chance to work with Christina Milian on her first project. Christina was very young. So, she came there with her mother, and Carmen is a wonderful person, wonderful woman. Her and Christina just came in with such a positive energy, very upbeat energy, and this was back when Christina was more pop orientated. So, it was very cool to actually get in with her with me. At the time, I was working with Montell Jordan. So, Montell was my writer, and I was his producer. So, we actually had this project come in through Def Jam, and she came in and for the first few hours of our first session, we're just talking and laughing and getting to know each other. She told me about recent relationships, she told me about things that she wanted to make subject matters of the songs. So, for her to do that, she really helped me get a direction, and we just started creating from there. There was nothing that was already premade, it was all based on what she wanted to happen with her projects. So, it was very inspiring, it was very motivational for me to get to know her first, and it definitely helped our creative process. In certain situations, you won't be able to create a relationship, per se with the artist because you might not even be in the same space. I know now with the advancement of technology, all we're doing is pretty much sending music here and there, creating relationships that way. They're not real relationships, they're not tangible relationships, but they are working relationships. In those instances, you're not going to know their mood, you're not going to know anything about them. I think that it's imperative that you do research, find out maybe where they started, and where they're trying to go with their career, with their sound. Some of the past producers that they work with, why did they work with those producers? You can find them in interviews, you can find them on YouTube, you can find them all over, littered all over the Internet because once you do your research on that, you're showing initiative. You're now taking a step where the last producer may not have gone, and you might be able to hone in on the sound that will help them further their career. So, it's very important too. Still this is a lukewarm way to create a relationship, but it's very important for you to do your research on that. 4. Communication with Artists: So, all right. We got the vibe established in this session. We're recording. Everybody's in their proper place, but how do you get your artists to perform like they've never performed before? I think that the word control gives people an air of entitlement. You're not supposed to turn around and control literally the artists or the people in the session. Your job is to make sure that things are flowing smoothly. How do we do this? Communication, Simple and plain. When you're talking to an artist even if you're going to be critical, you want to make sure that you say it in a way that it doesn't undermine, and it doesn't deconstruct what you're trying to build. At the end of the day you want to make sure that you speak to people as you would like to be spoken to. They might not like something in your track. If they turned around and said, ''That sucked,'' would you be able to perform at your best? Or if they said, "Well, there's a way that you can change it, and this is what I heard", Okay, I get it. I got that. You can do the same thing with an artist, "All right. That's fine. That's great. That was a good take, but let's take this and let's try with a different emotion, or can you try to open up your mouth a little bit more so I can get a clearer note?" Or things like that. That's how you add to a project. That's how you add to them feeling good about themselves and that's how you add to definitely a great, great song. There are times where you'll give feedback, and it'll feel like it's falling on deaf ears. I've had that happen to me a few times, and it's fine. It's not a bad thing because I'm still there to make sure that I'm giving a great stage and plateaued to the artists. If the artist wants to assert themselves and be the dominant creative person, that's fine. I'll allow that, but at the end of the day, once I get a playback moment, I can turn around and press play and have them sitting next to me. Show them, "Okay, do you hear it there? Do you understand what I was saying about that note?" 10-1, that will be the time where they can hear it. They might not hear it behind the mic because to them this is my job behind the mike, you do your job behind the board. I understand that, that's fine, but when we sit behind the board together, we're on an even playing field. Now, I need you to understand what's happening. In every instance when I pointed out what I was trying to change all the long, it ended up being changed, and it worked out at the end. So, just keep yourself open. You might just have to let the thing pass by. Whatever it is, whatever horrible thing that you hear, you might have to let it pass by. But don't let it die and don't let it go out because it still represents your name. If your name is on that thing, and you feel like you could have done things better, you're not going to be able to go back in and redo it, get it done, and make sure it's done as right as you can possibly do it. I think it's very important to have a minor checklist if you will, a mental checklist of things that you can do to help set the vibe to make sure that you set the tone for what's about to happen in the session. I know for me I'm very big on lighting. We call ourselves vampires not literally, but I don't like bright light, I can't work under bright light. I like my lights dim or colored lighting. For me especially even bringing an artist, if I get there early, which I behoove every producer, get there before the artist. But when I get there, it's very important for me to show them that this is important to me, so I start working immediately. I bring up the track, I make sure that is a loose mix on the board if I'm using that as a sell. If I'm just in the box, if I'm just using Pro Tools, I'll make sure that there's some things to show that I've been working before they got there. Hopefully, you start to create, I call it the whirlpool effect. Once things start moving in a direction. Once the artists and whoever the artist is bringing with them come in they should turn around and go right in the same direction. Creating that good whirlpool effect, you get a good energy in the session. So, it's key to turn around and set the tone before the artists get there. Cool. So, the vibe is set, you've got your sexy little candles going, everybody's happy, we get to the fun stuff. This is where I brighten up getting right into the session. I have so many things that I need to help me be the producer that I am, bundles, various plugins, so we're going to get right into that. So, this is going to be fun. This is the fun part. 5. Producer's Process: Cool. We know that we're not here for be making one on one, but it is important to understand that there is a creative process if you will and this is going to be my personal creative process is how I start with anything. When I start, normally I'd like to start with chords. There are times where I'll start with drums, but I'd like start with chords. I'm a fiend for a great chord, and it could be just a bit. In this instance, in this track, it's literally a beat, and for some reason I heard so much happening in this little bit, so I treated it. I used a roader, I used a spreader and I just put as much as I can on it to alter the sound to where I can use it to where I can build on it. Then from there, I started adding different instruments. It's important to build a foundation to work off of and I know like with this one, it's a very simple and sparse track. The busiest thing in there is the sample that you're hearing over and over again. But it is one of those things that you can still have an artist on there, and the artist will have enough room to breathe. So, I make sure that I get everything out of my system because when you produce sometimes you can overproduce. But you want to make sure that you have enough that an artist can build on and if you need to take back you can take back. It's about the artists, it's about creating space for the artists and I know that sometimes when we're in our own work space, we forget the fact that there's going to be an artist on it. All right for this track it's a hybrid track that I made it's an RnB track it has a hip-hop undertones, but I did it because I really wanted to create a sound field that was based solely on the artist being the main instrument. My favorite instrument in any studio is the voice, the voice can do so much more than any instrument can do. It can even emulate instruments if you will. So one of the things that I really want to do is just create space. I'll do [inaudible] things and send it to an artist and let the artist do their thing and then I'll go back in and rebuild the track around them. If you listen to the dynamics of this song, it's still sparse enough to where an artist can exist, and I'm not overpowering the artist. I'm giving them whatever they need so that they can sing and be the movement of the track. I think it's very important to give them enough to write off of, give them the chord structure, give them the bridge, give them whatever structure you think it needs and then add afterwards. I think that so many people want to showcase themselves as producers that they put so much in there, so many edits, so many different things that it's hard for somebody to sit down and say, okay I can write to it. It doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad track, it just means that you have to fine tune it. 6. DAW Plug-ins: It doesn't take a genius to figure out, I'm an old school producer being in the game 25 years. I'm coming from a lot of analog equipment, so I'm used to having, where I record to, back in the day, was two-inch reels, and then I would work in my equipment. So, for me, Logic is my equipment. That's where I work, and where I record to, or I'm mix from is Pro Tools. I know that Logic, you can mix in Logic. I know that in Pro Tools, you can mix and create Pro Tools but to me, the separation helps me. I need to know that when I'm in Logic, I'm creating, I'm making the music. When I'm in Pro Tools, I'm mixing, and I'm just focused on that. So, again, getting deeper into details of my workflow, I think that it's not just me who does this. There's a bunch of producers that have their go to, be at rig, be at a plugins, bundles things like that, you have your go to, have your creative space that you understand what everything does, and what you're going to get back from it. Me, my iZotope bundle, is a must. I needed it on everything that I create. Ozone 5, that's my favorite. They have seven now and I'm getting into learning it as well. But Ozone 5 for me is so comfortable. It's a mastering tool, and I use it to put after I do my e-queuing on every track, and things like that. For me, it gives such a wide perspective of the track, and it gives it punch as well. Because, you can e-queue overall, and you can even play with the stereo imaging. So, for this track, I'll play it without it. Now, the same time I was using very ambient sound, so they're going to be wide by themselves, but the moment that you put this plugin on, you can hear that it brightened up, it widened out as well, and it's very important like I'll use the harmonic exciter, just so I can get a crispier feel. Sometimes, I like to agitate my high mids as well. So, it depends on what you're really trying to paint with your song, but I do advise you, know who of you, if you could go and definitely check out the iZotope stuff, because it really brings a beautiful dynamic to everything, and it can help everything that you're trying to do creatively. Another company that I like their software, is Soundtoys. I think that their stuff is amazing, I mean, to sound manipulation if you will. Sometimes I really want to make something my own, I start to get really into the inner workings of the sound, and Soundtoys helps that. One of the things that I can bring up right now, is called Little AlterBoy, and with something like this, you can take any sound you want, and you really go into some different sounds, different textures. This could be something simple like, you can make this a whole another track, and backup that high frequency. On this, you can do it literally on it. You can drive it. If you want to make it even sound different, you can do this. What I'm doing now, is just changing the format of it. I still have a minus 12 on the pitch. Things like that, I love being able to make that work within my track because, you now don't know what that is, you won't know what instrument that is. So, that's one of the things that I love using. Another one that I'm big on, and I really love is Sugar Bytes. Sugar Bytes has some sound altering things as well for the editing part of it. Looperator, you have to have it. That Effectrix, Stutter Edit by iZotope. My three favorite go to companies is IZotope, Sugar Bytes, and then Soundtoys. So, if you can implement their bundles into your creative process, you might just see things off the Richter scale. It's going to, really, really be huge for you. So, it depends on how creative you want to get. All of these things help my sound, and help give me a fingerprint as a producer. I think that that's what's important. Being original, being creative, and that's how you get your people coming back for more. Because, that's what you're going to be able to bring to the table, is your imprint, your fingerprint. 7. Track Skeletons for Artists: So, right now I want to go into a composition that I'm working on with Marsha Ambrosius. This is going to show you what I mean about what I said in the artist, a skeletal where they can write and demo the record, send it back to me and then I'll build on it. So, this is what I originally sent Marsha. Very skeletal. It's just snaps and chords that I like. So, this is what I sent her before she put her vocal on it. Now, this skeleton had enough elements for her to understand the dynamic between the verse and the hook. My skeleton was enough to where there was structure. She wrote her song, she put her vocal on it and this is her hook here. All right. Now, getting into the actual structure of the song after she sent me back what she did to the skeletal track that I sent her and it was a two track. Having all of my tracks here now at my disposal, I started to add things but still understood that I wasn't trying to over clutter the song, still understanding that I'm there to support her and to make sure that she is the main instrument and she's the star. Something this simple that she was singing to, I started to add my instruments. Even something as little as that lead line, if it was rubbing her vocal the wrong way, then I would have taken it out, but now we have drums. It's going to add a drive to the song, but I didn't want them to be so vague that it was swallowing her up. Now, mind you, you can still hear her. She's still the prominent and predominant person in the track. It's not me. It's not the track. It's still for her. Now, I'm still adding all the pieces in. Now, if you notice, this is all the tracks that I put in there. This is everything that I've added since I had her track back and I have not taken her space away from her. It's very important for us to understand how important it is for the artist to be able to cut to a track. Sometimes you can use a heavy eight away and the artist is still there and predominant in the track. There's nothing wrong with using heavy instruments, but using a lot of instrumentation, sometimes you're going against what they're doing. I made sure that everything went with one flow and I made sure that she was still the main instrument in the track. 8. Conclusion: Hopefully you guys got some good information from this class. We went through establishing the relationship between you and the artists, we went through the creative process, you setting the mood as well. There's so many things that we put in this class, little gems, so hopefully that helped everybody out. I want to say thank you to everybody that tuned in and checked this whole class out. I really, really hope that you grabbed something from it, a gem, something that you can use to build and better your skill set and your creative flow. So, again, thank you so much, and I implore you, please submit your music, submit just something to show us that whatever you did grab from this class, it helped. Do it kind of the way that I showed you, show the skeletal, the thing that you might have sent the artist or the songwriter. Show what it sounded like when the artists and the skeletal was combined, and then show what you did at the end. If you guys are ready, and you guys really want us to keep in touch, we can do it to Skillshare.