Let’s talk about being close with your artist. Like, really close. Like in the same room together.
I recently had a couple of interesting experiences.
One of my previous artists approached me to produce her next release. We’d worked together before, and it’s been one of the best working relationships I’d had with an artist. The songs were great, she was clear in her creative direction and was exceptionally pleased with my work (that included arranging and performing all the non-vocal parts). With these new songs, she wanted to try giving me her demo and reference tracks and letting me develop the songs without her attendance. While I normally don’t do that kind of thing, we agreed to do it. If producing remotely was going to work with any artist, it was going to work with her.
Well, it didn’t take long to get bogged down. There are some kinds of conversations that are very easy to have in person but almost impossible to have in writing. Discussions about creative direction is almost always like this. It’s not something that can be communicated in a one-directional way. We have to request clarification. We have to test each other’s understanding. We have to play audio examples (and sometimes sing or play along). We have to try out different ideas and then talk about them.
The second interesting experience was an unrelated discussion I had with a friend of mine who is also a producer and mix engineer. He mentioned that he doesn’t allow his client to attend postproduction – including vocal comping, mixing and mastering. Everyone’s got their own preferences, but it caused me to reflect on my own approach. I wouldn’t dream of comping a vocal or mixing an artist’s song without including him/her in the process. Every singer I work with has opinions about which parts of each take they want to use. Every artist I work with has opinions about the mix balance. Having them there as I work ensures that they can voice their opinions (and we can discuss them if necessary) as I’m working. It means we can get it right the first time (I almost never get revision requests).
Doing that work on my own seems like a really good way to waste everyone’s time going back and forth with revisions. Or a really good way to leave the artist unsatisfied with a product they’d be happier with if they’d been part of the process.
Producing and engineering isn’t a dark art. It’s not magic. It’s having the right tools and expertise.
The more involved the artist is, the better result they’ll get.
P.S. If you disagree with that last statement, you’re grossly underestimating your artist’s ability to learn about and appreciate the production process. Of course, not everyone’s an expert. And I’ve had my fair share of dumb requests from artists who didn’t know better. But part of my job is to educate and inform artists to help them make better creative decisions.