Getting Passionate Performances

Gazillions of audio tracks are zipping around the Web. Everyone seems to have a band. Everyone is making and sharing music. Scores of digital distribution solutions are transforming homerecording geeks into indie-music honchos. Even 12-year-olds are marketing wizards these days. Facebook. MySpace. Twitter. Today’s world has shrunken to the size of a tangerine.

Gazillions of audio tracks are zipping around the Web. Everyone seems to have a band. Everyone is making and sharing music. Scores of digital distribution solutions are transforming homerecording geeks into indie-music honchos. Even 12-year-olds are marketing wizards these days. Facebook. MySpace. Twitter. Today’s world has shrunken to the size of a tangerine.

But amidst all the noise and chatter and promotional possibilities, a musician with career ambitions still has to deliver a track that a significant number of people will adore— something that rockets out of the cultural morass of clichés, clones, also-rans, dilettantes, and outright suck-itude. Boredom is deadly if you want to make an impact, and, in our speedy, on-demand obsessed, and tech-savvy society, your potential audience often has a lightning-fast yawn trigger.

So what to do?

Well, you can go the path of dazzling listeners with an inspired onslaught of audio trickery—a potpourri of wild effects, slick samples, unique instrumentation, mammoth textures, cinematic mixing techniques, and thrill-ride arrangements. Who wouldn’t dig that kind of sound coming at them? Go for it. But that approach is for another article. This bit is about deriving a stunning performance from the artist, rather than employing your audio smarts to surround the artist with sonic tchotchkes. The goal here is to put the performer so in touch with their talent, their emotions, and the song that an unbeatable bond is formed— one that allows the artist to unleash a performance of unbridled passion. A performance that only corpses could ignore. One that grabs listeners by the ears and brain and heart and ignites little bliss quivers that imprint the artist and the song into their memory banks for at least a few weeks (we must allow for our shortattention- span culture). In short, a performance so true, honest, and affecting that it can’t be ignored.

Admittedly, these types of tracks— where a great song, a great performance, and sensitive and inspiring audio production bond together—are rare. But you know them when you hear them. And, anyway, aspiring to reach such heights isn’t a bad thing, is it? After all, the alternative seems to be allowing less-than-stellar performances to stand, or giving up just a bit because the artist simply can’t get there. Once again, making a transcendent track becomes a question of hope, faith, and creative resilience. So, wish us all luck, and let’s go. . . .

The Problem

The often unspoken (at least publicly) challenge of documenting a passionate performance rests with the essential element of that performance—the artist. He or she may not be able to sing on pitch. Their phrasing could be as evocative as dry paint. They may be “wannbe stars” instead of committed musicians. They could be absolutely clueless to what the song they are recording actually means. Maybe they never even read the lyrics—a recurring situation for musicians who aren’t the vocalist—or maybe the lyrics are indecipherable bunk.

The bad news is that you may be stuck with a talentless hack. The good news is that technology exists to fix little problems such as bad pitch and robotic phrasing. The better news is that every human can feel, and even people who are stoic and private express some level of emotion every day—even if it’s just impatience, or boredom, or pity. And if there’s a tiny spark of humanity welled up inside someone, there’s also a chance that you could bring out bits of that energy to inform a performance.

Physical Inhibitors

there an easy reason (or reasons) why a performer is holding back? You may not have to do anything to capture a great track other than find out if a physical inhibitor exists in your studio space or recording approach. For example, the studio may be cold, or so messy that it’s distracting. The headphone amp may hum or produce slightly distorted sound. The engineer may be taking too long to set things up. The headphone mix could be crap.

I’ve discovered tons of reasons that can distract an artist from the task at hand. Some seemed—to me, at least— insignificant in the extreme. But the trick is to get the artist to articulate anything that is making them uncomfortable. You may have to ask six times if, say, the headphone mix is okay for them before they’ll share that they really can’t hear themselves (or their instrument), or that they’d be more comfortable if some reverb was in the cans. Sometimes, nervousness or embarrassment can prevent an artist from being honest. It’s your job as the producer to break through these barriers, and ensure that the artist knows— and truly believes—that you’re there to make everything good for them. The reward for such open and nurturing communication—as much of a pain in the ass it can be for the producer—is a relaxed and confident performer who may be in the right headspace to uncork an amazing performance.

The Dreaded Mental Inhibitors

Trust me, there’s going to be a high percentage of times when you will not be lucky enough to have a physical impediment be all that stands between you and a stellar performance. In these instances, you will be dragged into the exciting realms of education, psychology, and outright cheerleading. You are going where there are seldom black-and-white answers, or surefire strategies. You are on your own, buckeroo, because emotional turmoil is as varied as the people who tread the earth, and no artist will likely share the same mind glitches as another. But here are some preemptive strikes that have saved my bacon at times. Please steal them, adapt them, or disregard them and develop your own actions. Either way, you’ll be further ahead than if you had allowed the artist’s idiosyncrasies to bully you into submission.

Explain the genius of “do-overs.” I always tell nervous performers that playing live is way more stressful than working in the studio. Onstage, if you make a mistake, it’s done. Over. In the studio, we can erase anything that isn’t totally cool. Those mistakes will never exist in the outside world. They are our little secret.

Expose the obvious. If a performance seems emotionally dishonest, make sure the artist truly understands the meaning of the song. Make them read the lyrics, and relate what those lyrics mean to them.

Role play. Once the artist knows what the song is about, you can tap into their experience. For example, if the song is about love, tell them to think of something all lovey dovey and precious as they perform their part. They don’t have to share the emotion with you and/or the other musicians— they just have to part their head in line with the feel of the song.

Be free. Let the artist know that they can do whatever they want to get to where they need to be. They can jump up and down, play in their underwear, hold a “dead” microphone, stand next to their amp with one headphone cup off the ear, or whatever else they might desire. Do not force the artist to conform to your recording methods, or hold the so-called requirements of technology (meaning avoiding things such as signal bleed, random noises, etc.) above the needs of the artist.

Allow playtime. Make the artist comfortable by running rehearsal takes without recording anything. It takes some people a while to settle down amidst all the cables and blinking lights and new environments.

Release your inner drill sergeant. As hard as it is to not watch the clock when you’re dealing with a recording budget and a lot of tracks to cut, try not to enforce a rigid schedule. Let the artist clear his or her head whenever they want. Let them walk outside, or call their friends, or grab a coffee. For some artists, it helps to know that they can release stress whenever they want, and not have to wig out because a track must get cut in an hour, or whatever. This one will probably kill you (we all dig maximum productivity), but loosening up the schedule can pay big dividends when an artist walks back in the studio and unleashes a performance that blows your mind.