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The Producer's Ear

The Producer's Ear

By Sean Hill on December 03, 2012

When you listen to a song what do you hear? Do you hear lyrics and a melody? Do you mainly pay attention to the lead singer and how they sound? Or do you listen to the band? Or maybe you like to hear the shakers, tambourines, and background vocals that give the song texture?

Understanding how all of the elements of a song work independently from each other is the start of the long journey to understanding how a song is ultimately put together.  The number one reason I feel that home production is lacking is because the person wearing the "producer hat" doesn't have a firm understanding of what should and what shouldn't be in a particular production.  This article will briefly explore a very simple three step method to developing a better "producer's ear".

1.  Step One: Honest assessment.

Take your favorite record and listen to it.  Without changing EQs, volume knobs or any other settings, place your own production in the same listening environment. What changed? What is yours lacking? And again, we are after honest assessment here. Your production IS NOT on the same level of the Grammy Award winning productions that we all love. Why?

You have to begin to understand the shortfalls in your own production before you can begin to close the gap to make your production sound like an award winning production. Without understanding the differences between your production and a more professional production, your chances of closing the gap dramatically reduce.

I personally spend hours doing A-B tests with my productions versus a hugely budgeted Ed Cash production, for example. I literally sit and reflect on what I hear. Comparing the quality of your work to others is a dangerous game and it requires humility and an open mind. Comparing can be poisonous if you enter into A-B comparisons with the mind frame: "how is mine better?" The right attitude is, "What about their production is done better than mine?" When you can truly look at your production for what it is, and not what it almost is, you truly understand step one.

2.  Step Two: Listen and learn.  

So you have identified some things that your home recordings are lacking.  Maybe you have been lacking good background vocal production, which by the way is true almost across the board for most inexperienced producers.

Just because you have identified that as an issue doesn't automatically make you good at producing backgrounds vocals. Now you must become a student. Continue to listen to records you love.

When is there harmony? Or maybe more importantly, when is there not harmony? Are there three part harmonies? Is it a high harmony on the chorus or a low harmony? In music, there are many harmonies to any given line. Choosing the right one is what you are training your ear to want to hear, so that way when you are producing your project your ear will literally want to hear a harmony in a particular place because you have trained yourself to want it!

There is a major difference between listening to music and dissecting it. I can remember growing up listening to a 20 second part of a song over and over and over and say, "How did they do that?" Truly becoming a student and being open to learn will propel your productions further and further.

3. Step Three: Trial and error.

Yes, there is no escaping the error part of trial and error. You will be forced to try things out that you can't properly execute. You will miss the mark. You will drop the ball. The key is, are you learning from it?

Does that shaker make sense there? Does the tambourine truly add energy in the bridge? Does the high harmony steal away "glory" from the lead vocal? Is the guitar tone the right one? Have I created a solid track?

The best way to learn and develop is to DO. No one can learn how to "produce" from reading articles and studying recording engineering. Although reading articles and studying the technical aspects of recording engineering can definitely help you along the way, nothing can replace hands on experience.

Get in your studio and make better recordings. Capture more inspired performances. Pursue excellence with the gear you have. And maybe most importantly, fall on your face, and learn.

Wrap up

Training your ear is a lifelong process. I unknowingly began training my ear for production when I seriously began digesting music just growing up and being fascinated by it.

Training never goes away. Music constantly changes and grows.  What is fresh now will be "dated" in five years. That to me is the fun part! This simple three step process to developing your producer's ear will always apply no matter what level of success you achieve or how many awards sit on your shelf. Being honest about where you are, learning where you want to go, and trying your best to get there is a tried and true formula for improvement.

We can all make better recordings for the Kingdom of God. Don't you think God deserves our best? I think we can all take the extra steps, do our due diligence, and producer bigger and better music!

Sean Hill is a full-time producer and songwriter. Visit him online at uphillstudiosonline.com and follow him on Twitter.

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Sean Hill

Sean Hill (Guest Writer)

Sean is a full-time producer and songwriter in Lawrenceville, GA.