How to fail your way to success
To dispel any myths you might be thinking. Music production didn’t come naturally to me. It took years of making some pretty embarrassing mistakes & getting my ass handed to me to learn what works & what doesn’t.
I also was pretty financially unstable through much of my music life & made some pretty poor decisions just trying to keep a bit of money in my pocket. The reason for me sharing these stories is in hopes that you see that if I was able to pull my head out of my own ass & figure things out, you should have no problem reaching your goals.
My EQing nightmare
So I found myself on the other side of town dropping off a mixing job (the worst mixing job on the planet) to a hip hop act when I was living in Riverside, California. I was in the middle of a rough neighborhood with not enough gas or money to get me home. I needed to be paid for the job ($100).
You’ll want to file this under “don’t take on an impossible job because you are desperate to make rent”.
See, it wasn’t entirely my fault. I took on a job that would have been impossible for anyone. The idiot factor is thinking I could work with the files I got, regardless.
They had delivered me stems (mixes of all the separate instruments) that were actually not separated. every instrument, instead of being solo’d was the full stereo mixdown of the song (a bad mixdown at that). We didn’t have internet at the time, so if you get a project in the mail that isn’t right, you can’t just ask for an update to be delivered through dropbox.
I should have made a call & had them get me something proper to work with, but money being so tight, I opted to try to carve away EQ to somewhat attempt to have the fundamentals of each instrument for mixing purposes. I was almost proud of myself for being so “resourceful”. I know what you’re thinking. I’m the biggest idiot on the planet & deserve to die from 1000 spork wounds.
Needless to say, the mix I delivered sounded awful (did I think they wouldn’t notice?) and there I was stranded with a bunch of pissed off hip hop guys looking at me. I thought I might lose a kneecap that day. I had to beg for money to get me home. As I said before, I made it here on fumes. By the grace of the giant spaghetti monster in the sky, they took pity on me & gave me $5 to get home.
Never again would I make such a dumb mistake… or would I?
An idiot’s story part 2
Somehow, I was still getting work. I guess I had done some decent work as well. Mostly with electronic bands with guitars & word got around that my bedroom was a cheap place to get a song done. I think I had some ads out of Craigslist as well that were getting me phone calls ( I had dial up internet by this time).
So I get a call from Cracka. A cracked out white kid who wanted to be the next Eminem & who was I to say no? Sure, the friends he brought over were pretty sketchy, but I was getting paid in cash & they didn’t steal anything. It could be worse.
So, I was being hired to make the beats & everything. I think they had some samples on cd, but that’s about it. I was pretty good at programming drum machines & working my sampler, but I wasn’t very educated on proper hip hop tones.
When I sent this guy home with a rough mix, he called back particularly unhappy with the kick drum. He wanted it to be big, deep & punchy without too much boom & he questioned if I could give him a tone that would compete with bigger artists.
Never turning down a challenge that was paying, I told him I’d get him a wicked kick that would thump any car stereo…and I did, kinda.
Back in the studio I went through my kick samples, looking for the right sound, but it was eluding me. I’d have to make my own out of what I had. I had heard stories about other producers layering drum sounds to get a bigger sound. If that was the trick, I would layer a crapload of kicks together. 26 to be exact.
Yep, that’s right, I went with the more is better approach. If they wanted a kick, I would give them the biggest fuck off kick they’d ever heard.
Did I roll off any EQ on any of the layers? Oh, hell no.
Did I edit the length of any of the sounds? You kidding? Who needs that?
I strictly was using volume levels. A little of this one & a bit more of that one. It’s so embarrassing for me to recall being proud of myself. I even got a pat on the back when Cracka heard it by itself.
Little did he (or I) realize that this sound was taking up so many frequencies that were cancelling eachother out that kick would be all that you would hear in this mix. It sounded so big & aggressive, that nothing could compete with it. Vocals, bass, everything got drowned out.
Since everybody was so focused on the sound of the kick, nobody really noticed how bad the overall mix sounded. Not long after, I didn’t get calls from him anymore.
How am I still here?
Somehow by some small miracle, I got my head together over the next couple of years and went on to do some good work that I’m proud of, working with industrial bands, new age artists, pop, rap, electronica & R&B, I learned to adjust my skills & add much to my producer’s toolbox.
I think it’s really been about not saying no to anyone & trying to put my head into the space of the artist or band. With that much exposure, I was able to fail my way forward, picking up little bread crumbs of information with each new project.
These days I am much more selective about what I work on & who I work with. I also found myself better as a mixing engineer than I am with recording. Plus, it’s nice to not have to go through all the arguing that bands go through in that process. I get my stems & am left to myself until I have something to share.
If you can learn anything from this, I hope that it’s that anyone can learn to do this & that some people take longer than others. Luckily there are so many resources out there that were never available when I started, that can get you from point A to point Z much faster & with far fewer idiot mistakes.
Hopefully, as an electronic artist, my kicks & mixing techniques are noticeably better. I’m still always learning though.
happy music making,