So You Wanna Be a GarageBand Star?

As a musician, I've been involved with digital audio and music production since about 1993 (a Quadra 900 with a NuBus ProTools setup in a pro recording studio), and first setting up my own, slowly-evolving mini-project studio starting in 2000. Nonetheless, it's only in the last couple years that digital music production seems to have taken on a life of its own. I attribute this to a few factors:

  • the increasing computing and data-processing power available in everyday home computers and laptops;
  • a swelling generation very comfortable with computers as media-oriented devices enabling personal expression;
  • greater ease-of-use offered by today's audio and music hosting applications, including things like Cubase to ProTools Free to Apple's GarageBand;
  • the growing ubiquity of the Internet.

Now digital music stuff is like desktop publishing all over again. Those of us old enough to remember the ’80's probably recall compact Macs (probably SEs and Pluses) and applications like MacWrite and (oooh!) PageMaker. Not only did these programs enable users to create and print digital documents—boring computers had done that for years—they let you see what you were doing on the screen before you printed, and (drumroll please!) you could change fonts! How cool was that?! And look at some of those wacky fonts! (Windows users had the same wow a few years later, mainly with Windows 3.0.)

Rather than ushering an age of publishing enlightenment, however, the popular impact of these technological innovations on the production quality of printed material was surprisingly negative. Sure, there were a few users who knew (or learned) enough about typography, typesetting, and graphic design to use these new tools with professional-level results. But everyone else was subjected to newsletters, flyers, signs, announcements, and even personal letters which were... just horrid. Eight, ten, twelve unreadable fonts on a page in a multitude of sizes; bizarre, chunky graphics; rounded rectangles and bizarre rules everywhere; microscopic margins. Some of the material produced by so-called desktop publishers might have driven some people to violence. The technology was a great example of Sturgeon's Law: "Ninety percent of everything is crud."

So it is now with digital audio production. You can hear some great examples of what I sometimes call font menu audio at sites which collect and promote amateur, semi-pro, and unsigned artists: sites like and iCompositions focus on users of Apple's GarageBand; sites like SoundClick and feature artists regardless of platform or software. Some of the tracks on these sites are surprisingly strong: clearly, record labels and conventional signed artists have no monopoly on talent.

Being interested in this stuff, I sometimes dip into sites like these and, when tracks are up for listener review, occasionally offer my two cents' worth. Frequently, I find myself in exchanges with artists, and often, those artists find my pages or sites, maybe listen to one or two of my demos, and offer their thoughts. Which is all well and good: almost all of them have interesting opinions and things to say. But a surprising number of them ask me: "Your tracks sound so professional: what's your secret to production?" Essentially, many of these artists feel that their music is being evaluated almost entirely on the quality of the recording they've produced—often a bedroom using their computer and maybe some borrowed gear—rather than on the underlying strength of the music or composition. They feel they're being underestimated because they aren't audio engineers.

Although I still get slightly chuffed when folks say my tracks sound nice, well.. I know better. They don't. They're just rough, thumbnail mixes with little in the way of production or mastering. They aren't up to professional production standards, and, as a musician, I don't claim to create fully mixed or mastered music on my own. I can do basic tracking, but I prefer to leave mixing, production, and mastering to more experienced ears (and hands) than mine.

But there's no need for these artists and aspiring artists to despair: it doesn't take $50,000 and a professional studio to get a good sound, especially these days. I've always said that great music will outshine crappy recording, but that a fabulous recording doesn't help crappy music. I stand by that assertion. However, what artists are uploading to these sites are recordings, not just songs or compositions. So long as artists are submitting recordings for review, it's fair for listeners and reviewers to comment on the performances and production of those recordings. So artists are never going to get out from under the thumb of having their production evaluated.

The trick—and it's the only trick—is to make sure your production, as low-tech and chintsy as it might be, doesn't get in the way of your material. If a track is rendered unlistenable by its production, listeners are not going to make the effort to assess whether the underlying material is any good. Bad production can mean things like lots of hiss, difficult-to-hear instruments or vocals, poor signal, elements which are out of tune with each other, or simply bad recordings, but it can also be caused by high-fidelity and sonic whatsits. Ask yourself: does your hi-hat need to do 64th-note ping-ponging across a stereo field? Does applying as much distortion as possible to your guitar actually help your song? In some rare circumstances the answers might be yes, but nearly always the answer is no. If you find yourself thinking you can make something work using production tricks, you're probably wrong. Either the music works, or it doesn't: production might be able to enhance the musicality of an element, but it cannot create that musicality.

The cardinal rule of recording is "keep it simple." With a little care and knowledge, folks today can make professional-caliber recordings with remarkably low-end and inexpensive gear. Cheap does not necessarily mean low quality, and expensive does not mean great. Joe Pass could pick up an all-plywood, wall-hanger guitar and still sound like Joe Pass; a teenager who barely knows three chords isn't going to sound any better on a $3,000 Les Paul.

The same idea applies to recording. The main difference between pro and amateur audio isn't so much that pros have better gear, but that the pros are deeply familiar with their gear and know how to use it effectively. The digital audio revolution means the quality level of much of today's inexpensive gear outstrips much pro-level gear used to make innumerable classic and reference recordings. Heck, many signature vocal tracks are still recorded with mics like the Shure SM57, street price about $90 ($75 if you look). A $15,000 Telefunken ELAM 251 isn't going to make you (or me!) a good singer. Take your time, get familiar with the gear you use or borrow, and develop your ear not only as a musician but also in music production. And, most importantly, keep learning.

At a certain point, however, most people have to make a decision between being an engineer or producer, or a musician. If you can't get your production over a certain bar, I'd recommend:

  1. making your production dirt-simple, and,
  2. putting a lot of sweat into your arrangements.

Simple and straightforward arrangements (structure, instrumentation, vocal elements, etc.) purify your recordings and help ensure nothing extraneous comes between the listener and material. Sure, in your head you might hear a super shredding guitar solo after the second chorus. Can you play a super shredding solo? Know anybody who can? If the answer is no, don't even try to put it in your recording. Save the idea for the big leagues. And think: less production also means fewer opportunities for production problems! I'd rather hear a straightforward, honest, gimmick-free recording of strong material than that same strong material in a recording which tries too hard to be slick.

Because if the material is strong, people will respond to it. So long as attempts at so-called production don't get in the way.

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