How recreating a track improves your music production skills
Recreating a track is one of the best ways to build a foundation for your music production skills. It requires you to use every ounce of both your musical and technical knowledge to match the reference material, and will no doubt require you to master new techniques along the way. It’s an important assignment at Abbey Road Institute, and we thought we’d let Programme Director Carlos Lellis explain why…
Why this assignment
Carlos, you organised the curriculum for Abbey Road Institute, was the ‘recreate a track’ assignment your idea?
Yes, but I can’t really say that we’re the only school that does it. What makes it different for us is that we don’t have to source outside musicians. All of our students play musical instruments, so they are the ones who produce, play, edit and mix the tracks.
It’s a fairly demanding assignment, isn’t it?
The thing is that there are not only lectures that lead up to that, but there are exercises we do in preparation as well. We start by looking at the history of production, we listen to a lot of music and we look at structure, instrumentation, harmonic movement and arrangement.
The important thing is that when we get to the studio, the activities are associated with the teaching that’s happened before. Students have to learn a song, and they have to try and get as close as possible to the texture of the reference. It’s challenging, because we don’t have endless backline to choose from, although our students are very careful in choosing songs that they can not only play, but that they’re able to recreate in terms to texture, aiming to get very close to the original.
What to listen for
When you’re studying the history of music production, are you focusing on the equipment?
We’re really looking at the techniques that were used. Is the recording dry? Is there a lot of high end? Are the vocals EQ’d? One of our preparatory exercises involves me playing a recording twice and have the students extract as much information as possible in regards to structure, arrangement and instrumentation. For instance, is it an upright or electric bass? Is it a Fender guitar or a Gibson? Spring reverb or chamber reverb? Production elements.
Do you actually expect them to be able to differentiate between brands of guitars in the first term?!
I want our students to be able to tell me if it’s an electric or acoustic, for sure. If it’s an electric guitar, I want them to at least try and guess. And to be honest, a good number of them can tell if they are listening to a single coil Fender or a humbucker Gibson-type guitar when they join us.
How students benefit
What’s the payoff of these exercises?
It has everything to do with critical listening; with one pass or take of a song, you can tell if the guitar/amp choice is right, if there’s too much distortion or if the reverb is muddying things up. But there’s also a payoff in editing afterwards. When the session is finished, they don’t have to listen to 32 takes of vocals. They already know they are going to take verse 1 from take 7, verse 2 from take 9, the chorus from take 6. Being able to take proper session notes is a really important skill to develop.
Referencing is also something that happens as part of a producer or engineer’s job….
Everybody I know who makes records, first spends time with the musicians talking about the direction they want to take, and listening to references. It’s very rare that a musician doesn’t have a sound in their heads that they’re after. If you’re not fine-tuned to that, you end up spending months on a record only to have an artist say it sounds too ‘clinical’, or too ‘clean’, or it’s ‘not warm enough’, or simply not what they were looking for.
So if you can summarise why this assignment is so important, what would you say?
If you look at the most creative, outside the box painters they often had a phase in their lives when they were trying to draw as close to real life as possible. It’s the same in music: every musician has a phase where they want to be just like Jimmy Page, for example. So they get a Gibson Les Paul, they learn to play like Jimmy Page, they even dress like Jimmy Page (laughs). If they play long enough eventually they come out of that phase and find their own voice.
Engineers and producers arguably do not go through that kind of a referencing phase for long enough. I think people try to be creative a bit too soon, and creativity is something that you earn the right to use. In the beginning you have to show that you can do the craft, and then you can move on to the art that comes after that. That’s the importance of this exercise.
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