Producer, engineer, mixer, songwriter/composer, Fett.
This is Part Three of the incredibly informative Passenger Profile Interview I did with “Fett.” Yep, that’s his real name! He’s a Nashville-based songwriter, producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked on TAXI members’ projects for more than a decade. He finally realized he should also be creating and pitching his own music, so he became a TAXI member a couple of years ago and is now seeing TAXI from the member’s perspective as well. His insights and tips are incredibly helpful and enlightening!
So, now that you’ve decided to take the plunge and not just produce for other members, what kind of music are you writing and producing, and how’s it going so far?
Actually, it has been an interesting journey for me, and it’s still unfolding. Because of limited time, I decided early on that I was going to have to be very strategic in my approach, and specialize in a particular type of music. And I was aware that I was limiting my overall range of “potential uses” of my music as a result. That’s fine, because I was doing it consciously. So, based on my musical background and what I’m most comfortable with, I decided to focus on “rock power trio instrumental music.” Yep, that’s a pretty specific market! On the other hand, you’d be surprised how much of that music appears across the board in film and TV on a given day. And I just happen to enjoy the hell out of playing it, so there’s that!
Are you collaborating with other members?
Absolutely, in lots of ways. First, in my power trio, I only play bass, even though I’m technically both a guitarist and a bassist. But the guitarist is TAXI member Bruce Brown, who also plays guitar (along with a lot of other instruments) for Charlie Daniels (one of the Country Rock icons of all time), and can play circles around me with both hands tied behind his back! So I leave all the guitar work to Bruce and try to keep up! The third member of the trio is the one-and-only Ron Krasinski, a session and live pro with nearly 50 years of experience playing with everyone from Mel Tormé to Dr. Dre (honest!), so he can play absolutely anything we throw at him. I also use him on many of my other recording projects, so Ron and I have developed quite a rapport after working together for hundreds of hours in the studio over the years.
So, our power trio is two TAXI members and a veteran studio ace. We get together at Azalea Studios periodically and lay down the tracks. We all bring in song suggestions, work out the arrangements together, and record the tracks live, on the spot. It’s a very efficient creative and tracking process. Then the other two guys wait for me to find a break in my schedule to do the mixes! We all share songwriting credit equally on every track, regardless of who brought in the original idea. I love working that way; we all share the same vested interest in our success.
In addition to this collaboration with Bruce and Ron, and doing a lot of recording, mixing, and mastering for TAXI members, I also use other TAXI members for certain projects that I produce for other clients. And from time to time, especially when my schedule gets too busy (as it often does), I hand off projects that I don’t have time for to other producer/engineer colleagues who are also TAXI members. So there’s collaboration in that way, too. It’s really interesting how my TAXI membership has become woven into the fabric of my musical life!
What, if anything have you discovered about your strengths and areas you need to work on through the process of submitting your music?
The absolute most important thing I’ve learned, and am still working on, is the fact that if you don’t schedule time to devote to the task, it doesn’t happen. In other words, if I don’t set aside specific time to create, record, mix, review the listings, and submit the songs, those things will just slip away from me. It takes a ton of discipline. So, even after I’ve been preaching it to TAXI members for more than 10 years, I’m still working through the challenge of making a true commitment to my own TAXI success with my time and attention. No, I don’t have to turn it into a full-time job to make it work, but I do have to make it a priority. It’s like working out: either you’re going to make the commitment to exercise regularly, or you’re not, but no one is going to do it for you. It’s true with success in life, with the music industry at large, and definitely with being a TAXI member. And interestingly, when I have deliberately set aside the time and been focused on my TAXI work, I have seen success. There’s a direct, one-to-one correlation there.
Are there any revelations that you’ve discovered by becoming a member yourself that you wish you’d known when you were doing projects for other members in the past?
Most definitely! The biggest revelation for me has been, if you want to “meet the market” with your music, as in the case of submitting for film and TV listings, you absolutely MUST devote a certain amount of your time and energy to listening to what is currently going on in the marketplace. I’ve naturally done that as a producer as a matter of course, but with the TAXI experience in particular, it’s even more critical. I call it “outside-in music creation” vs. “inside-out music creation.” If you’re an artist and simply want to create music that moves you and your fan base, then you can afford to have an “inside-out” approach and create music that comes totally from you, and that’s fine. But if you want to be a professional songwriter or composer and create music that moves a much wider, commercial audience, then you MUST take an “outside-in” approach to succeed. That’s the same approach the potential end-consumers of your music – the film and TV music supervisors, for example – have to take to do their jobs as well. If you’re not willing to buy into that model, you’re not “wrong,” but you will definitely limit your chances for success in that world.
You’ve always been really generous and spot on with your advice on home recording. What gear would you recommend for a singer/songwriter who’s just getting into home recording, and how do they learn to run a home studio? I know that’s a book’s worth of advice, but can you just give some basics?
As you might have guessed by now, I lean towards a fairly minimalist approach to gear! My advice would be to start with one really decent (read: not necessarily expensive), large-diaphragm condenser mic; the mid-level version of ANY current DAW (I’m very, very partial to Cubase for lots of reasons, but SONAR, Logic, Studio One, Pro Tools, Digital Performer, Reaper – they’re all basically spectacular nowadays) on a medium-spec PC or Mac (it makes absolutely no difference which) that’s devoted to making music; a decent, mid-level recording interface; and a decent, mid-level pair of monitor speakers. With those five pieces of gear (including the computer, no less!), you’re good to go, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money. I go into great detail with a lot of recommendations for specific gear in my online courses and mentoring programs, but I also spend a lot of time talking people out of buying too much gear, and too much expensive gear.
So, I would say start with those five pieces of gear, and then learn everything you possibly can about how they work, learn the techniques, do a TON of woodshedding until you know the process inside out, and only then, consider what gear to get next. Depending on what kind of music you do, you just might find that you have absolutely everything you need, and it might even last you for a few years. I always find it hilarious when people I know spend 500 bucks on a third-party virtual instrument library (because their buddy down the street told them it will turn their music into fairy dust), but they have never even opened one of the half-dozen virtual instrument libraries that came stock with their recording software! Dead honest – it happens all the time. But more importantly, they don’t even know how to use a virtual instrument library and have never even heard the word “articulation,” which is a thousand times more important to getting a virtual instrument to sound authentic than the price or the brand name on the front of the package.
Once you get to know your gear intimately and are getting the absolute most out of it, I guarantee that you will have a very clear picture of exactly what you need to add next. Perhaps it will be a library of specific instrument sounds you don’t already have, or a second, different kind of mic for flexibility or multi-mic recording, or a single, really high quality outboard DSP processor – but those things don’t need to be what you start with. Gear Acquisition Syndrome leads to Gear Overwhelm, and that only cuts down on your productivity (and often, your quality). It’s tough to resist the temptation to buy that next little toy when it’s only a mouse-click away, but spending an extra hour with the manual and trying a few new techniques with a piece of gear you already own will probably serve you far better in the long run.
Fett doing a One-to-One session with a TAXI member at the Road Rally.
I’ve read and loved your book, Fett’s Mixing Roadmap. It’s an excellent book, especially for those who are somewhat early in their recording chops. What are the three most frequent mistakes you hear home studio mixing rookies make?
Thanks, Michael! Well, in addition to acquiring far more gear than they need… First, I would say that many home studio newbies don’t really understand how a compressor works, and often end up using it to the detriment of the impact of their music. Specifically, many home studio owners think that the ratio is the most important control on a compressor. Actually, it’s the threshold, and until you’ve got the threshold set right, you’re usually not in the right ballpark.
Second, in my experience with newer home-studio-owner clients, many of them become what I call “effects affected,” meaning that they become really enamored with all of the effects plug-ins at their disposal, and either use more combinations of effects than the music calls for, or use too much of one effect so that it takes over the mix, and the listener ends up hearing more of the effect than the thing that the effect is supposed to enhance. This is material-dependent, of course, but it’s pretty common across the board with reverb. Reverb can be a phenomenally effective tool in subtly enhancing and delivering the mood of the music for the end listener, but it can also end up destroying an otherwise great mix when it’s inappropriately done, and actually detract from the listener’s experience and connection to the song.
Gee, if I have to pick only three… I would say the third most common home-studio mistake I hear is people not paying attention to their volume levels – all the way through the music production process. Many home studio owners have never even heard the term “gain-staging,” but it’s absolutely critical – even in today’s digital recording world – to getting the best sonic performance from your gear. It starts at the microphone, with its PAD switch, even before the sound hits the preamp. And it follows through at every stage right up to the output of the master bus. A great deal of my feedback to clients whose productions I critique is pointing out to them where volume levels at certain stages of the process are either buried (way too low on input) or distorted to hell (way too high on output) in their recording, mixing, and mastering chains. Gain-staging has somehow become a lost art, but you can really hear a difference in the recordings where it has been paid attention to; they just sound better, and as a result, have the most emotional impact, which when all is said and done, is the end-goal of recording.
From the production perspective, we have members who don’t understand why a strong vocal is often necessary on demo. Their thinking is that somebody else is ultimately going to re-cut the song and sing a new vocal, so the demo vocal doesn’t matter very much. What’s your opinion on that?
The vocal IS the demo! You might be able to get away with a weak spot instrumentally on rare occasions, but never with the vocal. First and foremost, as we say here in Tune Town, THE VOCAL SELLS THE SONG, and everything else is just icing on the cake. I’ve been singing professionally for nearly 40 years, and I NEVER sing my own demos! Having worked with countless professional demo singers in Nashville for more than 20 years, I know better. The vocal is the first thing, and sometimes the only thing that the end listener locks onto, so it has to be absolutely stellar. I’m not talking about over-the-top, always-on-eleven, American Idol-style “stellar;” I’m talking about a vocal that emotes and delivers what I call the “Three M’s:” the Message, the Meaning, and the Mood of the song.
Oooh, I like that. I’m going to steal that one—the Three M’s, and I hope everybody reading this creates a sign for their studio to remind them what’s important when they step up to the mic.
Feel free! Really good singers instinctively know exactly what I’m talking about. Even when they haven’t written the song, they always know how to emote the lyric instead of just reading the words. There’s a huge difference. That’s one of the reasons I tell my clients who do sing their own demos: “put away the freakin’ lyric sheet when you sing the vocal! You wrote the song, you know the words, and you don’t need the lyric sheet on a music stand in front of you to use as a crutch. Put it away, close your eyes, and get ‘into’ the song. BECOME the song.” That’s what great singers do, and it makes all the difference in the world.
So, my advice would be, unless you’re a truly stellar, professional vocalist—as opposed to just a “good singer”—yourself, even if you can handle all of the other musical parts in the production, the one place you should consider spending money on your demos first is hiring a pro to sing your vocal.
On the flip side of the vocal coin, sometimes a lo-fi vocal that might have some pitch “deficiencies” or rough edges can actually be the right approach if it’s for the right kind of song and delivers the emotion well. How can a songwriter or artist know what the right kind of vocal delivery is needed for a particular song if they are new to self-producing?
You hit the nail on the head when you said, “If it’s for the right kind of song and delivers the emotion well.” That should be the criteria for deciding. So, how do you know? Listen, listen, listen to what’s out there in the marketplace that’s in a similar style. This is one place where the “a-la’s” or references in the TAXI listings can be really helpful. If you feel you can deliver as good an emotional, impactful vocal as the referenced songs or artists or other representative songs in the genre, then great, have at it. But if not (and you have to put your ego aside and be really honest with yourself here), then hire a pro. It’s money well spent.
How long does it take you to create a piece?
Mostly because of the amazing talents of the two collaborators that I work with, our power trio can often knock out a finished song, from inception to completed tracks, in as little as 40 minutes. But keep in mind, these are instrumental tracks, of shorter length for film and TV cues, played entirely live (with the occasional overdub), in a studio that is already setup and ready to go to record a band. If they were full-length, vocal-based songs with a full band, it would be a completely different story. Then we’re looking at possibly a couple of hours just for recording. Then there’s the mixing… Regardless of the type of material, the mix is always going to take at least a couple of hours to get it really right and impactful, even on gear with a setup that I know well and use every day.
Do you drive yourself crazy striving for perfection, or do you concentrate more on nailing the pitch?
Some people who know me well (particularly my wife!) might disagree, but I don’t think I’m a perfectionist in the studio. A “fine-detail guy,” maybe (I am an engineer, after all), but not a perfectionist. Whenever I’m producing a band of pro session players in the studio and we get to the end of a take, my first question is always, “is it music?” rather than “is it perfect?” I’ll take a fantastic vibe and feel with the occasional spot that might need a punch-in or two over a mechanically “perfect” but stilted performance every time. We took that approach with all of the songs on the record that debuted at #1 in Australia; it rarely took more than three takes to nail it. And if it wasn’t feeling right, we just did it over completely, right then and there. We did eventually go back and change a few parts, but that was for production reasons, not for musical reasons. I use the exact same process whether I’m recording a record that charts at #1, or I’m recording a track to submit to TAXI.
And finally, with all the different perspectives you’ve got (writer, producer, engineer, mixer, TAXI member, producer of TAXI members), do you have any advice for current members or fellow musicians who’ve been thinking about joining TAXI?
Yes! The one thing I haven’t talked about yet – perhaps the most valuable “fringe benefit” of TAXI above all – is the relationship-building that it affords you. There’s the old adage that ultimately, “people make the music business work,” and it has never been more true than today. Interestingly, I got my first film/TV placement because of someone I met at a TAXI Road Rally and eventually collaborated with. He already had a relationship with the music library, which started when he attended a previous Rally. That’s how it all works: you create the best material you can possibly create, keep an open mind, be willing to change, and be self-motivated. Combine that with the professional relationships you can develop through TAXI, and the sky’s the limit!