When in doubt, do less

I have been fighting with the same song for a few months now. It’s been kicking my butt.

I’ve been working with a talented singer named Amy Alvarado here in Miami and she’s helped write a terrific song. My job is to make the instrumentation come alive, and this one’s been fighting me. For a while. Usually I can move more quickly than this. I’ve been through a hundred permutations and none of them feel right.

Amy finally brought another producer over and we had a great working session for three hours. And it STILL wasn’t working. I want it sound like Dr. Luke, and instead it just sounds like it’s in desperate need of a doctor.

(BTW: I’m always happy to work with other people, especially when things aren’t going smoothly. I think Amy was worried I might be offended but I’m always excited to bring another chef into the kitchen. Because they think differently than I do and that’s how I learn. It’s fun to see how someone else tackles a problem.)

Part of the problem I’m having is that there’s this really cool guitar line that I want to keep, but the track is mostly electronic. I’m having trouble making the guitar work with the synths. I turned to Miley Cyrus (or more precisely Dr. Luke) for inspiration in Party in the USA, but they actually keep the guitar completely separate from the synths. Check it. The guitar is in the verse and the synths are in the chorus, so no help there.

And that’s when I came across “Style” — a Max Martin / Shellback number with a guitar line over a synth bass. And that vibe is kind of working for me.

My guitar line is in the chorus, but I feel weird if there’s no guitar in the verse. It feels to me like the guitar just comes out of nowhere if it’s not in the verse (even though it’s the “reverse Miley” so it’s clearly OK). But any guitar part I put in the verse was way too complicated and was drowning out the synth melody.

And then I got into the car and James Brown came on the radio. Listen to the verse guitar part for “I Feel Good” — it’s just a single hit on the and-of-three. So the guitar’s there but it’s tucked out of the way during the verse. And then it can show up more forcefully in the chorus without sounding like it’s coming out of nowhere.

So here I am supatheefing someone else’s music again!

And the solution is to do less. Which I’m finding is the best solution most of the time.

Some of the best advice I ever got as a guitar player was to treat every note in a solo as if it cost me a dollar to play. When I think like that I end up playing less notes. Which is better.

Do less.

I listen to a lot of Taylor Swift

And Katy Perry. And Pitbull. And a lot of other top 40 stuff.

Not just because these songs are catchy, but because they’re produced by some of the best in the business: Max Martin and Dr. Luke. Those guys not only write great songs, they make them sound amazing.

This week I’ve been listening to “Style” over and over again. I’ve been trying to hear all the little details about how the song is put together.

Take a listen to the reverbs, echoes, and delays. Listen to the vocal harmonies. Max Martin’s team has done an amazing job, as always.

In the first few seconds of the song we hear a mostly solo guitar line, and then the bass and drums kick in. The guitar floats over the top. And those are the instruments that carry the entire verse. That’s all that’s needed to fill up the space.

Matt Shadetek, one of my teachers at Dubspot, pointed out that there aren’t secret instruments at low volumes. Great producers use just a few instruments. That’s all they need.

And even though the space feels full, Taylor’s vocals still have room to come over the top and make the song…even bigger.

I know where I’m trying to get to with my own work.

I still think the producers were listening to “Boys of Summer” when they wrote “Style.” There’s even a beach scene at the beginning of the video.

It’s never enough power

A couple of years ago I was shopping for a new audio interface for my studio and I wanted to get a pro sound. The big things are the mic pre-amps as well as the converters from analog to digital and back. I was looking at the Apogee units because they sound great.

And then Danny suggested the Universal Audio Apollo. The folks at UA have been building pro audio gear for a long time and they care deeply about quality. So the Apollo’s are well-built and sound terrific. They also have on-board processors that run plugins. So you can get an Apollo with four cores.

The UA plugins typically model older, expensive gear. Like I can get an emulation of a Fairchild compressor that weighs a ton and has a bunch of tubes that I’d never be able to afford or maintain in real life. And they sound amazing. And they take the load off of my poor Mac computer.

I’ve been taking Danny’s mixing and mastering course for the past few months and he teaches a style of using the UA stuff to color sounds. I can fatten things up, add warmth, and define my vibe with the UA plugins, which make my tracks sound way less digital / computer-y.

Then I do my clean, surgical edits using the new state-of-the-art plugins that run on the computer. Like the FabFilter stuff. So I mix and match. Old and new. Back and forth.

I shape my sounds and I take a huge load off of my computer, allowing it to focus on just part of the job.

And it turns out that four cores aren’t enough for the way I use the UA stuff. I just added an eight core Satellite. Now I’m running four cores of computer CPU plus twelve cores of Universal Audio DSP, so 16 cores total.

It’s almost enough. Almost.


Oh, man, I heard “Boys of Summer” on the radio yesterday. One of my all-time faves. I was listening to “Style” by Taylor Swift and I think they were listening to “Boys of Summer” when they wrote it. Listen to the beginning of “Style” and tell me you don’t hear it.