Words are hard. Take it from me, I’m a professional word-man. Every day we struggle to find the perfect phrase that succinctly communicates exactly what we’re feeling. We stutter, we stumble and sometimes we blurt out something that’s totally wrong (the vocab word for that is “malapropism,” btw) and it’s all because what we’re trying to express isn’t always readily expressible. This is especially true as musicians trying to explain that sound in your head.
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” goes the famous quote. How do you describe something so deep and emotional as music – music being something you turn to precisely because it can express something beyond words alone. The lyrics to “Purple Rain” wouldn’t mean shit without that guitar solo. No turn of phrase can replace hearing Aretha Franklin sing. And how can you possibly describe in full detail the way your fucking flesh turns UP when the snare hits on “Ni**as in Paris”? You can’t.
But if you’re involved in the music world in any capacity, you’ve gotta learn how to communicate. We all wish we could control every single piece from the drum programming, to the mixing, to the album art – but collaboration is not just necessary, it’s instrumental to making something special. So how do you get that thing you feel/hear/see/know in your head into somebody else’s?
1. Just say what you wanna say and don’t worry how it sounds
“I just want that synth sound to be all like acid fire all over the top of that song!” Is “Acid Fire” a real thing? No. Do you sorta get what that sentence is going for? Yeah! That synth is not supposed to sound sweet or understated, it’s supposed to sound like ACID EFFING FIRE dripping molten hot music-poison all over your skin! No, it’s not a technical description, it’s not based in standard jargon, but it’s a visceral feeling that your music is supposed to evoke, so why not speak in visceral feelings?
The worst thing you can do when communicating your ideas/preferences/opinions is try to use language you’re not comfortable with. If you tell a drummer you want her to play “deep in the pocket,” but then keep telling her to play louder, crazier, more out-there parts, you’re just confusing everyone. It’s okay to not know how to speak drummer. “I want to feel the drums beat in my chest and I want it to make me want to dance.” Isn’t that easy? If you’re working with people who you trust, you don’t have to tell them exactly what to do, but express what you want as best you can, and allow them to make it happen for you.
And of course, if you’ve spent the last 6 years doing nothing but program synths, and you want to boost that mofo at 1100 Hz by 2 dBs, say that. But just know that description is no better than “ACID FIRE!!!”
2. Use references and comparisons
Back to our main thesis, words are hard! So when possible, don’t use them. If you love the way the snare sounds in “Born In The USA,” and you want yours to sound a lot like it, the best way you to communicate that is to play “Born In The USA.” There is no magic formula for getting any particular sound – Springsteen famously spent weeks tormenting his engineers in pursuit of the drum sounds he liked – and while someone may claim to have mastery of every plug-in, every microphone, and every trick in the book, nothing beats a good example.
Whether it’s the look of a logo, or the attack of the piano keys, whenever possible show, don’t tell. You’ve used your network to discover collaborators with a specific skillset that compliments your own, so give them a sense of your tastes, sensibilities, preferences, and let that be their guide.
3.Use the old A/B test
So you’re working with a producer who says he has this great vision for mixing your vocals, throwing out all sorts of ideas about octavizing and gating and compression and you don’t really have any clue what most of those things are. What should you do? Test ‘em out one at a time.
If you’re not sure what something sounds like or whether you like it, listen with it on, then listen with it off. Compare. Contrast. And then decide which you like better, A or B. The key is to not change too many variables at a time, so you know what thing specifically you like or dislike, and then once you get a general sense, you can start to dial it in further.
This is true in and out of a recording setting: whether it’s the font on your album cover, the part your guitarist is playing, or the snare sound in your beat, get a sense of whether you like A or B, generally speaking, and then dial it in from there. It’s much easier to say, “I like that and not that,” than it is to say, “this is exactly what I want.”
4. Listen. Period.
These all kind of go hand in hand, and they all come back to listening. And it’s not just important to listen to the sounds and technical elements – listen to the way people talk about music themselves. Pick up words and expressions that mean something to you. Talk in commonalities. Have your ears open at all times. Speaking the same language as your collaborators is both vital to working well, but also a really good barometer for whether you’re a good pairing in the first place. Everything starts and ends with your ears in this world, so put them to use as best you can. Listen to old records, listen to every sample, listen to your mother. Listen to everything, period. Then talk.
Feature by David Rothschild
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