With all the tools available to the modern musician in today’s DAWs, it’s easier than ever to take on the role of the classic one-man—or one-woman—band. But there are also a few mistakes the intrepid solo artist or producer can make, that might keep his/her efforts from achieving the best results. Here are 5 suggestions of things to watch out for, or at least keep in mind, when going it alone.
Modern workstations have virtually everything you could ask for, whatever style of music you may be working in. But despite all that production power—or maybe because of it—sometimes songs that are produced entirely in the box can somehow lack the loose feel and energy of live, acoustic performances. The perfection of quantized, auto-tuned, compressed, EQ’d and generally processed tracks can often leave the overall vibe of a song lacking in that intangible “feel” that all great music brings to the table. But even if you think your song is suffering from that overly-tight, overly-perfect “in-the-box” quality, it doesn’t mean you have to run out and hire a band and a live recording truck, and go old-school. Very often, adding even just one or two tracks that have been performed and recorded acoustically can make all the difference.
The extra nuance that those performances—and the little subtle details captured in the recordings—may bring to the arrangement can make the difference between a more sterile-sounding mix, and one with just enough of a loose, live quality to capture the energy that puts the tune over the top. Often, the vocal is the thing that serves this purpose, as long as it hasn’t been overly “perfected” with comping and auto-tuning—a little imperfection can go a long way.
And speaking of the vocal, this is one aspect you do not want to give short shrift. I’ve heard many solo projects where the musician/songwriter slaved over their tracks, making sure the performances and the mix had just the right combination of slickness and “vibe”, only to compromise at the end by doing their own vocals, which can sometimes be the fatal flaw in an otherwise great track.
Of course, if you’re a “real singer”, then you’ve got nothing to worry about, but many songwriters and musicians, while they can hold their own when it comes to vocals, don’t really have that spark that’ll make the song come to life, and grab the listener’s attention. These artists often choose to do their own vocals for perfectly legitimate reasons, like limited budget or availability of suitable voice talent, and they convince themselves that modern DAW tools will let them correct for any imperfections in pitch and timing that may mar their performances. But all the auto-tuning and flexing in the world won’t impart the energy and emotional resonance that may be lacking, even in a technically well-executed but musically lackluster performance.
Sometimes, the only way to avoid compromising a promising track is to swallow hard and bring in outside talent. Even if logistics may be an issue, there are reasonable online services that can be used to connect with appropriate singers—it may take a little trial and error, but once you find that performer that can serve as your “voice”, you’ll have a much better chance of delivering your best work, without compromise.
In keeping with concerns about the musicality of the arrangement, when working as a one-man band, another thing to watch out for is the tendency for the parts—which have necessarily been overdubbed and laid down one at a time—to fail to “gel” together into a tight musical performance. Often, solo tracking leads to what can sound like a bunch of musicians playing in time, but not really listening to each other. When the “players” don't react to little musical gestures in other parts, the arrangement can tend to lack that sense of musical collaboration that drives the best groups and ensembles. But that can be an occupational hazard for the one-man band performer. For example, he lays down a drum part and then overdubs bass and other rhythm instruments. As the later parts are added, naturally the player will instinctively react to what’s already there. But if that initial drum (and maybe bass) part was laid down in a vacuum, there likely won’t be a lot of little fills and subtle variations for the later “players” to react to. And even if the artist anticipates this, and does add some extra bits to, say, the drum track, it’s a one-way reaction—the drummer still won’t be subliminally responding to the subtle gestures of the later-added parts.
Many solo artists deal with this by building up their arrangements in several passes. They’ll first lay down basic rhythm section parts one-by-one, but then they’ll go back and re-record the initial tracks—drums, bass, whatever—to be able to generate more interesting parts that react to the other instruments that have now been added. I’ve often done two or even three passes like this—each time, there’s more going on in the rest of the arrangement, and the replacement parts can start to sound much more integrated into the overall performance. It may sound tedious, but it doesn’t have to be—in fact, building on the previous performance in each re-do can be fun, as the player gets to bring a little more style and nuance each pass.
Of course, you can get carried away with this too, and lose sight of the finish line, so you’ll want to be sure to listen carefully and not let the performances get too fussy or busy. One caveat—playing basic rhythm section parts like drums & bass against already-recorded tracks like guitars and keyboards can be an acquired skill—you need to be able to make the new parts sound like they are in fact driving the song—like the other players are following them—and this may require a little practice. But when you get it down, the results can be well-worth the extra time and effort.
One of the most basic mistakes any one-man band/solo artist can make is to work in isolation. Even if you’re one of those creative types who tend to do better when left to his own devices, there comes a point in every production when you’re going to need to get some feedback from others (assuming you do intend for others to hear your music eventually!). Hopefully, this point will come before the song is completely tracked, mixed, and mastered, when those outside ears can have the chance to offer potentially useful & constructive suggestions while there’s still an opportunity for them to be incorporated in the final aspects of production.
The problem with working in isolation is that when creative types lay down their performances, and then listen back to the results, we all have the tendency to hear what we intended the part to sound like—the idea in our heads—rather than what the recording/performance actually sounds like—that’s what people mean when they say an artist is “too close to the material”. You’ve probably all had someone play you a track, with some really obvious, even glaring, flaws, and thought to yourself, “holy crap, how can they not hear that?!” And yet it’s clear that the artist is completely unaware of what’s wrong—he’s still hearing the idealized version of the performance in his head, and not really tuning in to the actual sound of the offending recordings.
Of course, in those situations, most people just smile and say, “great, great..”, not wanting to offend, especially when it’s obvious the track is already finished. What’s really needed is for any solo artist to have at least one or two trusted sets of ears—friends who understand what he’s going for, and ideally have at least some knowledge of the process—and then play the work-in-progress for these individuals periodically during the production. Writers all have their editors/readers, and most musicians can benefit from helpful third-party feedback—that’s part of what a producer does, after all. And remember, you aren’t obligated to accept any advice or suggestions you receive, but just hearing someone else’s reaction can make you focus on things you might have glossed over—then you can make your own decisions as to how to remedy any newly-noticed flaws or shortcomings, before it’s too late.
My final suggestion is a pretty obvious one but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. When working on your own, it’s easy to get so caught up in production that you forget to step back and try to listen, and evaluate, what you’ve got during the course of production. The only way you’ll ever shake off that tendency to hear that idealized version of your track instead of the actual performance you’ve laid down, is to get a little distance—and the only way to do that is take real breaks frequently, get away from the production, clear your head, and then come back to it, hopefully with fresher ears. If you can get the sound of the particular project you’re working on out of your head for even a little while, then when you do return to it and have a listen, you’re very likely to pick up on things—from small details to obvious issues—that would otherwise have gone completely unnoticed (until someone else points them out, usually when it’s too late and the project is already done!).
Mixers have always known about this, but it’s equally important—maybe even more critical—when working as a one-man-band. There are various things you can do to clear your head/ears during the course of production. Taking a day off now and again, if scheduling permits, is always a good idea, or, if that’s not feasible, take at least an hour’s break periodically, play some different music, take a walk—anything to get the tracks you've been hearing over and over out of your head, if only for that brief interval. This approach—in conjunction with the previous suggestion about turning to some trusted ears for periodic feedback—can really make all the difference in the world, when you’re doing the big solo act.
So, while some truly excellent music has been made by one-man/one-woman artists playing all the musical roles themselves, there have also been many less-than-stellar tracks turned out that way as well, and that’s often due to the issues (among others) mentioned here. So the next time you find yourself locked away in the studio, doing your thing all by your lonesome, give a little thought to some of the pitfalls that could potentially trip you up—even a slight change in production approach could be just the ticket to better, more musical tracks.