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Realizing a Creative Vision: How Producers and Artists Collaborate

by David Bawiec, iZotope Contributor December 5, 2019
Lilah and Latrell James collaborate on a track.

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One of the coolest things about being a music producer is collaborating with other artists. Just like each person is different, each collaboration yields different results and requires a different set of tools. So how do you go about bringing an artist's ideas to life while expressing your own creativity? In this article, learn how to better work with artists in collaboration.

Communicating visions

The first moment that you and the artist you’re working with will intersect is when the artist gives you an idea of their vision. Everyone may come to the table with different concepts for the song or album's direction. Some prioritize how things sound, while others are more concerned with how things feel. Finding a meeting point between the two is where the magic happens.

But how can your artist communicate their vision for a new song? It can be a bit tricky, but I've found that it helps to encourage the artist to record a demo of themselves singing and playing the song. An all-in-one tool like Spire Studio can significantly simplify this process for the artist, taking down the technical barrier between an artist and the realization of their creative ideas. 

In its true, bare-bones form, a demo allows the producer to get a big-picture view of which sections work and which ones may need some love from a melodic, harmonic, or lyrical perspective. After hearing the demo, the producer and artist may collaborate to make appropriate fixes and suggest revisions to help improve the song.

Selecting the correct style 

Once we're both happy with the piece from a songwriting perspective, it's time to get on the same page about the musical elements and style of the music. This is one of the most important steps that you can take as a music producer. If overlooked, this can lead to a ton of headaches and arguments down the road. So take all the time necessary to make sure that both you and the artist are in sync about what you're going for.

For example, "My Heart Will Go On" could be done in both a Lady Gaga dance-pop style or as a Celine Dion power-ballad. The underlying song composition stays the same either way. So it's up to you and the artist to communicate which direction you want to take. 

If you're lucky, the artist already has an established musical style. This makes things easier for you, as all you have to do is listen to their sound and apply similar ideas to your new song's production.

But what if you're working with a new artist who doesn't have an established sound yet? Or the artist is looking to go in a different direction with this song? You'll need to find a way to explore different ideas together.

Ask the artist about any existing artists or songs that inspire them. Have them share the ones that they think match their envisioned style. Do remember that there's a difference between liking a song and it actually working for this particular artist. It's up to you to decipher what will work best and help guide the artist in the direction that will make them sound exceptional.

It’s your job, as the producer, to help realize the artist’s vision.

Exploring what the artist wants

I was once hired to produce an EP for a new band. When they came to me, they made it clear that they wanted to go for a pop sound for the album. But to my surprise, all of the music they were sharing with me for inspiration came from bands like Foo Fighters and Metallica, neither of which I would classify as having a pop sound. 

Needless to say, this created a disconnect between what they were saying they wanted and what they were playing for me. I needed to explore a bit to find out what they really wanted. In talking with them more, I tried to pinpoint exactly what they liked about each song to see what was drawing their ears to a given artist, album, or track. After a lot of conversation, we finally came to realize that what they loved about Foo Fighters was the heavy, layered guitar sound. They liked Metallica for the general intensity and wanted that energy in some of their songs. 

But the true sonic inspiration for their sound wasn’t coming from either of those two bands. It was coming more from bands like Imagine Dragons, Coldplay, and Kings of Leon. The mixing of synths and electronic grooves was what made their eyes light up and ended up being the final inspiration for what their sound would become.

Taking the time to explore this is truly one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself and for the artist.

The convenience of demos

I like working with demo vocals, and there's a very specific reason why: it makes it much easier to create a full, interesting arrangement around the vocal. Since I'm a huge fan of making sure all musical parts work around the vocal and don’t get in its way, a demo vocal recording is a necessity.

To make it easy on me and on the artist, I usually end up busting out Spire Studio to get the job done. No cables. No wires. No setup. I don't even have to use a computer. I can record in the artist's living room, or anywhere they feel most comfortable performing, and then I can transfer the vocal to my DAW for more in-depth production.

Recording vocals with Spire Studio
Recording vocals with Spire Studio

If I’m working with instrumentalists, I’ll also have them record any parts that I know we want to use down the road. They don't have to be perfect, but these recordings will be super helpful while working on the full arrangement.

Ideas can come from all sorts of places, so having Spire handy is really helpful. As you explore what works and what doesn't for your project, you or the artist may end up creating some really neat melodic licks that you want to save for later use. With Spire Studio, you can easily "jot down" all those musical ideas for the song as they come to you. Not wasting time on setup means you get more time to play.

Easily capture ideas with Spire.

Creation

If you're lucky and all of the above went well, you'll go into the recording and creation process fully prepped and knowing exactly what the sound is supposed to be. But that's not always the case. Often times, the artist has a hard time imagining how things will sound once they're fully mixed simply based on the demo instrument or vocal part. This is where sonic visualization becomes extremely helpful.

I've found that iZotope's Music Production Suite plug-ins can be a true lifesaver here. They allow me to apply various effects to a track quickly and instantly show the artist how something may sound down the road. Nectar and Neutron have become indispensable tools in my arsenal to make sure not only that everything sounds spectacular, but also that we can experiment with creating sounds we didn't necessarily consider before. With a few clicks, I can turn that raw part into one that feels like it's full of life.

Plug-ins in iZotope’s Music Production Suite 3 at work

Spices and surprises

This is one of my favorite things about creating a new song. No matter how much I try to plan, ultimately, the creative process is an unpredictable beast filled with surprises. It's in those surprises that I find some of the best songs come into existence.

If you always cook with the same 10 ingredients, you will always create the same formulaic dishes. The same applies to music production. If you want to spice things up, comb through your sound and loop libraries for elements you haven't used before. Layer different sounds together to create a new, interesting patch that's unique to this song or the artist.

If you want to take things further, record the artist performing a bunch of sounds (both melodic and not) that you can turn into sampled instruments to use on the song. This is one of the best ways to make the artist feel empowered and included in the music creation process. It's a win-win situation: you're creating a unique sound that you get to be really imaginative with, and the artist gets to enjoy being an integral part of it all.

When things go wrong

Occasionally, despite the best intentions, what comes out isn't what the artist was going for. What then? There will be instances where you end up working with an artist who doesn't have all the tools to fully explain what they want. It's your job to figure out what they mean and how their vision can be achieved in musical and technical terms. Know that many artists may say things like "I want the drums to be bigger" or "The vocal is too thin." And sure, you could go and get a bigger drum set, but thankfully there are so many other ways of making something sound bigger, larger, stronger, smoother, rounder, fatter, etc.

It's up to you to experiment with the different tools at your disposal to see how you can get closer to what the artist wants. The excellent news is that both Nectar and Neutron come with a plethora of presets that can help you achieve almost any desired result in no time. All of this makes you sound like a pro and gives the artist the full confidence of trusting that you're the perfect person for the job.

Creative explorations

If you're lucky, you may get an artist who wants to think outside of the box. This is where you get to explore new colors and make something truly original. It's at this point when I deploy my secret stash of neat tools from iZotope's Creative Suite. It features seven innovative and inspiring software tools: VocalSynth 2Iris 2Trash 2 ExpandedBreakTweaker ExpandedStutter EditDDLY, and Mobius Filter. Using these plug-ins, you have the freedom to create any warped, strange, exhilarating, moving, groovy, or synthy sound that you can dream up. Even the sky is no longer the limit. 

Conclusion

The production process can be difficult, but when you hit your creative stride with a collaborator, it’s an incredible feeling. As long as you have the right tools, you'll know that whatever the artist throws your way, you can handle it all like a pro. When you communicate openly and try new things, a musical collaboration can yield amazing results.

Learn more about collaboration:

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