Hans Zimmer, the great film composer, mentions a few times in his masterclass that he engages in a ‘conversation’ with whomever he works with. In corporate language we’d call this the ‘brief’ or ‘terms of reference’; the understanding of expectations between client and supplier.

For art, this is a complex process actually: as the old saying goes, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. You have to know what you like and don’t like, and only you can tell me that. It’s a mental game of tennis where you throw your ideas and I hit them back to you, except the only points won are the ideas that you like.

Audio referencing has been a critical part of how we work with music creation at Shaw Music Studios. Send me a link to a commercial recording that best represents what you’d like to hear in your own song’s production, edit, mix or master. In music production I often spend a lot of time just talking about your interests. We’ll do a scratch track which may be just your vocals with a primary instrument like guitar or piano so that we get the structure and feel you are after. We may do a production demo of the ideas so you have some experience of what the final production could be in terms of arrangement and instrumentation. Your “right and your wrong”, so to speak. But there is no right and wrong, only what you feel and don’t feel. A little bit of this and partly some of that; it’s the discussion of the micro- to macro-details about the art you are envisioning.

Some of the questions and discussions we need to have could be around:

  • Send me a reference of the sound, text or look you are after. It could be a YouTube link of a commercial song that sounds sonically similar to yours. We are not copying the song, or even the musical or recording ideas, only setting up your expectations.
  • What kind of effects or sonic changes would you like? For example, did you want autotune or do you detest the thought of it? Did you want flashy or simple?
  • Describe the specific style or genre you want?
  • Does the track fade out or should it end gently or abruptly? If it fades, what minute:second would you like it to start at?

If you have no likes or dislikes, no preferences, no opinion, then you have to trust who you are working with or realise you need to develop that sense of style or, dare I say, artistry. Then you’ll need to work on your conversation about those feelings. Sometimes, you’ll change your mind. You’ll speak to a friend or ‘industry’ buddy that says something about your artwork and it’ll affect you. Suddenly, the ideas they have will cause you to change your mind and start the conversation again.

Finally, when I mix and master music, clients often ask what I think of the song they have produced elsewhere. That’s a tough one, as I may not personally like the tune, but I have a job which is centred on sonic emotion and not musical emotion. If, sonically, the track kicks and you like it, then my job is done. If the music sucks, well, someone somewhere in the world may like it. Many tracks which sound bad become hits and it sets a new trend. If it’s a track I’m producing myself, I often don’t rely on anything but whether it feels good to me (and you) and I have to get that standard higher and higher. In fact, it never ends, creatives are meant to keep wanting more.

Very rarely will a project be rejected or taken away from me, and the core reason is because I did not have the ‘right’ conversation about these expectations. If it sounds right to you, it is right. Who am I to judge. At the end of the day, we can only do what we can to get it to feel right for you. If you pay the piper, you call the tune but the audience en masse has the final say as to whether it appeals to the majority or not.

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