To be honest, so much of what makes up a good recording is working with a great song. Simply, you can’t go very far in the studio and expect a great result if the actual song writing isn’t stellar. On top of that I’ve written about how a solid arrangement takes what could be called “demos” to “professional” status much faster than people believe. But honestly what’s even more important before you dive into the arrangement and the studio tricks is this: can your song hold up when stripped away to just an instrument and voice?
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Don’t Forget Your Acoustic Guitar
As the leader of a worship band at my local church I try to stay in tune with what some other wise and Godly bands, musicians, and worship pastors say on the subject of music. One website I follow is TheResurgence.com (a ministry of Mars Hill Church in Seattle). There was a recent article posted by Mars Hill’s worship pastor, Tim Smith entitled “Don’t Forget Your Acoustic Guitar.” In this article Tim talks about the importance of being able to strip away all the flashiness of instrumentation and effects and still have a song that is authentic, passionate, and moving.
“If a song can’t stand on its own with an acoustic guitar and a few voices raised together, it needs more work. Effects and instrumentation shouldn’t be used to cover up a poor song. If you can’t strip it all away, and still have substance that moves hearts to worship Jesus, then you’re relying too much on technology, tricks, and gear.”
Obviously this article is written for the context of worship music in church. But the principle is so spot on. A good song should be able to stand on it’s own. Whether that is a simple acoustic guitar and voice like Tim mentions or a solo piano riff, or even a simple melody on a violin, it needs to be complete, whole, and substantive even without all the trimmings.
Effects Are The Means To An End
Now the take home here (and quite frankly even the rest of the article on The Resurgence) is not that we should simply abandon effects, complex arrangements, or electronic music. It is simply a mental shift. Somewhere along the way of trying to make great music and polished recordings we started using effects as the end in itself rather than simply a conduit through which our simple song ideas explode into an amazing opus of rock. We need to approach our recordings in a new way, one in which the “unplugged” song is the center of attention and all the tools, tricks, and effects are there to enhance, support, and uplift it as the lead role.
One way to do this practically is to always ask yourself this question when making a musical decision: Does this help the song or simply cover it up? If you feel the song only getting better, more exciting, more moving or powerful, then you’re probably on the right track. If it is simply different, more complex, or worse, you can’t even get the original feel of the song back, then you’re probably off course. Time to strip away, and refresh.
Why We’re Even In The Studio
It seems crazy to say, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves of why we are even in the studio recording at all. It’s all about the music! We record, edit, mix, and share online because of the music. Everything we do in the studio needs to simply do one thing: serve the song. If ultimately we don’t have any good music worth “serving” in the studio then why are we even recording it? Ask yourself these questions before you hit the record button next time and see where the answer takes you. I hope you care more about the music than the tools used to serve that music.