At each year’s Rally, we do a ton of mentoring and teaching. For example, at this year’s Rally, I did 1-to-1 mentoring with 24 attendees, and group mentoring with 120 attendees (across two mentor luncheons). I also taught two audio/music production-related Drivers Ed classes to a total of about 150 students. Needless to say, I had a chance to hear and talk about a LOT of audio productions!
One of my classes was entitled “Production Masterclass: 10 Reasons Why Your Recordings Aren’t Making An Impact (And How To Fix Them).” One of the “10 Reasons” I talked about in the class involved the notion of “Who’s On First?” I’m really glad I included it in the Road Rally class, because I heard evidence of the problem on multiple occasions throughout the conference.
So what’s the idea behind “Who’s On First?”
Well, in a baseball game, only one runner (or “player”) can occupy First Base at any given time. If there’s more than one runner on First, then one of them is OUT! You can apply a similar idea of “only one runner on First Base at a time” to musical productions…
In the course of arranging, recording and mixing a production, it can be easy to forget about maintaining focus. You can end up with a lot of parts (“players”) that are competing for the spotlight (aka, First Base) in the production.
The result – and a potential kiss of death for potential uses – is that listeners aren’t able to maintain their attention, because they’re constantly trying to figure out which part in the production is supposed to take center stage. And if they can’t sort that out just listening to the audio recording, imagine how distracting the recording would be if they tried to use it as a cue in a film/TV scene!
So how do you fix the problem and minimize the confusion?
By asking yourself – from the very beginning, BEFORE you record a single part – “which part is going to be the focus at each point in the arrangement?”
At the beginning, it might be the drums, as they play a solo pattern to set up the intro. During the intro, it might be a lead guitar, which sets up the melodic “hook” that will appear later in the choruses. Starting with the first verse, it might be the lead vocal (or perhaps the melody instrument in a no-vocal production).
The key point is to map out – and KNOW – “who’s on first” at each point along the way. By doing so, you avoid “conflicts” or “collisions” of parts that are unknowingly pulling the attention of the listener in multiple directions at the same time.
Once you determine who’s going to be “on first” at any given point, it’s super-important to implement the production with that in mind, from start to finish.
When recording the song, that might mean you play a less “busy” part on guitar or piano once the vocal comes in. Or you might not ad-lib a vocal line in the middle of the piano solo, unless there’s some interaction between the two that’s called for there.
Or when mixing the song, you might even drop one or more parts out entirely at different points in the song (just because they’re there, it doesn’t mean you have to use them all the time!).
At a minimum, when one part is taking center stage, the rest of the parts need to stay out of its way, however that might be achieved. I like to use the phrase “either lay back or lay out” to describe what secondary parts should do to stay out of the way of whoever’s “on first.” Volume/level automation is your best friend (and tool) for making it happen seamlessly.
Players of Jazz, Bluegrass, and other heavily instrumentally-based music genres seem to know this intrinsically: when one player is moving up to the mic or taking a solo, it’s time to step back, quiet down, and play less, to assure that all attention is focused on them.
In case you’re wondering, the “who’s on first?” notion isn’t an absolute. It’s just a guideline — an approach — to structuring a production.
Sometimes, it’s actually the interaction of multiple parts, playing off each other, that’s most important at a given moment. Vocal duets come to mind. Or the interplay between two different solo instruments.
The point isn’t to make absolutely sure than one and only one part be the focus at every second; it’s to make sure you’re aware of what each part is doing, and the role it plays in the production. Then, let common sense be your guide.
I heard many examples of the “who’s on first?” issue in recordings at the Road Rally. Fortunately, with today’s mixing tools (and the fact that you can go back and change pretty much anything you want to at any time, as many times as you’d like) the problem can often be fixed at later points in the production process, even after parts have been over-played, sung too much, or occurred too often during recording.
If you’d like to know more about balancing parts and making sure your mixes get the attention they deserve, I address many topics like this in detail in my Fett’s Mixing Roadmap book, and my Mixing Mastery online self-study course. If you want to hit that “broadcast quality” mark every time, I encourage you to check them out.
In the meantime, I promise that if you focus more on “who’s on first?” in your productions, not only will they have much greater connection with end listeners, you might even enjoy them more as well!