A Week In The Life Of… A Freelance Music Producer & Session Musician, Benjamin McCarthy

Benjamin McCarthy

Benjamin McCarthy is a music producer (and a musician himself), whose clients have artists like Gordi and Thelma Plum. Below, Ben takes us on a journey through his week, in which he works on recordings for Kate Miller-Heidke‘s side project, reinvents his keyboard technique, and finds a session vocalist who sounds like an 80s dream.

Job Description
I’m a music producer in a freelance role. Often times a producer can be attached to a particular studio, or to a specific organisation such as a music publisher or record label; however in my case I’m approached by a wide range of people looking to work with me.

These days, the meaning of the word ‘producer’ has changed quite a bit – now it can mean simply someone who programs beats under more urban styles of music. My role is more of the traditional producer, in that I give an overall outsider’s opinion of an artist’s music for a specific project, where I think it should go, how to get it that way, and handling logistics for all of the above. In my case this can involve playing a number of instruments (if needed), recording and then mixing the project, after pre-production sessions with the band/artists in rehearsal rooms, or (more commonly with solo acts) a close listen to quick and rough demos.

I’ve spent many years also as a session musician, and a touring band member.

Day One
Still scraping mud off my shoes after playing for Washington at Splendour the week before.

At any given moment, there are a few things I have on the go. This week the main things I’m looking at are producing Kate Miller-Heidke’s odd electronic side project, Fatty Gets A Stylist, and wrapping up some last minute work on the latest single by Gordi, ‘So Here We Are’.

Kate’s songwriting partner/husband, Keir Nuttal, is heavily involved in the Fatty project, and what I’ve been doing previously is getting demos from him of the new songs he’s written for it. I’ve already had my first listens to the tracks, a very important point for me as I’m obsessed with my first impressions of everything – I like to work as fast as I can think! I’ve picked the songs I like the most, and come back to him with bullet point lists outlining my ideas (in my hopefully expert opinion) about what needs be cut/edited/added to these. Staggeringly talented writer.

This week he’s come back with exported multi tracks for me from Ableton of the work he’s done on his own. I added them to ProTools sessions in prep for tweaking what he’s done to fit my own ideas, and set about cutting, slicing, shifting, playing and programming.

Day Two
For some reason, I’ve decided I’d like to hear a lot of different lead vocalists singing each track, even within the same song. The basic list of needed voices: along with various well known guest singers we’ll need an East Londoner, Kate’s normal voice, Kate’s weird pretend alt voice, a lower, darker female voice, an 80s hair metal screamer, and someone singing in Japanese.

I flew to Brisbane to track the Londoner, the screamer and the Japanese guy that Keir knows.

We did it on the cheap at his parents’ place – as long as you have a great mic, good mic pre’s and a good converter, it’s easy to shift locale. This is always a tense moment for me, because the ideas I’ve been madly pushing finally get out of my head and are laid bare for the client. Works okay. Bit of work to get things rolling, and a lot of music direction to get an old English stage tech sounding like half a musician!

The 80s guy is phenomenal. Axl mixed with the Steves, Tyler and Perry.

Day Three
More vocals, with Keir’s Japanese friend. He’s written a song about otaku games addicts, and we’ve gotten this guy to translate the verses into Japanese. His delivery is just perfect, a little shy but with awesome fun behind it.

Having a strong background as a musician can be invaluable as a producer – it’s an artistic role, and tracking people who are not really used to being in front of a mic means you really need to be very specific about what you’d like to change, or they can get a bit flustered. Sometimes you need to be able to pinpoint what factors are derailing the creative process at that moment and suggest simple solutions, as opposed to generalisations.

Dinner with Kate and Keir, reminiscing about years of starvation in share housing ’round Paddington.

Day Four
Back in Melbourne. Gordi has a EP being released this month (which I produced), and to coincide with that is the release of the latest single. We finished recording that a few months ago, and her manager has sent me the mastered song (done at 301). Even though the song is basically in the can, he’s mentioned that there’s been a feeling the second verse doesn’t have enough development and could use a last minute thing.

Development (to me) means how repeated sections offer something new to keep the track growing. With the benefit of a month or two away from the song, I think I can hear what’s being discussed – there’s a ‘hole’ in the second half of that verse, and so I sit down to see if I can get a small thing together that can be easily inserted at mastering.

It’s rare to do this so late in the process, but not unheard of. I pull up the stereo mix in ProTools, see what things my ear wants to hear (weird, but trust me on this), improv a ton of ideas and start culling/combining. A lot of creative situations come down to something akin to problem solving, and in this case it was to come up with an idea that was tiny, but powerful, that could be dealt with simply at mastering, and that kept the shape of the arrangement and mix – can’t get too big, or you’ll diminish the impact of the chorus getting big and wide. Arranging 101!

I used a Juno 106 and a bunch of synths off my iPad, getting a digital signal from it as opposed to an analog out of the headphone – loving this method lately, very innovative ideas in that world.

Email off about ten small mp3s for Gordi to choose from…

Day Five
While waiting for feedback, I’m back to working on the Fatty stuff. I always mix at home, as I offer unlimited revisions as part of what I do – much easier to keep working till it’s just what the client is after, plus I’m just as eager to mold things till I’m excited. I’m combining a ‘what about these changes’ and ‘what about this mix’ approach; time is pressing on this project and we’ve got a million ridiculous ideas to get through. I finished an edit/rearrangement/mix of ‘One In A Million’, and then simply waited. Always wait till the morning after you’ve finished to send something off, my old gran used to say!

I write my notes about what I’ve done to send along with the mix. I explain why I’ve added or cut things here or there, what the artistic thinking was behind it. The client always has the last word on everything, so all I can do is offer an opinion, give solid reasons for it, and see what they say. If they come back with something different, I take it as a fantastic creative challenge to put myself in their headspace and exceed their expectations – just about all ‘flaws’ can be turned around into ‘features’ if you get the context right….

In between all this, I’ve gotten it into my head that I need to completely reinvent my keyboard technique, so in typical ADHD fashion, I’ve got a classical text about piano playing open next to me, and refresh my ears with exercises every 20 minutes or so.

Day Six
Gordi’s picked an idea she’s into, and I’m prepping it ready for mastering. As I say, it’s uncommon to make changes to the arrangement actually at mastering, so I’m trying to keep the mastering engineer’s workload to an absolute minimum so he won’t hate me too much. On an entirely separate track from the final mix of ‘So Here We Are’, I’ve gotten the new idea’s level right, the stereo width tamed to let the chorus get even bigger, the placement in sync with the original track, and the top end rolled off to keep out of the way of the ‘air’ on her exquisite vocals. Now it’ll just involve playing the original mixed track along with the new idea, and all will be sweet as a nut, cuz.

Didn’t take long, back to Fatty. Producing this kind of project has a ton of simple editing, in the same fashion as a literary editor – find the good stuff and make it the central idea. I’m listening to more of Keir’s demos and waiting to hear what my ear says – if you just shut up and listen to it, you’ll get just about every decision made for you. I’m shuffling sections around, slightly adjusting beats, adding big synths, removing big synths, loving some existing ‘rough’ playing, while getting a workable mix together at the same time to see if some ideas will work simply after they’ve been a bit buffed up; sometimes if you put something in a ‘pro’ context it makes a lot more sense.

Back and forths with Kate and Keir, seeing if I’m getting their vision right, and if my suggestions are on the money or not.

Day Seven
Lists making day – such a large project, it’s time to see where we’re at and who needs to be asked to do what. I’m really reminding myself not to start mixing properly till all the ideas are basically finalized; it’s a great way to draw a line under everything and start with (hopefully) fresh ears.

I’m realising more and more that there’s nothing more powerful to the creative process than a deadline – sometimes ‘fly, be free’ is good, but more often pressure from outside makes your creative head push a really effective idea to the fore out of necessity.

And there’s nothing like a list to avoid procrastination, much easier to tick off items than wonder where the hell you’re going to start – and give up because it’s all too big!

Not a feeling in the world as good as having something right in front of you in the real world that you’d only imagined up till then. Such a punt having these odd vocalists – but it sounds great, like nothing we’d ever heard before!

All very exciting to be in the creative industries, however when you’re suddenly faced with the responsibility of coming up with an awesome, ‘sellable’ idea that you’re getting paid for, the pressure comes on!

Words of Wisdom
Never wait for some kind of ‘yes’ from the gatekeepers – just ignore people like me. Never think you can’t move anywhere without going down the established path, go around rather than through when it doesn’t seem to be moving forward.

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