Chris Merrick Hughes: 5 things I’ve learned about music production

Having begun his career as a member of Adam & The Ants and gone on to produce Tears For Fears’ first two albums – co-writing megahit Everybody Wants To Rule The World along the way – Chris Merrick Hughes has an enviable musical and technical pedigree.

More recently, his work has taken a neo-classical turn, and his new album, Eirenic Life, which is released on 14 July and is his first in 23 years, takes inspiration from Erased Tapes artists such as Nils Frahm and Leaf.

We asked Chris to draw on his vast experience and consider five of the most important things he’s learned about the music production process, and he even managed to add a bonus (albeit brief) sixth pearl of wisdom.

1. Establish the ‘bubble’

“The ‘studio’ is a room or rooms full of recording equipment and musical instruments where (one hopes) music gets recorded.

“The ‘bubble’. however, is an environment a producer can establish, where an artist or artists in collaboration with (or guidance from) their producer and sometimes supporting engineers and technicians can feel safe to create, readily encourage others, fantasise and voice thoughts and ideas, however lofty or absurd, without embarrassment or fear of judgement or ridicule from anyone else. You should also be able to embrace the fear of failure, and be loud, proud and wrong if necessary.

“In my experience things going ‘wrong’ or ‘failing’ can often lead to great results. People who are not feeling safe enough, sometimes through no fault of their own, can often miss a golden opportunity to excel.

“For any artist or producer, it’s a great feeling entering the blameless bubble without inhibition, doubts, worries and fears getting in the way of great work. I believe it is essential, over a couple of encouraging conversations, to establish this bubble philosophy from the get-go.”

2. Value the artist and listen

“Get to know and understand who you are working with. Try and understand what they might need from you; how you can truly help.

“Establish what level of recording experience they have. The recording process can be complex; to a first-time band some of this might be daunting, but to an artist who has many albums or recording sessions under their belt this might be well understood and well practised. Listen to what an artist is saying, and don’t assume you know what their intentions are. Try and listen to as much of their previous music as possible. I guarantee there will be clues in there.”

3. Know what you’re doing and keep learning

“No one likes a bluffer - they’re easy to spot and unfortunately our industry is full of them. Long term, it’ll get you nowhere.

“I believe it is important to have a practical working knowledge of your own recording equipment, plugins, editing, and general mic’ing techniques, and a general understanding of most musical instruments and how they work or connect up.  

“You should also have an understanding of basic musical concepts - keys, chords, harmony, melody, tempo, rhythm, dynamics, etc. The list is endless and an endless domain for discovery.

“No one likes a bluffer - they’re easy to spot and unfortunately our industry is full of them. Long term, it’ll get you nowhere.

“But way more important is knowing what you don’t know. If someone brings a totally new or alien piece of equipment or a new methodology into the bubble, don’t be a victim of ‘not knowing’; it’s a golden opportunity to learn something. Discuss! It might be a good time to RTFM. Remember that the bubble is a place that you too can admit that you don’t know something.”

4. Know when something is finished: endgame

“Recognise when a piece of work has been rushed or possibly underdeveloped, a trick has been missed, or an opportunity for something remarkable to be created has been somehow overlooked. To miss the potential in someone or something is a great shame.

“Recognise when a piece of work has been overworked or possibly overdeveloped, and the spirit or heart of the piece is now fading. For me, it is never a crime to revisit or start again if necessary. Having said that, it’s not always easy, but try and know when something is (probably) finished.

“A lot of work can suffer from indecision during the endgame, from final overdubs through mixing to final master. If you’re not sure, take it out of the studio and listen on different systems. Ask a trusted colleague or friend not associated with the project for some objectivity, but don’t sit in indecision.”

5. Keep business out of the studio

“As I have already mentioned, the studio is the place to feel creative and to openly discuss ideas and methods, how people feel things are going, what has yet to be achieved, what aspects may need further work and whether the ambitions, dreams and aspirations are being met. It’s also the very place to capture priceless and timeless uninhibited performances.

“Business, on the other hand, although often rewarding, can be very toxic. If you want to see a recording session fall apart quicker than certain recent political administrations, just allow a conversation about ‘publishing splits’ to continue for a while. Leave business at the office.”

6. Enjoy what you do