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Cory Wong’s 5 golden rules for producing other artists

Cory Wong
(Image credit: Galen Higgins)

We’re not saying that Cory Wong definitely is the hardest-working man in music, but if there was a job going with that title, he might consider applying.

As well as releasing several of his own albums over the past few years, he’s also toured extensively, performed and recorded with Vulfpeck, and showed up on numerous other artists’ records as a guest.

But it doesn’t end there; the Minneapolis-based guitarist, whose helicopter hands have helped to redefine what it means to be a 21st-century rhythm player, is also a producer - not only of his own records, but also for other artists.

This week sees the release of the Wong-produced It’s Ok To Cry, the new album from UK singer-songwriter Phoebe Katis, who’s guested on several of Cory’s tracks in the past and spent more than three years touring with him. The two obviously have a good working relationship, but we wanted to find out how things changed when the dynamic became one of ‘artist and producer’.

“Phoebe's album was really fun to produce because we had worked out quite a bit of pre-production ahead of time remotely,” says Wong. “We worked on song arrangements and had a pretty strong idea and plan of what we were looking for before going into the studio, but also left room for some creative energy to happen in the moment.

Phoebe Katis It's Ok To Cry

(Image credit: Phoebe Katis)

“One of the things that was really important to Phoebe was to capture the takes live in the room so we could get it on video. It's not an easy task if people are fishing for parts and ideas, but with intentionality and a strong concept, we were able to go in and play in a really comfortable way.

“Phoebe's album has two different types of songs on it - pop songs and ballads. I wanted to treat each of them with their own identity, but make sure that they fitted together as a whole in the album. Of course, Phoebe's voice and the sounds that we used would be present in each tune, but there were specific choices in arrangement decisions that we made to give them a cohesive feel.”

So, what are Cory Wong’s golden rules when it comes to producing for other artists?

“The tips that I'm talking about [below] are my go-to things that I think should be foundational and in some ways the 101 of producing. The musicians on the album were all session veterans, so it wasn't a hard thing to combat other than reminding ourselves of those things. 

“As good as you might be or think you are as a producer, it's really, really important to make sure that the team of musicians and engineers all have the same understanding, vision, and focus for the job at hand. It was a real pleasure to work on this record with such a great artist and team around us.”

Cory Wong’s 5 golden rules for producing other artists

1. Think about the big picture

“How are the parts all fitting together and supporting the focus? If it’s an album with a vocalist, everything you play needs to play a supportive or supplemental role to the vocal - nothing should take away from it.

“Also, if it’s instrumental music, just because it’s instrumental does not give you licence to just jam behind the focal instrument. The same rules apply to the lead instrument as the lead vocalist.”

2. Always support and think about the artist

“Think about how every song and every part fits within the whole of the album, and how the album fits within their career, where they’ve been and where they’re going. Don’t get lost in it; do what feels right in the present moment, while being aware of the past and future.”

3. Pay attention to nuance

“Does the end of the chorus have a hit on the ‘&’ of 4? Is everyone nailing that? Or are some people disregarding it? Are there clashes in the voicings between the guitar player and keyboard player? Is the low-end muddy because there’s too many people playing in the low register?

“Often times we’re working for long days and nights. As the mental and physical energy drains, people tend to get lazy with checking their tuning between songs or with the accuracy of their rhythm - keep everyone honest.”

4. Reference, reference, reference

“Are there specific albums that the artist you’re working for really likes? Pay attention to the things that perk their ears or make them smile. It can be anything; grooves, tones, instrumentation, harmonies, interesting chord progressions, unison lines, etc.

“Also, when it comes to the mixing phase, don’t give up. Your job is not over! Make sure you’re listening through and critiquing every mix along with the artist so you know that all the intended parts are heard. Reference them to other songs so you can hear if there’s more low-end than the average song, or how the vocal/lead is sitting in the mix.”

5. Remember whose album it is

“Remember that, at the end of the day, you’re being hired by the artist to do a job. They’ve hired you because of your particular set of skills and your taste. The album will, of course, sound like the artist, but your taste and choices will influence the album greatly. Don’t think that it’s your album; it’s theirs - serve them well.” 

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