Hi, Doctor Nick! - Tips for Working with Vocalists and the Audience Adds to Some of the Doctor's Past Advice

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We're not ashamed to say it. We love Nick Hook. And not just because he's funny or cool or knows lots of rad DJs and producers (although all those things are true). It's because he genuinely wants to help. He's been around the music game for a while, has picked up a lot of wisdom along the way, and is truly happy to pass along the knowledge he's accumulated. That's certainly what happens here every Thursday morning, when the good doctor answers questions from our readers about music, DJing, travel, production, gear, romance, and more. Hit him up doctornick@xlr8r.com. He just might help you too.

Hey y'all.

Hope all is well. It's hard to believe that May is already halfway over.

I've been hiding out since Term One of RBMA ended. I'm just trying to learn some new stuff over here.

It took a second but I've decided to share a couple of great emails I got from folks regarding some of my past answers, which leads me to say that I fully encourage any and all feedback to this column. It's amazing to actually share knowledge that I've been fortunate enough to gain by being around so many things, but by all means, please send any pertinent information back. I love to read it and it's great for this to be an interactive thing.

Ian from Bonjay responded to what I said about the importance of music theory:

If you're serious about learning theory, I HIGHLY recommend a book called How Music Really Works. I forget how I discovered it. It's by a weird old guy in Calgary, Alberta who spent the last 40 years of his life studying popular music in all its forms. What's unique about it is he has equal respect for everything from Woody Guthrie to Sly Stone to Big Pun. It's the only resource I've ever come across that doesn't privilege any particular approach—it simply gets at the fundamentals of writing well-arranged, captivating music in any genre. It's perfect for DJs and other people who have amazing taste and ideas, but find it challenging to make songs go where they want to.

You can read the first six chapters for free online. It's really stepped up the work of everyone I know who's dug into it, myself included. It opens the window into whatever you want to learn further. And don't let the horrible artwork and Geocities website and corny sense of humor throw you off. I kind of like it—it helps ward off douchebags.

Jeremy Neoteric wanted to add to my thoughts on earplugs:

I read the column today and wanted to add in something I've learned over the years. After losing three pairs of custom-fitted earplugs due to various reasons, most of them involving the drink and a hectic night, I did some research and found these. Buy three pairs for $10 each and you're SET! They are cheap enough to lose, but quality enough to keep the music sounding great and to make conversation possible in the club. They also come with a great case. I highly recommend them to any and all people spending too much time around loud music. They're way better than the foam!

Next thing—the questions have been really good lately, but I was thinking that more details would always help. Tell me where you're from, your age, etc. It might help me provide a better response. If you don't want to tell me all that stuff, that's cool too. doctornick@xlr8r.com.


I got some shows coming up, so fuck it—I'm going to post them. I'm also going to post my shit. Vin Sol, Matrixxman, and I just dropped a new video, so you should watch that.

May 21: NYC - RBMA w/ Brenmar, Sinjin Hawke
May 23: Philly
May 27: Detroit - Movement Festival
May 31: Brooklyn - Music Hall of Williamsburg w/ Gaslamp Killer
June 15: Barcelona - Sónar

Aiiiiite. Let's answer one question before I get back to work.

Hi Doctor Nick,
I am a music producer, but I'm more of a sit behind a computer in Logic or Ableton kind of guy. Recently a vocalist got in touch with me to meet up and possibly do some work together. Her management also got in touch, and are keen to get something moving. So I met up and she's got some good ideas, but her background is from a rock/band background and is used to playing guitars and jamming with drummers and others to come up with song ideas.

She wants to move into becoming an electronic artist and is asking me to produce for her. This is all great, and I'm excited about working on a new project with a talented vocalist. We met up recently and she wanted to come by the studio, but I had nothing prepared. I just wanted to show her the space I work in, and played her some new stuff I'm working on. She wants to start writing new stuff straight away, but I think we've found that writing songs moves a lot slower in electronic production than she is used to in a band environment.

Got any tips for how I can keep her a little more engaged when she's in the studio? Or any advice you've got for working with a vocalist/songwriter?

This is a great thing because diversifying and working with more people can lead to new opportunities, both financially and creatively.

I think the most understated, but most obvious advice is get to know who you work with. Find out what influences them—music, life, fashion, photos. What makes them feel things? What are their fears? What are they great at? What sounds make them feel good/bad? More importantly, find out how to use all those things to eventually make a great product. Whenever I work with someone new, I make them send me a folder of things that "made them them." Some people love square waves, some people love sawtooth. Finding all that out quickly will lead to good results and combat the "slowness" of laptop music.

Beyond being a music maker or a producer, which is the easy part, the hardest job in all of this is making someone feel 100% comfortable around you when you are tracking. If they forget you are there and go outside of themselves, then you are doing your job. Singing is hard because it's the ultimate vulnerability. We know that if we hit a C on a keyboard, it's gonna make a C sound. Singers don't. Their trust in you is going to lead to better takes and more experimentation. Be encouraging and very aware of how you speak to people. "You can do it better" sounds better than "I didn't like that," or try "I liked this part, but I think you could do that part better." Remember, we are leading someone to water, and them believing they can do it is the first part of the battle.

Also, NEVER look at people while they are recording.

Have her bring her guitar. If she can have a musical utensil that helps her communicate, it will help everyone. She can explain what she means and you can move it to synths, or you could just record guitar in and make it fit in the mix. To me, the human element will always help music stand out. Ableton's new audio-to-MIDI function is really cool as well. Have you tried that?

Take your time. One of the things about this process of music, especially if you are heavily reliant on the computer, is that it DOES take time. Don't be afraid of that. I am a heavy proponent of trying to create projects from scratch with the person you are working with. It will very much reflect the energy you guys are creating together versus a track where you're just bringing beats in and she's singing over them. I hate that.

Another thing—unless it's obvious from the second you meet, don't try and fuck the girl you are working with and make that clear. Your job as a producer is to be the ultimate teammate, and if a girl thinks you are trying to fuck her, or slow play it out to ultimately do that, it's gonna be bad. I could elaborate on this, but just clear that air. Every creative beautiful girl has seen every trick in the book from dudes trying to get in her pants.

That's pretty much it. The main thing is HAVE FUN. If you guys are sucking and it's not coming, go get a margarita or listen to some music together. As long as you are building a dynamic, it'll all come.

Cool. I'm going to get back to learning some shit… and playing guitar.


Hi, Doctor Nick! appears every Thursday on XLR8R. Do you have a question for Doctor Nick? Please submit your inquires to doctornick@xlr8r.com. Nick Hook can help you.