Whatever kind of music you make, you should embrace inspiration from all sorts of creatives. While you might not make music that sounds like The Beatles or Prince, we guarantee there is plenty you could learn from these pioneering studio masters and apply to your own work. And what better time to stay at home and listen through some of the classics to pick up some tips. We’ve picked out a few lessons from each of these legends to help inspire you.
The main job for Prince’s engineer was to ensure that everything he needed to record was ready to go as soon as he arrived at the studio. He did not take kindly to things not being prepared exactly how he had specified, and demanded to be able to hit the ground running.
Make sure your gear and computer are well organised so that when you need to lay something down, you don’t risk that inspiration slipping through your fingers. Spend a couple of hours sorting out your sample library, labelling things correctly, deleting the stuff you don’t need, creating and saving sample patches and channel strips, and making sure any outboard gear is routed in a sensible way. Invest in equipment which can help you plug in and switch between different instruments with minimal fuss, such as sound cards with multiple inputs and patch bays.
Be prepared for inspiration
Prince famously had speakers and recording inputs installed in every room in his expansive Paisley Park mansion, meaning that whenever and wherever inspiration struck, he was ready to record. Again, minimising the time it takes between an idea appearing in your head and you laying down a rough sketch is absolutely key.
While an insane setup like Prince’s is obviously out of the question, we can still be prepared for when inspiration strikes. Be sure to record voice memos on your phone when melodies or phrases appear, or to make rough demo recordings. Use your phone notes to write down lyrics, or an app like Abbey Road’s Topline. And most of all, don’t wait: the sooner you can get that idea down, the better. If you wake up with something in your head like Keith Richards did with the riff for The Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfication’, save it on your phone immediately.
No man is an island
Prince was a true virtuoso, able to play drums, piano / keyboards and guitar. He would record a backing track and then overdub the vocals and other parts himself, and on his early albums there was little or no musical input from anyone else. His engineer would set the studio up to his requirements, and then leave him to it.
However, he opened himself up to collaboration when it was right. Prince enlisted orchestral arranger Clare Fischer to compose string sections for his tracks — something he didn’t have the ability to do — and brought talents like drummer Sheila E into his world after meeting them and recognising a kindred spirit and musical equal (or even better in some departments, by his own admission!). He also started working with his own hand-picked bands himself from ‘Purple Rain’ onwards after initially mainly using them for live performance only.
The lesson to learn here is that even if you’re one of the, if not the, most multi-faceted, singularly talented recording artists of all time, you can still benefit from the input, inspiration and cross-pollination of others. So even if you’re a very solitary musician or producer, step outside of your comfort zone and see what can happen if you join forces with others — either through the internet or in person.
Experiment for the sake of it
The Beatles were pioneers when it came to experimenting with new techniques in the studio. They embraced new technology and techniques while also finding novel ways of repurposing existing equipment and combining them. Among the techniques they and their studio team are credited with essentially inventing are flanging and rotor cabinet modulation, and they were also among the very first in pop music to incorporate sampling, direct input recording, backwards tapes, tape loops and close-micing in their work.
In the book ‘Complete Beatles Recording Sessions’, Paul McCartney is quoted as saying:
“We would say, ‘Try it. Just try it for us. If it sounds crappy, OK, we’ll lose it. But it might just sound good.”
This extended not only to technological advances and experiments, but with anything from recording drums in the corridor next to the studio to asking an orchestra to create a cacophonous improvisation without the use of sheet music. They were endlessly inventive and playful with their attitudes towards recording — in no small part helped by the fact that they weren’t being charged for studio time as their label EMI owned Abbey Road, the studio they recorded in.
If you are able to make music at home or in your own space, you also have the luxury of time to explore ideas. Anything goes. Challenge yourself to try one completely new technique a week. Like McCartney says, it might well be rubbish, but occasionally you’ll strike gold. Experimenting like this also has the bonus of being fun, and sometimes doing fun things can be a really useful exercise to bring a sense of lightness to what can often become a very stressful endeavour.
Sometimes we can lose touch with how much fun making music can be or was when we didn’t have the pressures to succeed and deliver.
Experimenting can help bring that feeling back.
In practice this could be anything from trying out new combinations of effects (remembering to save any great channel strips that you make in the process for easy recall later), sampling yourself performing live, linking together bits of outboard equipment that you have never combined, or making a percussive instrument out of a household item. The sky is the limit. Try any idea, no matter how weird or unlikely you think it is to produce a great result. At the very least, you should learn something in the process.
Don’t rest on your laurels
The group’s desire to experiment in all the ways we’ve just outlined stemmed from their quest to keep evolving and escape from the clean-cut, pop music factory direction of their early years.
“We were always pushing ahead: louder, further, longer, more, different“ McCartney says in the Complete Beatles Recording Sessions’ book.
It only took them a few years of recording and releasing brilliant but unchallenging straight-up pop music before they started to look further afield and want to create something more unusual which indulged their ever-growing range of influences. So, while they probably could have spent the whole of the Sixties churning out very decent but uncomplicated songs about love and playing to sold-out crowds around the world, they instead chose to stop playing live (no-one could hear them over the screaming fans anyway) and to fully indulge themselves in the magical world of Abbey Road.
This meant pushing the limits of their creativity, in the process alienating some fans but ultimately making music that stood the test of time and garnered huge critical acclaim. They were largely given the freedom to create whatever they wanted, without having to think only about making hit singles or tracks that would translate well to the live stage. And they kept trying different genres, different approaches to songwriting and different instruments. This meant that the sonic evolution in their eight years of releasing music was breathtakingly rapid and constantly developing.
Give yourself that freedom. Don’t constrain yourself too much. While restrictions can also be a useful creative tool, and while we would generally recommend trying to focus your sound when you’re on the come-up, don’t get stuck in a rut. Don’t just churn out the same old stuff all the time because it’s successful. Challenge yourself and your audience, developing your sound while keeping your essential DNA intact within it.
Embrace happy accidents
You’ve just hit the wrong key or clicked in the wrong place, or your DAW has done something weird. Before you hit ‘undo’, make sure you listen to what’s just happened. You must just find that the outcome is actually better than what you had originally intended. Sometimes it might just be the key to unlocking the potential of the track that you’ve been struggling with.
The Beatles were masters at spotting these happy accidents and embracing them, incorporating feedback ‘errors’ into tracks like ‘I Feel Fine’ and asking for a backwards tape section to be included on ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ after the engineer played something in reverse by mistake in the studio.
We recommend getting hold of any books you can about Prince and The Beatles in the studio. You’ll find endless inspiration in them and learn a lot about how these geniuses put together their amazing work. Soak up any music documentaries, books and podcasts you can that will help you learn from the best in the business… For many of us we have the time to do that right now, and is a surefire way to make sure you’re still learning and growing as a musician. Use this time to hone your craft in ways you didn’t think you had time for before.
Looking for more inspiration at the moment? Explore more articles about making music from home in our Creators United category, and join our Spinnup Community group on Facebook to link up with like minded musicians.