Center Stage With David Norris - Part 1

David Norris of Norrisong Productions has produced some of the brightest young talent in Nashville. He is also an extremely gifted songwriter, with a laundry list of awards and cuts to his name. Despite these accomplishments he remains a friendly, approachable guy who immediately makes you feel like an old friend. He is a walking Who’s Who of the songwriting world, and his enthusiasm for music is infectious.

When David agreed to speak with me about his role as producer and songwriter, I was excited about the interview. I had no idea that he was about to uncork what might be the most insightful look into the world of music production that I’ve ever received. So fasten your seat belts kids, and settle in for a long ride, ‘cause you’re about to get smacked upside the head with some serious knowledge!

Describe what you do…in 20 words or less.
I produce albums for a living as well as write songs with the intention of having them recorded by mainstream artists and artists I work with.

Tell us about some of your current projects, and a few of the past projects you are the most proud of.
As of right now, I’m in the midst of producing three separate artists, all from different musical backgrounds. Cool thing is, I respect all of them greatly and feel their musical directions deeply. Ranging from old school Rock/Americana (Stacey Blood) to straight up rowdy southern style Southern fried country rock (Nick Nicholson) to Alt/Country (Vickie Raye). They all have their own sound and set of convictions.

As far as saying what my favorites, that’s hard….I couldn’t do it. That’s like asking me which one of my kids I like better or something. But I am very pleased with the three I mentioned as well as several others. Jennifer Lynn was a really strong project. Kristi Warner’s album kicked butt, and I really enjoyed working with Mark Smith. He was just left of center and we co-wrote a ton of songs for the album. So in a nutshell, I just enjoy what I do and am blessed to work with such cool and talented individuals.

From a monetary standpoint, I guess I would be lying if I didn’t say that one of my favorite gigs was composing music for Midway, a video game company in southern California. My wife would probably say the same. Not so much the music, but the fact that she could stay home and raise the kids and not have to worry about bills. Haha

What is a producer’s job?
Wow, this is probably going to get a little lengthy, as most people may think that it’s only about being a creative coach. But in all reality, producing an album is the most responsible role of any recording session. It takes an amazing amount of organizational skills to do it right. It entails having a fine creative detail from beginning to end. Starting with finding great songs that are cohesive with one another (if the artist isn’t a writer), to helping an artist/songwriter choose the material that fits together like a puzzle to create a theme and a musical roller coaster ride for the listening audience.
Knowing the balance between tempos, to understanding the sweet spot for the vocalists range is another key element before ever hitting the studio. Once all of that is in order, a good producer will understand the nature of the project and cast the session players and engineers accordingly. Understanding the dynamic of each individual player’s strengths and weaknesses is vital in predicting the outcome of a session. (i.e…whether a drummer is known for playing behind the beat and bluesy or if he plays on top of the beat and more pop laden, then casting the right “in the pocket” bass player for that drummer) and the list goes on.

There is also an educated decision in a professional production that requires mapping out the actual instrumentation. What instruments are going to go on what songs? With this in mind, you have to factor in what is known as cartage. Cartage is the rental and set up and tuning of gear prior to the session. Most studios have many instruments, but you need to know the ins & the outs of the studio you are tracking in to make sure you are taken care of in that department. Hiring a professional piano tuner as well before the session is a common thing many people may forget and can’t ever take back once it’s been recorded.

Communication is another must for any producer. He must be able to relay his ideas efficiently to the band before tracking, and possibly after tracking if there will be another take or full a band punch somewhere in the song where you may be dissatisfied. In Nashville, we use the number charting system to communicate the arrangement and direction of a song. It’s a wonderful method of working, especially when it comes to transposing on the fly.

The list goes on and and on…..making sure the recording levels are right, making sure the headphone mix is inspiring, making sure the vocalist realizes that during tracking, it’s only a scratch track, and that if he makes a mistake, to just find another good entrance point and resume. Stopping the band kills the mojo. So it’s imperative in a high dollar studio that artist is fully aware of that. After tracking is wrapped up and the band is paid, strong rough mixes are worked on to get everything in a real close vicinity. The better the mix, the more inspired the vocalist becomes.

Next step is tracking the vocals. This is where the producer shines in the artist’s eyes. He is the captain of the ship & the hard scrutiny of the main focal point of any song. He is a phrase Nazi if you will. He is dedicated to bringing out the artist in the singer. Delivery, strong diction, melodic phrasing, pitch, hard consonants, microphone placement & proximity, and last but not least, being a psychologist. Understanding when the vocalist has had enough, breaking them free from frustration, encouraging them to set their own bar, etc. The vocals are a tedious process, and it’s up to the producer to make it lively, upbeat, and fun to press on. Once this is completed and everyone is happy, the producer will analyze the tracks and see if there may be any graphical tuning that is needed to make a great performance a flawless one. Then it’s off to the races with background vocals. This is yet another tedious step in the making of a great sounding album. During this process, as well as many of the other steps explained earlier, the producer has to have a great creative flow and a strong ear for pitch, phrasing, tightness, and warmth. Background vocals can make or break an already great sounding album, so it’s up to the producer to really handle this element with kid gloves.

Once all the vocals are completed, it’s then onto mixing. Normally any producer is well versed in many facets of the entire recording process (i.e. plays multiple instruments, vocals, composition, arrangements, etc.), and this is no exception. A great producer knows what he wants and how to achieve it. But even being knowledgeable in sonic fidelity, a producer’s job is to see it through at its finest, and will find it very useful have an engineer that he can trust to turn knobs while he makes his decisions. This is one the most critical steps in any album project and must be taken very seriously. Everything you worked so hard to achieve up to now is hinging on the mix. By now, the producer knows the tracks inside and out and can communicate what to ride and what to audition. Once all of the tracks are panned, processed, and in their vicinity, track automation is the next step to polishing it up. Making sure that all instruments are dynamic and level with one another and that every word is understood without looking at a lyric sheet. Then it’s off to the mastering house. Mastering will give your already stellar sounding mix the final sheen and make it competitive for the radio in loudness and clarity as well as tagging the audio, spacing between tracks, and preparing it for the duplication house.

The producer’s job is mainly to see the entire recording process through, but artwork is another key factor to the presentation. Normally before the recording session even begins, the conceptual ideas are already in the works. Professional photographers will have already taken pictures and graphic artists will have already been hired to give samples during pre-production meetings. If all goes well, the artwork and the final master will be complete at approximately the same time.

So now you see, producing an album is a little more involved than just saying “hey, can you make it sound a little more like George Strait?”

You see? I wasn't kidding! Stay tuned for Part 2 of my interview with David Norris, in which he actually answers more than three questions!

To dig David, peep his productions, and meet his music, go to:

Norrisong Productions website
Norrisong Production Myspace page


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