Working with a Production Team – Tips for Singers

Singer Mer Sal with Scott Kinsey and others working on the Album "Adjustments"
Singer-songwriter Mer Sal shares insights for singers on working with a producer.

(Feature Image: Mer Sal with keyboardist and producer Scott Kinsey, Walt Fowler (trumpet), Steve Tavaglione (sax) geared up to record “Time Out of Mind” from Adjustments)

Mer Sal is a vocalist, bassist and songwriter who has just collaborated with keyboardist and producer Scott Kinsey on her new Album “Adjustments”.  

Mer trained extensively in both musical theatre and performance, has shared the stage and studio with such musicians as Danielle Nicole, Jason Ricci, Samantha Fish, Tommy Castro, Southern Avenue, The Boogie Boys, Vixen, Alvino Bennett, and many others.  Mer also uses Singdaptive and says it “will change the singing world for the better” – see more about her career here. We asked her questions related to her most recent project, the album “Adjustments”:

What is a producer?

A producer is the person who MAKES the album.  They can be involved with it to varying degrees.  Some producers are orchestrators of connections – sometimes called executive producers – they put people together and you’re paying them to pay the other people and make executive decisions like approving the music after everything is listenable.  

Scott Kinsey is the kind of producer who is involved in every facet – from inviting the other musicians, to creating the tracks, to performing on it, to engineering the entire record himself, to mixing, and mastering.  He is involved entirely, and makes all the decisions for the production.  Now, sometimes someone like him is hired by an executive producer, who then, with the artist-client paying for the whole thing, goes on to involve himself and Scott and the client in mix choices, deciding between instrumental solos, mastering choices – that sort of thing. 

Tiny Circles – Mer Sal and Scott Kinsey feat. Scott Henderson, Andrea Ladanyi

Why would a singer who wants to record need to work with a producer?

You certainly don’t have to. And many people can’t afford a known great producer.  There are a LOT of great unknown producers and also self produced records.  But maybe first you need to go to school (Any school! Even learn online) and learn some engineering, shadow other producers, and buy the gear.  Or you can rent studios. And some universities have recording studios in which you can get some free experience.  You can record your own singing, with some amazing new tools, some of which I have.  But I would take it to a proper engineer to mix and master.  But when you’re ready to step up your game, hiring the right producer can be the difference between seeming amateur and something being over-the-top great.  But it always comes down to your ability and talent and how ready you are to sing on a record.  

Did you compose your music alone – and then bring it to a producer/other musicians?

Yes.  I wrote the lyrics and melody and some chords.  Scott made the tracks and changed my harmony. He’s a fantastic reharmonist and player.  The producer (and/or you) are responsible for finding and asking and getting players. Scott played his parts off the cuff, which is exceedingly rare outside of jazz.  He didn’t really have to think long, as he reharmonized stuff.  But he’s rare, and steeped in knowledge, like Joe Zawinul or Chick Corea. 

Once you composed your music – and practiced it – what were the steps involved to bring it through and to production?

Left to right: Jimmy Haslip, Mer Sal, Scott Kinsey.  Jimmy Haslip had introduced Mer Sal and Scott, two years prior, inviting both to work on the same session.  

I had my own studio, and gear so I could record myself.  Some of the vocals were sung to my own electric keyboard, an in-the-box click track, and a good mic. It’s a good idea to make sure that the click track audio is only in your ears (not audibly on the vocal track), as you might save and use the vocal track. We liked some of my vocals so much from the informal phase that we kept them. For instance, Tiny Circles was sung to an entirely different piano, played by me.  Which nobody will hear :) 

It’s always different though. Sometimes Scott would create a track , maybe a drone and I would use it to stay in tune and invent a melody.  That was probably the most fun for me.  Then he built a track around that.  He’s a genius keyboardist … you’ll sometimes have to hire another genius musician to do that, maybe not even the producer – you can always experiment. 

Any other tips for making your music come alive in production? 

To make the record more interesting, bring in interesting musicians.  And Scott sometimes gave them basic parts like the bass groove – basically just dictating where it comes in, what beats it’s emphasizing, and the bare bones.  The players decide the rest. And boy did we get some great creative results! That’s the real joy, it’s hearing what the other minds input.  

What is something you learned about production though this new experience?

I learned a method that I hadn’t used before, because I worked with this particular producer.  I would say every producer has a different approach and order of doing things.  

So many musicians are involved in your unique, genre-bending songs. How did you find these musicians?

Let me start by saying everyone involved is an amazing musician with a different mind and consciousness. The bass players, the guitarists, the horn players, percussionists, drummers, etc… everyone is a star at being themselves. They have their own take on virtuosity and nobody could sound the same.  Not to mention they were complete sweethearts.  Scott is an awesome human and he attracts wonderful friends.  I am so thankful! He has an uncanny ability to recognize undefinable talent and bring people together.  He has worked with mostly all of them in the past. Of course the more people who are involved in a project – the costlier it can become! 

How did you keep costs down?

First of all, 90% or more of this was recorded remotely during the pandemic.  That seems to cut down on travel and lodging fees for players, and that’s how top musicians have begun to work – by sending tracks – a lot like Singdaptive’s Exchangely.  :)

The impromptu living room setup at my parents’ where I sang parts for the album, Adjustments

Some of the guest appearances were favors to Scott because they’re his friends.  Others played for a small fee. Some of them are on his solo albums; they’re his band mates. We all want gigs out of this…. and tours. Scott does favors for his friends and they do favors for him.  Scott is the most fun musician in the world to play with.  Idk why they helped. But I am forever grateful. Scott is poised to win Grammys so that’s part of it. For instance Scott played and composed with the Bruner brothers on Thundercat’s recent Grammy win “It Is What It Is”, track one: “Great Scott”. It puts us all on the map and in the running for future Grammys. Scott is a huge name in fusion jazz music…So, for me it is amazing to be the collaborator on what is considered another of his solo albums in his catalog, and the first in mine. Purely artistically speaking, it is SO much fun, and for me, the highlight of my career.  And many or most of these guys are on most of his albums. They’re all pieces of his band, and he’s a piece in their bands. 

What are your tips on making the creative collaboration a positive experience?

Whoever you’re working with – you’re one of them.  Don’t freak yourself out and consider yourself less or better.  You’re a musician.  And consider that with your approach to singing. You definitely don’t have to sound like anyone else, and you shouldn’t. And keep your ears open for talented people in unusual places. And pay attention to who’s playing The Baked Potato or The Blue Note, or prominent clubs around the world. One doesn’t need to be rich in wealth to be rich in talent.  

What is one thing you learned about the technical process this time around?

I loved learning the DAW Digital Performer.  It is so complete and does anything I can imagine needing to do. And Scott understands it like it’s English. I learned gear and a setup that will allow me to control my live setup this time around. And I learned that it takes two years to make and produce and release and promote an album like this.  

You’re now distributing this album – what tips do you have for singers to draw attention to their original pieces?

Get on a label. An indie label, when it’s time. Get onto someone who distributes through a bigger conglomerate like The Orchard. The more available your music is, the more people can hear and talk about it. As for drawing attention- include a few covers – redo them in your style – because there is a market for your original adaptation of a known song.  

The album Adjustments is everywhere.  Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Tidal and so many more.  It’s available in Asia and Europe on their own platforms as well. Worldwide! To go to the master link hosted by our distributor The Orchard.

Mer Sal is an accomplished singer-songwriter — and a user of Singdaptive. You can find out more on her and her music at her website Mer Sal Sings

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