Feeding Back

Improving your tracks by soliciting critique

This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!

Normally in the audio world we try to eliminate feedback.  Nobody wants that high-pitched caterwauling ruining an otherwise perfect performance.  That may also be how you feel about listening to someone’s opinion about your music, but the truth is outside opinions can be incredibly helpful.

Even if your goal isn’t a wildly successful professional career, getting an outside opinion or five can help you see what you’re missing in a way that time away from a track cannot.  If you’re willing to take on the challenge, you can use these other opinions to dramatically improve your work.  Just like a writer rarely submits a first draft to a publisher, a great song is hardly ever the first version.  In fact, most great productions go through multiple iterations and some final versions are barely recognizable as the same song as version one.

That all said, there’s an art to soliciting feedback and using it wisely to improve a track.  But done right, the circle of feedback, revision, feedback, revision is one of the most powerful tools at our disposal in the never-ending quest to sound better.

An Ever-Widening Circle

The first question that’ll come up when you’re ready to get critique is who to ask.  Sure, you can ask just about anyone and if you know how to listen, every opinion will have value.  But in practice you’ll probably want to strategize, both for time’s sake and for your own sanity.  A good plan of action employed by many is the ever-widening circle approach.

The Inner Sanctum

Start with your closest and most trusted associates; the people who already believe in you, think you’re great, and you feel safe showing bad work to.  This group may be the four or five members of your band, it may be the 2 collaborators on a long-distance project, or it may be your mother and your girlfriend.

This is the group you can show sketches to, to start to get an idea if a song is even worth your time to produce.  This group is also well situated to feedback on multiple versions of a song and help as the song grows from an itty-bitty baby mp3 demo into a full-fledged mix.  It’s helpful if one of this inner circle is an expert, but it’s equally helpful if at least one is not.  Most important, they should understand you and your goals, and they should feel safe to be honest.  This should not be a group that will say everything you do is great.  That’s not helpful.  They should, rather, know how great you CAN be, and hold you to that standard.

First Steps Into The World

Once your track starts to grow legs, you should start widening your circle.  Seek out trusted industry contacts, other musicians and strangers who aren’t the general public.  A good place to find new people at this stage are Facebook groups meant for production feedback.  It’s helpful to be part of a few semi-private industry groups like MixMe where people bounce ideas and learn from each other.

The key at this stage is to present as finished a mix as you can, and then be willing to go back and change it.  Luckily, these are not the days of 12-hour analog mix sessions that can never be recreated.  Do a “save as” and create a new DAW file so you can implement changes without losing the older versions.  If you ARE working in an all analog environment, you may consider having more people involved earlier in the process, and more people in the building when you mix.

It can be a hard pill to swallow to work hard on getting something to “finished” and then soliciting feedback, but once you start to involve strangers you want to put your best foot forward.

At this point, you’re still probably looking for general feedback, but you may start focusing down, maybe by seeking feedback from mix engineers on the mix, and songwriting experts on the song writing.  Make sure to take notes on everything you hear good and bad, and don’t put your own filter on.  If possible, try to implement every piece of feedback you get unless two people directly contradict each other.  In that case, you’re the boss so use your veto power.

Going Semi-Public

Once you’ve solicited feedback from some fellow producers and extra friends and done a few more iterations, you’re probably feeling confident about the track.  Now’s the time to get a little more public, and you can do this in a number of ways.

You could share the track on social media and wait for feedback.  If you do it this way, it’s unlikely anyone will say anything bad to you, but you’ll be able to gauge how well the track is moving people by how extreme their responses are.  If you get 3 comments on a Facebook post that say “neat.  Great track, man,” that’s not a great response.  It means people are being polite.  If you get 43 comments that say “holy CRAP I love this SOOOOO much where can I download it PLEASE?” that’s a great response.

That’s a decent way to go about it, but in truth, it’s hard to get people to listen to songs on social media (a subject for a whole other article).  If you’re really looking to test the track’s mettle, you may start reaching out to gatekeepers or professionals whose job is to critique songs.  If you’re a Taxi member you can submit for feedback or find a listing to submit to and see what the screener says about the track.  If the track gets accepted great, but you don’t really care yet, you’re just looking for feedback.

Another option is to submit your track to a service like Audiu, AudioKite (now a part of ReverbNation) or Fluence and read the reports.  The feedback may or may not be specific enough for you, and your skin needs to be thick at this point, but the powerful part is these are not people that are trying to please you, and they’re anonymous. 

At this point, it may be even harder than before to want to change things, because you’ll have worked hard, but if you’re willing, you can make your track just that much better.  Just beware of one thing:  context is decisive.  That means that inside the context of you seeking “coaching”, you will probably never impress these people.  Their job is to look for what’s wrong, so simply use what they say to polish up the track, and leave the accolades to your fans.

The Art Of Solicitation

Once you have an idea about who to ask, how do you ask?  As is usual in any business interaction, the first rule is be civil, polite and humble.  Be specific about what you need feedback on, and never ever answer back.  When receiving feedback, especially face to face, it’s never helpful to defend a decision.  This leaves people feeling unsafe to really open up, which will leave you in the dark about what they really think.  Instead, simply nod, write down the note, and say thank you.

If you’re simply looking for people’s first responses, then you can simply ask “what do you think of this”, but as you move forward, you’ll probably have specific questions, like whether the mix is translating or if the lyrics seem trite.  It’s good to let people know if the mix is just a rough and you’re looking for songwriting, or if the arrangement is set in stone, and you’re just looking for opinions on the bass.  Whatever it is, being specific helps people narrow in on what you need and saves time and energy.

That said, it can be quite telling to NOT mention a particular problem you’re worried about.  See if people notice it without you mentioning it.  That’s a tell tale sign that your instinct was right and you need a change.

Of course, if you’re asking other musicians for feedback, be sure to be willing to help them on their tracks too!  On most Facebook groups, the common etiquette is to feedback on other people’s work for a while before making your ask.  People will be more familiar with you and feel more comfortable helping you.

Above all, be great with people, and receive all criticism with gratitude.

Giving Feedback

Since you’ll be reciprocating by helping people, you may want to think about how to give feedback in a way that creates a good relationship while still actually helping your fellow musicians grow.

The same basic rules apply.  Be kind and courteous, and treat people with respect, even if they are brand new.  Never pan work outright, and never criticize the person.  A good rule of thumb when giving feedback is to assume everyone is a professional who knows what they’re doing.  This means only providing feedback when asked, sticking to what’s asked for, and never talking down to people, even if they’re way newer than you.

You also don’t want to blow smoke.  Just as with your work, it’s patronizing and unhelpful to simply say “yeah!  Great stuff!” unless your mind is so blown that you can find nothing to improve.  In that case, you will probably come up with something more anyway.  By the same token, focusing entirely on a plethora of mistakes can be damaging and equally unhelpful.

So a good method to use is what management technique calls “the sandwich method”.  This method is normally used to surreptitiously give negative feedback to employees, but when critiquing music can be the perfect approach.  It goes like this:  start with something positive, lead to something that could be improved, and end with something positive.

The key to the sandwich method NOT being disingenuous and manipulating is to really MEAN the positive parts.  Find something that you truly like or love about the song, and lead with that.  From there, move into the thing that you noticed that you think could be improved.  Be specific, and offer an idea for something else to do.  Then end with more positivity.  That could be “great work!” or “can’t wait to hear the next version”, or even another specific thing.

For example, maybe your friend Joe asks you for general feedback on a song and the first thing you notice is a very muddy low end.  Since that’s the first thing you noticed, you should listen again, and look for what you like.  On second listen, you notice how great the songwriting is.  So your feedback might go something like:

“Hey Joe!  Wow this song is so well written.  Amazing lyrics!  I’m hearing some mud in the low end which obscures a couple lyrics, so I might try to carve out some 100hz in the bass and kick drum, and maybe look for other cuts in some of the ‘mud’ frequencies like 200 and 400-500hz.  I’d love to hear it at that point.  Really digging this one, can’t wait for the finished master!”

The best part about establishing this method of feedback is that if you boost people up while still actually helping them improve, they’ll do the same for you!

Go Around Again

Once you’ve got some good critique and a bunch of notes, obviously you’ll want to implement it.  You’ll probably want to save a new DAW session file, and you may even want to make a couple of different versions at this point.  Perhaps you’re not decided between one person’s idea that you make a song longer and another that you make it shorter.  You can do a couple of versions and let them shoot it out.  Or you may just make that executive decision.  Either way, once you’ve implemented as much of the feedback as you can, go back around the ever-widening circle until you’re getting very little critique, and most importantly you feel satisfied and confident.

When you’re at that point, it’s time to put the song into the world, and after that don’t ask for feedback, because that sets up the context that the song is not finished.  When you release to the general public simply project confidence and excitement.  You’ll still get some unsolicited critique, and that’s ok.  Carry that feedback forward and let it inform your next productions, and where and who you market the finished song to.

Wherever that leads you, you will find that vetting your work will give you confidence, better tracks and a lot more opportunity to interact with and work with people of like mind.

Here’s to feedback we want, and may you never hear the other kind of dreaded squeal again.

I’m a producer, singer and emcee who could have used some more vetting early on.  Nevertheless, I’m now open to conversation on social media @AaronJTrumm.

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