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Having read several books interviewing many of the great producers (such as the terrific Behind the Glass series), the one thing you hear from all of them (about getting magical results) over and over again in order of prominence is:

1. THE SONG. If you have a great, well-arranged song, they all say they could work wonders with a pair of room mics and little else. I personally would add to this idea that (IMO) a great song will work (or be evident) with just vocals and an acoustic guitar or piano. That is, a great song will be a great song before you add any production value at all. A GREAT SONG trumps everything else.

2. The performance. As stated by many above, a lively or emotional performance will sound better than a flat one, and better players sound better. But the best players and performances in the world can’t play a mediocre song into a good one. The great producers will tell you they can do more for a lesser performance from a lesser player on a BETTER SONG. We see this over and over again, as great producers have always taken hand-picked expertly-written pop-songs by legit writers, and make careers for teen idols — from the Monkees to today’s horrid pop-tarts.

3. Getting it right at the source. Good sounding gear, tuned correctly, mic’d well before you ever hit record. For example, I recently recorded my drummer, and found that he had an overly pingy snare. I hated it. We started taping up the snare head to tame it. And that was working. The drummer and my co-producer thought we had gone far enough. That to go further would deaden the life out of it. I didn’t think we had gone far enough, but I relented. Mistake. We now had 8 songs worth of drum tracks recorded, and we had to really fight to tame that damn pinging snare in each song. It would have been SO MUCH EASIER TO JUST FIX IT AT THE SOURCE. So I learned my lesson. Never again.