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The Formula for Producing a “Hit Record”

August 9, 2010

by Douglas Romanow, Producer/Engineer

Douglas Romanow

Douglas Romanow in his element.

Someone once told me that the formula for producing a ‘hit record’ was easy:  record a hit artist singing a hit song.   And really, it’s not any harder than that.  [Except that finding a “hit artist” with a “hit song” is perhaps not as easy as stated].  But I’d like to begin this blog by stating that after producing records for twenty years, I’ve discovered a textbook truth for myself:   no one really cares who the producer is, who the engineer is, who the drummer / bass player /guitar players are, where the track was recorded or who mixed / mastered it.  The record-buying public cares about one thing only:  that they feel something.  If one can bottle emotional impact, one can bottle the potential for hits.

Emotional impact is best conveyed through two primary elements:  composition and delivery.  Songs and Singers.  The rest of us are involved in facilitating the presentation of these elements to the world.  This Truth [that the song still rules, delivered by an emotionally empowered artist] has focused my approach to record production, where I push for clear emotional delivery, moving artists into their peak performance state.  Should we care about snare drums?  Yes.  Should we care about mix detailing?  Most definitely.  What about time-locked tremolos and reverse samples and vintage instruments?  You bet!  But how much should we care?  Personally, if I had to weight these production elements, I’d give them [a significant] 30%.  The other 70% belongs to  melody, text/subtext and vocal delivery.   This is where music producers can really shine, bringing out the best in each artist and connecting the emotional truth of each song to the listener.   I’ll spend the next few posts looking at “finding truth” for recording artists, from the perspective of composition and performance.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2010 4:09 pm

    Eddie, Great to read your post. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation. If you don’t have a great song and a great voice then there is nothing to produce. Of course this is my opinion from many years of developing artists, writing songs and recording/producing. I call it helping the artist find their “True North”. Their signature voice & song/s.
    In my humble opinion the order of importance is –#1 – A Great Song #2 – Voice/Style/Delivery etc. #3 Great Production ~ All equally valuable but without a great song? Thanks again – I’ll look forward to your posts! Best Cari

    • August 9, 2010 8:57 pm

      Hey Cari,

      Thanks for your reply. I’m sure Eddie would agree, but this is actually my post! :]

      I look forward to ongoing conversations about how to tranform good records into GREAT records and exploring how to get artists to their peak performance.

      Douglas Romanow

  2. August 10, 2010 3:27 am

    This is so true! I would also like to mention as well a great song + a great artist or group = greatness however it is also about the team that surrounds the song. It might not always be the grammy nomintaed producer that makes the song/artist shine. To truly make a hit record, I feel it requires team work. It requires a solid team of people surrounding that artist and song. The team may comprise of a producer, an engineer, another songwriter, a manager, mom, dad, but a healthy loyal team can really push ones music to a whole different level. That being said, it all goes back to having a hit artist and a hit song, thats the foundation.

    Michael Sonier

  3. August 10, 2010 7:22 am

    Great post. I wish things were more ‘open’ to us non-performing songwriters nowadays. By this I mean less production and glitz on a demo needed for someone to be willing to hear your song and have it shine through. Still, this does my heart good cuz it’s what I know is true. : )

    • Brian Mahoney permalink
      August 11, 2010 5:30 pm

      This is very true.

      However, I think ‘Star Power’ sometimes can trump the greatness of a song as a variable for the song becoming a hit.
      A mediocre song that is sung well and produced well is more likely to become a hit song, than an unknown aritst who releases a great song/well sung, well produced song.

      Of course it may have taken that one good song to gain them that Star Power or they could be Paris Hilton. Today’s trend of seeing TV stars/celebrities, (ex. Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Paris Hilton, Idol winners) become music artists and having songs at the top of the charts is a growing trend (in the USA anyway) I believe these people have great talent/work ethics, but there star power may sometimes get them higher in the charts than what the song is worthy of; in my opinon anyway.

  4. August 11, 2010 10:18 pm

    Tempted to agree but… more fun to play Devil’s Advocate. Example One of a catchy song where the production is king: That Kylie Minogue song. You know the one with the great beat, and catchy hook. Which is escaping me at the moment… But I just googled it: “Can’t Get You Out Of My Mind”.
    I love that song if “love” can be defined like this: If you’re driving in your car and it’s on the radio, you’ll turn it up. But if Kylie played that solo/acoustic at a writer’s night, I’m betting we would all be scratching our heads.

    • August 12, 2010 8:38 pm

      It’s no surprise to anyone that marketing departments and marketing dollars have a LOT to do with what gets played on the radio. In the short term, radio ‘hits’ can be bought, even if there is little substance in the writing. Write one hook with enough repetition, and many listeners will mistake recognition/comfort for quality writing/performance. But in the long term, mediocrity is exposed for what it is. Only great music has longevity.

    • Brian Mahoney permalink
      August 12, 2010 8:40 pm

      What someone would think of an acoustic version of the Kylie Minogue sing and what type of song it could be grown into may come down to the ‘ear’ of the beholder…:)
      especially if the couldnt get it out of there head ;)

  5. August 12, 2010 7:58 pm

    very, VERY good point! made me smile, too : )

  6. August 12, 2010 9:42 pm

    This brings to mind the song “Umbrella” originally done by Rihanna. I remember hearing an acoustic version on the radio which had a strength to it’s own – which surprised me. Originally I had thought the song was based on hype and the novel production elements. The acoustic version proved the song has a weight of its own, independent of the hoopla. (but the girl is pretty to :-))

    Here’s a link to the acoustic version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=589Mvlz6LWE

  7. August 15, 2010 4:09 pm

    What a great article. Couldn’t agree more!

  8. bill l. permalink
    August 19, 2010 9:35 pm

    In my opinion a great song stands on it’s own acoustic merits even in the livingroom, played for a friend. All people can’t hear the song as a fully produced product. That’s one of the great things Producers do. If the pre-production work is done, musicians/singers are prepared, then it is time for a producer to step in and enhance the music with their skill and knowledge. Bringing out the best in the musicians and the music.
    If you write a great song and perform it well, it will be a hit.

  9. Gloria Wilson permalink
    August 29, 2010 2:33 am

    I agree, a good song is one which keeps repeating itself in your head, and makes you want to dance,laugh or cry.

  10. Rico Tudico permalink
    September 15, 2010 7:26 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with Douglas’ input. Listen to Joe Cocker’s ‘you are so beautiful’ . Zero production but 100% emotion and melody.

  11. Nestor La Vox permalink
    October 27, 2010 12:13 am

    I agree that the most important thing is a great song, without a great song you don’t have anything, no matter how good the artist/group is.
    Where I do not agre is that you need to have a great voice, a great voice is not as important as “uniqueness”.
    “Uniqueness” is that quality that makes you what you are that nobody else is. There have been thousands upon thousands of hit songs recorded by artist with a little voice, AHHHH but that “little” voice is so unique that you won’t be able to forget it.
    After a great song “uniqueness” is the name of the game……

  12. October 28, 2010 12:15 pm

    Excellent excellent excellent post. There are so many variables. I’ll venture even further on the subject that affect whether a song becomes a hit or not:

    – Economic conditions and political environment. Example: Bob Dylan, Band Aid.

    – A teen ‘rage’ (usually coinciding with ideological shift): Duran Duran, Beatles.

    – Innovation in instrument development: Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream.

    – Luck; the right person happens to hear the right song at the right time: Chris Isaak, Elvis Presley

    – Personality and act image: U2, Tina Turner

    Then we have regional characteristics and tastes; a hit in one country will be a total flop in another. If songs were hits by themselves, later cover versions should also be hits. They usually aren’t, even when they are exceptionally good. Others appear to be timeless, such as ‘Lady Marmalade’ (Moulin Rouge). I really can’t see that one ever failing to become a hit.

  13. November 24, 2010 3:16 pm

    I really find the post interesting and I feel it relates to me directly as I am a recording artist out in South Africa. My lyrics are emotionally charged but I can’t seem to bring it out while recording. Are there any tips you can advise me on about delivering the desired emotion onto the mic, and ultimately onto the song?

    Because great lyrics mean nothing without the proper emotions channeled in there… Any advise welcome

    • November 28, 2010 9:28 pm

      Hi Sanele,

      The answer to your question about “delivering the desired emotion onto the mic, and ultimately onto the song” is an elusive one. First of all, if it were an easy thing, there would be thousands more hit records than there are [and more high-quality, inspiring music]. I think it’s a similar quest for actors and theatre/film directors. My answer is that great performances require a collaborative effort. What happens on one side of the camera [or stage or microphone] is interpreted and directed from the other side of the camera. Great performances are nuanced, discussed, and labored results. With music production, the producer/artist relationship is paramount and cannot be replaced by computers, plug-ins or the common Do-It-Yourself approach. A good artist becomes a great artist by opening him/herself up to the direction and interpretation of an intuitive, experienced producer.

  14. December 31, 2010 6:24 am

    So for a song to be listened to, referring back to the conversation of which demos are listened to, does it need to have all the instruments? Or is melody, which someone is singing, really enough? Is a sung melody enough to be copyrighted/patented or does the entire musical composition (all instruments and the whole enchilada) need to be part of the patent package?

  15. March 9, 2011 2:39 pm

    Douglas, great thread. I am a writer/producer. The greater percentage of the songs I write are, co-writes with other people. In the twenty five years of creating music, I have agreed that the one role of the producer is to inspire and bring every emotion and piece of musical imagination to the project or song. A simple agreement between the artist and the producer will and should be enough without ego to bring the best that both can create and should create that great song every time.

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