The Rick Rubin Approach To Recording

Brandon Drury —  November 6, 2008



Mega Producer Rick RubinThe topic of music theory pops up from time to time. While it would certainly be nice to help a singer find the exact notes needed for a harmony, I can’t say that I’ve had too many uses for music theory when I’m producing records. You don’t need music theory to tell a singer “MORE MORE MORE MORE!!!”. (That’s one of my favorite ones. It works better when you practically yell it in real life than when you type it.)

The point of this article is not to dog music theory. I realize that technical junk (such as music theory) is a vital part of certain aspects of the music creation and I have the utmost respect for those individuals have chosen to dig deeper into the technical side of music as long as it results in music I can relate to. With that said, a part of me has always felt like a musical….what’s the word…..dumb ass. I’m a musical dumbass.

Let me explain.

I know what I like when it comes to music. It’s easy to tell. When a song is amazing, my body starts to act funny. Goosebumps pop out of my skin. The back of my neck begins to tingle. I forget about my bills and the song consumes me. When this stuff isn’t happening, I clearly don’t like the music. I can’t explain it with math equations (there was a guy whipping out talks of Pythagarus on the forum the other day) and I have no idea what scales and all that junk were used. I wouldn’t know where to start. All I know is that I’m a “music fan” and when I hear something I like, I like it.

A part of me kinda feels guilty for being such a musical dumbass. I sometimes feel like “I’m a music guy and I should know this stuff”. I have to admit that there has always been this gut feeling to not want to dig any further on the technical side of music.

A Common Ear
When I attended the Michael Wagener Workshop back in 2006 I asked him what the secret was to having his name on 60,000,000 sold albums. I asked him if he had a golden ear or anything like that. He essentially responded with “Hell no! I just have a common ear.”.

In other words, the stuff, the sound, and the music that Michael Wagener likes tends to be quite similar to that of what a big section of the music buying public likes too. This felt comforting to me to say the least.

The Rick Rubin Method
There is 10 page article in the New York Times about Rick Rubin that everyone should check out. Even though he’s discovered or worked with stars as diverse as LL Cool J, Slayer, System of a Down, The Dixie Chicks, and Johnny Cash the rules are always the same. Make the music as effective as possible. He admits that he’s essentially an engineering dumbass. He simply wants to feel the music. He has no technical understanding of preamps, Eqs, etc. He says he’s not a “knob turner”.

I especially enjoyed the part where he talks about how he was a big Beatles fan growing up. He learned the power of the song. (That’s what I call it). When rap music began to take off in the early 80s he jumped on board and started working with LL Cool J early on. He didn’t understand the unstructured nature of most rap music at the time. It just felt right to have hooks. Instead of having 5 minutes of rapping over a beat, Rubin suggested the idea of making songs more along the lines of the Beatles.

Engineers and Producers Who Don’t Play Instruments
Of the years I’ve encountered several engineers and producers who have made important albums and can’t play a single instrument. In the latest Tape Op issue, Kevin Killen discusses how he can’t play a single instrument even though he’s worked on some of the important music of the past quarter century (in my opinion). The same could be said of John Leckie who produced Radiohead’s “The Bends” (my favorite Radiohead record).

So what are these producers doing if they can’t even play an instrument? They are obviously bring SOMETHING to the table! Right?

It seems that technical understanding whether it be of advanced music theory or multi-band compression isn’t excactly required to create a magical audio recording. It’s something else and this certain something if fairly difficult to write about because I’m not even exactly sure what it is.

So while us home recorders unfortunately do have to do deal with more of the non-musical stuff than we’d probably prefer, it’s important that each of us takes a step back every once in a while just to ponder on we need to do in order to make a recording that gives you and me goosebumps. After all, we are all music fans. Right?

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.

19 responses to The Rick Rubin Approach To Recording

  1. That is a great article. The music industry needs people that passionate about finding great songs. His references to the Beatles and Monkees and Neil Diamond echo the kind of songs that resonate with me. I don’t care if it is as old as “As Time Goes By”, a truly great song is timeless. Wish I could write one……

  2. TheSilentDrummer November 10, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    All music theory geeks must remember this: The music came first, and we then developed theories to why great music was great. The aesthetically pleasing music came first, and only after that did we develop rules to motifs and great music. The music made the rules; the rules did not make the music.

  3. I´m from argentina. Sorry for my english in advance.

    Eeeem…Great article by the way. But for me is not like a black or white with music theory.
    I´m about to be a degree in music composition, here at UNLP (Universidad nacional de la plata – La Plata National University). Is one of the best places to learn music, is tough, but one of the best. Is important to notice that we didn´t learn rock, or blues or pop music, we learn Classical music (for me is Academic music), mostly 20th Century academic music.
    To me is a great help to know music theory, not because we have a “golden ear” and every song or orchestral work we write are classics, because we have a tool that is great. ANALYSIS. For me that tool, is a central point in my life with music. I have one story when i used to play in a Progressive rock band.
    One night we have to play with other bands of a similar style, and here in argentina all the young Prog bands (i`m 25) listen to Dream Theater. Well the thing is that with my band mate, the keyboardist, we were listening to one of the bands, and the style was a rip-off of DT. There´s was a point when, and we didn´t ever listen the song that they were playing, the keys player and me know, or predict, the chord progression that will come an instant later. THAT is analysis for me. Not my misterious knowledge of the future, the guys at that band imitate DT, but they never analise them. That´s one of the reasons of so much bands playing the same style as the “father” band of a particular style.
    The thing with the goosebumps is a very subjective thing, and is anchored to our cultural ear. For me, listen to Rite of Spring of Stravinsky, Atmospheres or Lux aeterna of Ligeti, or “Aquiring the taste” album by Gentle Giant give me goosebumps. Is not for everybody the same.
    So, reaching the end!!, for sure that there are people out there with a “musical ear”, but for me all the famous producers get their intuition by analising (misspell?) the music. Even if they are not musicians. But they analyse the form (a underestimated parameter of music), the arrangement, the melodies, etc.

    Well… Sorry for the long post!

  4. I wonder about the last comment…would Mozart agree? Anyway the word for me is inspiration, i.e. Todd Rundgren’s album named after “The ever popular tortured artist effect”

  5. Come on, man. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in awhile.

    Just because you can point to some very successful people who are “born with it” or whatever doesn’t address the fact that MOST successful people are those who work hard, learn hard, and practice hard at their craft.

    Of course the music has to sound great! No one would deny that. But making it sound great is an art and a craft.

    My advice to everyone reading this is to work, work, work at learning your craft and your art and the techniques that most successful producers use. You’ll definitely have more chances at hitting your target if you learn how to use the tools rather than trying to explain to an engineer what you want when you have no clue what you’re talking about.

    Few engineers would understand what exactly you want to change when you ask, “Can you make it more goose-bumpy?”

  6. Engineers can’t make bad music or bad performances good
    but they CAN make good music or good performances bad.
    The secret, to me, is to have the tape running and the mic’s on
    when the magic happens. In other words, keep it simple, use as few
    tricks and increased signal path w/gadgets and stay out of the way.
    To a degree, gear influences the sound and you need the best gear
    YOU can afford. But you don’t need to get caught up in the latest
    and greatest. Listen to the Sgt. Pepper album. It is an album done
    on a 4 track.

  7. Sometimes when you put your nose too close to the grindstone, the guy watching you learns more than you do. I bet there are still times when Rick Rubin and other great engineers/Producers listen to something and say WTF? Now how do we make that sound better? why does it sound like crap? I did everything the exact same way I have always done it! My point is it isn’t always where you turn the knobs. Actually never is for me. You must feel it. it is alot like getting into a groove playing. It feels good. Same with engineering or knowing a good sound when you hear it.

  8. Simply put, a good producer helps an artist put down their best tracks.

  9. hi, i am steve bay , guitar instructor of the “stars”.as the great popular musician edward van halen has repeatedly stated , “if it sounds good it is good”. play ,write and compose what sounds good to YOU. if others like it, great , but that is the essence of ORIGINAL theory doesnt mean a thing in composing (and can be extremely limiting ) , however it can be very important when communicating your musical ideas to other musicians, recording engineers and producers. the music i have written with my extensive knowledge of music theory pales in comparison to the songs that i translated from a feeling in my heart , directly to the instrument. my advice is dont rely on any one source for musical inspiration , it can come from a song, a teacher, an experience , a smell, a strong feeling, etc. DON’T LIMIT YOURSELF TO THE RULES OF CLASSICAL MUSIC THEORY BECAUSE IT IS FINITE AND STAGNATES THE MUSICAL POOL . good luck and practice, listen, experiment and indulge!!! use YOUR imagination and stop imitating…..INNOVATE !!!!!

  10. You have to know what the rules are before you can break them.

  11. I wonder why people that have bothered learning music theory never mention in interviews that they wish they have not? That’s just simply an excuse to be a dumbass, not know the language of music and find excuses to defend your ignorance.

    Look at Rick Rubin now and check your production values in comparison – to me the last Slayer and Metallica records are utter sheit. The production of those records is also disgusting. I think guys like this were at the right place at the right time with the right wad of cash.

  12. I wonder why people that have bothered learning music theory never mention in interviews that they wish they have not? That’s just simply an excuse to be a dumbass, not know the language of music and find excuses to defend your ignorance.

    That’s one angle, but a bit oversimplified.

    There are 24 hours per day. A person is works on engineering and producing 16 hours per day and sleeps 8 hours would have to stop what they are doing and cancel sessions in order learn this music theory. So while music theory classes may reduce musical ignorance, it would also use up resources that could be used elsewhere.

    I wish that music theory guaranteed better music. I’d tell everyone to run out get their degree in music.

    I think that keeping some things a mystery keeps them innocent. It’s common knowledge to anyone who wants to read up on it that being “in love” is little more than a state in which the brain knocks out your common sense and focuses on an infatuation with another human being. Tell that to any chick and see how far you get.

    Music is a series of mathematical frequency combinations. The human experience is little more than a series of chemical reactions. I think both of these are technically true, but who in the hell really wants to live their life with this perspective of the world?


  13. TheSilentDrummer December 2, 2008 at 4:41 pm

    Hey: you don’t need music theory to make great music. Music theory is particularly helpful when performing other people’s music. Different themes and music composition devices have been traditionally used to express emotion. For a simplistic example, minor has been used to express sadness (even though if we look further back, into the modal times, minor was actually joyous… but that’s all music theory and history…). Knowing what they were thinking when they composed the music and what their devices mean can help maximize emotion in a song.

    As far as writing your own music, if you can express your feelings easily through music, then you have probably done a good job. “If it sounds good, it is good.” is a pretty good standard to use, but even more so, your music should evoke the maximum possible emotion. Music theory could be helpful if you were having trouble expression a certain emotion. Knowing and having studied theory could expose you to what devices composers used in the past.

  14. Ok wait. No tangential arguments, no ‘my opinion is better than yours’ crap. These comments are really important, but how about addressing the article instead of arguing about the commentary?

    It’s about a different approach to signing artists at the label that the status quo. If you want to talk about ‘technical’, even though that technicality has nothing to do with music, then let’s talk about how the labels find and recruit artists (can you say $ before talent or heart?).

    Rubin has his own kind of structure. He’s not structure-less. This is the guy who gave RAP music a hook and made it famous. He tightens up structures of songs and tightens up rhymes. Everyone is lead by both technical and heart decisions. Some just more than others. It’s a spectrum and no one has a lock on the right formula. I’m for sure a huge fan of ‘learn the craft so the craft can serve the inspiration. But you can’t argue with what works. Music, in the end, is all about an experience of the heart and mind.

    The article is more about the industry and where labels stand and how music is delivered today. It’s about how a guy who knows music is actually in charge of a record company now. That’s never happened before! Technicalities or heart don’t bring home the bacon, what brings home the bacon is how the stuff gets sold and who is buying what. The current model obviously isn’t working, and we’ll see if a person who actually knows music can’t help change that model.

    How do we take this stuff to heart as far as our own music?? To each their own, and let the chips fall where they may. Quit trying to be like someone else and do what you feel is right.

  15. Thanks for posting this. I just discovered your blog and love it.

    As for this whole discussion of music theory, to my mind it’s not about knowing what bit of theory underlies a song, it’s about knowing what a song needs, if anything, to be great. Rick Rubin is a master of this.


  16. Being educated is a wonderfull thing. Having ‘talent’ and a ‘natural ear’ for music is also wonderfull, what’s so wrong with putting the two together? I spent my youth playing rock and roll..and having fun..then I went back as an adult and learned some music theory and how to read sheet music and orchestra music, while learning the Cello. Now that I play guitar again, I have a whole new apppreciation and ability to expore things that I was unaware of as a kid, it has definatly brodaen my horizons as a muscisian and a newere approciation for music when I re-listen to old songs and new stuff, you can predict where its going and why. Makes it lots easier to write really good stuff..when you have an actual vocabulary. Theres nothing wrong with education.

  17. I’ve studied so much about composers like John Cage and musicians like John Coltrane who played free jazz. Cage was a student of the I-Ching. He believed that all sounds were good and beautiful. And Coltrane and Eric Dolphy played without a key or a tonal center. Write what you want, because classical musical theory has been blasted away by the decades. Trust me, I’ve studied music history extensively.

  18. Great post ! I’ve written a couple of blogs recently on similar issues that some people might find interesting – both mention Rick Rubin, for better or worse ;-)

    The Top 7 Types Of Record Producer

    Does Rick Rubin Deserve the “Producer Of The Year” Grammy Award ?

    Cheers !