How To Make Every Studio Session Productive

According to super-producer Terrace Martin, who’s worked with Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg.

July 08, 2016

In April, Terrace Martin released Velvet Portraits, a beautiful jazz album for the internet age. The artist and super-producer drenched songs about life and love in a layered mélange of jazz, funk, soul, R&B, and hip-hop. It's a full realization of the signature style he perfected over a decade's worth of work with Snoop Dogg, and crystallized alongside Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and others on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015.


Though he is a deft live performer, much of Martin's work happens in the studio, where he often serves as de facto leader. These days, advances in music recording technology mean that the studio can just as easily be a multi-million dollar room in a fancy building or the basement of a nascent producer's house. The rules, however, remain the same. On a recent trip to New York, Martin shared his proven tips on how to get the most out of every session.


Get to know your collaborators

Hanging out together is important for collaboration. Like, go to the mall before you write. Watch a movie or just talk. Or just be in the studio and let shit happen naturally. It’s important to understand what the people you’re working with are about, to get a better feel for them as a human being. As a producer, I like to ask artists, “What did you listen to yesterday? And this morning? What music did you listen to two weeks ago? What song are you thinking about right now?” If they can remember, they tell me. And that's how I know what they’re on, like, that's how they dance in their car or on the subway. That's the tempo we on. If they like Stevie Wonder, Steely Dan, or Herbie Hancock, I know they like harmony chords. But I may do something opposite to take them out their comfort zone. I try to get in tune with them.

Know yourself and your role

Everyone has to respect everybody. And everybody has to understand everyone's role. You can't build anything with a team that's not well put together. People have to know the different sections of your team. They have to know who the managers are — everybody can't have the same job and every team needs a leader, so in my sessions it's important for people to understand those roles. That's how you win championships.

Check your ego at the door

The biggest ego should be the song. Everybody has put their egos to the side and remember, “it's not about what I wanna do.” Some people like to do things just to flex their power in the room sometimes. I've been a part of projects like that but me and my friends — I've been fortunate to be a part of a crew of people who don't do that and who understand that the biggest ego is the song. Quincy Jones understands that. Herbie Hancock understands that. The biggest energy should be the art that we are pouring into; everyone should be focusing on that one chord.

Time is money, so don’t waste it

Studios cost a lot of money. If you want to play your songs back to back to back to back to back to back then go in the car and do that. In your studio, record as many songs as you can and listen to them on repeat the next day. In the studio, I only play new songs back maybe three times. It’s tricky because you have to master how to be in the studio without feeling rushed. You have to discover how to be relaxed for those 12 hours you have that studio.

It's really about maximizing your time and getting the job done. You could party with your friends later on; wait until the record comes out. Actually, you shouldn't even be partying if you don't have a record out. People say, “Oh the vibe, I gotta have girls over! I gotta have ten people! Let's buy some bottles! Let’s buy all the weed! We need the vibe!” But that shit cost money. Vibe is expensive. And I don't need no vibe in the studio — just give me the electricity.

Use family dinners to replenish

Everyone has their own opinion on food. A lot of the guys in the camp order ribs and chicken and everything. I was more into sushi. I like quinoa and spinach and things of that nature. I like organic wines and vodkas. But it just works out that we usually eat together. If we’re all hungry, somebody will order. And then we never talk about what happened in the studio. We talk about what's about to happen. Once we leave the studio, it's over until we go back in. When we leave the room, we replenish our bodies and our thoughts. We put the music down for a second and talk about life. I’m more inspired by life than by music.

Respect the space, and each other

You have to respect everyone's time. Don't make people wait. If you're gonna yawn, go outside. That's disrespectful because the artist is not yawning. It shows you're not interested, it shows you're tired. When the artist is doing vocals and it's already 4 a.m. and you yawn? Nah. The artist is tired, too, and you're being paid by them to work. That's how you lose a job. We don't want anybody involved who is not into it. If you're, sleepy you should go home and go to bed. We will call somebody else.

Cleanliness is essential

For me, you can't work in a dirty environment. It has to be clean. Like, if you’re eating, put your plate away after. Don't wait for people to come put it away. If you have to roll weed, do it on a record cover and then dust it off and put it away. If you’re gonna eat, make sure you have Wet-Naps. Have hand sanitizer. If you’re gonna cough, cover your mouth and turn the opposite way. Respect the space.

Don’t stunt on social media

I see a lot of cats on Instagram saying, “Oh just left the studio!” or “In the studio!” but I don't hear no records from them. I see the Insta popping, I see expensive cars and jeans and trips to Miami and New York. I see cats posing by the water, posing in the club, posing with famous people trying to get a selfie. I see cats tag a bunch of people so they can get a bunch of likes, but I don't hear no music.

Most of my friends in the studio who I work with, we don't Instagram. We just want to get the record done. We'll Instagram later if that's the vibe but we understand the unspoken rule of, “Get the record done.” Me, Kendrick, Schoolboy, Jay Rock, Sza, Herbie, Quincy, Snoop — nobody is really thinking about Instagram in the studio. Sometimes we [post on social media] to let people into our world and share our energy but mostly you don't have time. Your hands are on the keyboards and writing charts and pouring cocktails.

Critique with honesty and kindness

You can criticize your collaborators without being disrespectful. If you say, “That’s whack!” — that's disrespectful. It's hard to say what's whack and what not because art is like someone’s child. So what I do is say what I can get into. So if someone asks, “Do you like that?” I'll just be honest and say I'm not into it. But I give a real listen before I say I'm not into something or before I judge. I try to remember that everyone’s art means a lot to them.

How To Make Every Studio Session Productive