Production Lessons From Terrible Christmas Movies

It’s that time of year again. The family’s all together, the cookies are being baked, and the unbelievably awful Christmas movies are on just about any channel you flip to.

We’re not talking about the classics – Christmas Vacation, It’s A Wonderful Life, etc. – we’re talking about the ones that were made for TV with a $400 budget.

But did you know there’s actually something you can learn from this madness? That’s right – by watching one of these movies, you might actually become a better recording engineer, musician, and producer. If you consider this point each time you’re at the critical stage of your recording process, I can almost guarantee you’ll never produce a musical flop again.

First, let’s identify what makes makes these movies (and productions) “bad”:

The biggest problem with these films (and likewise with amateur music productions) is that everything is overdone. “Comedic” parts are overacted, “emotional” plot points are simply melodramatic, and the story is too monotonous for the large amount of plot twists and turns that are inevitably forced.

It is this amount of “overdone-ness” that carries through to music productions as well. Think about a production that sounds “amateur” – way to much reverb, simply smashed with compression, and overly EQ’d master tracks are easy giveaways.

Even down to the performance – a pop-punk vocal with far too much snottiness to it can sound amateur. (Simple Plan pushes the envelope, but rarely steps over the line). Or a guitar solo with an unbelievable amount of distortion – ultimately leading to a mosquito-like tone. (I think Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” is about as much distortion as you can actually get away with).

So how can you avoid these pitfalls and never make a musical flop again? By using everything less.

It’s easy to throw a gallon of reverb and a pound of compression on every track and call it a mix, but it’s much better to use these tools sparingly to even greater effect.

This can be challenging to do at first, but once you experiment and compare your mixes to commercial releases, you’ll start to get the hang of it. Here’s a tip that I like to tell beginners: after you apply any effect/track, back it off/turn it down by 25-50% and see if it still gets the job done. If it does, back it off even more until it just barely does what you want it to do. Sometimes you’ll need it where you initially set it, so you can boost it back up if needed.

The goal is to find the minimum amount of the effect necessary to achieve your goal with it. Learn where this is, and you’ll be on track to creating better productions.

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