OK this one is going to be one of the biggest articles I have posted – probably because, even though I cannot go into total detail, it’s going in to the most depth.
I get asked a lot by people who aren’t clients (or are prospective clients) “what is this ‘pre-production process’ you keep harping on about? You sometimes meet 3-4 times with a client before recording, …isn’t it just being really practiced”
Well, in part yes – being well practiced and totally ready when you walk in a studio to record is very important in all cases unless you have money to burn – it makes everything easier, flow smoother and quicker and probably costs you less …. But that is only part.
I have mentioned in other articles on this blog some aspects on this topic. I want to break it down in more detailed chunks, so I thought I would discuss a few things that I go through with clients as we go through the pre-production process.
Obviously there are a lot of projects where the artist already knows how they want to do a song or how to sing it etc and are pretty firm about that – and so I may be just looking at instrumentation or what I can do with what we have. Nothing wrong with that but I always ask the questions just to be sure ………
- Are you sure your idea is going to make a commercial/selling end product or is it the way you like to hear it (which may or may not be the same)
- If commercial – how do you know? What experience do you have translating a musical idea/song into something that will be accepted and played on radio, bought by people other than family and close friends
- Is what you are thinking about what you do live? So are we producing a ‘live equivalent” CD or a ‘produced product”? This is often different. For example, you may not necessarily be able to reproduce what comes on the CD in a live gig without using some of it or the session players etc but that’s fine if that’s what is decided – and it’s ok to be that way) ……
- The CD needs to be authentic to the artist -but it can be an expansion of what the artist is however that doesn’t mean it should be filled with sonic possibilities :just because it can be” – So?
For the purposes of this article ………. let’s say it is a project where I am producer and in from the formulation stage to pressing …..And so upfront, what do we go through to be sure the project meets its objectives.
So let’s go
First – Getting a clear picture and understanding of the big picture parameters and expectations.
Upfront, the artist and I need to develop a clear understanding of who has the final decision on certain areas of the process. This may sound a bit weird to some but it has been my experience that, if the idea is to produce a really commercial product – sometimes an artist and songwriter can be too “wedded” to a way of playing the song that just will not translate as well when just being listened to as it does when all the visuals, emotion and hype of a live gig are involved. It may be better for the artist to step back for elements of the project.
Second, there needs to be a clear understanding of the end product/result.
- Is it to be a commercial product, demo to get gigs or something for the family for posterity etc
- And even within that there are a number of sub decisions and questions that need to be answered to really get a clear understanding and expectation by all parties about what the ‘end’ will look like (and therefore also when the end is reached)
After that we get into Arrangement
In most cases where I have input from the start – first there is a check on the song writing itself – for each song and for the project overall, we look at things like –
- Does the story line and melody line, chord progressions work together, flow make sense (sad and reflective when needed up and happy when needed, etc)
- Does the melody and chord progressions and changes etc help convey the message, emotion etc in the lyric (in those styles of songs)
- Do the lyrics and melody have full ‘stickability’ (yea my word) –in other words do they sit together like glue – just ‘feel’ right together ( and not trying to get too many words in the sentence feel rushed/pushed etc)
- Once all that…. – does what we have fit the genre and the expectation of the intended listener? Does it fit the need of the media promoting through (eg. pop songs for radio – 3.20 minutes long, with chorus and hooks up early in some form, etc).
At the same time – what within that sets it apart enough to make it ‘stand out from the pack’ if anything (or does that come with instrumentation etc) – maybe it is using different chord inversions, a modulation, minor to major changes etc
So all of this ensures that we actually have material that will deliver the end result if treated right (and if I don’t think we have that bed to build on – the ol skool producer in me will say so by the way LOL)
Next it’s the Song/Piece and Instrument Arrangement
Then we get into the actual musical elements for the session – – the goal of all this is something we have mentioned before in relation to production. and that is ……… it we get everything right at the source there is less needed in post production and a much better result will always come out at the end.
So here we look at things like:
An often neglected consideration but the main question here is – Is the song in the right key so the vocal really sits in the pocket, the instruments are in their ‘gold zone’ etc – all the elements will combine in the best space in their range possible
From a recording perspective – is the frequency range covered by the instruments and selection of instrument within those (eg look to combine warm and bright instruments)? What is needed if all are overlapping/sitting just in one area or two etc? What can we do in the selection or combination of instruments and voices at the start so don’t have to try and ‘make fuller’ in post production? What may we need to add or change in recording if missing thickness/brightness etc and add it? Are we going for balance and spread? If so, are we recording doubles of things? A counter from one instrument or sound source on one side with one on the other? Will they play similar lines (see my point below) the same or something different to give interest – how ‘match’/balance everything from BVs to all the instruments?
mmmm now this can be a bit curly if cousin Bob “needs” to be playing on the CD but is a really average xxxx or is good but not in the style/genre of the music we are recording. For example, a really good rock drummer who has never played jazz might be ‘passable’ but won’t know all the nuances etc of that style that let the drums sit in the pocket in a jazz trio etcWe really want as good as a performer/musician as we can get/can afford – and often it is well worth paying for an experienced session player or two to be involved (the cost is usually outweighed by the speed and understanding and delivery- especially if a remote recording arrangement)
Things like, the right guitar, piano or keyboard sound or sample selection, right amp etc (real or simulated) Right patch if using midi How they play or sing all comes in to it as well.
In fact this is key for vocals – matching the right mike to the voice, the right distance placement for the mikes.
Are the right parts being played? If you have electric and acoustic guitars for example or 2 pianos/different keyboards – you don’t want them playing the same thing – but complimenting each other. What is the signature guitar, piano or tone of something and how does the rest compliment that etc.
So parts build to make a full complementary design not competing and cluttered in the space. What is the highlight instrument and when? (always lead vocals but other than that) If 2 highlight instruments – what when so the dynamically add interest and flow
If you get the arrangement right – it makes the tone of the tracks that much better – everything feels like it fits it grooves
Next we come to Performance –
This is of course part of arrangement but also a key part during the lead up practice and listening of the playing. It includes thoughts along the lines of……….
- Does it feel right? If it feels right it probably is
- Is everything in time – feel like it is ‘in the pocket’, ‘in the groove’? (Eg is the bass syncing tightly with the drummer). When out of time everything sounds sloppy and the recording sounds muddy – when not in the groove it sound bland or even robotic
Sure a few notes or moves here or there can be nudged in the mix – but if everything needs to be adjusted, more often than not the feel and groove will be lost – it will sound robotic – it may be better to go back and re-record. In Nashville this is called “pocketing” and can give a track a real ‘something’ that just takes it to the next level
So there ya go – Now I haven’t drilled that far down into each element and there are some parts of this process I have left out because the rest are more individual to the needs of the individual project.
However, hopefully there is enough to give you an indication how important the pre-production process is to achieving the best result possible for your recording.
If you are not working with a producer then you need to be going through all the above yourself. If you are self recording etc – sometimes it is very worthwhile to bring someone in just for the pre-production process (gaining an experienced third party to be sure you are doing it right).
Is all of this worth it? ….Yes!!!
If you take at least all these elements (and preferably more), get them all in and worked with, be mindful of all this through the rehearsals (prefer that word to practice) and everyone on the same page totally prepared and ready ….. you can walk in to the recording studio, have fun knowing you have done all you can and just deliver what you know…… and the result will be as good as it can possibly be.
And then wr are into ‘post’ and all that entails.
Hope his was of interest.
If we can be of assistance in any of these areas or explaining some of the points above – please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Cheers till next time.