One of the most exciting aspects of my job is having the opportunity to do something new everyday. Running a recording studio in Nashville, I have been privileged to work on an eclectic range of projects. While every record requires a unique approach, detailed preparation is consistently a key element of the process. This week, we take a look at the basic elements of effective pre-production.
Demos: Keep it simple
There is a common saying in the music industry that you can tell you have a great song when you can strip it down to the most basic elements and it still resonates with the listener. Recording a basic demo, or “work tape,” is an important step in choosing the right songs and preparing for the studio.
Many songs can be effectively demoed with a guitar/vocal or piano/vocal arrangement. For bands, recording a rehearsal is a great way to capture the raw vibe of the tunes. When recording your initial demos, remember to keep it simple. The “vision” of the material will often evolve during pre-production. You may also find that some revisions are necessary, in order to maintain cohesiveness within the record. A basic demo will provide you, and the producer, with a fresh canvas to outline the direction of the project.
If you plan on performing to a metronome (click) in the studio, it is wise to record your demo with one as well. Not only is it good practice, but once you begin your demo recording, it is important to lock in the “feel” of the song by finding the right tempo. Once you complete the demo process, the next step is to define your sound.
Define your sound: Choosing your colors
Throughout the process of writing your material, working out arrangements, and recording your basic demos, you have already begun to develop the vision for your songs. In order to define the overall vibe of your record, you’ll want to begin an in-depth analysis of your tunes and outline the basic elements of your sound.
You can start by defining the “sonic character” of your record. I refer to this as the combination of instrumentation, tone, space, depth, and vibe. For example, if you are recording a rock project you may want a heavy drum sound, wide guitars, in your face vocals, and a “live feel.” A pop-country ballad might call for clean drums, warm guitars, and smooth vocals. Every genre has its basic elements. Developing your spin on the style is an essential aspect of pre-production. However, it can be helpful to analyze recordings that influence your music. Try to use recordings that directly relate to the sound and vibe that you’re after. These “reference tracks” will be an excellent starting point for your production and arrangement.
The next step is choosing the instrumentation. Listen through your demos and make a list of the instruments required for each song. It will be helpful to make notes of the desired “tone” for each element as well.
You will also want to begin working out the arrangement. You may find that dropping out, or adding, a section will improve the flow of the song. Where the instruments are introduced, or cut, out can also make a big difference in the dynamics of the arrangement. If you are after a “commercial” production, you may need to revise your arrangement to follow the basic structure of the genre. It is important to maintain your artistic integrity, but there are times where a little compromise can make a song more commercially viable. In most cases, finding a good balance between following the format and maintaining originality is the way to go.
As you outline the elements for each song, it is important to keep the “big picture” in mind. While we live in a time where the single is king, cohesiveness between your songs plays a big part in defining your sound and making a great record.
Rehearsal: Get it right before you go red
Great recordings come from great performances. One of the keys to an exceptional record is capturing the moment where the emotion is flowing and everything comes together just right. There is nothing that kills the excitement of recording more than trying to figure out the right part in the middle of a session. Taking the time to work out the songs, before your step in the studio, will allow you to focus your energy on the vibe of the recording.
If you plan on recording to a click, it is important to rehearse with one as well. Since you played to a click on your initial demos, it will be easier to incorporate this into rehearsal. It helps to send the click to a pair of headphones for the drummer, as well as running it through the PA. If possible, try recording your rehearsals for reference.
Start by playing through the songs until everyone is comfortable with the tempo and their parts. Once you have the performance down, you can listen back to your recordings and see if there are any revisions that could be benefitial to the arrangement. Don’t be scared to experiment with additional parts, breakdowns, etc.
Once you’ve got the performances down, take some time to try out different tones to see what works best for each song. A different instrument, amp, or drums can add some flavor to the various tunes. This will also save you time when your dialing in the sounds in the studio.
Now that you have everything locked in, make note of your tones and record the final rehearsal. It will be helpful to listen to these tracks during the time leading up to your recording. This can also be a great reference during your sessions. If you are bringing in any sessions players for the record, be sure to give them a copy of your final demos so they can get to know the songs.
Effective pre-production takes plenty of time and patience. However, if you take the time to get it right before the light goes red, your record will thank you.
I hope this article provided you with the information you need to get started with pre-production. We would love to hear your questions, comments, and feedback! If we can be of any assistance, feel free to drop us a line!
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