There are four basic phases to every recording project. They are:
- Pre production
Some artists will jump right into tracking when they're first getting started on a recording project, but in most cases this means spending – and even wasting – more time in the studio, and that means bleeding money too.
Inevitably, what happens is that you end up needing to make changes to your songs. With some, you might need to adjust the tempo. Others might require a key signature change so that the melody is more in the singer's range. You might even find that the “cool arrangement” that sounded so great in your garage doesn't sound as good recorded.
If you go into the studio and you're still working out the finer details, it means that you haven't spent sufficient time in pre production.
So what is pre production? Let's take a look.
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What Is The Pre Production Phase Of Recording?
The pre production phase is where you determine the instrumentation, arrangement, tempo, key signature, and other aspects of each of your songs.
“Oh, you mean rehearsal.”
Nope. Pre production often involves more than just practicing in your basement. In a cramped room where all of your instruments are cranked up, it can be hard to hear what's going on, making it impossible to have an objective view of your music.
Pre production usually involves a little bit of rudimentary recording – sketching if you will.
Thinking about adding a horn section to that one song? It's time to rent, borrow, or dig up a keyboard and record a loose interpretation of what you would actually have that horn section play. If you have a MIDI controller, then free VST plugins are your friend.
Looking to increase the tempo of that other song? It would be wise to lay it down and listen back to it first.
You should be doing just as much listening as recording at the pre production phase, because it will give you a much better idea of what's working, and what isn't – and believe me, there almost always is something that isn't working.
The Pride Battle
If you've never done any pre production work before, there's the risk that your pride will start getting in the way.
Slice that keyboard part – it just doesn't work. What's up with your guitar solo, John? You need to simplify it a bit. Jesse, your drums are off-time – we need to tighten that up before we can lay it down for real.
It's not a personal attack, but you might perceive it at that. As artists, we tend to become very precious of the parts we create and the roles we play in a song.
You say, “I'm a skilled musician. I can pull it off.”
You have to remember that recording isn't about being good enough or being able to pull something off. It's about the way the song comes across.
If you're in a band, it's important to make decisions together. If you're a solo artist, and you're recording a stripped down record, you won't necessarily have a lot to worry about. It's still a good idea to get the opinion of an experienced producer, however.
I'm just warning you in advance that there might be some difficult decisions to make before you actually go into the studio to record.
Preparation Pays Off
When it comes right down to it, this is exactly what pre production is – preparation.
If you arrive at the studio without any idea of what needs to be done, your engineer is going to feel as though you're wasting his or her time. In most cases, they'll still accept your money, but what could have been done for free (more or less) is now costing you valuable studio time.
You don't need sophisticated recording equipment to engage in pre production (but please use something better than a smartphone). A laptop, a free or affordable Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), an audio interface, and a microphone will do just fine.
Multi-tracking capability is also important unless every part of the song can be captured live off the floor.
When you know what guitar tone you want, how many times you'll be repeating a chorus, where you want the mandolin to come in, and other details like that, you can get down to business at the studio without wasting any time.
Your engineer might have some suggestions for you, and you can consider those on a case-by-case basis (they might have a sweet vintage amp you can plug your guitar into, or a $3,000 keyboard that sounds incredible), but when you've done your homework, you'll find that the tracking process goes a lot smoother than it would otherwise.
Pre Production Is Not A Compromise
Pre production is the necessary groundwork you need to lay before going into the studio. In fact, it can be incredibly helpful to bring your pre production tracks to your engineer so they can listen and get an idea of what you're after with the finished recording.
But don't think of pre production as compromise. The idea here isn't to cut out everything that doesn't work, and trash the creative ideas that your band members have brought to the table. You need to think of it as creating the best possible version of each of your songs.
Making a great album takes a lot of work, so you may as well shut the door on rabbit trails that could end up costing you precious time and money.
Never played to a click track before? You need to spend more time in pre production. Don't know how the lyrics go yet? You need to spend more time in pre production. Can't get the guitar tone you're looking for? You need to do your homework.
You don't need to get everything perfect in pre production, but the structure of your songs should be more or less set in stone by the time you take that first step into the studio. Your engineer will love you for it, and it will also come across in the performance of your album.
When you aren't concerned with a lot of the finer details, you are free to give the performance of your life – and that's what you want to capture to make a great album.