Sometimes it’s all too easy to get excited about doing a recording session, whether it’s in a full-on pro studio or in your bedroom home studio. I’ve done both many times over the years, on my own music projects and as a session guitarist and bassist for other artists.
The gear is ready, all the little lights are on, you’re tuned up and ready to rock! And then, after a few hours of recording, you realize that you screwed up…
The arrangement is wonky, or maybe the snare drum sound isn’t right, or maybe (gack!) you need to rewrite part of the song that isn’t working.
Pre-production is the first step, the planning stage, where you review the big picture. Figure out the right keyboard voicings, the synth patches you want to use, the dynamics, the arrangement and guitar sound. And, for gawd’s sake, get the lyrics down.
Before you fire up the recording gear and spend all afternoon (or all night) working on recording a song, it’s really important to map out a plan for what you want to accomplish and how you’re going to do it.
I like to start by playing the tune start to finish with just a guitar or keyboard and the lead vocal all the way through and record a scratch take to see how it feels. Often I’ll find that some of the transitions aren’t quite right. so I’ll go back and fix those. Or sometimes I’ll notice that the tune doesn’t build to a climax at the right time, or that the dynamics are kinda lame.
Pre-production covers all those things BEFORE you hit the record button for real. It’s especially important if you’re recording a whole band.
Most of the stuff I do in my home studio is done one track at a time. My recent Christmas album Midwinter Moon was done that way. I’ll start with a click track and
lay down a scratch guitar and then a scratch vocal. Once that’s in the can, I’ll listen to see if the overall feel, the tempo and arrangement fit with the sound I’m going after. If it does, then I’ll start adding the other instruments.
Thing is, it can be hard to know what you’ll need on a given track before you get into the thick of it. that’s where pre-production can really be a time-saver.
Spend some time on your own, away from the studio, figuring out the little details that you want to include and the overall vibe of what you’re trying to accomplish. I can’t even tell you how many times a session was saved because I’d taken some notes ahead of time about different parts of the song and what we needed to do to make the tune work.
Pre-production is where you flesh out all the little details of a song and make a written plan for what each part of the song needs and how you’ll get from here to there. (Could just be some notes on a cocktail napkin if that’s your style).
As a recording engineer, I’m pretty detail-oriented and focused on stuff like mic placement, eq settings, levels & the like, and things like song arrangement, lyrics and dynamics come from a different part of the brain.
But if I put on my songwriter’s cap and think about the emotional impact I want the song to have, then I generally look at it from a bigger perspective, less about the nitty gritty and more about the overall “feel” and emotion of the song.
Generally speaking, pre-production is where you map out the big picture, figure out the details of the song, and get a feel for how you’re going to make it happen. It’s looking at the grand scale, knowing that the nuts & bolts of recording will come later, when you hit the “record” button.
Spend some time figuring out all that stuff before you go into the studio and I promise your session will much more productive!