6 Ways Pre-production is Essential to the Recording Process
By Matthew TenBruggencate
Studio sessions are mythologized as make-or-break magic times; the high pressure, high priced opportunity for artists to capture the live experience for posterity – and sale. Stories from famous recording sessions come echoing down the halls of time with their associated songs.
‘I heard when the Beatles recorded the White album… And Gilmour starts improvising… That riff was an accident…’
With an alchemical aura swirling around studio time, it may be surprising to hear an accomplished artist, producer, and manager lay out the importance of pre-production. But Julia Ryckman (from rock outfit This Hisses), Murray Pulver (songwriter, producer, formerly with Doc Walker), and Liam Killeen (Toronto-based manager with Coalition Music) are all emphatic that without taking time outside the studio to prepare, stepping into the studio doesn’t make sense.
Pre-production can involve recording, reviewing, and revising songs, choosing which songs will be recorded, discussing the sonic pallet or style of production, and mapping a schedule and budget for the recording process.
Here are some tips to help artists and producers get the most out of pre-production.
1. The basic act of preproduction – recording – is cheaper than ever
“Now it’s 2013 and digital recording is so simple: it can be leaving your iPhone in the room and recording,” says Killeen, who bets 90 per cent of the demos he receive suffer from a massive lack of preproduction and consideration. “It can just be simple scratch tracks. If you’re not going in for the final master, you just need a good outline to hear your idea in its roughest form. I think you should always be recording.”
When Pulver starts capturing sound in the preproduction phase, he likes to work one-on-one with the songwriter, using acoustic guitar or piano to build the basic skeleton of a piece. “We’ll spend time hashing out the lyrics and song structure and form, then go to the band looking for ideas to support the song.”
Ryckman likes recording at the beginning of her songs’ births, when no element is definitively set. “I think it’s important to capture those early moments in the process, those initial moments when I’ll do things with my voice I’ll never do again. It’s natural when you start playing to try and lock things down, to feel like your progressing, but later in the process I’ll go back to my original work and try to bring spontaneity back into the form.”
Killeen points out another virtue to always keeping a recorder handy: “You can leave songs alone for a minute, come back and listen with your own fresh ears.”
2. Preproduction lets you get outside opinions… if you want to…
The subject of peer feedback often splits musicians and producers sharply. Killeen believes in the importance of consulting with a small peer group to avoid being “stuck in your own world” with songs hamstrung by bias and myopic thinking. He acknowledged too much feedback could be confusing, especially to young artists, something both Pulver and Ryckman affirmed.
“I tend to work alone, with strong ideas about what I want,” says Ryckman. “I’m very particular about who I let into the process… someone who makes an effort to understand my aesthetic.”
“I tend to feel if the artist feel great about the song and I feel comfortable, that translates,” says Pulver. “I don’t believe in too many cooks in the kitchen, it can steer the artist so many ways.”
3. Healthy preproduction avoids needing to “fix it in the mix”
“’We’ll fix it in the mix’ is impossible,” says Pulver. “It’s almost as bad as one person who told me, ‘We’ll fix it in the marketing.’ It’s true technology can do wonderful things and we do rely on it now, but at the end of the day, it’s about capturing live emotion and performance. If you’ve done that, the mix should be easy… in a perfect world,” he laughs.
Preproduction allows artists to make decisions about tempo, arrangement, and instrumentation, so that they go into the studio with a solid sense of how the end product will sound and what the goes are for the recording session.
4. Preproduction sets you up for studio success
Ryckman’s recent release with This Hisses, Anhedonia, involved a level of thoughtful preproduction that not only let her group maximize its studio time, but gave everyone a deeper understanding of the band’s sound.
“We sat down and made a chart with a big piece of poster paper for each song, listing qualities, concerns, lyrics. We got out a metronome, fought out what a good tempo would be so when we hit the studio, we had an idea how we wanted to track the drums to start.
“It led us to really analyze our songs and understand them on a technical level… to figure out we write a lot of songs on waltz tempo. For us that made it go very smoothly.”
5. Dabble with producing can help you view your music differently
Ryckman’s the first to say her aesthetic swings more toward the raw, in-the-moment live experience than the calculated, multi-layered track. But coming out of a Manitoba Music workshop that paired songwriters with producers, she began educating herself on the typically male bastion of sound editing.
“Capturing the base live sound and looking at it, visually, adding extra tracks and playing before going into the studio; that can be so powerful. It’s been an intimidating step – I have a lot of guy friends who use computers for music, but I don’t have a lot of female friends working as producers.”
6. A cautionary tale: don’t overcook
“I can think of one band I can’t name,” says Killeen. “They were working on songs for a record for four years. Recording in preproduction, they snagged a bonafide hit. But when they finally went to record the song, there was hesitance to just leave it. Just for the sake of doing something, they rerecorded it professionally in a studio and added all this flare that didn’t need to be there. The label decided they would release the original, putting both versions on the record.”
“The preproduction version outsold its overproduced version five times… If something is great, don’t think just because it was your first idea, it can’t be done.”