Production is a journey of many steps. Take them one at a time if it gets overwhelming!
Producing yourself at home for your own songs is a tough challenge and an incredible joy every time you get it right. Taking a song from the writing process to a deliberately produced recording requires a lot to happen. Planning is key, and that’s where pre-production fits in.
Most of the questions you ask yourself will have many possible answers, any of which may be equally valid for your song.
A music pre-production checklist is very helpful in making sure you’ve done what you can ahead of time.
It’s much like cooking a meal – you select and prepare (and a lot of the time pay for!) the ingredients for cooking, and you ensure they’re present and ready for use when cooking begins.
You think through your recipe and it’s required steps before you turn the heat up.
It will take some time to do this planning. Welcome to pre-production! Spend the time to get the most benefits.
You have to make decisions – there is no other way. The time to make many of the most important decisions is in pre-production. These are critical decisions, such as tempo and key and song structure. These are the most important tasks in completing song development in preparation for a recording process.
There is less need to decide in advance on instrumentation these days, but it’s always best to do so if you can. The recording phase will usually deviate from the plan when it comes to picking sounds to use, but ideally you will learn to get it more or less right most of the time in pre-production, making recording easier, more enjoyable, and ultimately more successful because of it.
The more you do in pre-production, the smoother you should find the road to a finished recording. Think of it as a bridge between writing a song and making a recording of it. It’s a time to assess and if necessary shape the song from a recording point of view, to ask questions and try things out, and to make decisions. You will need to prepare the people (if applicable) and gather whatever equipment is needed to proceed to a recording session.
Traditionally, this phase came between the songwriting and the recording of a song or group of songs, say contenders for inclusion on an album.
These were pretty clearly defined stages along a timeline, but today the situation is much different. Thirty years ago, a producer would arrange for rehearsals of a song, then attend them and make decisions about choosing sounds and parts played, and suggest melodic or structural changes to songs, as well as assessing whether the tempo was ideal and if the key sounded good, especially for the singer. After these decisions, there would be further rehearsing to nail the changes made, usually a budget studio would be booked and a demo recording made, and then on approval a more expensive recording session would be booked and recording would begin in earnest.
Today, it’s far more fluid a process. Nobody makes demos, for the most part, because recording at home is now so easy and of such high technical quality, given a little knowhow. It is also very simple to begin as a demo and simply transform into a master recording through the magic of DAW techniques, keeping bits you want from the demo stage, and using software to change key or tempo as you make decisions. This means pre-production is wrapped up in the song development and the production phase, rather than being a distinct phase. That’s progress.
Now that pre-production is rather more invisible a process, a checklist seems like a good idea. Here is mine. Enjoy and good luck!
- Confirm the lyric is as strong as it can be, and the song concept is fully realized and has enough ‘weight’ to engage listeners
- Confirm you are not ruining the singer’s brand or image by putting those words in the singer’s mouth! Especially when it’s you!
- Confirm it is as effective as it can be made in terms of structure (verse, pre-chorus, bridge, double chorus, and so on)
- Confirm the melody is strong and fits the lyric in terms of prosody (they are unified in conveying the same emotions)
- Confirm the key is the best key for the singer
- Confirm the tempo (BPM) and any swing factor (time feel) compliments the song nicely. You can even try different versions at different tempi, but pick the most likely first and proceed with that. You may find you won’t need other options after all. A good rule of thumb is to use a fixed whole-number BPM at all times. You need a really good musical reason not to do this – it is limiting your options and making work unnecessarily not to bother with a click track and a known BPM, whether it changes during the piece or not, unless there will be no overdubs.
- Think about the sounds you want in each section. Start with sounds for the most powerful song section, usually a chorus in the last third of a song.
- Think about an “intro” section – what will grab the listener’s attention and hold it?
- Think about an “outro” – are you fading out or do you have a definite ending? Fading quickly or slowly?
- Running time of the final record can matter to some folks. Obviously, radio programmers may prefer not to play twelve-minute songs.
- Plan for a bridge or a breakdown (if you have either) that will take listeners to a different place than the other sections. Contrasts are essential to keeping people listening. Whatever is happening in your recording, contrasts of all kinds will be a key goal.
- Plan for the dynamics of the music and the performances. Have a vision for where things will get loud and for how long, and where they will feel noticeably quieter. Take us on a better ride by knowing where the ride goes ahead of time.
- Locate any musicians you need for instruments you want to use but cannot play, and ask them if they want to participate.
- Settle on how any other musicians you use will be recompensed, and take notes of contact details and any work planned for them or done by them
- Plan for crediting musicians (ask them if and how they want to be credited for work performed)
- Keep ALL your pre-production notes, communications (email, IM, FB messages, old-fashioned letters, etc) and other records for legal and accounting reasons. Especially keep notes and receipts for monies spent or received.
- Choose the best location for each recording you make. Some songs might sound great in a church, for instance, and others may sound great at home in a small room with a wood floor. Individual tracks may sound better recorded in a bathroom or a hallway than in a big room. Think about it, experiment when you can to learn which rooms sound good at what sounds. Maybe you’ll like the guitar amp in the bathroom, for instance, and you’ll leave the door open, placing a microphone ten feet away, out in the adjoining area, hallway or room. Have fun. Ever sing in the shower? Well, water and recording equipment don’t mix. Don’t record too near water hazards!
- Make the arrangements for the recording session(s). If you work at home and others are involved, then maybe confirm no neighbour is planning to run a chop saw during your session. Consider whether you need food for people, and/or transportation or parking spaces.
- Make sure you have new strings on stringed instruments and that the strings have had an hour or two of playing in. Change drumheads if your tone is too dull on real drums.
- Make sure you have set up a template session in your DAW for starting new projects, with a click track and he basic instruments for arranging, such as a virtual piano instrument and virtual drums on their own tracks ready for use. Colour-coding tracks (and/or regions or sections along the timeline) helps identify tracks and instruments very quickly.
- Take a last look at prosody. Are all the pieces of your puzzle fitting together to convey the same emotions?
- Take a deep breath and look forward to a successful recording session! Good luck. It gets easier every time.
See you tomorrow for the next blog in this series, “Signal Flow, Routing and Patchbays”. You won’t need to know a lot about this for home recordings, but there are a few things to know that may add some very useful information to your arsenal.