The song is God but we still have to deal with the artist, the players and the tools. At this point in the preproduction process we must fuse the artist with the songs. This can be achieved by paying close attention to instrumentation, arrangements, the overall style of the artist, the right accompanying musicians and the actual sounds they will be required to perform and record.
In a face to face meeting, the producer and the artist can now address the more intimate details of the recording and even experiment a bit.
In preparation for this meeting of minds, I will have received a room mic’d recording of the songs themselves performed by the artist with a single accompanying instrument. I ask for the songs in that specific state for several reasons. First of all, the artist cannot ‘punch in’ with a single room mic without creating an echoing, audible ‘ click ‘ in the recording and hiding the weak spots in their performance by redoing the take over and over again. If I have heard a ‘ true ‘ version of the performance, I’ll know in advance where the pitch is ‘ wonky ‘, time pushes or drags or the instrument or voice is weak in any way that could sorely affect the recording; we don’t need any surprises when we record the tracks. Secondly, I don’t want to hear someone else’s arrangement ideas during my initial listening. This way I am able to be more open, creative and unaffected by someone else’s ‘ big idea’ that could steer the song away from a more appropriate direction.
Further, during the initial meeting, any conflict my ‘ big idea ‘ may have with the artist’s vision will come to light and we can adjust accordingly. Sometimes the artist hears a sound / part / instrument, or what have you, in their ‘ minds ear ‘ and we can incorporate it should the budget permit it. At this point, everything we do in regards to arrangement has to be weighed against the budget supplied and it is always a tight fit.
If a band must be hired, choosing the correct musicians for the job is necessary. Don’t hire a country session player to play on a jazz or rock session. Sure, they may be competent but the best work does come from the specialists for each of the musical genres.
When it comes to bass and drums, if the artist and I have decided on, for example, a drummer, I’ll ask the drummer who he/she believes would be the best fit on bass for the specific style of music we are recording. In this way the chances of the rhythm team playing well together is greater than putting two strangers together and expecting the best from both of them.
If the artist comes with a band, then a detailed list of preparation is dispersed to the players to have their gear buzz, squeak and rattle free for the session and all stringed instruments set up, intonated and freshly strung, with spares and re-fretted if necessary for a glitch free session. ( See article on drums and drummers in the studio. )
Any weakness in the artist’s (or band’s) performance will by now have evidenced itself during the preproduction meetings and each individual is left to deal with their performance issues and ready themselves to record. After this process, I take the preproduction notes and finalize the arrangements. Upon completion, I meet again with the artist for a few hours and make these final arrangements clear to them. From this point on the arrangements are final, the artist / band is rehearsed, tweaked and ready to record efficiently and comfortably.
Once we know what instruments, voices and types of sounds we are trying to achieve, the only thing left to decide is how specifically to record it ; what mics, preamps, compressors etc. Any competent studio needs to have the right stuff and an engineer to work with the producer.
N.B. We have our own studios here and can run 100% analogue or digital but either way, we choose to record the entire signal path is discreet analogue, even when we are recording to hard drives then when we mix, we mix analogue. I have yet to hear a digital mix that can compare positively to an analogue mix. I have tried both. If you are limited to digital, rent some high quality preamps, compressors and mics. Even if you only have a less expensive mixer, it can often provide a better mix than strictly digital.
Having said all that, what I’m leading to here is my last phase of preproduction. We bring the band and artist into the studio the evening before the actual session. It costs an extra half a day for the players but it’s worth it in that it’s the last chance for repairs or changes. We kill two birds with one stone in that while we’re running the arrangements for the last time, the engineer and assistants are placing the mic’s, routing signal and labeling tracks and track sheets. Invariably, while the artist and the band are running through arrangements, and we are testing for sounds, we’ll ‘steal‘ a few takes before the players even realize that they are recording. It feels pretty good for everybody and for the budget when we walk into the studio the next day and some the bed tracks have already been tracked.
Often upon completion of the beds and overdubs, one more preproduction session will be required with the artist as the vocalist. The initial tracks are done to a ‘ghost vocal’ which is replaced by a ‘final vocal’ take after all of the other tracking has been completed.
As a producer, part of my job description is as a vocal coach. The voice can be broken down into different areas of our anatomy from where the sounds originate. For example, a nasal, tinny voice comes from the head, screaming voices from the throat and chest and smooth, airy voices from the diaphragm. With a bit of careful listening, the vocalist can be guided into giving a more musical, effective and dynamic performance. While this work is being done, I set up a variety of ‘best guess’ microphones, preamps and compressors and try them on the vocalist. With some singers, some of these tools will be on the rental list to achieve the optimum sound and most studios have access to ‘Holy Grail’ mic’s, pre’s and comps. Doing a mic shootout during the vocal preproduction can solve a world of problems at tracking time and problems mean ‘time’, ‘time’ means money and budgets are always finite.
If a composer is prolific and blends a lot of styles of music, the sorting process can get complicated. However, we’ll assume that the artist and producer have defined the style, theme or “feel” of the recording, sought out audience opinions, and asked impartial peers for their opinions as to which material to record.
As artist, I know that often I choose to record songs that would not be the choice of the average listener. This would be an instance of consciously deciding that the project will be “art for art’s sake” rather than a more commercial venture. And that’s okay. Before you choose the songs, examine your motivation for making the CD in the first place. Know what you want to accomplish. Do you want to create a piece of art; make a statement; aim at a particular market; or do several of the above—compromise?
Having said all that, I also realize that a lot of folks are limited to the few songs they have composed and are hurriedly attempting to complete songs seven through ten for their ten-song CD project and that’s okay, too.
So get down to dealing with the songs themselves before you go into the studio. There will be more steps to a successful preproduction in the next issue.
So, strap on your best ears and above all, have fun.