Preproduction: the most important element of a successful recording

Preproduction is the work performed on a group of songs prior to arriving at the studio to record a CD project. This work includes choosing, arranging, and otherwise tweaking the songs for a recording. In addition it involves preparing the artist for the recording, determining instrumentation and session musicians. It also includes scheduling the right number of rehearsals necessary to prepare for the recording, what recording tools (preamplifiers, compressors, and microphones, etc.) will be needed, and how much work can be accomplished to fit the available budget.

Preproduction can be the cheapest part of the recording process or the most expensive–just ask anyone who has paid for studio time only to waste it rehearsing and learning parts instead of recording. In other words, they’ve used expensive recording time to deal with problems that should have been addressed prior to arriving at the studio.

Which would you prefer: a great performance poorly recorded or a poor performance beautifully recorded? Given that choice, I vote for the performance. An essential part of the great performance is a well-crafted, arranged and rehearsed song. What could be more useless and self-defeating than a sonically perfect recording of a thrown-together, hapless attempt at creativity? The solution, of course, is to have a well pre-produced artist and session as well as beautifully recorded songs. This can be accomplished by implementing the most important element of a successful recording project: preproduction.

Step 1: The song

It all starts with the idea of the song itself. We hear an orchestra of sounds in our imaginations, and given enough time and practice, we extract each part, note by note, and reassemble it on the recording media.

At first when we attempt to compose, this extrapolation process is primitive and weak. We extract a mere germ of the idea then taint it with external concerns and our own inner questioning. We’re worrying about what others think of our art. Forget all that. It’s yours. Own it. Your song will be richer for the honesty.

Many times I have suggested to budding songwriters that they rethink their rhythm instrument’s role. Is the groove clearly defined? Does the instrument clearly support the melody? Often they find that it does not. The artist tends to “fill in the blanks” and imagines a sound to be there that is not.

For example, recently a guitar player came to our studio. He played a new instrumental he had composed, then sought my opinion. When I asked him where the melody was, he proceeded to hum a tune that was simply not represented in the rhythmic and articulate chord pattern he had just played! The melody was somewhere in his imagination but I heard nothing but the chord pattern.

For this and many other reasons, it is not wise to attempt to produce oneself, especially in ones first forays into the recording world. Even though I am a producer as well as a performing songwriter, I would far rather be produced by a trusted outsider. Production is too much a left brain exercise (math, science, analysis) to be combined with song creation and performance, a right brain exercise (artistic, creative).

People often try to fancy up their vocabulary and show us how clever they are by using enormous multi-syllabic Greek- and Latin-rooted lyrics. Listeners do not like to be made to feel stupid nor do they wish to lug around a dictionary or thesaurus. These sorts of “inflated” words are neither honest nor musical. Nothing will alienate you from your listener faster than dishonesty.

Your songs can become habits, sometimes bad habits. Revisit them. Make sure they have a beginning and an ending. If you want radio play, make sure you have a verse, chorus and hook show up in the first minute or you will lose the interest of most listeners. Pay attention to the details. When in doubt, reduce the number of notes, beats, words and accompanying instruments. The less is more rule applies here. The lyric, melody and arrangement can become larger than life with the process of reduction. Try it. You just might like it.

Our greatest enemy in this whole process is ego, as in my CD, my song, my lyric. When it comes to recording, the song should be God. Leave egos at the door.

Step 2: Choosing the songs

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.

Good luck and, above all, have fun. To be continued.


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