In many musician’s minds, music production is either some sort of wizardry or overhyped bunk. While it true that either is a possibility, most of the time a producer’s job comes down to hard work, experience, some good ears, and a real feel for what makes the music work. This series about music production is based around my new book, The Music Producer’s Handbook, where I’ll outline some basic production techniques and hopefully remove the vail of mystery from the process. Be aware that we’ll be looking at the relationship of a producer with a band or an artist with a backing band or studio musicians. We’ll tackle self-production later in the series.
Also available in this series:
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 1
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 2
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 3
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 4
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 5
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 6
In Part 2, we’ll look at the most overlooked, but one of the most crucial parts of production - preproduction.
What Is Preproduction?
Preproduction is the time when all the songs and arrangements are worked out and honed before entering the studio to record. It can take place in a garage, a bedroom, or a rehearsal room, and can last from as little as a day to a couple of months.
A long preproduction schedule is generally a function of working with artists or bands that write their own songs and are early in their careers since the songs and arrangements sometimes require a fair amount of tweaking. Artists and bands later in their careers usually have a greater sense of arrangement and musical execution, and have become sophisticated enough musically to keep the preproduction phase to a minimum as a result.
There’s hardly ever any preproduction for commercials and movie or television scores since the composer has the arrangement pretty well worked out beforehand and the musicians are skilled enough to learn or read it on the spot.
If there’s enough time, preproduction are broken in three sections: before, during and after rehearsals. Each one plays a major part in the process of preparing the artist or band for the actual recording.
Before the first rehearsal begins, the producer will usually take time to get to know the artist or band, and vice-versa, if they don’t know each other well already. There needs to be a period where a rapport and comfort level is developed in order for things to go smoothly in the studio, and preproduction is the time when that happens.
One of the most important aspects of getting to know an artist is learning what music she loves, was influenced by, and is listening to now. An effective way of doing this has its roots in the days of vinyl record albums, when the producer would go to the artist’s house and have them throw a bunch of albums from their collection on the floor, and then describe what they liked and didn’t like about each of them. You can still do the same thing with CDs, or use a phone, iPod or iTunes playlist (without the throwing, of course). Among the questions to ask might be:
What do you like or dislike about the artist you’re listening to? Why?
Do you like the sound of the recording? Why?
What recordings do you like the sound of? Why?
What are some of your favorite records? Why?
What are your biggest influences? Why?
What do you like about my work (the producer - if you have a body of work already)? Why?
These questions give the producer an understanding of the artist’s influences, likes and dislikes, which then give the producer a better idea of what the artist or band needs to hear their the upcoming recording.
It’s also important to go to dinner together, to hang out, and to get a feel for some of the hot-button issues. For instance, if the singer feels strongly about immigration (either way), or the state of current local or national politics incite a near riot between band members, the producer then knows to stay away from those issues in order to efficiently get some work done later during production. If the drummer’s girlfriend just broke up with him and he’s feeling pretty depressed, it’s good to know not to go anywhere near the subject if you want to get a great performance. On the other hand, maybe you’ll get an even better performance if the subject is brought up, so this is the time to find out which way to go.
While the producer may side with the artist or band’s politics, or may lend a big brother helping hand to a depressed player at the right time to move the project along, the whole idea is to keep the band focused on the task at hand, which is making great music. That means keeping the distractions to a minimum, especially the ones that are self-inflicted, like controversy about things other than music.
The Ground Rules
Another thing that’s important for the producer to develop is a set the ground rules for working in the studio during preproduction. If the producer says upfront, “We’re going to work from noon until 9PM every day unless we get on a roll, but I promise that you’ll be home by midnight,” the players tend to stay more focused because they know what’s expected of them and for how long (the work time will change according to the artist, of course). When a routine is set up before hand, it makes a big difference in the daily preparation of the players, even to where they’re more likely to get there on time because the start time is the same every day. This also helps if any of the players have a family, since it gives them some normalcy in their lives while working.
Of course, if the singer can only croak until 5PM, at which time his voice magically opens up to that of an angel, the producer has to be smart enough not to schedule any vocal sessions during that time. And that’s part of what preproduction does - it allows the producer to learn the strengths and quirks of the players in order to get the most out them when it counts.
The ground rules will usually extend beyond just starting and ending time as well. Are guests welcome in the studio? If so, when? Are alcohol or drugs permitted (usually not a good choice)? Does a band member have to be there if he’s not playing (like during overdubs)? These are just some of the things to work out and the time to do that is during preproduction.
The real heavy lifting of preproduction is done during rehearsals. You can become friends with the artist or band and you can figure out their quirks, hot-buttons, likes and dislikes, but you still have to get the music whacked enough into shape to record, and that can only happen during rehearsals. This is actually a three-stage process broken down into the songs, the arrangements and the execution of the performance. Let’s look at each.
You (the producer) have probably been listening to demos or recorded rehearsal performances of the songs previous to beginning rehearsals, but you never know just what kind of shape that they’re in until you hear them for real, and this means either at a show or during rehearsal.
If the songs are constructed well, the state of readiness of the songs for recording depends upon the arrangements and execution of those arrangements. If a song lacks form or is incomplete, it’s up to the producer to help the writer whip it into better shape, or find an alternate song.
Although song writing is itself a process too complex to cover in depth the this post, here are a couple of common songwriting problems to be on the lookout for:
No Focus - This means that the song meanders from chord to chord without an apparent structure and no clear distinction between sections. This is the result of not honing the song enough (or at all) and thinking it’s finished way before it’s time. Sometimes there’s really a song in there if you peel it back a bit, but usually the only way to fix it is to go back to the drawing board for a major rewrite.
A Weak Chorus - A chorus that’s interesting is usually one that’s different from the verse. It may be only a little different, like adding background vocals or another instrument, or an accent or anticipation to the same chord changes and melody (like Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop 'Till You Get Enough with the string pad and horn fill, or Coldplay’s Clocks with a return of the opening riff). Or it will be a lot different, like a different set of chord changes or melody combined with arrangement changes like Vertigo by U2. Either way, something has to change in the chorus to lift the energy and keep the song memorable.
No Bridge - In song writing, a bridge is an interlude that connects two parts of the song, building a harmonic connection between those parts by increasing or decreasing the tension. A bridge is important because it provides a basic quality found in all art forms - tension and release (in music going from loud to quiet or quiet to loud, in painting going from dark to light colors, in photography it would be light to shadows, etc.), to keep things interesting. Almost every great song has a bridge, but there are the occasional exceptions. Songs that are based on the straight 12 bar blues frequently don’t have bridges but might use dynamics or arrangement to provide the tension and release.
Have Some Extras
Regardless of the number of songs you plan on recording, you usually want to have an extra song or two in your pocket for a couple of reasons:
Maybe everything about the session will be magical, the band will sound awesome, and the execution will be so precise that you burn through the songs you want to do and have some extra time left. This hardly ever happens, but if it does it’s nice to be able to take advantage of the hot streak and have an extra song or two ready to go.
One of the songs just does not sound that great no matter what you do. The feel isn’t right, the groove is gone, the temp’s out the window - it happens, so it’s best to move on to something else, which can only happen if you have that something extra prepared.
In some ways it’s easier to learn about arrangements by looking at what makes a bad one first. No matter what kind of music it is, from rock to country to goth to rock-a-billy to alien space music, you want the song to be interesting to your particular audience, so beware of any of the following:
Sections That Are Too Long - Unless you’re extremely accomplished or do a style of music where this doesn’t apply, the idea is to keep all parts of the interesting and to the point. Two minute intros, three minute guitar solos and five minute outros are almost always boring, so you’re always better off to have a section too short rather than too long. There are exceptions (Lynard Skynard’s classic Free Bird, with its slight arrangement changes, kicks and accents every 16 bars, comes to mind), but it usually takes a lot of arranging skill to pull it off.
No Intro/Outro Hooks - If we’re talking about modern popular music (not jazz or classical), most of the songs have an instrumental line (or hook) that you’ll hear at the beginning of the song, maybe again in the chorus, and any time the intro repeats in the song. A great example would be the opening guitar riff to the Stone’s Satisfaction or the piano in Coldplay’s Clocks. Developing intro/outro hooks are one of the major jobs that always confronts the producer.
Instruments That Clash - If too many instruments play in the same frequency range, they’ll clash. This is generally seen when there are two guitar players who play similar rigs (they both have Strats and Marshalls, for instance), but can happen between any two instruments. It’s the producers job to change the register, change the part, change the line, or change the sound to make everything fit.
Songs Out Of Range For The Singer - Let’s face it, some songs written on and for guitar just sound better played in A or E, but that doesn’t mean that the singer can actually sing it in those keys. It’s the producer’s job to make sure that the song is in the key that makes the singer shine, yet doesn’t rob the song of it’s essence or sound (sometimes a tall order).
You can have great songs and great arrangements but if you can’t execute the performance it still won’t sound any good. It’s inevitable that the producer will be confronted with the problem “Why doesn’t this song (or part in the song) sound right?” Maybe it’ll feel great on one run-through and not as good on the next. Maybe it sounds great except for one section. Maybe it never sounded great but you think the song has something special and are willing to spend the time working it out.
While music is built around the elusive value of “feel,” which can be very hard to define, there are certain mechanics that determine how tightly the music is played, and for want of a better term, how “big” it sounds. These principles apply to any kind of music, from marching band to deep house to reggaeton to speed metal, the principles are all the same. If something doesn’t sound “right,” it’s probably due to one of the following.
Playing with dynamics means playing with less intensity in certain places in a song, and louder or with more intensity in other places. Most young bands are oblivious to dynamics and play at one volume throughout the entire song (or all the songs, for that matter), which can get boring for the listener very quickly. If the band plays the song dynamically, the song breathes volume-wise. Going from loud to quiet or quiet to loud is another example of “tension and release”.
The real secret to playing dynamically is this: When you play loudly, play as loudly as you can, and when you play softly, play as softly as you can, then find a third level in between!
For a really great example of dynamics, listen to Smells Like Team Spirit by Nirvana where the verses are at quiet, the pre-choruses are louder, and the choruses just roar.
There are three parts to timing that if not performed the same way by each band member, make the song sound sloppy: song starts and stops, the groove, and attacks and releases. Let’s look at each one.
Song Starts and Stops (Beginnings and Endings) - You could call song starts and stops “beginnings and endings” except for the fact that sometimes there are stops and starts in the middle of a song. The trick here is to make sure that everyone starts and stops the song at the same time. These cannot be left for later, or treated with an “It will be better in the studio” attitude. Rehearse each start and stop until everyone is locked in and knows it like the back of their hand! If it still doesn’t sound right after five or six tries, ask each band member, “How are you playing it?”. As is the case with most things that don’t lock in tight, there’s at least one player who may be playing things slightly differently from the rest. Regardless of how the song starts or ends, everyone has to play it the same way - no exceptions.
The Groove - ALL good music, regardless of whether it’s Rock, Jazz, Classical, Rap or some new space music that we haven’t heard yet, has a strong groove. You always hear about “the groove”, but what is it?
The Groove Is The Pulse Of The Song And How The Instruments Dynamically Breathe With It.
A common misconception of a groove is that it must have perfect time, but a groove is created by tension against even time. That means that it doesn’t have to be perfect, just even, and all performances don’t have to have the same amount of “even-ness”. In fact, it makes the groove feel stiff if it’s too perfect. This is why quantization of parts and lining up every hit in a workstation when you’re recording frequently takes the life out of a song. It’s too perfect because there’s no tension. It’s lost its groove.
Getting the rhythm section to groove with the rest of the band is much more difficult than you might think since guitarists don't always listen to the drummer, a keyboardist may have metronomic time yet have a difficult time coordinating his/her left hand with the bass player, and vocalists will often forget that there's a band playing behind them altogether. The key is for everyone in the band to listen to one another!
Attacks and Releases - Attacks and releases (sometimes called “articulations”) are one of the most overlooked, yet most important elements in playing together. Attacks and releases usually refer to a phrase that you’re either playing or singing. The attack part is easy - everyone starts to play or sing at exactly the same time in the same way. The releases are what’s overlooked. A release is how you end a phrase and is as important as how you start it. Once again, everyone has to play it at exactly the same.
Another often overlooked portion of a song that needs to be tight is the turnaround between sections, like the one or two bars between the verse and chorus, chorus and verse, verse and outro, chorus and bridge, etc. This part requires a lot of focus because it’s usually played a little differently from the rest of the section. For the drummer, it’s usually a tom or snare roll into the next section, but unless it’s a build, most players not experienced in recording will sometimes just randomly play something over the roll. This won’t work as you’ll find a turnaround requires a precise line that has to play be played in order to stay tight with the drums.
Every song needs the perfect tempo to groove. One of the things we discover early when making records is that as little as a single BPM (beat per minute) can make a big difference in how a song feels. Just a little slow and the song seems to drag; a little fast and it feels uncomfortable or becomes difficult to play. Therefore, it’s really important that you establish the song’s ideal BPM before you record it.
The Preproduction Demo
No matter how well preproduction rehearsals seem to go, it’s really important to make a preproduction demo recording, preferably somewhere other than your rehearsal space, because you never really know what a player is playing until he’s recorded. Also, it’s important to get the band out of its safe and comfortable rehearsal environment so they know that when things sound different in a new environment (as they will), it’s not necessarily a negative thing.
The preproduction demo doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to take much time. In fact, the cheaper and faster, the better. What you’re trying to learn is how well everyone is playing together and if the arrangements and song structures actually work, so a couple of passes of each song at the most is all that’s necessary unless there’s a major train wreck. Performance mistakes are okay, as long as you can hear the complete form of the song, and don’t worry about overdubs or layering except for a quick run through to check out an idea. Perfection is not the objective for the demo, information about the song structure, arrangement and individual parts is.
After listening to the recording (even just listening to playbacks while recording), it should be apparent what needs to be fixed or improved, which should take place at another round of rehearsals. It’ll also help the players as they hear what they’re playing against everyone else. It’s not uncommon to hear comments like, “I didn’t know you were playing it like that,” during a playback.
The idea behind all of this is to get the parts down so that the real recording is done efficiently with no surprises and the players only need to concentrate on their performances instead of having to learn new parts. Many times, by the time a player learns the new part in the studio, his performance has suffered so much it takes an additional session just to capture a great performance. Preproduction hopefully eliminates that.
In the next post, we’ll take a look at working with an artist or band in the studio.