To Do'sAs I mentioned yesterday, there are really only 5 steps to the recording process. If that seems overly simplistic, then perhaps you’re overcomplicating things. The best way to keep yourself from being overwhelmed is to figure out how many steps you need to take to get to the finish line. Rather than saying, “I’ve got to finish this song,” you should be able to say, I’ve got to finish recording X instruments, then edit them, then mix then, then master them.”

You get the point.

Today let’s look at Step 1 – Pre-Production.

What is Pre-Production?

Pre-Production is simply a fancy term for planning. Do you have to plan out every detail of the song before your record a single note? Heck no. One of the most enjoyable parts of the recording process is how a song can take shape and even change direction as you add things to the song.

However, if you skip over this step entirely and just “wing it,” you’re possibly shooting yourself in the foot.

Why? Because as soon as you record that first track, you’re committed. After you start Step 2, the recording process, you can’t easily go back and change the arrangement, or the tempo. If you realize 3 weeks later that the song needs some major changes, you’re probably going to have to start over from scratch. Let’s avoid that, shall we?

My 6 Pre-Production Steps

Here’s how I go about doing pre-production on a song. Most of this just happens naturally as you’re writing the song, but I almost always go through these steps when beginning a new project.

If you write songs IN your recording software, then the line between pre-production and recording becomes somewhat blurred. Still, it would do you good to make sure you think through the pre-production process before getting too far into recording.

1. Quick Rough Demo of the Song

This should be quick and easy. If you’re planning on spending the next several weeks or months recording the song, you want to make sure the song is ready, right? Simply slap up a microphone and have the musician play through the song for you.

No click. The idea here is to simply capture the song in it’s purest form — a musician with an instrument.

This obviously works better with a song that can be played with just a guitar or piano and a singer. If you’re recording a full band, then have them play the song for you, and record that. You can still just record it with one mic, or maybe one of those cool little handheld recorders.

Again, the idea here isn’t even to make the recording sound good, you just want to capture the performance and move on to the next step.

2. LISTEN – Live with the song for a few days

If you can, take a few days to simply LISTEN to the rough demo. Throw it on your iPod and listen to it as you drive around town. Here’s where a lot of the creativity happens.

As you listen to the song, ask yourself a few questions. Does it need to be faster or slower? What instrumentation do you hear in your head? Does the arrangement need to change? Do the transitions work? How about the chord structure? Let your imagination run with it for a few days.

3. Choose the Right Tempo

One of the biggest time-wasters in the studio is recording at the wrong tempo. That’s why you should take time to identify the best tempo for the song. Once you start recording, you can’t go back and change the tempo.

4. Make Arrangement Changes

Should there only be a half chorus after the first verse? Should the bridge be longer? Should there be an instrumental break? How long should the intro be?

You can make a great song AWESOME with a killer arrangement. So spend some time deciding if there are things about the song that could be changed to make it have even MORE impact.

5. Determine the Overall FEEL of the Song

Is this song going to have a laid back, minimalistic feel? Do you want it to be a rockin’, in your face tune? Does the beat need to be very straight or should it swing a little?

You need to have some sense of the direction you want to go. Otherwise it’ll be hard to make the key decisions during the recording process. Leave room for the musicians to do their thing and make it sound awesome, but spend some time imagining in your head what you want the finished mix to sound like, and work from there.

6. Record Scratch Tracks

Once you’ve gone through the steps above, you’re ready for the very first step of the recording process — recording scratch tracks. Scratch tracks are simply guide tracks, recorded to a click (metronome), that you will use to guide the recording process.

Now that you have the arrangement laid out like you want it, and you’ve selected the right tempo and determined the feel you want, you’re ready for scratch tracks. For me, scratch tracks are almost always a guitar and a vocal, and I usually end up replacing them later in the recording process with “actual” takes.

For the scratch tracks, have the musicians play through the song like we want it to be on the record, all locked in to a click track. If there are other instruments that need to be there, just to inject that “feel” into the song, then I’ll record those too as scratch tracks.

From there I can go ANYWHERE. I can send the scratch tracks off to a drummer to record his part. I can bring in the full band and record on top of those scratch tracks. The fun is about to begin.

And I know I’ll like the end result, because I spent a little time planning the song before I dove in and started recording.

Comment Time!

What about you? Do you go through some sort of pre-production process? Do you agree that it’s valuable? Do you disagree? I want to hear from you, so leave a comment below.

Production Club 2.0

If you want and in-depth look at how I go through the pre-production process in my studio, then make sure you check out the Production Club. The doors open up soon…

19 Responses to “Step 1 – Pre-Production”

  1. Reid Howland

    Yes to all of the above: you’ll end up with a tight, fleshed-out and polished version of what you do live.
    But what if you’re an experienced group, with an experienced recordist, and you’ve made that album already, maybe more than once? The modern DAW allows for a more experimental approach, and that’s where I am right now. As long as there’s an actual song, the only thing that needs to be determined is the tempo: whoever wrote and sings the song comes in and puts down a guide guitar and a guide vocal, and from there, any idea, even the drummer’s, is fair game. Everything is fresh, interesting, and fun again, with opportunities abounding to make the White Album instead of With the Beatles, y’know?

  2. steve long

    Pre production is so important Theirs nothing worse than finishing a song for someone and them saying it’s to slow. I always encourage a rough demo and let them listen for a week and write down where they see the song going eg. acoustic or electric, rock or country, lead breaks, bridges, etc.. Another thing I like to encourage is for them to bring an example of the type of sound they want. Either a wave file or an mp3 and I’ll stick it right into the daw to help with tempo, levels and tone, that sort of stuff. I’ll even A/B the two mixes. This is all stuff the songwriter/performer can do on their own before coming to the studio. Of course I’ll do similar and we can compare our ideas.

  3. Baba Prasad

    Well, Pre-Production is very important before they step-into my studio!

    Golden Rules:

    1. I always ask the band to plan the number of songs they are going to record.

    2. The band should well practice the songs before and plan ahead.

    3. I always create a Template in Protools and keep it ready during the Recording day, this speeds up everything and ensures smooth operation through the recording phase.

    4. All the song temp, beats should be well planned ahead. I even choose the Mic’s which suite the band artiste member’s when do the rehersal!

    This is what I feel that it needed in the Pre-Production Stage.

  4. Leyla

    I am agree with you. Is so important the pre-production, is like a blueprint in engineering. 🙂

  5. Garrett

    Pre production is a relatively new idea for me. Obviouosly I have always done some type of pre production, but sense becoming more aware of the process I have been able to map out my songs a lot better and really just be more intentional with my song. Where my process differs from yours is in the demo/arrangement area. The song is pretty much mapped out when i bring it to the studio as far as melody and chords. I initially record a loop of each section of the song and then kind of start to try stuff out as far as new guitar parts, piano, etc. I then piece the sections together so by the end of the demo i have a full song and a very good idea of where i am heading when it comes to the final recording session. In theory i would like the final session to just be a very well recorded version of the demo.
    I think the one issue with this method for me is that when recording the demo I get lazy and take ATON of shortcuts, Im not sure if that kind of thing transfers over to when im in an actual session, but we should always practice like we play i suppose.

    On a side note, I thought i would mention that scratch tracks have been my greatest discovery of the last year or so. I used to record guitar or some kind of rythm first and then build the song around it, but when recording scratch tracks and then tracking drums. I can go back a rerecord guitar and get a real FEEL that wasn’t there before. Its kind of like that whole “playing around the click track” thing that curt cobain used to talk about. Thanks Joe!

  6. Tomas


    I thing that one important step before recording song is play it on gigs to listeners. It give You best answer if is Your song good enough or not.
    It is good old-fashioned style of producing music. Dark Side of the Moon from Pink Floyd is good example. In this days go everything from end – First record songs and after it go on tour to support new CD …

  7. Frank Nitsch

    Hi Joe,

    good points, but as you mentioned in the beginning: it is quite different, if you arrange your songs in your DAW. Of course you could follow the very same steps, but why not recording a track nicely insteas of doing a scratch track only? If equipment is setup the whole time, it shouldn’t make much difference in effort, just in discipline during recording. This approach can save time, if the take is done just right. Another idea that comes to my mind: reamping – especially for guitars – is aone of my favorites. However it somehow it doesn’t support the clear separation of steps you propose. Why? You can leave it open, which sound to record until mixing even! Maybe it would help to limit the reamping options to only the recording stage and to decide, which sound to use, and then stick with it during mixing instead of re-recording (reamping) an instrument once more with a sound fitting better into the mix?

    Curious about your comments and about the next postings.

    Thanx & take care


  8. John Taglieri

    I’ve done preproduction on a few of my CDs…so we tried something different on the last two EPs that we did. We literally would write a song and head right to the studio and record it. We’d do a scratch vocal/guitar track to a click…then i’d sit at the drums, listen to it 2-3 times and lay a drum track. NO thinking…just going where the song wanted. We’d then do the same for the bass. Get very organic tracks. Then we’d lay what we thought were the basic rhythm guitar tracks. Same thing…just let them fall out. After that, we’d spend a little time talking about the sweetener tracks…more guitars, keys, percussion, etc…and take a little time on them, but we limited ourselves to no more then 2-3 takes. Vocals were done the same way. Really just let the songs guide me thru and run. I had some big Nashville musicians lay some tracks thru email and told them no more then 1-2 takes. We wound up with a CD that had sort of a live feel, with great production and life to it. I’ve done two EPs this way and loved it. I’ve done full pre-pro in the past and sometimes felt like we took some of the life out of the songs. So I guess I’m trying to find that happy balance between the two styles.

    I’m almost done building my new studio and cant wait to get to work in it and see what I can do there…should be done by end of December!!

  9. jeremy

    Re: tempo – i usually expand or compress the time on the recording to find the best tempo on the demo/scratch tracks and then re-record over that. Thank you Science!

  10. mark

    In my opinion pre production process is very important thing and I’d say very determining the final result. Usually all those steps you’ve mentioned take just a few days. My order of steps is a bit different.

    demo & fast tracking
    rough demo just for listening, fast tracking for more detailed listening. We tap tempo in Pro Tools and performing the song over midi loop, slightly changing tempo each time until we’re fine with it.

    work on arrangements and parts & rehearsing new version
    so after first step we take our time for 1 or 2 days and after that come in studio with some ideas, spending the whole day for arrangements and new stuff for the song. after that we take our time again for rehearsing the song with new parts.

    recording day
    by that day we’re having scheme of our song, bpm and some comments. it makes it easier to record song in short time without mistakes and hundreds of takes. We record all the main instruments and all parts of the song, and only after that we add some additional stuff like percussion, fxs, synth and whatever we want. So we can add something and change it a little bit in a few days after recording, but basically it’s done by that time.

    My personal approach – i don’t like to listen to the same song over and over again, making 10 different demos before recording, and making another recordings with some new stuff and after that I know I have to listen to that again while recording the final version. So I like to keep it fresh. Fast demos + fast tracking, ideas and arrangements + a bit of rehearsing with new stuff and final recording. I believe that any song should come up very naturally and fast.

  11. Mike

    i also got to say i love what you do here and am very grateful i signed up to read everything because its one of the most helpful sites available so i thank you for taking you time helping everyone.

  12. Mike

    i totally i agree i need to do the same thing.. i start a song finish it and then while mixing i notice things i would want to change but don’t because the track is almost finished and i don’t feel like starting over. so then i end up with a track i feel that;s not fully complete. so this is a big insight on what i need to be doing.. especially with the scratch recordings, record and listen. make changes, record and listen, make changes, and so on until im happy and then mix.

    thanks for the post it was def. a eye opener!

  13. Bob Sorace

    I really need to follow these steps, because I’ll get halfway through the recording and realize It’s too slow, or whatever else I discover. I tend to write as I record, and sometimes it works out great, but other times not so much. Yeah, I really need to plan these things out more, there’s nothing more frustrating then realizing the past week was a complete waste!

  14. Mitch

    Joe, thanks for the helpful reminders. The more I record the more I’m seeing the benefits in pre-production. My question is, I’ve been mostly recording solo artist that want to record cover songs, so are steps 3 – 5 necessary if they want to record the song similar to the original artist rendition. I can see how steps 1 and 2 would help the artist and myself become more accustom to the song, your thoughts.

    Also on step 6 I’m usually using a drum program to create the beats. Would it make more sense to create the drum tracks for the whole song first and then have the artist sing and play over that?

    Again thanks for all your efforts. Looking forward to reading your future post on the recording process



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