Okay, so you’re getting ready to start recording that next hit album. You’ve got the musicians lined up, you’ve scheduled your sessions.
Now what? Do you jump right in and start recording? Easy there, Tiger. There’s an important step that needs to happen next — pre-production.
What is Pre-Production?
Pre-production is the planning phase for the entire album. It’s where you take a song in its simplest form (usually a guitar-vocal or piano-vocal) and plan out how you will build the recording around it.
This is a crucial phase of the entire process. You can liken recording an album to starting a business. You need a business plan. If you jump in without a plan, you’ll most likely end up scratching your head at the end of the project, wondering why you hadn’t planned things out more carefully.
Live and Die by the Arrangement
Pre-production becomes most important when dealing with the arrangement of the songs. I’m not referring to the order of the songs on the album. While that should be taken into consideration, it’s not crucial in the pre-production stage.
By arrangement I mean the outline, or structure, of the individual songs. Should there be two measures between the chorus and the verse or four? Should the bridge be longer? How long should the intro be? Should there be an intro at all? Will the tempo of the song remain constant throughout the song or does it need to change?
You need to ask these types of questions, because as soon as you dive into that first tracking session, you’re locked in to whatever arrangement you record. It becomes near impossible to change the arrangement of a song once you have several parts recorded.
The arrangement is like the backbone of the song. You can change the instrumentation as you see fit throughout the recording process, but the basic layout remains the same. That’s why it’s so important to get it right from the outset.
Perhaps this whole concept of pre-production is new for you. You may wonder what it looks like in real life. Here are some suggested steps you can take:
Determine a tempo
There are varying opinions on whether or not you should record to a metronome, or click track. Some would argue that music needs to breathe and flow, and that using a strict tempo inhibits creativity. While there is certainly some truth in this, a lot of people who complain about playing with a click track are simply complaining because they can’t play at a steady tempo!
If you’re recording an entire band, and everyone is playing at once, at least try using a click track. If the performance is really suffering, get rid of the click and let the musicians play. It’s better to capture an emotional, dynamic performance that waivers in tempo than a stiff, rigid, lifeless recording.
However, if you’re taking an overdub approach, recording only one or two parts at a time, it becomes really helpful to record everything at a set tempo. This is helpful for a number of reasons.
- This allows you to record several takes of a single part. If they are all recorded at the same tempo, then you can go back and use different takes as needed. For example, perhaps the guitarist nailed the verse but made a mistake in the chorus on his first take. Instead of hounding him to play one, single, perfect take. Have him record the entire song a couple of times. Chances are you’ll come away with one solid performance, and if not, you’ve got backup takes you can copy and paste as needed.
- When and if you decide to add MIDI instrumentation to a song, having the song already mapped to a tempo grid makes it easy to quantize MIDI parts and even loops to the tempo of the song.
- Having a steady tempo can keep the musicians from running away with the song, playing it too fast. You’ve heard this happen plenty of times. The musicians tend to speed up as the energy of the song increases. I’ve done this myself a lot. When I play a song at a show, I almost always play it a little too fast. In the studio, I let the click track reign in the speed of my performance.
Most recording software platforms have some sort of marker system. This is a simple way to label sections of the song. These can be very simple — Intro, Verse 1, Chorus, etc.
However, you can get creative with these markers, especially during pre-production. Let’s say you’ve got the arrangement of the song figured out, but you’re not sure where you want the drums to come in, or where to put background vocals. Create markers for your different ideas. This way you won’t forget them before the next session. In fact, Pro Tools lets you save notes with your markers (see pic), so you can document what you want to try in each section of the song. This gets saved with the session, so you won’t worry about keeping up with your notes on pen and paper!
Record Scratch Tracks
Scratch tracks are basic, quick recordings of the song that you use as your guideline. Typically it’s a guitar or piano track and a vocal track, recorded to the tempo of the song. (I name these tracks with an ‘X’ for ‘scratch’ in the beginning — X Guitar, X Vox, etc.)
The sound quality of the scratch tracks is not all that important. Most likely you’ll re-record these parts later. The purpose of scratch tracks is to allow you to listen to the arrangement and tempo of the song to decide what works.
I’d recommend dedicating your first recording session to simply recording scratch tracks. You can listen to them over the next few days and decide if anything needs to be changed in the arrangement.
Since these tracks aren’t that important, you can cut or add sections freely. It doesn’t matter if the transition doesn’t sound smooth when you copy and paste the different sections around. What matters during this phase is getting the arrangement right.
Once you have the arrangement like you want it, you can now begin to record the “real” parts. Eventually you’ll mute (and inactivate) the scratch tracks.
Give it Time
When finished with pre-production, it can be easy to want to just jump in and make that hit record. However, be sure to schedule in some buffer time between pre-production and your first recording session. Give your scratch tracks time to “simmer,” especially if you’re going to be recording relatively new songs.
Whenever I finish writing a song, I’ll usually make a quick recording of it. Over the next few days I’ll listen to that recording. Almost every time I’ll come up with things I want to change. Giving myself some time allows me make these changes before committing them to the final recording.
I know it may seem like a waste of time to do all this preparation, but it will save you time and frustration down the road. All of your favorite albums were not recorded on a whim. They were carefully planned. We don’t hear the planning in the music. We simply hear a well-performed, well-arranged album.
What pre-production tips to you have? Share them by leaving a comment!