As 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.
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…