On The Right Foot: Preproduction and Its Importance
So, firstly, what is preproduction?
Preproduction in many art forms is an essential process undertaken before the main production begins to ensure the quality and continuity of each of the stages, a planning stage if you will. Most projects have rigorous planning and detail refinement up to several months before the start of the project for the benefit of everyone involved. So each of the personnel knows what is expected of them, can deliver their necessary task, and all logistics are in place for the project to run seamlessly. Here’s a wiki definition.
However, in my experience (10 years as a professional producer/engineer) I have had maybe 10 to 15 preproduction sessions out of literally countless recording sessions, and of those few preproduction sessions all have benefitted the project greatly.
It appears that in many local music scenes the procedure goes a little like this: band want to record, they do some research and find a few recordings they like the sound of, check out who recorded them and where, then book a session. They turn up on the day, set up and start recording, with the person doing the recording never having heard a tune or met the band! This seems a little odd considering all the meticulous planning that goes into other art form projects and (hopefully!) records released on a label? I personally feel that this spontaneous approach can be very limiting and often detrimental to the project itself. From my (and many other engineer/producers) point of view it’s like being thrown completely in the deep end with no float and often no clear destination!
If a band is going into a studio to record a single track for release, even a self-release, it’s in everyone’s interest to do at least one session of preproduction. Mainly so the engineer/recordist can hear the songs, meet the band, get a feel for the sound and who they are, including their names etc. At the very least email the songs if only recorded on an iPhone as it gives an idea of what to expect!
There’s been the odd occasion when I’ve had no contact with the band at all prior to a session and have had to check out the bands previous output online to get a handle on their direction from this source only. The issue here is you can not be sure the band are still going in that direction and if they were happy with their previous efforts anyway! There have been sessions where this has happened and I’ve managed to produce something relatively close to what was intended but probably more by luck and experience than by design. The reason for that was quite possibly because the band didn’t actually know what they wanted! At least not until they heard it!
There is a caveat here though I feel. Demoing. A demo is basically when a band or artist have written a song or songs and want to hear what it/they sound like when recorded, or maybe recording several songs to pick which ones sound the strongest when recorded. Sometimes songs that work well live don’t translate well in recorded format. The band can then between themselves or if there’s a label involved make a decision on which songs to record and begin the process of preproduction. With demos the trick is 1 – Try not to get too attached to this recording and 2 – Don’t expect the recording to sound like a finished production!
Anyway, I’m digressing. So, what else does preproduction offer? Not only does it offer a chance for the band/artist and producer to meet and discuss ideas but also how their personalities will gel. The studio is an odd place for bands and producers. Well known producers can be quite strong characters so there is an element of getting comfortable with the personality and environment in order for the band to perform at their very best.
Likewise, a band can be quite an intimidating entity from an outsiders perspective, and therefore the producer also needs some common ground to be established in order to feel a connection and (eventually) be trusted by the band or artist. Trust is something often overlooked in this relationship particularly if the producer isn’t very well known and has to battle to gain trust or the other way round i.e. if the band are new and inexperienced.
There are obviously many degrees in which a producer is utilised in a project, particularly in modern music making. For example, they may be more of the traditional vibe person, the type of character that gets the band pumped and performing at their best like the Jimmy Iovine’s and Phil Spector’s of the world. Or perhaps they have a more managing and organising presence. Often, fine-tuning the writing by working with the primary song writer, to get to the heart of the songs is commonplace. In addition many producers these days ARE the writers or at least come up with the structure and instrumentation/beat, and the artist is there as the voice and vehicle for their ideas.
So you see, there’s much to think about, and these roles would be one of the things to discuss in a preproduction session (actually this is probably the first thing to discuss in a first contact email. A kind of pre-preproduction discussion!!)
I now just want to take the opportunity to clarify the term producer/engineer. I mentioned it earlier and don’t want to confuse this role with the other producer roles previously mentioned.
An engineer/producer is usually just a single person that takes care pretty much of all aspects of the recording. From setting up and positioning mics to operating the selected medium to record on to i.e. Protools, tape, HD etc and also discussing with the band the arrangement and parts and sometimes the way they are played and the sounds to be sought. This is quite common these days, many facilities are operated by the owners, which happen to also be the engineer, the producer, and tea boy/girl!!! Even though this may appear to be obvious and many bands have only had contact with this type of sound professional it’s not IMO sometimes the best route for all bands to go down. Unless of course there are the usual budget constraints then this may be the only option available.
Another avenue to explore here is the band/artist or band member doing the producing. This could be done either in a studio with an audio engineer to operate the equipment or it could mean the band in their own room recording themselves, which can of course work well for some bands. This approach can work because the band are comfortable with their environment and feel they can produce results of a high enough standard for their needs. Some self recorded projects have turned out to be some the best records ever made……but it remains quite rare!
Anyway, digressing again! Back to preproduction. Other things to consider during the session include, are any external musicians going to be used? Such as string or brass players if the band are wanting an authentic bespoke recorded string or brass section. OR even if such parts are to be added will virtual instruments be acceptable or even preferred? How about a good keys player? All these things most producers will have some idea of and indeed many of their friends are probably musicians and other people that can be very useful.
Is all the bands equipment in good working order such as the myriad of guitars the guitar player wants to use? Are they all in serviceable order i.e. the intonation is spot on and new strings are on each one? Are drum heads in good condition and are the drums tuned? Will it save time to get a professional drum tech to come into the studio to sort this? There are many other aspects of planning a session that can be useful to mention in the preproduction session. Even discussing which studio will best suit the needs of the band should be considered. Aspects such as mic and mic pre choices, the size of rooms and other facilities such catering or if there’s a cafe or other type of eatery near by? Do the bands work schedules need to be considered in booking studio time?
So, what else should be included in the preproduction sessions?
Time is often something that is overlooked in terms of how much is actually required. It is true to a certain extent that recording is a somewhat quicker process these days mainly due to digital format recording and not having to manage limited tracks and maintain tape machines and other devices well known for encroaching on valuable studio time. But, it should never be underestimated. By underestimating the amount of time required the result could (and probably will) be compromised in some form or another. Will the product be mixed in the proposed session? If not who will mix? The budget at this point again determines this, as additional mixing by a specialist mixer can often be more than the production budget!
As a final thought (and this isn’t meant to offend anyone, it happens) inexperienced musicians can sometimes counter the desired outcome of a recording session. This can mostly be prevented if in the preproduction sessions everyone is honest and leaves their ego’s at the door. For example, if the drummer has bad timekeeping and can’t play to a click it’s unlikely the recording is gonna be super tight sounding. So much of the sound of a band IS the ability of the band to play well. I’ve said similar things in past writings so I don’t want to go on about this, but basically expectation has to be managed if there are elements that are less than ideal. Rarely is everyone at the same level particularly in part-time or “fun” bands so please – just because you have entered into preproduction doesn’t mean all of sudden the band are going to sound as good as Queens of the Stoneage!!
Preproduction is merely a proper and important planning stage to enable a band or artist to fully extract the maximum potential from a recording/production/mixing session.Thanks for reading. Dave.