This article was originally written for the " Ask the experts" column of the Northwest NARAS (the Grammies) newsletter.
Many people make the mistake of confusing production with drum sounds or something you "add" to a recording, when in truth production is inclusive process of making a record. As important as the sound of a record can be, what is far more important is that the song itself and the performance of that song be musically and emotionally engaging. One of the most overlooked and often neglected aspects of production is actually the most vital to this: Preproduction.
Preproduction is the work a producer and the artists do before the actual recording of a record begins. While many high budget albums and some poorly planned low budget albums will work on preproduction in the studio, this does not have to be the case. Preproduction is the single most cost effective, "bang for your buck" stage of producing a record, and critically important to making the best use of time, energy and budget in the studio. I would prefer a short amount of time in the studio to record an album, plus sufficient time for preproduction, than twice that recording time and no preproduction. Quite often people will compliment my production by commenting on the sound of particular instruments, voice or elements of a mix. While I am always flattered that people enjoy elements of my work, I usually consider my most important contributions to a record to be those that I made before we walked into the studio. Even the "sound" of the drums or a singer, usually has more to do with performance and arrangement strategies developed with the artist than a particular recording or mixing approach I may have used.
For most records, the only things necessary for successful preproduction are musical instruments and a room where people can play music together and exchange ideas. Certain modern styles of music, which are dependent on electronics, may require computers and samplers, but these things are really only modern musical instruments. Additional technology or complications serve only to pull the focus of the producer and the musicians away from making music and exchanging ideas. Preproduction should be a simple low cost stage of record production that helps save (or at least betters spend) money and make better records.
The goal of reproduction is to address three fundamental areas: 1) Songwriting and song crafting. 2) Defining the vision of the record. 3) Making sure that the performances serve the vision of the record. These areas will continually be addressed and developed throughout the recording process, but the more work that can be done on these issues before entering the studio, the more effective your time in the studio will be. The studio should be a place to explore nuances, charge emotional energy and capture the magic of a performance and the moment.
When I am producing a record the first things I want to look at are the songs. I am most concerned that the songs we are going to select to record for an album are the best songs we have available, and if they are songs written by the artist that those songs are the best they can be. We look at the songs and make sure that the strongest parts are highlighted and that the low points live up to the rest of the song. There are times when this will involve co-writing with the artist, but more often is only a matter of finding ways to use subtle variations in lyric, phrasing or harmony to strengthen a song. We also look at the length of parts that may work great in a live setting, but might work better on records at a different length. In the best cases it is a matter of not changing a thing.
For those of us mortals that regularly work on records with less than 7 figure budgets, the studio is not an ideal place for songwriting, even when budget is not a major concern, the studio is rarely the best place for writing and crafting songs. There are moments when great songs are written spontaneously in the studio or examples of artists that truly use the studio as a writing tool, but my experience has seen this to be more of an exception than a rule. More often than not, I have seen available technology distract songwriters from their craft. A great song will be a great song recorded into a boom box. The goal is to get all of the songs to that point.
For an artist and a producer to define a vision for an album, there is certainly no fancy studio equipment required. This can take place in a café, in a restaurant over dinner, in the bandıs practice space or even in cyberspace via Email or Internet chat, as is often the case for international project. All that is necessary is a way for people to be able to exchange ideas.
By the end of preproduction I want to have established a vision for the record. What is the feel or mood we are going for? What is the sound we are going for? What is the process we will use to record? Who are we making this record for? How long should an album be? What songs will be on the album? How do we integrate the desires of the artist and the record company? All of these questions should be answered before the artist and the producer step into the studio. Will you leave the studio with the same answers to those questions? Probably not, but it is important that there be a vision that these questions define, so there is a common goal for the entire team to work towards. If a team of people enter a studio with a clear goal and all work towards that goal, even if you miss that goal you will probably end up some where interesting and of value. If there is no clear vision for a record this will be reflected in the final product.
Many new artists will begin a project with a producer and engineer whose first involvement is the first day of recording. The producers first active engagement with the music is getting a kick drum sound and then building up the song and often first hearing the vocal and lyric during vocal overdubs. This operating method is common and critically flawed from the beginning. The sound of a kick drum and a lyric may seem unrelated, but in actuality that sound will alter how a listener experiences the vocal. This is true of every part of the recording. The producer may also realize at the end of recording a song that it is not in the best key for the vocalist and it is now to late to change the key. Or perhaps the performance of a particular instrument may actually fight the impact of the most important lyric in the song and can not be changed. With out an understanding of the big picture and a prior relationship with the songs, the producer is not able to fully serve the song and may inadvertently work against it.
Once a vision for a record has been established, it is important that the performances of the musicians work to support that vision. The performance of the musicians is the single most important element in determining the "sound" of a record and how a song will be translated to a listener. If some one compliments me on the drum sound of a record I have produced, I usually express my gratitude for the compliment and confirm that "yes, the drummer did play great." I more accurately say to myself "yes, the drummer really played to serve the song and the vision of the record we were trying to make". The foundation of great sounding instruments and recordings is great sounding performances. If a drummer wants a big rock sound, playing like a jazz musician will not serve that goal and visa versa. If a guitarist wants the vocals to sound great then the guitarist must play parts that support the vocal and donıt compete with it. Every performance effects not only the sound of that musicianıs instrument, but of all the other instruments and the entire mix.
The performance requirements of making a great record are often quite different than playing a great live show. Much of the performance work in preproduction is about addressing those differences. Listeners relate to music differently in their car or at home then they do at a concert and to best convey a song on a record you must tailor the performances to serve the particular needs of a record. One of the many reasons to address these issue in advance is that often it requires changes that can feel awkward (emotionally and physically) to a musician who has been playing a part a certain way live for some time. In preproduction, the band can work on these changes "off the clock" so that when they get into the studio the musicians have had a chance to get comfortable with the new parts. They can now focus on the artistic nuances of those parts without having to worry about the physical demands of the parts or emotional reactions to the changes.
The preproduction needs for every project will be different. In some cases it can be a matter of a short period of time to define the vision of a record with an artists whose songs and performances are already in great shape. In other cases it might involve several months of songwriting and performance coaching with the artists. With out proper preproduction it is impossible to truly establish the needs of a record and make the best use of your time in the studio. Preproduction is a 2-way education for the producer and the artists. It is a time to share ideas, to grow as musicians and develop the trust and skills that will be necessary when it is time to bring your best into the studio.
-- Ronan Chris Murphy works internationally as a recording producer and mixer. His credits include: Chucho Valdes y groupo Irakere, Josh White, Terry Bozzio, and several albums by King Crimson. For more info, check out www.venetowest.com
Please do not duplicate this material without requesting permission (which is easily obtained)