By Teri Danz
If more artists had post mortems as to why a recording
session tanked, they might discover the winds of
defeat can sometimes be blowing before anyone
even steps into the studio. Musical pre-production is
often discussed as a necessity when making records,
but it seems as if administrative and strategic plans
are often given little consideration. Well, guess what?
If you don’t address some of the “whys and hows”
before you start tracking, the musical parts and production
plans may be insignificant, because the project
might die before it’s even born.
What Is the Goal?
This is an oft-forgotten, but very deadly question.
Too many artists enter the studio without a clue as to
why they are really there. Are you making a demo? If
so, what is the demo for—managers, booking agents,
label executives, or publishers? Are you making a
master recording? If so, are you releasing the project
on your own, having it distributed through a label, or
handing the master to a bona fide record company?
For example, C. Tricky Stewart defines his production
role as “the liaison between a great song, the artist,
and what the label needs.” You need to know where
your project is meant to go.
Does Everyone Know His or Her Job?
Sometimes, democracies can be inefficient in the
studio work. In order to maximize productivity—as well
as to steer a project towards completion without
spending funds indiscriminately—it helps to have a
clearly defined chain of command. Be very clear
about the roles of the producer, engineer, and various
band members. Collaboration should still happen, of
course, but it’s often best when all opinions and ideas
are delivered in an arena of “managed collaboration.”
Are You Working with a Good Engineer?
You don’t have to be an accomplished engineer or
producer to make a good record, but, if you’re not,
then you need to work with one who can capture
what you hear. This means that the engineer with the
best hourly rate—or the one provided by the studio—
may not be the best partner to realize your creative
vision. Never be afraid to spend the time to get to
know the person who will be twisting the knobs for
you—and make sure that person understands what
you are trying to do.
Are You Aware of What You’re Competing
Learn what a “finished recording” sounds like for
an acceptable demo, a rock record, a pop record,
and so on. Compare your song to professional
recordings and/or hits, and note all the differences.
Are You Building a Strong and Appropriate
Depending on the genre, there are many ways to
start a recording. In hip-hop and dance, the rhythm
track rules. But for songwriters such as Jason Mraz
and John Mayer, the recording may start from the
foundation of a basic guitar and vocal track. Of
course, songs can start all kinds of ways, but certain
styles do tend to put more importance on one element
or another, so make sure your work hits the
style’s sweet spot.
Will You Allow for Spontaneity?
Let go of preconceived ideas and assumptions,
and let pure creativity guide the process. You can
always assess and edit the ideas later, but if you set
rules at the beginning of the process, you may prevent
something glorious from happening.
Do You Know When to Surrender?
“Learn when to let it go when it’s too hard to get,”
suggests producer/songwriter Robert Ellis Orrall. For
example, if a vocalist is trying over and over to get
something you’d like to hear, but they can’t or won’t
get it, then move on. Your choice is to have them
practice the part and try again later, or just let it go.
Sometimes, doing what is attainable is preferable to
getting a less-than-great performance on a part you
Will You Commit to Being a Solution—Not a
If something goes wrong in the studio—and it will—
be professional. Things can sometimes get heated
with the studio clock ticking and musicians or clients
getting anxious. Keep your cool. If it’s your studio and
you’re the producer, the solution will likely be your
call, but calmly detail your plan for getting back on
track. Don’t be too pushy or defensive or visibly confused
or angry. If the person who should be in control
seems out-of-control, then the whole session can
spin into the abyss.