Sampled grand piano—recorded in a scratch track before a song’s
downbeat—is used to double-check tuning for guitars and other pitched
SOME PEOPLE think of pre-production solely
as arranging that’s best left to spontaneous
recording sessions. But it’s a lot more
fundamental than that. Shun pre-production,
and your so-called keeper tracks might end up
being out-of-tune, in the wrong key, recorded
at a bad tempo, or riddled with unintended
dissonance—not exactly what you’d want to keep.
In this article, I’ll detail the pre-production
techniques I use to guarantee that keeper
tracks will be built on a strong foundation. I
always begin with the singer in mind.
Find the Right Key If someone other
than you will sing the song, listen to other
recordings on which they’ve performed.
Determine the highest note the vocalist can
sing with strength, and then transpose your
song so that the top note of your melody is the
same note. We’ll call this your initial target key.
If your melody hits its highest note many times
in succession, you’ll probably need to lower
the initial target key a major 2nd in order for
your songbird to be able to nail it repeatedly
without sounding strained or pitchy.
Now find the lowest note of the melody
in your newly transposed key. Is it too low
for your singer’s range? If so, and if using a
different singer is not an option, consider
changing the melody slightly. An isolated
bottom note that drops a 5th below the second
lowest note can sometimes be moved higher,
so that it drops only a 3rd, without hurting the
melody. If that change falls within the singer’s
range, the key is good to go.
Set a Pace Once you’ve found the song’s
optimal key, record a guitar/vocal or keyboard/
vocal dummy take of one verse and chorus,
using a metronome set to what you think is
probably the best tempo for the song. This
needn’t be a great performance free of clams
and bad singing, but it’s important that it’s
locked to the metronome’s tempo.
Record additional dummy takes at tempi
two, four, and six bpm faster and slower than
your first scratch recording. For example, if your
original tempo was 130 bpm, record additional
takes at 124, 126, 128, 132, 134, and 136 bpm.
Listen back—without playing an instrument—to
all seven takes (including the original), and pick
the tempo that sounds best (for example, 134
bpm). Then record two more dummy takes that
are 1 bpm slower and faster (133 and 135 bpm), to
zero in on the absolute best tempo.
Don’t be surprised if the tempo you
ultimately choose is faster than that of the first
scratch take. When we play a relatively new and
unpracticed song, we tend to do so at a tempo
at which it’s comfortable for us to perform—not
necessarily at a tempo a listener would most
enjoy. If you bypass this exercise, you’re more
likely to end up with keeper tracks recorded at
a plodding tempo that bores.
Record your click track at your preferred
tempo—or tempi. You might find that the chorus
needs to be one or two bpm faster than the verse,
to fan the flames. If that’s the case, program tempo
changes in a conductor track throughout the song
and record your click track to that.
Tune Twice If you record any guitar tracks
in pre-production, beware: A guitar can sound
perfectly in tune with itself while being a few
cents off from concert pitch. It’s only later,
when keyboards and other properly tuned
instruments are added to the production,
that the guitar will sound sour. You can use a
polyphonic pitch-shifter to move the guitar’s
tuning to concert pitch, but it’s far better to
avoid the problem in the first place.
The solution is to tune twice: first using
an accurate tuner, and then to a musical
reference. I typically record several bars of
sampled grand piano, playing chords for the
song in whole notes, to a scratch track. I use that piano track as my musical
reference against which I double-check my
guitar’s tuning. If the guitar’s intonation
sounds sweet alongside the piano track, I
know it’ll sound in-tune with any keeper
tracks I subsequently lay down.
Examine the Melody and Harmony
Structure Ferret out clashes between your
melody and harmony (chords) before sending
your song to a hired singer or tracking basics.
Play and sing the song at half-tempo or slower to
spotlight any dissonance that was too fleeting to
notice when played at full speed. Change either
the melody or harmony to remedy any clash.
Record guitar/vocal or keyboard/vocal
scratch tracks, and then listen back intently for
any unwanted dissonance. You’ll sometimes
hear problems that went unnoticed when you
were distracted by playing an instrument.
Get it Right From the Start If you forego
pre-production, you might be able to rescue
lame tracks using pitch- and time-shifting. But
they’ll almost never sound as good as if you
fine-tuned your key, tempo, tuning, melody, and
harmony at the starting line. Pre-production is
the foundation for stellar tracks.
Michael Cooper (myspace.com/michaelcooperrecording) is a producer,
audio engineer, and contributing editor for
Electronic Musician and Mix magazines.