A primer on pre-production a little too 101 for you? You’d be surprised what you don’t know, have forgotten, got wrong the first time. Well, JEFF GLIXMAN is here to help.
I’ve been producing music for more than 30 years, and for me, pre-production is the key to a successful recording. Pre-production is where it all starts, and it’s a time of great opportunity. During this process, you can determine the techniques and approaches you’re going to use and you can get a good grasp on how a production will proceed.
First of all, something you’re going to think is a lie: pre-production is a lot of fun. This is the time to get to know your artist and their music. After all, the goal is to capture a personality, not just a performance. Some of the most fruitful time is spent hanging out, going to dinner, sitting around jamming, and listening to what your artist(s) have to say. I’m constantly striving to assess those qualities in my artists that are unique and distinctive and to expand and develop these qualities. I will then do my best to apply these characteristics to the music as we move ahead.
I don’t especially like to hear songs that are recorded demos, because they’re restricted (or enhanced) by the engineering and production skills of whoever worked on the demo at that time. I want to be able to go back to where the song started. This means starting with the songwriter and a guitarist or pianist playing and singing, and then moving into how the group is performing the song. At this point, we work on re-writing, (if necessary) the arrangements, the orchestration, and figure out the transitions that glue all the parts together. This is where I like to sort out the drum beats and grooves and determine the foundation instrumentation. While we’re working on a song — developing, arranging, re-arranging, and trying to predict what will wear well over time — I am formulating the sonic look for the production. Whether it’s intimate, immense, dark, bright, or uplifting, just like a movie we will have a look for each song, and everything from that point works toward achieving the sound associated with that look.
From an engineering standpoint, again, use this time to get to know your producer and the artists involved with the project. Taking this action is invaluable to the end result in both performances achieved and the overall smoothness and efficiency of the session. Pre-production involves tweaking the instruments and amplifiers to make sure they are in top-notch shape and you can achieve the sounds you are looking for, and addressing the drum sets to prevent squeaks and rattles. Knowing what gear you’re going to use and providing a sophisticated mic and equipment setup list to your studio in advance will greatly enhance the launch of your project.
One of the great misconceptions about pre-production is that it stifles creativity. The main thing artists will say when we first start talking about pre-production is that they prefer to be spontaneous. I appreciate that, and the last thing I want to do is restrict spontaneity. However, it has been my experience that a successful pre-production process promotes greater creativity and spontaneity. It also saves time, money, and headaches. As an example, Zak Rizvi and I were recently working with an up-and-coming band from Pennsylvania, Bridges and a Bottle. We had a brand new song they had just written, and the drummer had developed various beats for different sections of the song. However, it still needed a little massaging. So, we set up in a semi-circle in the studio’s large live room and worked our way through the song, changing patterns, trying many options before Zak, Bridges, and I were satisfied. Now, I didn’t want him to work out the drum fills, just the basic foundation of the song — where the parts are and what comes next. I wanted everyone to have the song embedded in their muscles so that they’re not thinking and they can be creative.
The analogy I like to use is snowboarding. There’s a big difference between getting down the hill without falling and really snowboarding. If you want to cut loose on the mountain and really create, you’ve got to learn the way the course is laid out. Once you’ve become familiar with the ins and outs of the mountain, you can let your body take over, start having fun, and be more creative in how you get down the hill. The same is true for your snowboard (instruments). There’s just no substitute for preparation. That’s the advantage of pre-production for the musician. Once your body is in tune with the song, you can stretch out and let freeform guide you.
Here is an example of how pre-production can determine the end result of a recording, including mic selection. While working on “Polly,” an acoustic song by Bridges and a Bottle, we initially set it up with a click reference and the guitarist playing, with plans to have the lead singer lay the vocals later. I was unhappy with the feel; it was losing something in the translation. We were not approaching the results achieved with the singer/songwriter performance we had from pre-production. I decided that we would record this track with Adam — the lead singer and guitarist — playing the acoustic guitar and singing simultaneously. No overdubs. No chance to go back on the vocal. No chance for AutoTune. We did two takes and Adam nailed it on the second. Through pre-production, I knew that I wanted to capture a certain intimacy in Adam’s vocals; I had decided on a specific microphone/preamp/compressor chain — in this case a Telefunken tube 47 into an Aurora GTQ2 and then through an LA2 compressor. There was a lot of spill from the guitar that had a certain sound through the vocal mic, so the selection of the guitar mic was determined by how it complemented the spill. Had we not addressed this song in its most raw form during pre-production, we would not have had that performance for reference.
Of course, there have been times in my career where I’ve been forced to put songs together in the studio, under the gun, with no time to conduct pre-production meetings. In these circumstances, I find that the lack of preparation most often shows up in the drum track. Returning to my snowboarding analogy, there’s a huge difference in the snowboarder who knows the downhill course and the one who’s still just trying to get down the hill without falling, and this applies to drummers. You can walk right in cold and start tracking, but I know that in three to four days, after living with grooves, I’m going to go back in and start tracking the songs again, because it just doesn’t develop quite the same. Either that, or at much greater expense, we do our pre-production work in the studio. Often, the arranging process continues through the recording, so the more that you get done in advance, the finer you can tune the track.
A successful recording session is dependent on a number of factors. However, for me, pre-production serves as the foundation. All kinds of things need to be sorted out before recording, and pre-production is the time to do it. In the end, you’ll have saved time and money, but most importantly, you’ll be more comfortable with your finished product.