Fig. 1. Sampled grand piano—recorded in a scratch track before a song’s downbeat—is used to double-check tuning for guitars and other pitched instruments.
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.