Preproduction is the ultra-important process of getting everything in place to make the best album possible. It has an indelible impact on the recording process and the quality of the album that results. The sad fact is, it is overlooked entirely or in part by most new artists and by a shocking number of established recording and touring acts. That’s a major reason why so many albums suck. A lack of preparedness always results in mediocrity, whether you’re a garage band or Bob Dylan.
If you’re planning to record an album and you’re interested in creating something that has artistic value and integrity, consider this article a nudge in that direction. And remember one overall rule: if at all possible, do not rush any of the steps of the preproduction process. And if you need help making decisions along the way, seek it out, whether in the form of a producer or a knowledgeable friend with a broader grasp of the fundamentals of recording, arranging, songwriting and project management.
Another thing to consider is that there are no absolutes in preproduction other than the need to fully understand the artist involved and the nature and goals of the album being recorded. That dictates exactly what needs to be done for each project. Understand also that all of these elements are typically approached concurrently, which helps give a project momentum and establish a clearer overall picture of the final results.
This is complex, so let’s try to break it down into a few areas of discussion:
• The Artist: Every album that’s meaningful says something about who a band or artist is. Green Day’s American Idiot, for example, defines the group as thoughtful, socially committed individuals with an anti-authority attitude who use punk-rock-based music as a mode of expression. Tom Waits’ Bad As Me reveals him as a poetic writer and musical character actor with a wide berth of reference points on the search for new musical narrative forms – but with a strong foundation in established forms — and committed to experimentation. Nevermind defines Nirvana as a punk and classic rock fueled band, interested in examining the human condition and celebrating individuality, but in a way that is clearly accessible to more than a cult audience.
It’s easy to back analyze albums this way, but to really understand one’s own music and how it should crystallize in the studio requires self-examination, which means artists needs to have a sense about where their roots lie, what motivates them to create as they do, and other important factors.
A good producer can help an artist figure this out. And a good producer will spend time seeing live performances and getting to know a band or artist before entering the studio. Sure, there’s always the option to just go in and blast down a bunch of songs and hope for the best, but “the best” is easier to achieve when there is an attuned sensibility guiding the project that’s based on understanding the artist that’s recording. And that sensibility can belong to a producer or to the artist him- or herself.
• The Songs: If you’re doing two or three songs so you’ve got a demo to get regional gigs with or to get played on the local college station, there’s nothing wrong with going in and blasting those songs down. But if your goal is to make a good album that has artistic merit, material should be carefully culled and cultivated.
This process can be as simple as sifting through songs that have been written and demo’d in advance (making demos is important and educational, regardless of one’s experience level) or as complicated as soliciting tunes from outside songwriters, sifting through the recordings of other artists or finding a co-writer with whom to pen the necessary numbers. Only a genius should write songs in the studio, as the clock ticks and costs rise.
If you’re planning to make an album or producing an album for another artist, make sure you have more songs on hand than you need. And if you’re producing, you need to have songwriting chops so you can fix things that don’t work in lyrics and arrangements.
Ideally, start with 18 to 20 songs for a projected 10- to 12-song album, and winnow those down to the best. There’s nothing like playing songs in advance live to learn if they’ll stand the test of an audience or the studio. And if you’re producing, seeing a band live can provide fantastic insights for arrangements, rewriting and more — as can good demos on GarageBand or fully audible live recordings from the board or other sources. If a song doesn’t feel right for any reason, don’t force the issue. File the song away for later, since more performances or musical growth might reveal the improvements it needs to rise above the pack.
• The Experience Level: Not every band or artist is ready to make an album. If you’re not ready for the studio, don’t force it. Bad recordings exist on the Internet, on YouTube and on CDs for a long, long time. And they will be held against you. It’s best to wait until your playing is dependable enough to generate solid results. Try to be dispassionate in judging your or your band’s abilities.
Practice, playing live gigs and working on fundamental weaknesses can be viewed as long-term preproduction strategies, at a basic level. Doing demos on GarageBand or another simple hard-drive based recording system — or even live recordings on a Zoom or other self-contained, easy to use recording device — is a great way to prepare for the studio.
A good producer will level with an inexperienced band or artist, offer them some advice and be available later when they’re really ready to make an album.
• The Cast: A good producer or a self-aware band or artist will also know when to look outside for musicians in order to realize the best recordings possible. Think of the producer or artist spearheading the recording project — and there should always be just one person who is the ultimate creative decision maker — as a casting director. He or she needs to know who to call to play the right role in the recordings.
Always get the best players your connections and your budget afford. Always. And if you’re not sure who you need to play that Hammond B-3 organ part, or who the best local musical saw maestro is, ask friends and other artists for leads. These don’t have to be high-priced session musicians and perhaps shouldn’t be if you’re looking for something outside the box. They can be club players and mavericks, too — just like you.
A good producer should have a contact list that covers just about all requirements, including the phone number for the right engineer for a project, if that producer isn’t also manning the mikes and faders.
Thinking beyond the limitations of one’s own band is an important growth point for an artist. It is a sign that the music the artist makes has taken on a life of its own that extends beyond a comfort zone and regular reference points. It is a sign of creative maturity.
• The Studio: These days it’s possible to make cool albums in a bedroom. Tom Waits once used a metal Quonset hut in the desert as a makeshift studio. But it’s often hard to beat a professional or, at least, well developed home studio for big sounds, due to the design of live recording rooms and the selection of microphones, compressors and other cool gear that good studios should offer.
When looking for a studio, consider your budget for the project — including food, lodging and transportation for musicians; determine whether the cost includes the engineer and other personnel; you might want to investigate credit or payment terms; and if it has any meaning for you, look at the gear list. If you’re not technically informed, read the list of artists who have recorded there. That will be revealing, since each of them also went through the process of choosing a studio. And listen to recordings made in the studio. When the stars align, you’ll know.
Also, don’t go in over your head. These days very, very few indie albums recoup their recording costs. It’s simply the nature of the business and the times.
• The Goals: Know why you’re making an album before you start a recording project. Do you simply want a calling card for your band? Do you want to make an album that will take you to the next level? Do you want to compile recordings that might be ripe for film, TV and other synch licensing? Do you want to make a profound artistic statement?
All of these considerations may require different strategies — strategies that affect what kind of songs you’ll record, how you’ll record them, how many tunes will be part of the project, whether guest “stars” are appropriate, how you’ll mix… the list goes on.
Understanding a project’s goals – the “Big Why” in making an album — is very, very important. And many artists in today’s absurdly difficult music business environment haven’t answered that “Why” or even thought clearly about it.
For example, if you independently released an album 10 months ago that was never promoted to radio or marketed, sold only a couple hundred copies and is mostly sitting in boxes in your basement, why — in practical terms — would you consider making a new album? And yet so many artists and bands do, and slide down a slope of frustration and debt. Understanding why you’re making an album and analyzing the likely outcomes is a way to avoid both of those demons.