This is Part Two of a several part series that covers the basics of music production vital to the Independent music world today.
Home recording has redefined how records get made. Years ago it took money or access to studio time to produce great results. Today this is not necessarily the case as a home recording can be made to sound just as good as any project from years gone by. The unfortunate casualty of the new system, however, is the absence of a skilled producer during the session. Any recording, home or otherwise, screams for a qualified producer because few musicians can be objective enough to handle the production duties that making a serious record requires. Producers can identify weak spots in songs (choppy, too long, boring, etc.), shape continuity (vibe, tonality, consistent performance, etc.) and are objective enough to issue spot before the artist is on the mic desperate for direction. The time to shop for a producer should be after the songs are written but just before the artist starts to perform them live. This is because a producer will likely hear the material differently than the artist and can suggest changes before the artist becomes attached to weak sections. After attending a few rehearsals a good producer should have proven his value quickly; if he hasnít heís probably not a good fit for the artist. A producer should have a good understanding of the artistís direction and have the ability to communicate well but still be aggressive enough to get the artist motivated when necessary. Good producers these days possess differing skill sets. Some are technically literate whereas others rely more on their musical education or people skills to get the job done. Most producers have elements of all three blending whatever methods they deem appropriate to get the best performance they can from each artist.
The next logical step in production is rehearsal and performance. In order for a performance to be worth recording it needs to be worth performing first. The bulk of your pre-production time should go into recording demos of your rehearsals and live performances. Afterwards, you and your producer can evaluate the material more objectively and eliminate weak spots and songs in the production. I believe February 11, 1963 testifies to this point. This was the date that The Beatles cut their entire first LP. Why would this have anything to do with performance? Because it establishes a legitimate precedent for the idea that if an artist spends the necessary time forging their material in front of a live audience (as the Beatles did in Germany for three years prior to their first session) that the performer will eventually learn how to get their songs into a state that generates the intended reaction they want from their audience. Though there is a learning curve to playing your material in a studio (and even The Beatles had problems with their first ďtestĒ sessions at EMI), live performance can get your songs into a place where excellent results are obtained easily. Focus on delivering a compelling performance as a cohesive unit and the recording will reflect your efforts.
Itís not uncommon for an artist to walk into a session without a clue of what to play. Iíve seen guitar players ask for time to write solos on the spot, vocalists take time to learn how to sing or compose background parts, bass players use notes out of scale without realizing it, and drummers change their fills after each pass. Pre-production exists for this very reason. It gives the artist and producer time to refine everyoneís musical vision so that they are not under pressure to create it in the studio. Save yourself some hassle and learn your parts prior to attending your first session. Though accidents can result in something beautiful, divine inspiration isnít a reliable production tool. A good producer will expect competency from you and will push you to achieve such results before tracking starts.
Once you have established the ďfeelĒ and length of the song, itís a great idea to rehearse the material against a tempo reference like a drum machine or click. This will push for tighter performances and will payoff considerably should you desire to fly parts around or create seamless edits later. If you intend to record to a click be sure to rehearse with the click outside the studio first so you donít tie up valuable session time learning how to do it. When I work with an artist I try to tempo map each song against a click to see if we have any songs with duplicate tempos. Sometimes Iíll speed up or slow down songs so there are a greater variety of tempos across the work. Coincidentally, I do the same thing with keys too. If we have too many songs in one key, Iíll recommend key shifting some songs to break up the monotony. When key shifting the artist needs to be careful though, always take into account the needs of your vocalist. Artists can unknowingly hurt themselves by shifting something too far out of their vocalistsí range.
As I mentioned above, The Beatles had real issues at EMI during their test session. It all came down to gear problems. For this reason, meet with your producer and engineer before the session to go over your equipment. The pre-production period is a good time to do this. Good engineers will quickly find issues with equipment that you may not. Drums can have loose or squeaky hardware, amps can have noisy or rattling tubes, guitars can have buzzes or intonation issues, and mics will pick all of it up. Have your equipment checked out and repaired before tracking. Once checked out itís not a bad idea to deliver the gear a day or two early to the studio to allow the instruments to acclimate to the studios relative humidity and temperature. While you are at it discuss with the engineer the sound you are going for beforehand and keep reference material (CDís) available during the session to help focus your sonic efforts. Though you should avoid using equipment you donít know, the engineer may suggest you try alternate gear to get you closer to your desired sound. Likewise these days retro studio gear is ďinĒ while the solid state stuff from the 80ís has fallen by the wayside. If you are going for a period sound make sure your engineer understands this so he doesnít pull out older studio gear when you really want that cleaner solid state sound.
Considering the value that pre-production offers an artist itís surprising that more independent artists donít integrate this age old process into their own productions these days, especially given their low budgets to begin with. Too many over ambitious artists ache to just ďthrow something downĒ without any structure behind it that they only live to regret later because the recording ends up weak. Additionally, itís equally puzzling why artists donít look for good producers before recording and why the defacto standard is to let the studio engineer make critical decisions for the artist when they know little or nothing about the artist to being with. Maybe itís because artists donít understand what a good producer can do for them or maybe itís because they think it will cost them too much. Suffice it to say combining the two roles together will save the artist time and money in the long run, which will allow artists to focus on what brought them into the studio to begin with. Making good music.
Until next time,
Dusk Bennett is a freelance producer/engineer in Los Angeles and has worked with a number of award winning artists. He can be contacted at Myspace for further questions.
Licensed to Bitchin' Entertainment by Dusk Bennett. To receive permission to publish this article please contact Theresa Yarbrough