How much preparation is required before a recording session, and when should it all begin? We asked some top producers to share their wisdom.
Having recently completed some quite lengthy (and thus rather draining) album-production projects, I decided I should actively consider ways to improve my approach to pre-production. By paying more attention to the initial stages of a recording project, which start before the artist gets anywhere near the studio, I hoped to make the sessions themselves more efficient, productive and, ultimately, satisfying for all concerned. And well as analysing my own approach, I decided to ask some top engineers and producers how they tackle pre-production. I wanted to find out how important they feel this stage of a project is, both from a technical and an artistic point of view, and to explore both the common ground and the pros and cons of different approaches.
They were very generous with their time and their insights, and it quickly became clear that I could fill a whole magazine on this subject, but I’ve distilled their responses down to focus on five or six distinct facets of the planning process. You can read more about the producers I talked to and reference throughout this article in the ‘Meet The Producers’ box.
I’ll let the other producers do most of the talking in their own words, but it’s worth first describing my approach to pre-production to date. Typically, I work with a fairly traditional band setup or with singer-songwriters and, often, I don’t have the luxury of a huge amount of time to spend on preparatory work. It all rather depends on the client, the budget, and whether I’ve been engaged to work as a straight-up engineer, or something more all-encompassing.
For a simple engineering job, my typical ‘pre-production process’ might constitute little more than a five-minute conversation with the band or artist, during which I’ll decide on a basic starting point: what equipment to use, where to put what, and if/how we should use a click. For a fuller production role, I’ll hopefully receive some demos, and might try to see the band live or in rehearsal. We’ll discuss some aspects of the arrangement(s) and experiment with different tempos for particular songs. I’ll also try to understand the artist’s musical inspirations, and ensure we’re broadly on the same page. And I’ll give thought to some technical elements of the recording process — not only mic selection, but more generally how I might approach the initial recording sessions. Things evolve when we start recording and, for the most part, I’m happy to go with the flow until problems present themselves, or I feel the need to intervene. In other words, I’ve always taken quite a relaxed approach to the planning stage of a project.
Are the other producers I spoke to similarly relaxed? Their opinions appeared to vary, but more in terms of personal style than anything else. Producer Steve Osborne, for instance, who has worked with a range of big acts over the years, informed me that pre-production “was never really a label we put on a specific stage of a project for most of the records I’ve worked on. We just started making the thing.” But when I invited him to tell me what he needed to know before a session, he revealed a little more: “Well, of course, we’d like to know what the tempo, arrangement, and key for each song is going to be.”
Dave Eringa, a big believer in the value of thorough prep work, highlighted similar issues that required attention, but very definitely saw this as pre-production. “PP is huge for me, and is often the part I enjoy most,” he said. “Nothing is set in stone, but I want a starting point regarding the tempo, arrangement and key for all the songs.”
Some of the producers are consciously very methodical in their approach, most notably Tommaso Colliva. When I asked him about the importance he attaches to...
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