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How To Become A Record Producer, Part 2: Pre-Production

Tips & Techniques By David Mellor
Published February 1996

Having resolved the nebulous role of the record producer in Part 1, this month David Mellor addresses the practical matter of pre‑production. This is the last article in a two‑part series.

The natural habitat of the record producer is often assumed to be the recording studio, for obvious reasons. But only part of the process of making a successful recording takes place there. Before the producer and band or artist even enter the studio, there is likely to be a period of pre‑production, to work on the music, the arrangements, and allow the musicians and producer to develop their ideas.

To do all of this in a studio costing hundreds of pounds a day would be wasteful. Of course, there are some bands who practically live in the studio from day one. The Rolling Stones are famous for coming into the studio with their instruments, entourage and hardly anything else. If you can afford it, this way of working has a lot to commend it. Not only does it concentrate the mind, it allows spontaneity and encourages experimentation. If the tape is rolling continuously, there is every opportunity for the magic of the moment to be captured for further development — but few of us could possibly afford to work in this way.

Assessing The Demo

Suppose you specialise in producing bands. Your first point of contact with the band will be either a live performance or a demo tape. A live performance may not tell you much, but it will help you to determine where the balance lies between the appeal of the band's members as musicians or personalities, and the appeal of the music itself.

As far as selling product goes, it has to be said that sometimes the music is simply a means to an end. If the band do have the ability to excite the audience, and yourself as a producer of course, then a demo tape will allow more critical assessment of the material. It will be your job to supervise the transformation of these rough‑and‑ready home recordings into a professional product, and this transformation is not going to happen all by itself.

People in the music industry generally fall into three types: those who don't know if they like something unless they can see that someone else likes it, those who can see talent when it is shoved in their face, and finally those who can see potential. A producer must be able to recognise the presence or absence of potential in a band or a song from a very rough recording. Although high‑quality recording equipment is available at a low enough cost for almost everyone to afford, it doesn't turn people into producers overnight. An ineptly recorded demo can disguise a brilliant song to the point of invisibility. Conversely, many demos are very well recorded from a technical point of view, but the spark of excitement and originality is sadly lacking.

Once the producer has spotted the potential in a song, then their next job would be to think of ways in which this potential can be realised. A musically‑orientated producer (as opposed to one from an engineering background) may start thinking about the arrangement and structure of the song, sometimes rearranging the whole thing before even entering the studio. Or, they may prefer to allow ideas to develop at their own pace, knowing that the band will probably be able to take on these ideas and develop them further.

Also at this stage, the producer will be thinking of what the potential problem areas might be. Is the drummer any good, for example, and can the singer sing in tune? If the drummer is at the 'good for an amateur' stage, then options might include lots of rehearsal, a few lessons with a pro, acceptance that the band is what it is, or directing the person in question politely to the end of the dole queue. No‑one said that being a producer was going to be easy.

Still at the demo stage, the producer may also play a part in selecting which songs go on the album — although the record company will decide which songs are released as singles. With a band, the producer may simply hint very strongly that a certain song is not really up to it, and that they should write a few more that are similar to one he prefers. With a solo artist who is not a songwriter, the producer may have such a degree of control that he is choosing all of the songs and merely acknowledging the singer's preferences.

The role of song selection might be extended, and the producer may say that he likes a song, but it needs certain changes. For example, if a song has the potential to be a single, then whatever it has that gives it that potential must happen very early on, if it's to stand any chance of getting radio play. If the producer is a songwriter himself, then he may add ideas to the song, or even partially rewrite the song. In extreme cases, the producer may end up getting a co‑writer credit and a share of the ensuing royalties.


Rehearsal can take place in three locations: at the producer's or artist's home, at a rehearsal studio, or at the recording studio. These are listed, obviously, in order of rising cost. For some styles of recording, particularly using experienced session musicians (who may charge rates well in excess of the Musicians' Union minimum) it may be cost‑effective to rehearse during the session, just prior to the recording. But where just a band is involved, the members all have a financial interest in the success of their recording — so their rehearsal time comes free, and doesn't impose any additional loading on the budget.

Early rehearsals are conveniently done at home. Song structure is easily plotted with just voice and guitar or keyboard. This would be a good time to alter lyrics, or to tinker with the melody line of the song. Most singers have a fairly narrow range of notes over which their voice is at its best, so the key of the song can be changed accordingly. There is always the option at this point of choosing a key that is slightly too high, because the singer doesn't have to do the song all in one go, and can do as many takes and punch‑ins as necessary. This does of course store up a problem for later live performances, but the producer will be off working on another project by this time!

A rehearsal studio is a good place to work on arrangements, and to allow the members of the bands to settle into their performances. Once upon a time it was normal for a band to write some songs, go off on tour with them, and then record the album. Now of course, a band goes on tour to promote their new CD. There is a balance to be struck between the amount of rehearsal necessary for the band to perform to the best of their ability, and the risk of over‑rehearsing, which is not to be underestimated. Sometimes the right amount of rehearsal will be practically none at all — and the first time that the band plays the song all the way through without making a mistake will be their best performance ever. That should be the one that is recorded. Although excessive rehearsing can detract from spontaneity, it gives the opportunity to try out different arrangements. Perhaps the first rhythm that the drummer and bass player settle into isn't the best one for the song. Perhaps experimenting with another way of playing the song will give a fresh insight on the original, and make the performance better.

Although the rehearsal studio is obviously a good place to rehearse, an even better place may be a budget recording studio. There's always the risk that something may be recorded, just as a tryout, which proves impossible to recapture later. Everyone who is involved in recording will experience this sooner or later. This is also a nervous time for the producer, who could still face the sack if the A&R manager decides the demos are no good!


In the parallel universe of sequenced music, then the rehearsal stage takes quite a different form. It isn't sensible at the highest professional level to record a band in anything other than a proper studio, but it is perfectly viable to sequence tracks at home, and then take all your MIDI and computer equipment into the studio and transfer your work onto tape. Although there is something to be said for experiencing great sound on big studio monitors while you are programming, it isn't really cost‑effective to do this when you can work for free with no time pressure in the privacy of your own home studio. In sequenced music, it is far more common for the writer/musician to be his or her own engineer and producer all at the same time, at least at the programming stage, and then continue to produce in a commercial studio while a specialist engineer handles the faders.

In band recording, there is always the difficulty of recognising when something is 'good enough', which is an important part of the producer's skill. In sequenced recording, 'perfection' is easily attainable, and the producer's skill is more biased towards understanding the infinite subtleties of precisely what the club‑going and record‑buying public would like this week or next week. The art of programming consists of the selection and processing of sampled loops (which usually require copyright clearance, as will be outlined later in the series) or the creation from scratch of a 'groove'.

The importance of the groove in dance music cannot be underestimated. There are plenty of people who watch Top Of The Pops who say, "I could write a song like that," without really understanding the style. Maybe they could, but could they invent the groove to go with it? It's up to a producer to guide and direct a programmer to come up with a foundation that will support the song.

Finally, whether your style of music is sequenced or played live, the pre‑production process is a process of trial and error. It's here that people come up with ideas, try them out, and then the producer selects the best of the bunch. The next step is to put together the team that will turn a song, and a collection of production ideas, into a recording.

Producer's View — Phil Fearon

Phil Fearon has developed from being a successful artist, and probably one of the first serious home studio owners, to being chairman of the Production House dance label, where he now sees his role as an 'Executive Producer,' overseeing the work of others, and making sure it is progressing satisfactorily towards a commercially successful release. Baby D's recording career started on Production House, and they have since moved on to major label status — with Production House maintaining their involvement in the management side of things.

    "So many records sound the same, and I am straining to find a little bit of originality. Songwriting ability is the greatest thing I look for, and the creative element. We normally only take on writers who can produce and do some kind of engineering. The people we work with tend to have three or four talents all rolled into one."
    "I don't get much involved for the club version, but when it comes to airplay, that's when I would give my opinion. If it is all beat and no music then that's cool, but if I think it's a little more radio‑friendly or better for the video, then I do get heavily involved, to make sure that the main parts are featured in the four minutes. I may throw my weight around, but when we are spending big money, I want to make sure that it is absolutely correct."
    "Producers now often come from being DJs. They are out there, and they just know what the kids like on the dance floor. It's very useful to know what this week's tempo is, and what it's going to be in a couple of weeks' time. It's changing every fortnight, but it's a subtle change — and only the DJs have got that on‑the‑button knowledge."

Producer's View — Phil Harding

Phil Harding came into production through engineering, from early days at Marquee Studio through to Chief Engineer at Stock, Aitken and Waterman's PWL 'Hit Factory' Studio, and now to co‑producer (with keyboard player and programmer Ian Curnow) of East 17's Up All Night album.

    "Demos generally come from managers, publishers and record companies. If someone sends a demo through to us direct, then we tend to pass over it — not necessarily because it isn't going to be any good, but we are not really business people. We have never had any success with anyone without a publisher, manager or record company behind them. Our forte is being able to fulfil the potential that an artist has put into their demos, once we have been approached by someone who has the power or money to see it through."
    "Because Ian and I are writers, we will take something on, even if we feel that it needs shaping in a different way. We'll go as far as rewriting it if necessary, but there is a fine line between changing an arrangement and becoming a co‑writer. Many producers end up doing that, but are not able to get a co‑writing credit because they haven't agreed it with the artist's management beforehand. You can get into all sorts of fights."
    "We tend to programme most of what we do, but we did some production recently with Let Loose. They wanted the final record to have as much live drums and live guitar as possible. We programmed a lot beforehand, and combined it with the live drums and guitars, and then sat down with them afterwards, to decide how much of the live stuff they wanted to use and how much of the programmed stuff. But generally, most of our records are programmed from top to bottom, apart from the vocals, obviously."

The Producer's Home Studio

The first rule of home studios is that they are not compulsory! We ordinary mortals have home studios because a good home studio is much less expensive than hiring even the crustiest commercial studio. But if you are working at the highest level of music, then you will have the budget to work in a top studio, and if you are successful you will be doing so regularly.

If you work with sequenced music, however, then you will obviously have your own keyboards and sampler. Once you've taken the next step of buying a sequencer, you've effectively acquired a studio without really meaning to. The question now would be, how much of this equipment do you want to transport to a commercial studio once you have sequenced your basic tracks? Bear in mind that taking your whole setup apart and re‑erecting it somewhere else isn't a whole load of fun. In this field of music, it would be wise to find a well‑equipped studio which you could use, and choose equipment similar to theirs. If you have the same sampler and sequencer, you might find that all you need to take with you are a few floppy disks and maybe your source material for loops. The synths might be different models, but it shouldn't be too much trouble to find sounds that fit what you have in mind.

Since you have the basics of a recording studio at home already, then a worthwhile next step could be to record vocals there too. You might just be thinking of trying out a few ideas, or your singer might suddenly get the urge to record — and it would be unwise to waste their energy and enthusiasm. To record vocals you need a quiet, dry acoustic, a good microphone (such as that perennial favourite, the Neumann U87), and a digital multitrack to which you can synchronise your sequencer. If your mixing console isn't really up to the job, then you should buy a rackmounting mic preamplifier. The mic and preamp will cost a bit, but if you are recording vocals at home you shouldn't skimp on cheap equipment. Your equipment must be exactly as good as the equipment in a top studio, even if you don't have as much of it.

If non‑sequenced bands are your speciality, then there isn't much point in having a home studio. If it was good enough, then it would have cost so much you would have to open it up for hire to make it pay — and I think you probably want to be a producer rather than a studio manager! This doesn't mean that you can't do some work at home. You may have a digital multitrack and a small mixing console which you can use to compile parts of several vocal takes into one good one. This can be time‑consuming, and you can probably do it better by yourself in your own surroundings. You may also want to have a computer and sequencer for the odd bit of sequencing that needs to be done, or to prepare click tracks in advance of the recording session. There are no rules. Just consider what is practical and cost‑effective to do at home, and remember never to lower your standards and do something at home which you could have done better in a proper studio.