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 pre-production, he responded with a sporting analogy: “If you play football as a kid, you might train on a Wednesday evening and then play a match on Saturday. At a professional level, you train throughout the week, play on Saturday and then come in on Sunday to dissect what went right or wrong during the game. Maybe you might have Monday off.” He also set out what this meant in terms of project planning. “The goal, for me,” he said, “is having a plan and having something to follow during the production stage. It doesn’t need to be too strict or too forcing; it just needs to be a starting point, and a safety net at the same time.”
Berlin-based producer Hannes Bieger often works with more electronic music than I do, but was keen to stress the importance of early engagement with the artist and their songs, regardless of the genre. “The earlier in a process something is gotten right, the better,” he said. “A good arrangement is a good arrangement!”
Jack Ruston made a similar point: “We’ve got to make sure what we’ve got is worth recording in the first place!” And Sean Genockey, another producer who was particularly passionate about the role of pre-production, concurred: “My role as a producer is to be both a starter and a finisher for a project. Before we start recording, I want to make sure the ‘spine’ of each song is right.”
So, despite differences in personal style and what they call this stage of a project, all my interviewees agreed on certain fundamentals that should be in place before a recording session: familiarity with the song, its key and tempo, and some arrangement decisions.
I wanted to know how the producers felt about working with artists in rehearsal rooms or other informal spaces, away from the studio. Dave Eringa was among the most enthusiastic, saying, “I like to spend around three days with a band in a rehearsal setting before beginning recording. The majority of the work is done in the first day and a half, though, and these would be short, sociable days working from around 10am to 6pm.”
Jack Ruston also likes this approach, agreeing that, “If it’s a band, then yes — a rehearsal space of some sort, where they can play live, is a good place to work stuff out. If it’s a singer/songwriter, then we’ll probably just get together on a sofa with a guitar and a pile of demos.”
Although he too is happy to work in this way if it’s needed, Steve Osborne pointed out some potential disadvantages. “I often find that stuff we thought sounded great in the rehearsal room, with the band playing loudly, just doesn’t translate when listened back through the speakers in the control room. Our ears are too easily tricked by volume.”
In his line of work, Hannes Bieger also doesn’t see much merit in attending rehearsals, saying, “I usually don’t spend time in the rehearsal room. I’d rather work on the arrangement with the client in more of a studio setting.”
Tommaso Colliva wasn’t averse to this if needed, but saw it more as a means of, well, rehearsing! “Nowadays,” he remarked, “I see more and more artists already doing their own pre-production while writing, and it’s not rare to see an artist coming to the studio with quite sophisticated demos. I prefer to start from those — and if I can see from these that work needs to be done on performances, and a rehearsal period is needed, then yes, I’m totally up for that.”
Despite some obvious differences, I still got a strong sense from all the other producers of how useful it can be to have some informal time at the beginning of a project, so both the producer and artist can feel their way into things.
Sean Genockey joked, “It’s a bit like going on a first date really!” He went on to recount in detail how a recent project with an Americana artist started. “I’m lucky to have my own studio space, which I can work in with a band ‘off the clock’ if need be. We got together for a day in my control room — with plenty of coffee — and we listened to, and talked about, some playlists that I’d asked the band to prepare beforehand. I then set up one mic in the room, an AKG C414 in omni, and they sat and played through the songs on acoustic guitars. After we’d worked through a few things, I sent them home with the rough recordings, and we would then get together again to finalise any of the issues we’d debated during the session.”
When asked for a recent example of effective pre-production, Steve Osborne painted a similar picture and, as with Sean Genockey, this took place in his own studio. “We began by listening and talking through the demos and then started to re-work a few things,” he said. “The drummer had an electric drum kit to hand, so they were able to work through the arrangements as a band, but in a quieter and much more representative way than in a rehearsal room, where no one can hear themselves properly.”
Dave Eringa shared the recent example of preparing to record a Proclaimers album: “They worked so hard during pre-production that my job became easy. We got together in a room, and over a few days they would go through the songs again and again, singing their hearts out. It quickly became clear if anything needed tweaking and they were happy to try new ideas. The result? The whole album was recorded in four and half days!”
Working with demos can be a huge part of the pre-production process, so it came as no surprise that my contributors had plenty to say on this subject. Hannes Bieger, for example, told me, “I always ask for rough demos first! These are so important for pinpointing the direction in which to proceed. Very often there is a great vibe and energy in these demos, and the goal is always to maintain, keep, or even nurture this and still make the whole thing sound more refined and just better. Just as a picture sometimes says more than a thousand words, there is a lot of truth in demos.”
Jack Ruston had similar views, saying “Yeah, I always prefer to have a rough. It’s crucial to understand the band’s intention for each track, and a demo is a great way to achieve that. Ideally, you want to be as familiar as possible with the songs, so that you have a sense of what’s left to do at every stage of the tracking, and what the end result should be.”
Steve Osborne also finds a demo indispensable. “I prefer to work up, or down, from a demo,” he said. “It’s my preferred starting point and, for me, more valuable than seeing an artist live or being in a room with them. I’m interested in the story the speakers are telling me — just like the listener.”
Is there a minimum quality of demo they’ll work with? Can, say, a mic in a rehearsal room still be useful in any way? Dave Eringa didn’t seem too fussy. “In an ideal world I’d like something half-decent, but as long as I can hear the vocal and get a sense of the arrangement then I can get something out of it,” he said.
Tommaso Colliva was a little more demanding, stating that, “I prefer to have something that is reasonably fully formed, if possible, so as to avoid confusion. Even a basic multitracked rehearsal recording can work, and I might advise an artist on how to do this — or do it myself. The important thing is to establish a demo routine with an artist that you can follow throughout a project.”
Sean Genockey described a flexible attitude to the quality of a demo, and was even happy to share a few tips on getting a smartphone to record more effectively! “If I need to quickly document a session,” he said, “I can get what I need on my phone — just be careful to keep it away from the drums and make sure you can hear the vocals as much as possible. Sometimes placing a jumper over the phone can act as a crude pad to stop the mic overloading.” He was also keen to offer a few examples of occasions where he’s gone in and made his own demo in a rehearsal room, capturing the songs with four or five different mics: “This can provide a sweet spot in terms of a working demo for a project. It’s quite rough, but having it crudely multitracked means you can highlight specific areas with the band.”
‘Demo-itis’ — where a band, artist, A&R or label can grow particularly attached to certain elements of a demo — has the potential to cause problems for producers. After all, the producer is supposed to be an objective listener who can make sense of the demo and deliver something better. I was keen to get a feel for the producers’ thoughts on this.
Tommaso Colliva stated: “You have to understand that an artist can often have lived with their own version of a track for a very long time and have taken a great deal of care to get it to that point. If I’m working with really great-sounding demos, then I relish the challenge of trying to improve what they, or someone else, has already done. If there’s a particular element we feel we can’t beat, then we can very often just pull the file into Pro Tools and use it anyway.”
Dave Eringa offered a few anecdotes: “I had a singer convinced that they couldn’t get near to a demo vocal. When I listened to the demo in question I had to tactfully point out that the lyrics were completely different!” Reflecting on his long relationship with the Manic Street Preachers, he added: “They built their own studio setup and their ‘demos’ got so good that we could happily use most of what we wanted to keep — even the drums on a few songs.”
Of course, it’s become increasingly easy to make much more sophisticated DIY productions in recent years, and I know from my own work that it can now be unusual not to have at least one member of a band who’s into the production side of things. I invited my interviewees to consider how this might affect their session preparations, and was greeted with some interesting thoughts.
Steve Osborne: “When I worked with a band like the Happy Mondays, my job was to take this exciting live band and create something tighter and more professional-sounding, while keeping the spirit of what they do intact. With some of my recent projects, I find myself trying to convince an artist that although their demos sound great, they’re ‘too good’ and polished-sounding. I want to roughen and loosen them up a bit.”
“On the positive side,” said Tommaso Colliva, “having GarageBand on every computer gives the artist the opportunity to record what he or she is doing, to listen back and to learn from mistakes. Also, with tech tools being so easily available, much more work can be done, optimising budgets. On the negative side, having too many tools accessible for the artist can be very distracting, and people can lose time fiddling around with that synth sound in the middle eight when they should be focusing more on the song structure.”
Jack Ruston also set a cautionary tone, but relating more to the performance side of things, saying, “A demo that’s really polished sonically can sometimes flag up one of the great dangers of this era of ubiquitous technology — a band can sometimes spend so much time over at each other’s houses, messing about with a DAW and making polished demos, that they use that process in place of a traditional rehearsal. What then happens is that they come to the studio unable to play the track as a band — all they’ve ever done with it is to overdub parts, edit and effectively write the song in the computer. What we’re looking for is that spark in a performance, and sometimes a band have never really performed the track in that way.”
How much preparation is too much? And how much should the planning process focus on creating an environment to allow spontaneity and ‘the magic’ to happen in the studio? All the producers I spoke with stressed the importance of not making overly rigid plans.
Jack Ruston explained: “You have an ideal situation, but in reality, when you start recording, things always end up changing. You want to have a plan, but you don’t want to be stuck in a rigid mindset.”
And, despite the thoroughness of his own plans, Tommaso Colliva was keen to stress that, ”You always have to leave a little headroom, space for things to grow, change and evolve.”
Dave Eringa even put a figure on the amount of ‘headroom’ to leave: “Being around 80 percent set on what you’re doing is about right for me. I want to leave some space for the studio environment to work its magic.”
Steve Osborne went a little further — while he might make plans, he said he’s “never afraid to completely start again with how we approach a song, or even the whole project”. He then shared an example of a situation in which he felt that working in a large, intimidating studio stopping a band from being themselves. After a few days, he made the call to start again from scratch, this time using large drapes to help reconfigure the space and completely alter the atmosphere of the studio setting.
It was clear throughout my interviews that so much of what we discussed relies on a good understanding of the human side of record-making. Indeed, I’m sure none of the producers would mind me claiming that this is a hugely significant reason why they’ve been successful in what they do. Useful as it is to know how to position a mic or create a killer synth patch, there’s much more to producing records!
This is one reason Dave Eringa thinks pre-production is so crucial: “In those first few days with a band, it’s as much about building a relationship as working out the songs. It also helps to know the dynamic of the group and who is steering the ship.”
Sean Genockey expanded on the same theme, saying, “I see one of my roles as helping an artist or band feel excited and enthusiastic about the record they’re about to make. Often they may have nagging doubts about particular songs, and I need to rout these out and try and help where I can. There always seems to be at least one song on an album that requires a bit more commitment from everyone involved — right through to mastering.”
One of the repeated themes in the interviews was using the pre-production stage to foster an environment in which creativity can flourish. For instance, Dave Eringa explained that, “During PP I want to create an environment where ideas are encouraged — even, and especially, silly ones. Very informally, of course, but if need be I’ll set out a sort of code of conduct for trying ideas out.” Steve Osborne also discussed the importance of learning how to judge ideas ‘without prejudice’. “When we’re trying out new parts, or throwing down ideas, it can be hard to judge if something is right or not — especially in a group dynamic.” He continued, “Not being too precious about ideas, especially your own, can be a useful thing to highlight during the early stages of a project.”
The lines between different roles can easily blur when you’re working with artists on unfinished tracks in advance of the recording session. So I asked the producers how willing they are to get involved with the songwriting and arrangement process.
Jack Ruston has no problem with this whatsoever: “I can get very involved. It’s the most important thing of all. It’s rare to work with an artist who goes in with an absolutely clear vision of everything — they often just need you to act as a mirror, to help them see different alternatives.”
Hannes Bieger also conveyed a willingness to help, again with no hint of ego involved, saying, “I don’t have to do this in order to find an outlet for my own creativity. My goal is always to try and let the artist sound like the best-sounding version of themselves possible. But when my gut instincts tell me to propose songwriting- and arrangement-related changes I’m the first one to go ahead and do so.”
“With some acts, songwriting is the solid base everything else is built upon, and there’s nothing to be changed, maybe the odd structure change here and there, but it’s 95 percent done,” said Tommaso Colliva, reflecting on how different things can be from project to project. “[But] some projects require a huge amount of time re-working songs that are vaguely sketched, or we come up with new ideas all together, having writing sessions and so forth. In this case, it may be good to structure a team that can work the songs out, and that implies some experiment and trial and error, to be sure everybody in the team is comfortable and the results are good.”
Giving an insight into his production style as whole, Steve Osborne said, “Of course I get involved with songwriting and arrangement — that’s one of the main parts of my job. I often end up playing on many of the records I work on as well.” I asked Steve if he also felt you had to be a musician to be a music producer? “Yes. Well, certainly with how I work I can’t imagine how you would communicate with musicians without being able to speak their language. You don’t have to be an amazing player, though.”
I put the same question to Dave Eringa, and was met with a different view. “Being a music producer is all about not being afraid to have an opinion, right? And believing your opinion is more important than anyone else!” he laughed. “Seriously, though, it’s all about confidence. Not only with yourself, but in the people you’re working with’s perception that you’re on their side. This stuff all comes with experience and developing your style of producing.”
I talked with Sean Genockey about this, too, as he seems to have a very hands-on production style when working with musicians. “I think it helps to be a musician,” he said. “I’m still in love with playing guitar, and I still play every day, but I don’t think it’s essential. The important thing is to be clear with your ideas. This is what people like and respond to. You can still communicate ideas to a musician without being able to play their instrument.”
As for the question of where songwriting ends and pre-production begins, Genockey seemed quite clear that “If you suggest a different chord or another key or tempo, then that is not songwriting — that’s being a producer.”
Of course, there can be potential issues with songwriting credits and publishing to consider. Steve Osborne pointed out that as a producer you very often have to be prepared to be selfless when it comes to any involvement with the songwriting. “You can’t have an environment in the studio,” he explained, “where people might question your motives for any ideas or suggestions based on you potentially getting more publishing.”
The producer’s role is clearly a varied one these days, and as well as often getting quite heavily involved with songwriting and arrangement, some of the producers told me they end up playing on most of the records they work on. Getting into possible arrangements with songwriting splits, performing rights and publishing is a topic for another article, but considered purely in terms of efficient and effective pre-production, it’s almost certainly best to get all these issues agreed before a project starts.
I was curious to know how much formal project planning people do, in terms of written or electronic documentation, and there was some variety in how far those I spoke to went with this.
Steve Osborne, Sean Genockey and Dave Eringa were happy to admit they did little formal preparation aside from starting each project with a fresh A4 notepad that they’d use to keep notes throughout. Each of them, though, would endeavour to have done some work to prepare suitable DAW sessions before recording.
Steve Osborne said, “I’ll always start a fresh notepad [laughs], and more recently I’ve also been making a few notes on my iPad. If I’m going into more of a formal studio setting, then I would want a basic Pro Tools session for each song set up beforehand.”
Tommaso Colliva, however, likes to have much more information. He’ll use a series of spreadsheets detailing a ‘road map’ towards a finished project. “I’m a big fan of shared files,” he said, “and I want to have a number of planning documents in place after pre-production. I use simple spreadsheets to list tempos, arrangement issues, instruments and any other relevant information.”
The important thing that I took away from discussing this ‘project planning’ aspect of pre-production is that documentation should be meaningful, and not just for you but also for the people you’re working with. Some bands are often not the most active in terms of organisation, and such tools could be helpful — or even necessary — if you’re to ensure they remain focused. In other situations, though, it might prove a hindrance and stifle spontaneity. Almost inevitability, we return to the people-management aspect of producing; you need to figure out how best to work with different people early on in the pre-production process.preprod_06
In a recent SOS video (http://sosm.ag/jakegoslinginterview) Jake Gosling described how he sets up his studio so the instruments are all ready to play and record. This allows an artist to try ideas on the fly, and prevents technical hold-ups interrupting the creative process. Sean Genockey has his studio set up in a similar way: “I’ll have a couple of guitar amps miked up and ready to go, a basic drum setup and anything else that I think we might need for a particular session,” he said. He’ll try to factor in a whole day for setting up when going to another studio, even if it’s an expensive one. “It can be hard to explain to a band that they need to pay several hundreds of pounds for a day of potentially no actual recording. I’m trying to get them to, quite literally, buy into this idea, though, that all this preparation work we do early on is going to pay for itself later on in the project.”
When I asked Steve Osborne if he might have such a day of technical preparation when entering a new studio he was quite clear, saying, “I’ve never done this. Even with a bigger artist, it would be hard for me to justify spending the money for a day with no attempt at recording. I will, however, look at a studio’s mic list beforehand and think about what to use. And I’ll of course work with the assistant or in-house engineer to get up and running. It is, though, all about using your ears on the day. I will always make sure I arrive the night before a session starts, though.”
Jack Ruston spelled out another risk, saying, “Be aware, if you’re working for a label, that A&R guys have a tendency to appear on the first or second day, and can become nervous if they don’t hear something that sounds an awful lot like most of a great recording. Focus on solid engineering, and capturing a great performance. They’re not going to worry if your kick still needs a few dB of 3kHz adding. They are going to worry if you’ve got a perfect kick sound and absolutely nothing else!”
I can still recall the feeling, long ago, of running my own first proper recording sessions and, honestly, paying insufficient attention to the music. Over the years you learn just how important it is that you don’t focus too much on your equipment once you’re up and running in a session! These interviews reminded me of that, and left me with the lasting impression that their attention to pre-production allows these producers to achieve some form of detachment from the technical side of things during the session itself. As Sean Genockey put it, “The better you know a song or arrangement, the more effective you can be with your engineering. The technical side should be a given, though, and you need to be focused on capturing good performances. This comes with the experience, but if you’re starting out, then you need to do what you need to do to get into this mindset. PP can help a great deal with this.”
Tommaso Colliva likes to use his planning documents to ensure that everyone who is involved with the technical side of a recording session is on the same page. He said, “I want to have a basic plan for how we’re going to begin recording, and I want everyone involved with the technical side to understand what we’re doing. I’ll have a list of what mics I’m going to try, and what channels they will be on, and so on. I want to decide on a starting point for my sonic palette. I also often find it helpful to restrict my gear choices in the studio, and this is one of the reasons I still enjoy recording with a recording console if possible. Deciding which boutique preamp to use on the hi-hat is not going to make or break a recording.”
Thorough planning, though, needn’t put a creative straight-jacket on proceedings. In fact, it can create a space for sonic experimentation. I’m currently reading Sylvia Massy’s excellent book Recording Unhinged, and it’s worth touching on what she has to say about this. Sylvia is well known for pushing boundaries not only in terms of creating unusual sonics, but also in what she is prepared to do in order to get a ‘performance’ out of an artist. Describing how she prepared to record the Smashing Pumpkins, she explains that she went to the effort of getting another band with a similar line-up to come into the studio the day before, specifically so that she could nail down the technical side of the setup!
When I started planing this article — doing my pre-production, if you like — I was a little uncertain whether the producers I’d arranged to talk with would find the topic interesting or important enough to discuss at any length, but they all placed great importance on prepping a session properly. Indeed, they were all very animated and passionate in describing both why pre-production is important and how they approach it.
So what can we learn from all this? Well, personally, it’s made me want to see how things pan out if I approach projects differently. For a couple of projects in the near future, I’m already trying out some of the ideas discussed in this article. One project is an album, for which my client has already made demos at home, and I’m allowing a much longer period than I normally would for us to work together, listening and dissecting his recordings at the outset. For a different project, I’ve arranged to do a basic multitrack recording of a band in rehearsal, both to get a better feel for their songs and to provide us with decent demos to work from. When these projects are complete, I’ll make a point of considering if and how these approaches influenced the results.
One other thing these interviews reminded me of is just what a varied skill set it takes to be a top music producer today. It’s always been a skilled role, but back in the day you might have had a producer, engineers, a tape-op, a programmer and tea boys all working together on a record in a large studio. Now, it’s common for one person to perform almost all of these roles, even when working at a professional level. And on top of the technical and organisational side of things, you still need to conjure up the energy and commitment to keep a project on track. You might also have your own studio to run, play multiple instruments on an album and, at various points, perform the role of life coach to the people you’re working with! The extent of a producer’s job description is a vast topic for another day, but the simple fact of there being such a lot for one person to do means that now, more than ever, it makes sense to inject some structure into your session planning.
What you do is about what works best for your personality and preferred working style, and for the people you work with. Whether you thrive in a semi-chaotic, creative environment that’s constantly changing, or you prefer a sense of order and organisation, it’s all valid as long as it works for you and for the artist, and, most importantly, serves the music you’re working on. But even if you prefer the former, it’s worth thinking how you can set things up to allow that freedom and chaos to deliver those moments of magic!
Hannes Bieger is a musician, engineer and producer who works from his own studio in Berlin, Germany. Hannes has released his own projects, from deep house to broken beats, on several labels, and has also worked as a mastering engineer at Calyx Mastering for the last few years. He has become deeply rooted in Berlin’s electronic scenes, and has become a go-to engineer for the crème of house and techno producers and DJs around the globe, but his catalogue also includes numerous jazz and rock productions.
Tommaso Colliva is a Grammy-winning, Mercury-nominated producer, engineer, mixer and remix artist. He has worked with the likes of Muse, Franz Ferdinand, Phoenix, Greg Dulli, Mark Lanegan, Mutt Lange, Arto Lindsay, Butch Vig, Rich Costey, Spike Stent, John Parish and Afterhours, amongst many others. Starting his career as an assistant at the world-famous Officine Meccaniche studio in Milan, Tommaso quickly worked his way up to chief engineer. In 2005, Tommaso met Muse during the sessions for their breakthrough record Black Holes & Revelations, when they recorded strings and overdubs at Officine Meccaniche. The pairing clicked, and Colliva has become a long-term collaborator and friend, his role progressing from engineer and additional production to mixing two tracks from Grammy-nominated album The 2nd Law and co-producing latest release Drones, which won the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2016.
Dave Eringa has over 22 years’ experience as a music producer and mix engineer, and has worked with the likes of the Manic Street Preachers (10 albums), Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey, Idlewild, Ash, Kylie Minogue and Tom Jones, to name but a few. His career began at Powerplant studios working for legendary producer Robin Millar, and he went on to produce his first Top 10 album by the age of 21 (the Manics’ Gold Against The Soul).
Sean Genockey began his varied career working around the record-making process as a guitar player. Having moved into the recording side of things, Sean has worked with producers Dave Eringa and Paul Stacey, and he has also produced and engineered work for Tim Palmer, Bob Clearmountain and Gil Norton, to name just a few. Sean owns and runs his own Black Dog Studios in South London, and his discography includes Reuben, Manic Street Preachers, Tom McRae, Iko, To The Bones, Baddies, Suede, Hermes, Kula Shaker and the Futureheads.
Steve Osborne has maintained a prolific output throughout his vast, genre-spanning career of record-making. After starting in London’s Trident Studios, Steve soon joined forces with Paul Oakenfold, forming the Perfecto partnership. Together they became one of the most legendary remix teams of the exploding ’90s club scene, working with the likes of Massive Attack and U2. The duo went on to produce the legendary Happy Mondays Album Pills ‘n’ Thrills And Bellyaches. Returning to his more band-orientated roots, Steve went on to record and produce the likes of Elbow, Doves, Suede, KT Tunstall, Placebo and U2. Steve’s recent work has seen him perform radio mix duties for Gregory Porter and produce and mix both albums for the award-winning Cat’s Eyes.
Jack Ruston is a producer, recording engineer and mixer. His career began in LA, playing guitar in Robert Vaughn’s award-winning band Dead River Angels. That experience provided the opportunity to record in some of the world’s finest studios and, preferring that to the life of a touring musician, he became obsessed with recording bands rather than playing in them. His background allows him to approach engineering from a musician’s perspective, and to bring his skills as a player to many of his projects. Jack’s clients include Judas Priest, Reuben, Walking On Cars, McBusted, James Morrison, Loa Loa, Foxes and Birdy. He also writes and produces original music as part of Man Kill Machine.
Having a background as a drummer, but also because I think it’s an important part of production to get right, I’m always interested in other producers’ opinions on working with click tracks. Many producers I’ve spoken with about this over the last year have stated that they prefer to try to get a drummer or band to perform without any sort of metronomic guide where possible. Obviously the idea is to preserve some feel and energy, but this surprised me a little: it seems quite unusual to hear a commercial release these days in which the ‘live’ drums do not sound very tight and uniform, with most seeming to keep tempo changes to a minimum. Yet some tracks do demand drums that are very ‘on the grid’ and have a very consistent tempo, and in these cases some drummers — even some really good ones — can need a bit of help.
There are two approaches that I’ve found work well for getting tight, yet still exciting, live drums in the studio. The first is where you have a great drummer with a natural ability to keep solid time. If you’re lucky enough to work with such a drummer, they’ll add just the right amount of tempo fluctuation throughout a song to make it feel alive and energetic. You might, perhaps, use a click for the first few bars of the song, just to ensure consistency across takes, but in terms of the rest of the arrangement, it’s very easy now to sync a DAW session to a variable-tempo audio recording.
This is what I think most producers have had in mind when they talk about working without a click: they’re not simply turning a blind eye to some messy timing free-for-all with wild tempo fluctuations (unless that’s a creative aim!), but drummers who can keep good time without a click. Alas, in terms of the technical prowess of the musicians, when you’re working on sessions that are, shall we say, a little lower down the food chain, such drummers aren’t the norm. It’s not only a question of their ability or talent, but also their lack of studio experience.
The second approach is to use a drummer who can play to a click. If a drummer is comfortable working to a metronome, he or she can still play naturally, and you can even map out small tempo changes in a DAW session if need be. It might sound like a big ask, but I know from my own experience that drumming to a metronome is a skill which can be picked up surprisingly quickly — provided, of course, that the drummer doesn’t have a critical band and producer anxiously watching over them at the time!
If you’ve done no preparation with a band and you quickly find out that your drummer is neither of the above — which, in my experience, is often the case — then you have a problem. You either just have to roll with it, and put up with more variation in tempo than you’d like, or you painstakingly coax the drummer along with a click, or perhaps make loops out of certain sections.
And all of this brings us back to planning: whatever musicians you’ll be working with on a particular project, it’s important to give some thought to how you’ll approach this aspect of a session. You might, if the player is experienced enough, start by talking to them about what they’ve done in the past, or you might build in a bit of time to experiment to find the best approach for them. And if you know you’re definitely going to work with a click track, then consider providing your drummer with some means of practising with it beforehand — it could be an excellent investment of your time.