Among self-financed musicians, pre-production is arguably the most neglected step of the recording process. This is a regrettable state of affairs, but it’s also easy to understand.
The reality is that many new artists skip or gloss over this step because they don’t yet realize how much it matters. Despite being the least expensive part of the process while offering the greatest return on investment, pre-production is also the phase that requires the most experience to execute well.
I’ve heard novice musicians and engineers make good-sounding recordings over countless hours of trial and error. But to date, the only way to execute an ambitious release on time and in-budget, while giving it a fighting chance to having to find its audience, is to have worked on dozens of successful and failed releases.
Sometimes the failures can teach even more than the successes. But if you have any choice in the matter, I heartily recommend the former.
In addition to my own experience, I’ve spent years studying failed and successful releases, looking for the common threads. Effective pre-production is one of those threads, and everything I’ve learned so far seems to prove the old maxim that “failing to plan is planning to fail.”
Some things become clichés for a reason. Don’t let your release be one of them.
Pre-Production: What and Why
Pre-production begins with an artist writing or selecting songs.
Often enough, artists – even new ones – do just fine there. But pre-production also entails filtering through these songs, fine-tuning tempos, arrangements and structure before recording in earnest.
It’s all too common for new artists to step confidently into the studio, only to discover that, under the microscope of a beautiful multitrack recording, the bass line and the kick drum part walk all over each other, the melody sounds slightly awkward at such a fast tempo, and the key of the song is just out-of-reach for the singer.
Musicians who live near major metropolitan areas are unlikely to find studio time worth paying for at a rate less than $45 an hour, with engineer. This is not the place to discover that your arrangements still need some workshopping.
Even for musicians who are technically inclined and plan to record themselves, strictly defining a pre-production phase is essential in maintaining forward momentum on a large recording project.
For those who are more ambitious, in order to work with well-established professionals who have recorded music you know and admire, who have helped other independent musicians craft albums that have gone on to find their own kind of success, rates often start closer to $60-$100 an hour, even in a recovering economy like ours.
Compared to this, good pre-production barely costs a thing. In fact, it can even be free.
Bring in Help Early On
Ironically, it’s during the pre-production phase that the advice of an experienced and dedicated producer is often the least expensive, and the most valuable.
Effective planning and goal-setting at this stage means saving time and money every step of the way. Artists who try to cut this corner hoping to save time and money inevitably end up spending more of both. I’ve seen it countless times.
For too many self-financed new bands, the first time an experienced party enters into the equation is when they finally step into a recording studio. In this scenario, the first professional ears on a project tend to belong to whoever happens to be the house engineer at whatever recording studio had a rate that seemed like it fit the band’s budget and looked like it had some neat gear.
Meanwhile, experienced producers and artists know that the people and ideas are the most important part of any project.
A confluence of talent, skill and experience is far more rare than a roomful of great toys, and a better plan is always more cost-effective than a lower hourly rate.
That’s why both plans and people are still so valuable and perhaps even more essential today, in an age when the cost of a basic recording has reached an all-time low.
With that in mind, let’s look at how to approach planning and pre-production, and how not to.
The 12 Steps to Releasing an Album (The Insane Way)
Step 1: Write a bunch of songs, play a few shows and record a rehearsal.
Step 2: Figure out how much extra money you and your bandmates have in your checking accounts this week.
Come up with a basic recording plan based on this figure and advice you read on the internets.
Shop around for a studio based on rate and gear.
Step 3: Show up, start recording with whatever engineer happens to work at that studio on weekends.
Begin basic tracking on your first song and discover that you’ve been slowing down every time you hit the chorus. Realize that the guitar player and bass player never really figured out a smooth transition into the bridge, and – wait – is that the part the keyboardist has been playing the whole time?
Begin basic tracking on the second song; realize that the kick drum and bass parts don’t sit well together at all and sound about as compelling as a flat tire on a tractor trailer.
Begin basic tracking on the third song and realize that the vocals don’t work at this tempo when you can actually hear the words.
Rinse and repeat on 3 more songs.
Step 4: Discover that you planned to get far more done in a day than is actually possible for you right now. Realize that at this rate, you will run out of money before you have accomplished your goals.
On Day 2, discover that you and the studio’s engineer don’t share much in the way of musical taste or preferences in sound. Also come to the mounting realization that you think he’s a bit of a detached and condescending prick.
Rinse and repeat for one week.
Against all odds, and after using up all the days you budgeted for, finish basic tracking.
Step 5: Try to scrounge up some more money for overdubs; Put project on shelf for 5 weeks.
Step 6: Come back for overdubs, this time at a new studio with an engineer who you seem to get along with pretty well.
Waste a few hours the first day as the new engineer figures out how all the tracks are arranged in your sessions, and figures out exactly where to put you when you say things like “let’s punch in at the second chorus.”
Realize that your favorite song on the record is in a key that doesn’t work for the vocals.
Realize that although the engineer is a cool guy, he has no useful advice on pitch and delivery. Also realize that it feels kind of awkward to sing in front of him.
Step 7: Run out of money during overdubs; Figure it would be cheaper if you just recorded yourselves anyway.
Seek advice on internet forums; end up spending more money on recording equipment than you ever spent on studio time.
Over the course of 3 months, teach yourself enough about your recording software to finish basic tracking.
Step 8: Learn how to mix. After 4 months of trial-and-error, end up with some okay-sounding tracks. Still wish they could be better, and feel a little insecure about playing them for people who have opinions about sound.
Step 9: Find the second-cheapest mastering engineer on Craigslist who has done some work in your genre. Secretly think the record sounds worse after mastering, but don’t say anything about it. After all, he’s the mastering engineer, and you figure he knows this stuff better than you.
Step 10: Release all 18 songs via iTunes and Amazon; promote on Facebook and Twitter.
At no point in the process, consider cutting the length of the album or focusing your energies more on some songs than others.
Step 11: Realize you’re going to need some Facebook and Twitter followers, stat.
Step 11a): Realize you hate social marketing, and that to do it effectively you have to come to it with a strategy and approach it with discipline, just like any other job.
Step 11b): Write emails to a few bloggers about your album that has been out for 4 weeks now. Cross fingers.
Step 11c): Play a few more shows.
Step 12: Break up.
I honestly wish I could say this was all rhetorical exaggeration, but I’ve seen it happen dozens of times.
The 12 Steps to Releasing an Album (The Smart Way)
Step 1: Write a bunch of songs.
Play them. Constantly.
Record rehearsals, record demos, listen critically, record some more.
Step 2: Begin to build a platform for your music.
Connect with potential fans, collaborators, and great artists to play shows with.
Keep playing music, constantly.
Step 3: Begin shopping around for potential producers or engineers.
Get recommendations from musicians whose recordings you love;
Search on the web and listen to demo reels;
Look through the liner notes of some of your favorite independent releases;
Hone in on your top choices. Recognize that their platform is your platform.
Step 4: Contact these people.
Make sure that you get along well, and that they’re available and excited about your project.
Find out if they’re willing to work within a general budget range that’s feasible for you.
Make your final choice on producer or engineer, and get that person involved early on in the process. Invite the producer to listen to rehearsal recordings, to come to rehearsals and to shows and to participate in song selection and strategy.
(Note that “studio” and “rate” have not yet entered the equation.)
Step 5: Working with your producer, establish appropriate goals, approach and timeline.
Come up with a budget that is feasible for you to secure, and that will allow you to reach those goals comfortably. If this proves impossible, adjust your goals.
Step 6: Now that you’ve established your budget, approach, and goals, work with your producer or engineer to solidify what studio arrangements make the most sense for the project.
If the producer/engineer owns his or her own studio that works for the entire project, great. If not, that’s great too. Many great producers either don’t own studios that will work for all stages of every project, and many notable ones don’t own a recording studio at all.
Even if they do, sometimes it’s fun or inspiring to travel. Collaborate with them and settle on the environments that make the most sense for your project and budget. Set deadlines and remember to book time in advance.
Step 7: Continue to secure your recording funds.
Set aside money from your paycheck; Draw on pre-existing savings; Borrow money from friends and family; Seek industry backers; Run a smart crowdfunding campaign; Sell plasma.
Note: If you are going the crowdfunding route, get your producer involved now and ask for recommendations on strategies, tactics and best practices.
Many good producers – especially young ones who are worth their salt – will be fluent in effective crowdfunding, or will have contacts that are.
Even if your producer has limited experience in this new arena, try to get your producer’s name involved in the campaign, and get them to share the campaign with their network. Recognize that their involvement at this stage may be able to help you bring in significantly more funding. Also recognize that doing so is a risk to their credibility, but can pay dividends for you, for them, and for your fans. Compensate for this accordingly in your budget.
Step 8: With feedback from your producer, get so good at playing together that if you just put a single SM57 in a room with you, the resulting recording would be worth buying.
Record through the entire album once, quickly. This can be in a rehearsal space, or in an inexpensive multitrack recording studio. Solo artists are allowed to do this on a cassette 4-track or a DAW.
These recordings should be so good that die-hard fans would be eager to hear it 10 years from now, and that you’re almost tempted to release it as-is, right now.
Review these pre-production demos, take notes, and make changes where needed. Consider cutting songs at this point, or adding new ones in.
Step 9: Actually record album using the road map that you and your producer have devised.
Stop to smell flowers when appropriate. Simmer when finished.
Step 10: Mix.
Aim to cut at least 2 songs when done. Maybe more.
Know that editing is where the art is, and that you can always release rarities and B-sides once you have slews of dedicated fans. No dead weight is allowed at this stage.
Step 11: Master the record, shop around for a promotional team and come up with a release strategy.
Make sure your producer hears and approves of the mastering job. Once this is done, now you can announce the official release date for your recording. Do not do this step any earlier.
Step 12a): Release teaser material and launch promotional campaign;
Step 12b): Release album.
Step 12c): Play music. Constantly.
That’s all there is to it.
Caveats and Concerns
This method works. It worked 50 years ago, and despite all of our giant leaps in communication technology, it still works today. That’s what all my experience, and all my careful study of successful current releases tells me, anyway.
Naturally, there are some variations on this theme. With more experienced artists, sometimes the producer is a band member. Sometimes the timelines contract and sometimes they expand. Sometimes the release is a single or an EP rather than an album. And even if the pre-production process on a successful jazz or EDM recording is a little different, underneath, the same basic concepts apply.
It’s also true that there are rough-and-ready artists like Pavement, Guided By Voices and The Moldy Peaches who have found some success releasing recordings that sound little better than cassette demos for conventional albums that never materialized. These are meaningful exceptions, and if this is your aesthetic, feel free to play by different rules.
Likewise, there are novelty artists and political songwriters who have found some success releasing their songs as they write them. If this is your market, and turning out topical songs quickly is your ballgame, then godspeed.
But if your ambitions are bigger, and your aspiration is to release recordings that are as good as they can be, then effective pre-production is essential.
The alternative – fussing over an album for months and months after you’ve recorded the basics – is significantly more likely to lead to over-production, budgetary bloat, and to recordings that run out of steam long before they’re even finished.
This leads us to another one of the ironies that surrounds pre-production: Beginning to plan and evaluate early on tends to lead to albums that sound fresher, more engaging, and less overworked when they’re done.
When well-planned albums are finished, there’s more money left over and less burnout for the musicians involved. This is crucial, because finishing an album shouldn’t be the end of the line. For smart musicians who plan ahead, it’s just the beginning of a brand new phase.