THE DEATH OF PRE-PRODUCTION
It's 11:49 PM on Saturday. For you, the time is now.
Oh, I'm listening to this a cappella masterpiece as I'm typing this post. I really like.....well, everything in the video.
Let's dive right into it, shall we?
Ever since I started playing drums, back when I was 15, I thought that great sounding music takes quite a bit of work.
Sure, there are incredible songs/albums that were written, recorded, mixed and mastered during the span of less than a month, but most of the music I seem to enjoy needs time dedicated to it.
One of the bands that confirmed this theory for me was Linkin Park. I feel no shame in saying that, for years, I used to be a huge Linkin Park fan. I liked their songs, I liked their personalities, I liked their videos, I liked their production.
Since I started paying attention to what's happening on the other side of the glass, though, I began understanding their production even more and I was floored with their attention to detail and the dedication they have to bring the best out of their songs.
Songs such as "Hit the floor" off of 2003's Meteora really show off the care they put into every single element of the production.
Listen to how Mike Shinoda's rapping during the verses is stuttered in just the right way, or the way the vocal doubles are panned, for maximum effect.
In my opinion, this is how music (that doesn't need to sound as if played live) should sound like; the dedication to perfecting it should be obvious from the way it sounds, without it sound over-produced.
Many, many bands, especially young bands, rush into recording. They have a few songs that may or may not have potential, then they hook up with a producer that ends up being the recording and maybe mixing engineer, but doesn't really do any producing.
They want to get their music out there as soon as possible, which is understandable.
Additionally, if that band only has 5 songs they're relatively happy with, they record all 5...and amongst those 5 songs, there may be one that actually has great potential. I know art is subjective, but at the same time there are criteria that are almost universal, such as what makes a great vocal melody or a catchy guitar riff.
There's a theory that says that you should have at least 3 times as much material as the number of songs you want to release; if you want to release a 5 song EP, then have at least 15 songs written. This increases your chances of having 5 release-worthy songs.
[Joe Gilder over at Home Studio Corner challenged himself a couple of years ago to write 50 songs in 12 weeks. He succeeded and the album he released, Better this way, shows it's worth doing it. Joe talked about this at length in the first episode of the Songversations podcast]
Another problem is that many young bands don't like the idea of having their music produced, they don't like having a third party touch their music in a creative way. While there are a few bands that might benefit from not having their songs meddled with, most bands could really use an objective ear giving input, to help refine those songs.
Does the song really need a 4 bar intro, followed by an instrumental chorus, before going into an 8/16 bars verse, maybe followed by a 4 bar pre-chorus, into the same chorus, back into the exact same verse arrangement, but with different lyrics, and repeat? Also, don't forget about the middle 8/bridge where something interesting might happen, only to go back to 2 more rounds of the same chorus you heard before. Don't get me wrong: if each section is great, that might work.
Most bands aren't brilliant arrangers, though, which is fine. That's why producers exist: to help the band trim the fat from their songs, to condense them into their essential, best bits, and to add whatever they can bring to the table, if that's something that has been agreed upon.
You already know that if a song has a great arrangement, it's a lot easier to mix.
Bands should allow mixing engineers to use the mute button a lot more than they do...that would actually improve most of their songs, not because the songs are bad, but because they lack focus. I'm sure you don't need the same amount of backing vocals for every single chorus...let the song evolve and develop as it plays, people!
The pre-production process has a precursor: the pre-pre-production stage, where the band discusses with the producer their vision for the song/ep/album, their expectations, and so on. Also, money.
Moving on to pre-production:
- it usually starts with the band recording a few rehearsals, which can be done using either an iPhone, because they can withstand great sound pressure levels, so audio won't distort easily, or by using a field recorder, such as a Zoom H2/H4/H6, etc. I use the H2. Great little piece of gear.
Alternatively, the producer goes to a few of the bands' gigs.
- following this, a demo is recorded, usually in the producer's home studio. The drums are most likely programmed, then everything else is recorded, to get an idea of the current state of the song.
- afterwards, the band and producer get together again, and start analysing the songs. Is the chorus too long? Is that guitar solo adding anything valuable to the song?
How about the vocal delivery on the first verse? I feel it could be a bit more mellow. Also, do you need the 8 bar intro? Let's surprise people and start with the verse. That will definitely catch their attention.
The overall tempo is revised as well. Would the song benefit from slight tempo changes between sections? The key of the song might be tampered with, to see if it fits the singer's voice better if it's higher/lower.
- the next step is doing a thorough analysis of the whole song, section by section, to see/imagine what could be improved upon.
- a second demo is recorded, and the last few steps are repeated again and again, until the band and producer are excited about the result.
- if a song is mediocre, but has a great, catchy vocal line for the bridge, maybe ditch the song, but keep the vocal line? Make it into the chorus of a new song. Don't waste good stuff! I have a friend that writes very catchy verse melodies, but is somewhat lacking in the chorus department....so he thought of using the verse melodies for the choruses, and write something else for the verses. Smart. I don't know if he actually ended up doing it, though.
I asked the Boston post-rock band Pray for Sound if they would like to contribute to this post and they accepted! That's lovely.
Thank you, guys. Check them out on Bandcamp or visit their website; like their Facebook page too.
What are your views on pre-production?
Pre-production is a very important step in the writing/recording process for Pray for Sound. I personally don't think it's absolutely necessary for every song or every band, but I do think that with pre-production, good ideas can turn into great ideas. With that said, too much pre-production can also ruin a song, causing it to be "too perfect" and bland. To us, it's just as important to keep some of the natural, organic sound in an original rough idea as it is writing just a great song.
Do you go through this stage before recording your track?
Yes. Typically, because our songs start off being written by a single member, we pre-pro as a full band so that we can incorporate everyone's ideas. This ends up greatly benefiting the original song idea/demo.
What does it involve in your case?
We've tried approaching writing and recording in a number of ways, some of which have worked and others, not so much.
Typically, I'll write a few different riffs that comprise a rough "song". I'll usually write additional guitar parts by looping the original riffs with my looper pedal and then toying with parts on top. After that, I'll record a rough demo with an idea of an arrangement, and then we'll get together and listen to the demo as a band.
After that, we spend some time in our practice room learning the parts and modifying things as we go. We typically also have room mics setup to record this process. As we go through and learn the demo, everyone will start to throw in some of their own ideas and modify parts to fit their personal playing style. We like to let the song sit for a while and re-approach the song a week or so later. We'll repeat this process until we're all happy with how things are sounding and we use the room mic recordings to listen back.
Finally, things like the exact tempo and miscellaneous subtleties are decided as we record the final version of the song. We try to let a lot of that stuff happen naturally during the writing/jamming process and then mimic it using the live room mic demos as reference during tracking.
That's all, folks!
Have a good one.