First Things First: The Value of Pre-Production

By Todd Smith

From start to finish, a recording project is divided into three stages: pre-production, production, and post-production. Pre-production consists of planning and preparing to record, production is the actual recording process and post-production is the mixing, editing, and mastering of the recorded material. This article will focus on the pre-production stage.

Whether studio time is $25/hour or $250/hour, you can make the most of it by doing some basic preparations in advance. There are decisions that must be made before anything goes on tape, and most of these can be made in your rehearsal space. These are things that are easy to overlook, but it chews up time to go through them. Take that time when you don't have to pay for it.

Tempo: There is nothing to hold up production like an argument about how fast or slow a song should be. Have all those arguments done and settled by the time you get to the studio. If you are going to use a click track, clock out your tempos with a drum machine in advance and make a chart.

Arrangements: The same is true with arrangements. Should we go around the intro twice before the vocal comes in or just once? How about a four-bar break between the first chorus and the second verse? Do we fade out or end cold? These are easy questions, but when you are fishing for answers, it can hang up the flow of progress.

Rehearsal: Perhaps the most fundamental element of pre-production is also one of the most commonly overlooked: rehearsal. You can get away with murder in a club, where it's too loud for detail to matter. But when you get into that quiet laboratory with all those expensive microphones staring at you, and acoustic treatments on the walls soaking up all that friendly ambience, then it's the artistic equivalent of standing naked on an iceberg in the middle of the Antarctic.

A studio is a sonically unforgiving environment. The mics are extra-sensitive, and there is a very precise recording machine, precisely recording your every klunker. It is very quickly apparent who is prepared and who is not. By the time you get to the studio, performance should be a formality of getting the material on tape.

Equipment & Supplies: Then there's the real kicker – equipment and supplies. For some reason, we don't know until we get into the studio that we don't have enough cables, or the batteries in our pickups are dead, or we need new strings.

Go over your complete gear list the night before a session, trace the signal path from instrument to speaker and make sure each piece is solid, all batteries are fresh, all cables are good. That way if you have a weak link in your chain, you have time to replace it before your session the next day instead of paying for 30 minutes of down time while someone runs to Mom's.

In general, have all your material and equipment sussed out and ready to go, have a spare for everything you possibly can and expect the worst to happen. I think there is some bizarre cosmic phenomenon that causes equipment to fail when it comes into a studio.

Of course, it is impossible to forsee every scenario and have a plan of action ready to deal with it, but it is possible to cover the main bases. Even a well-planned session is by nature somewhat stressful; everyone is a little tense, we're in the studio, we're spending money, etc. There are enough things beyond your control that can throw a session, so don't add to the stress by not taking care of the silly little things that are within your control.

Now if money is no object, it is great fun to create and experiment in the studio, and that is the beauty of the home studio. But for those of us who are not rock stars with unlimited budgets, the professional studio needs to be reserved for the execution of decisions and plans that have already been made.