The Pre-production Process

Pre-Production

Recording is a lot of fun.

So much fun, in fact, that it can be all too easy to dive headfirst into the recording process without giving much thought to what we’re going to do. We just start recording and see what happens.

The problem is that a great production requires intentionality, and the only way to be intentional from the very beginning is to slow down and do a little bit of planning.

This planning stage is what I call Pre-production.

So how do we go about pre-production? What’s the best way to get everything planned out?

Well, you can really do as much or as little as you want. Every song is different. You’ll need to strike a balance that works for you between planning up front, and figuring it out as you go.

But in general, there are 4 things I would suggest including in every pre-production session:

1. Record a demo

In this case, a “demo” is just a simple recording of the song.

Literally, just throw a microphone in front of you, and play and sing the song. Doesn’t have to be a great quality recording.

The purpose of this is to give you something to listen to and live with for a while. If you’re a singer/songwriter, maybe you haven’t sat back and actually listened to your song very much since you’ve been too busy playing it. Or if you’re an engineer recording a band, perhaps you could go to a gig and record their music on your phone.

Either way, now that you have a recording, you can stew on it for a while. Listen to it a bunch. Use your imagination and think about what you want it to sound like.

2. Decide on a tempo

If you’re going to be recording a song with overdubs, you gotta record to a click track.

Even if you’re just doing a guitar/vocal or a piano/vocal, recording to a click can help to keep things tight.

There are some cases where you might not want to record to a click. But in general, it’s a good practice.

So now is the time to determine the tempo. Start by listening through the song and using some sort of “Tap Tempo” to find what the basic tempo is. I often use an app on my iPhone, or a Tap Tempo Website.

Whatever you use, make sure you play around with it. Don’t just pick a tempo and go. Try playing the song through at that tempo. Try a BPM or two faster. Try a BPM or two slower. Find the tempo that works for you through the whole song.

3. Take notes on arrangement

This is the part that you can really take as far as you want.

Write down each section of the song. Intro, Verse 1, Chorus, Interlude, Verse 2, etc. Then, write down some notes on arrangement and instrumentation.

For example:

  • Intro: Just acoustic guitar, bring in some electric on 2nd rep
  • Verse 1: Keep acoustic guitar going, drums on regular rock beat on high hats
  • Chorus 1: Build from verse, Drums on ride, diamond chords on electric 2

Doesn’t have to be too in-depth. Just take some notes on how you hear the song in your head right now. Later, when you’re deep into recording, it might be more difficult to go back to this “big picture” perspective. Taking some notes now will help you out.

4. Record scratch tracks

Finally, you’re going to want to recording some scratch tracks.

Scratch Tracks are simply recordings that you expect to delete later. The idea is to lay down the basics so that all of your overdubs can be laid on top.

When I record scratch tracks, I will typically record myself singing and playing acoustic guitar. I will use two microphones and position them in such a way to get a little bit of separation between my voice and the guitar. It’s not going to be perfect of course, but it doesn’t need to be.

Record your scratch tracks to a click. All of your other instruments will be recording on top of these, so it’s really important to make sure they have good tempo. You may even want to do a little bit of editing to tighten things up.

Finally, get recording!

The pre-production process can be very rewarding because it helps you to have focus, direction, and intentionality as you record. Before you get too deep into recording, take some time to capture the high-level perspective that you have right now, at the very beginning of the process.

But don’t over-plan things. Do the four things I suggested, and then move on! Get to recording! Have fun, and create some great music.

If you haven’t already, check out my ebook, The Art of Music Production for more info on the various parts of the recording process.

And please leave a comment below to let me know what you think!

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8 thoughts on “The Pre-production Process

  1. Those four seem to be right on the money, makes perfect sense to me. Personally I see every track I record as a scratch track, every track can be improved, revamped or totally re invented.
    As I record my own stuff there are no limits when it comes to creativeness, however knowing when you have reached your end goal is the real secret.

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    1. Interesting way to look at it. Personally, I record scratch tracks first, and then when I’m recording the actual instrument/voice for the production, I treat it as a keeper. I do multiple takes of course, but usually no more than 2 or 3. I try to get it right so that I don’t have to re-do it later.

      That said, I think that if a track you’ve recorded just isn’t working, you need to have the guts to admit it, scrap it, and redo it like you’ve said.

      Cool thoughts! 🙂

      Like

  2. Awesome stuff here Alex! I’m actually in the process of recording a new band that has never been in the studio and was just explaining the importance of the pre-production phase. One too many times I have been in the studio when pre-production was absent. Btw all of the new content has been great and I’m really looking forward to the inside scoop with the new ep! Keep up the good work man.

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    1. Hey Rolando,

      Thanks for the encouragement!

      Yeah pre-production sure makes a big difference. I’ve been working through it this week for my new EP. It helps to write down production and arrangement notes before you start getting too deep in the process. I find that you can lose your overall perspective all too easily. I have a ton of notes already…a couple of my songs have over 800 words of production notes! Yikes!!

      I’ll have a video coming out to you soon! 🙂

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  3. Hi Alex,
    I’m looking forward to following you and your process as you go about producing your EP.
    It is my intention to duplicate your process as I also try to produce my own EP. This will be the first time for me to actually produce an EP, so I’m a little apprehensive about the whole process however following your instructions I hope to meet the challenge. I purchased your video series with the intention of applying your step by step system to my production efforts.

    Thanks for your help!
    Ed

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    1. Hey Ed,

      Very cool! I think that will be the best way to learn: coming along for the ride and working on your own stuff as I work through mine. Feel free to get in touch with any questions you may have along the way! I’m looking forward to hearing about your progress 🙂

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  4. Hey Alex,

    This is awesome stuff! It was quite helpful. I will try to follow the process when I start with my own album/EP. However, I think it is going to take some time before I start working on it. I am not mentally prepared right now nor musically. I am in the process of introspection. 🙂

    Thanks for your helpful posts. Keep it up!

    Like

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