Have You Done Your Pre-Pre-Production?
by Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine)
re·cord v. (ri-kawrd) 1. to set down for preservation in permanent form. 2. to serve, to relate, or to tell of for the purpose of preserving knowledge or information.
One of the first questions I ask a band before I work with them is: "Why are you making all this noise?" The answer can solidify the direction of a recording project and provide
a focus by which many production decisions are made. Just because recording music is easier and more accessible than ever before doesn't automatically mean that you should be pressing Record. I'm big on having a compelling reason to record music. Whether you have some great humanitarian message to share with the world or you just want to show off your recoupable bling, some thought should be put into why you want to make record of that sentiment.
A few of the dictionary definitions of 'recording' mention the word 'preservation'. While this may seem like another meaning of the word that we've come to know so well, for me, it always reminds me of the practical reasons that validate my career choice. At the risk of being overly dramatic here, looking at the act of recording with a little more reverence isn't a bad thing in this high-def, terabyte-sized world that we record in.
If preserving something that will be worth remembe ring is the goal, then we should all initially place a little more emphasis on what we are recording rather than how we are recording it. So this discussion isn't about mic placement, compression ratios or DAW plug-ins, but rather the reason why any of that stuff exists in the first place.
From Inspiration to Song
So once a band is reminded of or has recently defined why it's a good idea to make a recording, it's time to assess the material. Does the song reflect that intention? For var·
ious reasons there may be shortcomings in the songwriting that inhibit that goal. This is the time to define melodies, fix awkward phrasing, exorcise bad lyrics, conjure up some less-predictable chord inversions and solidify song structure. Call it rewriting or starting from scratch, the end result here is to have an undeniable song that would warrant the time, effort and money that you will expend to record it later. This pre-pre-production or development stage is an opportunity to fast-track a band's learning curve and to avoid making the common mistakes that will ultimately hold the band back. Empowering the right producer to head up this effort is as important as that band's remaining open enough to allow him or her to get the best out of them. When I produce, a lot of times I'll feel like the fifth member of that group as I come to a better understanding of what defines their music and what works for them as an ensemble. I'm adamant about customizing my way of making music to what functions best for that band to have any hope of creating something genuine and real. It's crucial not to color a project so much that the band has trouble taking ownership of the songs when you're done.
A one-size-fits-all method for collaboration and development simply doesn't work well
when dealing with true artists and highly creative people. I find that this type of development runs best with bands in their element-the rehearsal space, the garage,the, uh ...tree fort-wherever they're used to being creative. Because this phase is more about capturing raw ideas than it is about pristine sound quality, a simple voice recorder is all you may need to document ideas effortlessly. In fact, the more complicated you make the recording, the higher the chance that something technical will go horribly wrong, or progress will just not be fast enough--either way re sulting
in losing valuable ideas in the process. This is not the time to get bogged down in anything other than creative issues. For the most part, development like this is about discovery and creative inspiration. Being overly judgmental and too detail-oriented now usually cripples the effort to end up with anything decent. Genuine openness goes a long way, and having fewer rules and restrictions and more experimentation and encouragement will take you even further. Allowing musicians to feel artistically free always yields better results than operating with a dictator-like heavy hand.
Sometimes we're our own worst enemy when it comes to creativity. It's easy to edit ourselves too soon and sabotage a great starting point before it gets off the ground. Being blocked happens to the best of us, but this can be avoided by thinking less and feeling more. Finding ways to get lost in the music is essential. Exploring ideas with odd alternate guitar tunings or even working out a melody on an unfamiliar instrument can keep you focused on what's most important.
Similarly with lyrical ideas, I encourage a trip to the library or at least some good internet research to find a different angle for your song topic. Even using obscure literary devices may inspire a fresh approach. Maybe an anthropomorphic love song from the perspective of the tree that will yield the paper that your marriage certificate
will be printed on is a bit of a stretch for you and your band, but ... well, at least the ideas are flowing.
From Song to Track
So now that you have your inspired song written that encapsulates the band's reason for living (or at least reason for showing up with their instruments that day), you're ready for a more conventional pre-production scenario that will focus more on
presentation. The arrangement of the song is everything from what each instrument is doing to the structure of how each part is strung together. The more that you can have these elements mapped out, the smoother the recording process will be. If you are truly prepared before you press Record, you'll have less pressure to have every decision you'll make mean the life or death of the song.
Recording is a lot more fun when you're not trying to strategically hide weakness in the music with production duct tape, so to speak. At this point you're catering to the song. My co-producer Karen Stever likes to say that "The song is the boss", and she's right. Without any other agenda but serving the song, it's very difficult to go too far down the wrong path. We're constantly inundated with new and exciting gear that we're all anxious to apply to our latest recording project. As thrilling as it is to crack open the box, plug that thing in and run some signal through it, you should remember that it's merely a sonic mirage unless that signal is record-worthy. Sure, that vocal may sound good, but does anyone want to listen to it? Does it deserve to be preserved?
Let's make some noise that is not only worth hearing, but worth hearing over and over again.
From Track to Inspiration
The development and pre-production process isn't glamorous alongside vintage ribbon mics and high-resolution A/D converters, but it seems to regulate the flow of lackluster music into the world. It affords us a few more opportunities to ask ourselves"What the hell are we doing?" and come to our senses. So what is glamorous, you ask? How about a well-arranged, expertly written honest song that you get to record with all the fun gear? Sounds good to me.