Pre-production is a vital part of music, film and live stage production processes. As the owner of a professional recording studio with nearly 20 years in business, I have seen a lot of talented music clients overlook the importance of pre-production. Later, they wish they had given it a chance. What is music pre-production and why is it so important? Click HERE for my pre-production guide and downloadable PDF checklist, which are both available for free!
Music pre-Production is the planning and preparation phase necessary to successfully record a part, song, songs or full project. It is the first of the six major steps involved in music recording projects overall. Pre-production is the most vital phase of the music recording process. This essential first-step in production also plays an integral role in the final quality and overall success of your project. Details involved in pre-production sessions vary from project-to-project. Variations from task-to-task also exist. Larger music projects typically require more preparation. That said, smaller projects also depend on thorough preparation to be successful.
This free pre-production guide and PDF checklist are designed to help with your preparation. If you and/or your band have more recording experience, you might not need quite as much (but you still need it). Are you working on one song or ten? Regardless of your experience or the size of your project, time and attention spent in pre-production increases your overall chance of success.
Is Music Pre-Production Overrated?
As a recording musician you are part of a collective creative mindset. You are an artist who takes pride in expressing yourself freely. The idea of making time for pre-production might feel restrictive to your creative process or vision despite how important pre-pro is. Trust me, I understand this perspective. Accepting pre-production as a necessary step is challenging for many people in the industry, regardless of profession. Who struggles with pre-production when first starting out?
- Session musicians.
- Recording engineers.
- Mixing and mastering engineers.
- Everyone who is new to professional music production.
Free Music Pre-Production Guide to Help Change Your Perspective
New or inexperienced artists tend to underestimate the value of pre-production. Have you ever been in a class with a student who thought they knew all the answers? Have you ever felt this way? I have. Sometimes we think we already know what we need to succeed, only to end up disappointed or failing. This perspective is true for students, musicians and artists alike.
Experienced artists know the value of pre-production and do not start recording projects without it. Musicians and producers with decades of professional experience actually value the pre-production process more than most. Investing in quality pre-production sessions results in huge positive returns. Energy spent on pre-production saves money and time. The pre-production phase of music also prevents frustration later.
Pre-Production is a Sharpened Tool for Success
Abraham Lincoln is known for supplying history with numerous profound quotes and ideas. Relative to music pre-production is the following quote by Lincoln:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln.
What does this Abraham Lincoln quote about sharpening the axe mean? How does his quote apply to music production? Loosely speaking, pre-production is your axe and the quality of your project is the tree you’ve chopped down. To finish your project successfully you must know how to properly begin. Stated more directly: Beginning a recording project without pre-production is almost always a futile endeavor.
Organization and forethought are vital to ensuring your production process is efficient. Pre-production helps ensure your recording sessions and project quality are a success. Rushing through this important phase of music production (or excluding it entirely) causes:
- Wasted time.
- Budget problems.
- Creative and/or musical regrets.
Let the Music Pre-Production Process Work for You
Music pre-production is not overrated. It is, however, commonly underrated and misunderstood. Try not to think of pre-production as gratuitous work but rather as a process that works for you. The more you respect the end-result of your project, the more you will value the pre-production process.
Creating a Road Map for Your Music
When you go on a lengthy road trip, do you pack accordingly and research your routes? Or do you just pick a direction and start driving? While the latter can be fun it is also similar to a full-blown jazz improvisation. Do you have the experience and inspired chops to just cut loose on an instrument or vocal performance? What type of recording are you making? Running out of gas without knowing how (and where) to find more is an unpleasant road trip experience. Getting stuck in the desert overnight is obviously (and literally) dangerous. Messing up your songs due to a lack of planning is a huge disappointment. It might not be dangerous but it definitely wastes money and time. Don’t strand your project’s creative momentum by ignoring pre-production. Create a road map for your music before (sic) taking it on the road. Contact me to schedule a free consultation or book your pre-production session today.
Building the Foundation for Success
The first step of construction when building a home is to lay down the foundation. Before construction begins, however, planning must occur. Architects and builders draw up blueprints and plans to decide what materials they need. Decisions about room sizes, wall colors and choices between showers or tubs are also included in the plans. A budget and timeline for completion are created. Workers and builders then follow the plan(s) step by step. Without this plan, the house simply could not be built.
Building ground-up toward your project’s success starts with pre-production. Without it, your musical house will fall. Does pre-production involve the same process for all types of musical artists and clients? Continue reading to learn more about pre-production and how it applies to your style of music.
Pre-Production for Singer-Songwriters and Bands
Conceptually, pre-production is the same for every type and style of music project regardless of genre. Differences do exist, however, based numerous factors specific to each project. Here at Full Tilt Productions we record a lot of singer-songwriter projects and full bands. Singer-songwriter projects typically involve individual vocalists and/or musicians who write and perform their own material. Bands almost always contain more than one (1) member as well as multiple songwriters. How does the pre-production process differ between singer-songwriters and full bands?
Pre Production for Singer Songwriters
A singer-songwriter project might only have one or two performers on the project at the beginning. Perhaps it remains this way. Maybe you need to hire extra musicians to expand instrumentation and give your music a different energy. During pre-production sessions you will decide what instruments and parts work best for each song. You will also choose the musicians best suited to record those parts. Next, a plan for recording the parts is needed. This includes booking recording studio time and choosing the production styles and techniques available to you.
Discuss Your Budget During the Pre-Production Phase
Budget possibilities and limitations are typically discussed at this point during a prepro session. Perhaps you currently do not have the budget to fulfill your entire creative vision. Maybe you have more money budgeted than you actually need. Whatever the case, incorporating your budget during the pre-production phase helps:
- Set expectations.
- Eliminate mistakes.
- Reduce other issues down the line.
Finally, a preliminary plan for mixing and mastering might be created based on all these choices and information.
Pre-Production for Full Bands
Full bands and singer songwriters follow similar pre-production paths. One significant difference involves bands having built-in musicians to record parts. During the pre-production phase, band members often discuss if everyone is capable of recording their parts at the required level. Seasoned studio musician often perform their own parts when in session with their bands. Even highly experienced bands occasionally hire outside studio musicians in the studio, however. Choices like this are made when outside session musicians are able to deliver better results. This means bands with new or inexperienced players might have some tough discussions during pre-production sessions. If everyone wants the same result, however, this works for the overall success of the project.
Why You Should Let Pros Records Your Parts
Some clients have prior recording session experience. Others played in bands for years but never recorded in a professional studio environment. Some bring their first project to the studio with no stage or studio experience at all.
Recording in a professional studio is an entirely different animal than performing on stage. This applies to solo acts, duos and bands. This also applies to recording vocal and instrumental parts alike. Hiring a professional studio musician is the right choice for perhaps ninety-five percent (95%) of clients. The other five percent (5%) have enough experience and production skillsets to professionally record their own parts. Seasoned players who can record pro-level parts, however, still consider hiring other musicians who might record better performances. A better performance might include parts that are more technically proficient. Sometimes the best parts are less technically proficient but performed with the perfect feel for the song.
The priority is to always do what is best for your music project. Achieving the best result sometimes requires letting go of ego and stepping back to consider other options. Achieving success also sometimes involves:
- Decisions you might not agree with at first.
- Choices you don’t think will work but still do.
It takes rare skills and talent to record perfect vocals in the studio without preparation. It is also not advisable. Unless you are a virtuoso artist with star power and clout, this type of behavior leads to a bad reputation (and not in the rock-and-roll good way). In fact, pre-production for recording vocals involves the most important preparation for any studio project overall.
Vocals carry most songs. Vocalists and the lyrics they sing tell the story of each song. Vocal melodies are what most people focus on when listening to their favorite songs. Do you really want to undermine the potential success of your music by having the most important aspect of your songs – the lead vocal – stand out as unprepared and not prioritized?
Demoitis – The Sneaky Dual Threat to Success
What is Demoitis? Demoitis is defined by the Urban Dictionary as the result of someone listening to “one version” of their demoed song for so long they are unable to accept changes to the professionally recorded version. Successful music recording projects require thick skins and open minds. Letting go of preconceptions and attachments to demoed parts, sounds and melodies is a challenge. This is especially true for clients experiencing their first professional recording session. Even accomplished musicians and songwriters experience degrees of demoitis, however. My friends, you are not alone.
Demoitis is widely considered the #1 enemy of productive recording sessions. While it is too harsh to call it a disease, demoitis is sneaky and too common to ignore. Tackle demoitis issues early to avoid problems later. Discuss your thoughts during pre-production and consultation meetings to create a path for success.
Is Demoitis an Animal or Just a Bad Guy?
One of Def Leppard’s biggest 80s rock hits is the song “Animal.” The band took 2.5 years to record this USA Billboard top-5 song. Animal was initially considered finished but something sounded wrong to the band and producer. How did Def Leppard record the final version of Animal? All tracks except the lead vocal were scratched. The production process was started again and the efforts paid off. The final version of this song gave Def Leppard their first top-10 hit in the UK and helped launch their album “Hysteria” into rock & roll history.
Billie Eillish and her brother Finneas offer modern examples of how pre-production is used to create successful music. Finneas goes through an intensely detailed production process when recording both Eillish’s vocals and his own parts. He spent many years recording what he calls “really bad” music before recording hit music. Now, Finneas embraces pre-production as a valuable part of accomplishing his project goals and recording really good music.
How Important Are Demo Recordings?
My preference is for clients to send demos to me in two (2) ways. I want to listen to my client’s songs in the simplest form possible. I also want to hear a separate version containing their production ideas (when possible). Some producers only want to hear initial demos of songs in their purest forms. For example, recording a simple piano/vocal or guitar/vocal demo allows the true essence of a song to shine. I first strive to honor the essence of my client’s songs. I prefer to do this without feeling distracted by unnecessary parts, which might not even make the final mixes. Next I incorporate any production ideas my clients have that enhance and make their songs better.
Top Reasons Pre-Production Is Overlooked
Music pre-production is overlooked for numerous reasons. Options are sometimes limited by budget concerns or lack of prep time before arriving at the studio. Many modern music sessions are handled using remote recording systems. This also places limitations on pre-production possibilities.
Often, however, pre-production is overlooked due to inexperience or excitability. It is possible to overcome a lack of education and experience in the recording studio by staying open to new ideas. Being unwilling to learn about the process is a potential project killer, however (see “Demoitis” above). Often new clients are excited. Their excitement to hit the studio and push that red button causes them to overlook what will actually happen when the mic turns on and they are unprepared. Lack of preparation for a recording session wastes time and money. Proper preparation leads to success. Which option would you choose to help your music project succeed?
10-Point Music Pre-Production Shortlist
Music pre-production is more than taking notes or doing homework. It involves those things too, but so much more. Prepro is an investment into the future of your project, art and reputation.
Below is a 10-point music pre-production shortlist. This shortlist includes some of the most common things to consider during your pre-production sessions. Use this list to help get a feel for how pre-production will benefit your current or upcoming projects.
Music Pre-Production Shortlist
- What is your vision for your song or project?
- Public release or personal use only?
- Do you have reference tracks to guide your project and recording approach?
- Are there any other options to consider which might make your song better?
- Recording real or programmed drums?
- Raw and real or processed and slick?
- Tight or loose performances?
- Modern or retro style?
- Motown; pop; trap; folk; blues; etc.
- The key of a song impacts how instrumentalists approach their parts.
- A major aspect of vocal pre-production involves determining the best key for the singer of a song.
6. Tempo (BPM):
- Impacts a song’s energy.
- Creates more space for vocals and other important parts to be expressed.
7. Song Arrangement:
- What is the best instrumentation for the song?
- Are additional musicians required to satisfy the instrumentation needs?
- Real drummer or programming?
- What is the most important part next or in addition to the lead vocal?
8. Vocal Arrangement:
- Harmonies or no harmonies?
- Do you need to hire background singers?
- Do you need to hire a different lead vocalist to best deliver the song?
- Harmonies or no harmonies?
9. Song Length:
- Can any sections be omitted? (cut the fat)
- Does the song need another section?
- What can you afford?
- How does your budget impact your production process and project goals?