A producer wears a lot of hats in the studio, and how well the producer is prepared for the session will have a huge impact on the final outcome. Before you head to the studio, here are some tips on how to make the most of your session.
1. Pre-production is as important as production.Exactly what is pre-production? It can be a number of things, including the time when you and the artist decide on everything from the scope of the project to the size of the budget. As the producer, you have to learn what the artist’s vision for their project is, and the artist should learn what to expect from you. It’s the time when you should hear the songs and, if the artist has more material than the project needs, the time when you choose which songs will be a part of the project.
Pre-production includes figuring out song arrangements. I try to figure out tempos, instrumentation, and possible changes to the structure of the songs (for example, adding or removing solos, making lyric changes — anything that I feel will enhance the final product). The more decisions we make in pre-production, the more time we’ll have in the studio to work on getting great performances.
2. Choose the right people.When you agree to produce a project, you’ll need a team to bring that project to completion. It may be that the “team” is one person, if you’re a producer/engineer/multi-instrumentalist and doing it all yourself. But every project is different; at some point, you may need to bring in engineers, musicians, vocalists, and even support staff like assistants and caterers. Make sure that the folks you hire understand the music they’ll be working on. If you’re working on a contemporary metal project, a guitarist whose background is in acoustic roots music might not be the right person to call; if the project will involve a bunch of loops, virtual instruments, and major editing or tuning, you’ll be best served by using an engineer who’s comfortable working in that sort of environment.
It doesn’t hurt, by the way, to consider personalities when bringing folks into a project — you’re going to have a bunch of folks working together in a close environment. Some of us know from experience that it doesn’t matter how good a drummer is if no one else in the room can stand to be around that personality.
3. Sweat the details.It’s only when you’re fully engaged in the process and on top of all the details that you’ll be able to know when to ask for another take from the band, when the bass has a string that’s out of tune, when the artists need to take a short break to clear their heads, and, equally important, when to tell the musicians that you have what you need, so there’s no reason for them to spend another hour working on a specific part. When you’re in the studio, you need to stay on top of everything that will help move the project forward, as well as those things that will keep it from doing so.
You’ll want to develop a timetable that allows the project to be finished within the agreed-upon budget — and make sure you keep to that — while making sure that everyone involved is having a great time and making great music.
4. Communicate clearly.During the production process, mutual understanding is paramount. What some musicians may call a “bridge,” others may call a “pre-chorus,” and still others will refer to as “the middle eight.” The specific names aren’t as important as everyone using the same name for the specific sections. When the project has layers of guitar parts, make sure that you and the guitarist are using names for each of those parts that make sense to the two of you. Referring to guitars as “Guitar 1,” “Guitar 2,” and “Guitar 3” is less meaningful — especially a few days later — than calling them “Clean Guitar,” “Dirty Guitar,” and “Delay Guitar.” Let the singer know that they’re a little flat on the high notes in the chorus instead of just saying, “Sing it again.” That gives them a chance to improve.
One thing that will help is to have charts and lyric sheets for all the songs. The specific style of chart you need may vary from project to project, but you’ll want both. When working on vocals, a lyric sheet offers both a road map for discussing specific lines or words with the artist and a place for you to make notes during the process. And with a chart — especially if all the musicians are also using them — you’ll have a common road map for each song. The charts I use vary from project to project. Sometimes, a simple chord chart or Nashville Number chart works; in other situations, I’ll be looking at a full orchestral score; and sometimes, the chart can be as simple as a list of how many measures each section of the song contains. Use whatever works for you and the musicians on the project.
5. Remember that it’s not your record.As a producer, you’ll be offering ideas and making suggestions, trying to help the artists make the best record possible, and at least some of your ideas are going to be rejected. But that’s OK. It’s your job to make those suggestions. At the end of the day, you need to remember that it’s not your record — it’s the artists’ record. It’s their name on the cover, and they’re the ones who’ll be performing the songs from it. So when one of your ideas is shot down, don’t get your feelings hurt, and definitely don’t get mad. Everyone involved wants to end up with a great record, and the artists’ vision is, in the final analysis, the only one that matters.
Heading into the studio is all about the music, and we think these five tips should set you on the path to getting the most from artists and help you steer them toward making the best record they can make.