5 Tips from a Producer for a Smoother Session
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 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 song (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.
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 catering. Make sure that the folks you hire understand the music they’ll be working on. If you’re working on a contemporary metal project, then a guitarist whose background is in acoustic roots music may not be the right person to call. If the project will involve a bunch of loops, virtual instruments, and major editing or tuning, then 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 him.
Sweat the details
It’s only when you’re fully engaged in the process and on top of all of 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 artist needs to take a short break to clear their head — 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 that you keep to that — while making sure that everyone involved is having a great time and making great music.
During the production process, mutual understanding is paramount. What some musicians might 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 of the things that will help is to have charts and lyric sheets for all of 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 also 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 may vary from project to project; sometimes, a simple chord chart or Nashville Number chart works; while, 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.
Remember that it’s not your record
As a producer, you’ll be offering ideas, making suggestions, and trying to help your artist to make the best record possible — and at least some of your ideas are going to be rejected. But that’s OK; your job is to make those suggestions. At the end of the day, you need to remember that it’s not your record — it’s the artist’s record. It’s their name on the cover, and they’re the ones who’ll be out 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 artist’s vision is, in the final analysis, the only one that matters.