I’m a huge fan of pre-production. As the cursed pandemic finally starts to wind down, musicians and bands are eager to get back into the studio, and I don’t blame them: I’ve loved the recording studio environment since my first session more than twenty years ago. Over the years, I’ve experienced sessions that were incredibly smooth, well-run, enjoyable, and successful. Unfortunately, many others haven’t fared nearly as well.
Almost without fail, the key difference was in pre-production. The artists with the successful sessions knew specifically what they wanted before booking studio time, and they’d done thorough homework to help get it. When the time came for me to start taking my own group into the studio, we were able to get a lot done in a short amount of time because we were all determined not to repeat mistakes we’d all seen as studio musicians.
Studio time is expensive. If you’re one of the many musicians itching to book post-pandemic studio time, here are some tips that might help you get the results you want without wasting tons of time and money.
I. Ensure your music is thoroughly, completely written and arranged
The more work you put into your music before anyone else even sees or hears it, the easier it will be for real live musicians to play it well. Ask yourself the tough creative questions about each piece in advance. What’s the story arc? How does it start, then build, then resolve? What’s the vibe, what are the textures?
It can be very helpful to have both written music and audio demos for all of your music. Not every professional musician is amazing at reading notes on the page – and some of my favorite musicians in the world are honestly terrible sight-readers – but most of them can follow along with a chord chart or lead sheet. Musical form needs to be clear and easy to understand to avoid mid-take train wrecks. An elegantly-arranged chord chart will save tons of time and stress, and if you’re not confident writing out your own charts, an experienced professional arranger can chart things out for you. That service will pay for itself in studio time saved. (If you need something charted sooner rather than later, I happen to be one of those arrangers. Fill this form out and we’ll talk!)
Your audio demos don’t need to be radio-ready productions, but it’s a good idea for every modern musician to get savvy with fundamental demo-craft in a digital audio workstation. Logic Pro, Cubase, and Ableton Live tend to be popular and user-friendly programs for musicians who are getting their feet wet with home production, but even Garage Band is capable of handling sophisticated compositions and arrangements. The most important things to have in place are the form, the essential musical elements of each formal section, and the general vibe and texture to aim for when it’s time to record it live. As with your written charts, the more work you put into making your demos feel right, the easier your musicians will be able to turn them into great-sounding recordings.
II. Memorize and be comfortable with all your music
Most of the time, your charts should be for the other musicians, not for yourself. You’ll have the best experience in the studio if you know all of your music inside and out, and if you’ve gone through step one properly, then this step will likely take care of itself. Play along with your own demos. Repeat them over and over again like it’s for a recital or gig. Become so thoroughly familiar with your music that you can’t help but to play everything easily and enjoyably. This has the side benefit of making you a better musician, too!
This step may not necessarily apply as much to music that’s very heavily orchestrated and arranged. It’s normal for studio orchestras or large jazz ensembles to have everyone reading sheet music, including the composers and bandleaders. For most small-group recordings, though, it’s not only possible, but hugely beneficial, for as many players as possible to have the music memorized.
III. Rehearse the band
Rehearsal time is a lot more affordable than studio time. Even if a three hour time slot at a great rehearsal studio sets you back a hundred bucks, that wouldn’t buy you enough time in a good recording studio to even set up the drums and mics. The band doesn’t necessarily have to have all of the music internalized, but running through everything a few times before going into the studio will help everyone be more relaxed and confident. Rehearsals will build everyone’s comfort level with the music, and crucially, they’ll provide an environment in which to dial in the fundamental concept of each piece: vibe, mood, texture, direction, emotional impact.
IV. On the day of the session, relax, enjoy, and be honest
When the first day of the recording session finally approaches, remember that you’re not striving for perfection, which doesn’t exist. Conceptually, try to aim for the most honest and enjoyable performance possible of each song or piece. A group of musicians honestly enjoying themselves will translate to listeners more than pitch accuracy ever will.