Effective preproduction on a budget

I believe that a major key in getting a great end result is to have a great starting point. That is where preproduction comes in and I’m not talking about your regular Wednesday night band practice. I’m talking about treating your rehearsals as actual recording sessions and critiquing them as if they were.

Back in the day I used to take my Roland 1880 and some mics to a bands jam space and do very crude recordings. The recordings were nowhere near CD quality but they were good enough to get the feel for the songs and that’s all we are after at this stage. Once the recording was done, I would do a rough mix which would bring us in the ball park of the final mix. This allowed us to critique the certain elements of the song like doubling up on rhythm guitars, adding additional parts in instrumentation and vocals, adding stops, etc… When everyone agreed that the song was good enough for the studio, we would then use the rough mix as scratch track for the final recording. Using these scratch tracks then allowed us to get better mic selection and placement.

Back then using an 1880 and transferring files into Pro Tools was a major pain but today you can buy a 4 track (or greater) pocket recorders that have 2 or more inputs and allow you to overdub and do a rough mix all for less than $500. You can also buy a metronome that you can plug into the PA to rehearse to if you know that you will be using one in the recording.
Another possibility is to use a laptop with recording software, an I/O interface and some mics. Some people already have most of this if not all of it. This option gives you the ability to generate varying tempos and time signatures within the song as well as overdubbing to your hearts content and creating even better rough mixes.
The main point behind this is that you and your friends have a chance to listen to and critique your songs before you spend the money on recording them in a studio. You may find that having two 16 bar guitar solos isn’t as epic of an idea as the guitar player thinks or that it sounds better if the drummer plays a different rhythm during the verses. If anything, you will be well prepared for your recording session. Preparation that will ultimately save you money and time in the recording studio.


5 Questions every band should answer before recording

1. Will you record with or without a click/metronome?

The problem with this question is that some bands can be a little overconfident when it comes to playing to a metronome and end up having a rude awakening when listening back. The solution to this is the realization that if you want to record to a metronome, you need to rehears to one. Even if you are going to record live off the floor without a metronome, rehearsing with one will help to improve your internal timing.

2. Do you have everything that you need for the recording?
I once had a weekend session come to a grinding halt because a guitar string broke, there wasn’t a spare and no music stores were open. The same can be true for drum skins. Always bring replacement strings, skins, etc… to the session.

3. Do you have the proper instruments for the recording?
There is a huge difference between using an instrument for rehearsal vs. for recording. In the rehearsal space you may not notice that your drums have a rattling and ringing problem or that your electric guitar that you learned how to play “Stairway to Heaven” on records like fresh dung. In the end, all potential problems will have to either be fixed or lived with but it would be best if they could be avoided. Remember, these are your recordings that will be played hundreds of times over. Some studios have instruments that you can use but don’t be afraid to spend a little extra cash and rent some good instruments and gear if you have to.

4. Is the song structure finalized?
Discussing whether or not the bridge should be 4 bars or 6 bars, if there should be a modulation or how long the guitar solo should be are all topics that can be discussed before you step into a $30 – $150/hour studio environment. What will save you money is recording your rehearsals with a portable device like the Zoom H4, reviewing the songs and making changes until you are satisfied with the performance.

5. Is the performance the best it could be?
Have you ever head anyone make this statement about a song? “Wow, the engineer didn’t fix the band’s timing or pitch very well”. Not really, right. When a band is recorded the engineer is capturing their performance, vibe, interaction and musicianship. I used to tell my students that through technology we can make a mediocre performance sound good, a good performance sound great and a great performance sound amazing but the starting point is up to the musicians and the producer. In the end it all comes down to how well did you perform and the merit of the song. Also from a financial standpoint, it makes sense to iron out all the kinks and perfect the songs in a $400/month rehearsal space rather than in a $30 – $150/hour recording studio.

Keep practising but most importantly, have fun.