A Few Words About Pre-Production
Written by: Gabe Herman
If you are hired to be the producer or engineer for a project, then here are some words of advice: Consider planning on spending some time BEFORE YOUR SESSION sitting in on a rehearsal with the band and do some collaborative preparation with them. This will provide you a couple of opportunities:
1. If you are unfamiliar with the artist’s music, it will give you a chance to get familiar with their style, energy and rapport with each other. This information will come in very handy later on when communicating in the studio. It also will also give you excellent information about not only what sort of gear each musician likes to use, but how they set their gear up. (ie: is the drummer left-handed?) Does the drummer like to twirl their sticks in the air when they play? (Something that you should definitely consider when placing your overhead mics) Does the drummer lean into their kit, or are they more of a finesse player?
2. You get the chance to check out their equipment. This is usually where you learn the most important information before a session. Take a listen to them playing by themselves as they warm up in rehearsal. Try to identify any hardware that might be squeaky or rusty. If you hear squeaks, try to fix them with some 3-in-1 oil before the rehearsal, and then give it a listen when the rehearsal is over. Is the squeak back? If so, you should make a note that this will be something to expect in the studio. You might even want to check it during the middle of the rehearsal just to be sure. Over the years, I’ve learned that there is no one fix-it all for squeaks. Depending on the amount of grime in the joint and the amount of oxidation, one lubricant can work for ten minutes while another will only last for an hour. On one particular session, I once had a drummer with a squeaky high-hat pedal that I sprayed with some WD-40 on a set break (I love that stuff). When the band came back from lunch and started playing again, the drummer started complaining that his leg was itchy. It turned out that he had a skin reaction to the fumes. Needless to say, he wasn’t happy that I hadn’t asked before fixing it. The next day, I had to use KY Jelly instead. I wished I had learned all of this in a rehearsal first!
Another thing to take note of is the type of sticks they like to use. A thick pair of tree-trunks will most certainly produce a loud and intense snare drum. If the sticks are thinner, this is usually a sign that the drummer prefers to play with more dynamic range. Check out the tips; are they wood or nylon? Wooden tips tend to produce more of a snappier transient response while nylon tips tend to dull the attack of the drum more. At my studio, I like to stock as many pairs of different tips and thicknesses as I can just in case a drummer breaks one of his and hasn’t remembered to bring an extra pair. (This always gets billed back to the drummer, but I find that no one ever complains about this…I never turn down the chance to be a hero!)
Another thing you can look at is how low the drummer likes to set up his/her cymbals. I find that some drummers like to raise them up high. This is good for studio sessions as it provides some cushion between the close mics on the snare and the overheads. If the drummer likes to play them low, you can ask about how high you can raise them before it becomes uncomfortable for the drummer. Knowing a bit about this up-front will often times make a huge difference in how I prepare for a session. If the drummer really has to play them low, I’ll often forgo the use of tom mics and just rely on the standard Kick, Snare, Overheads setup. The closer mics get to each other, the harder it is to get them to gel in a mix. But, more on this in another article…
Do their amps buzz? Are they using a Marshall triple rectifying head with a Mega-Stack cab so big that it has its own zip code? These things are nice to check out before the session starts. I find that those big-ass amps rarely record well, and that those who use them are usually doing so because they either saw it at an AC/DC concert or they are looking for a very saturated tube tone. I have had great luck over the years by swapping the AX7 tubes in a Fender Deluxe with AU7 tubes. Same socket, same relative size, and will work just as well, but the filament in the AU7 begins to saturate at a lower volume level. This means that you don’t have to crank the amp to 12 to get a really warm, huge guitar tone. This comes in handy in the studio. When you turn an amp up loud you do more than just increase the volume of the guitar, you also bring up the noise floor. When the amp sounds big, usually the buzz does too. This might be a good thing (depending on the song), but when you don’t want to record as much buzz, I find the AU7 is a tasty alternative.
3. Another advantage is that it allows you the opportunity to help them to think about performing for the studio instead of for the stage. There often are weak elements of an artist’s performance that are overlooked due to stage antics. For example, a guitarist may be playing a solo sloppy, but has been getting away with it for years because they usually play it with their teeth. This is a common issue as most bands spend the majority of their time preparing for a stage venue. It is your job as producer to be watching for these tidbits and be sure that the artist has enough time rehearsing for the best studio performance they can.
4. The best part about rehearsals for me is the banter between band-mates when they aren’t playing. Make notes about how they get along with one another. Do they like to make jokes about the music or each other? There’s nothing wrong with a good ribbing, but make sure you know where their limits are. I once worked with a band that would scream very bad words at each other before each take. At first, I thought they were going to kill each other. As it turns out, the takes they didn’t curse at one another were way worse. Just make sure that you are aware of when things are starting to escalate to a point that ceases to promote a healthy, creative atmosphere. A good producer will keep things from getting out of hand and can jump right in at a moments notice, most of the time at their own expense, to diffuse the situation.
5. Another suggestion is to make sure that the rehearsal space is clean, organized and an overall pleasant place to be in. A dirty and disheveled work area can make it hard to focus on the task at hand and can get in the way of real progress. If the band is paying for the rehearsal space by the hour, and this seems like too expensive a proposition to actually make happen, consider this; an hour of rehearsal is way less expensive than an hour in the studio, and you will definitely want to free up as much of your time (and their money) in the studio for being creative.
6. Snacks, and Food: This is an important thing to take note of during a rehearsal. What does the band collectively like to eat? If it’s a diet of snickers bars and Dr. Pepper, you should plan on stopping by the supermarket and picking some up. If they are Vegetarians, you might want to take note. I recently worked on a high profile session where I ordered a big, meaty sandwich for lunch. Later, the guitarist’s wife told me that it really grossed everyone out and that they were vegan. I felt silly that I never asked, and now make this a standard part of my pre-production inquiries. I’ve also made it my business to know where all the local restaurants are near the studio I’m working in and I usually send an assistant out to collect as many delivery menus as possible if the studio doesn’t have a bunch already.
7. Distractions: The studio is not a rehearsal space, it’s a very serious place to get work done. But there’s a lot of down time for musicians, and there’s an art to how you negotiate the downtime. One of the things I’ve come to rely on is a lot of brain stimulating, interactive activities. This does not include video games. I find that most games are not social enough an activity. Even the multi-player games do little to promote discussion. I find that musicians work best together when they are good at communicating with each other. I have a standard book of crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and I even keep an etch-a-sketch next to the toilet. This allows for musicians to use their hands, their brains, when they’re alone. I happen to be in the uniquely wonderful position of having my tracking space located within a really nice rehearsal studio, and I like to try to book another rehearsal room for the band when they aren’t recording. This allows for the rhythm section to get work done when the vocalist is recording, and also can allow for time to rehearse last-minute re-writes of sections or try out a percussion toy. If you can work this into your planning as a producer, you’ll find that you can get a lot of work done even when the musicians would rather be playing x-box.