Working With the Material (Revision)
Pre-production is always most effective when the artist/band shows up with songs as finished and rehearsed as possible (regardless of any changes that will be made to them). This may seem obvious, but some artists avoid addressing loose ends in their material (occasionally, until well into the recording process).
As an example, when I began producing Untouchables for Korn, they had over 40 unfinished song ideas––nearly all of which were unusable. Inevitably, we scrapped everything, started over and the band wrote the entire record during a very lengthy pre-production that lasted seven months(!).
The revision process in pre-production is an extrapolation of the analysis and discovery I initiated while prepping the record. The artist/band and I start reviewing my notes regarding song fixes and ideas to be auditioned.
The artist/band also discuss their feelings about the songs. Every question and uncertainty about each song is addressed and we must all agree that we are satisfied with whatever solution we have arrived at before moving on.
As a group, we begin peeling back layers of the music to reveal what’s at the core, deconstructing everything in order to see how it all interacts and then, gradually replacing those layers while reintegrating the structure into a far better state than when we began. We examine everything; we see what works and we change—or eliminate—what doesn’t.
Songs are interesting creatures, as are song structures. You always know when a song structure is working, because you’re not paying attention to the structure—you’re listening to the song. However, when a song structure is problematic, you can’t focus as easily on the song because the structural issues affect the song flow.
You may have a song with great parts or sections, but if they are structured poorly your great parts will be rendered meaningless. My experience is, you ignore structural issues in your songs at your own peril. If you don’t address them prior to recording, you will revisit the same issues later when they have become systemic; your options are more limited and your solutions more time-consuming.
When I analyze a song structure, I always consider the following elements. These categories tend to overlap, but I like to keep them separate for the sake of clarity:
1) Song Flow/Arrangement: how the song progresses and how this progression unites the song as a unified, integrated piece of music.
2) Dynamics: how elements develop in the song to maintain a listener’s interest.
3) Orchestration: which instruments are being used in the song and how.
4) Rhythmic Elements: how rhythms in the song interact and reinforce the song.
5) Integration: how all the elements integrate/interact with one another—or don’t.
Digging into the DNA of a song always illuminates it in new and unexpected ways. Hearing a familiar song shift drastically by changing the way it builds dynamically, by altering a drumbeat so it’s more supportive of a vocal line, or by adding a melodic bass line to reinforce and interact with a vocal melody, often gives the artist a new appreciation for his material.
Often, my suggestions encourage the artist to arrive at his own solution to a creative issue. This demonstrates how symbiotic and flexible the artist/producer relationship can be when they work as collaborators. I had such a dynamic when I worked with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were competitive and enjoyed the challenge of finding their own solutions to issues in their songs.
As they are revised, the songs gradually become more focused and some of them begin to exhibit weaknesses that cannot be repaired. Generally, these weaker songs simply can’t be improved since their issues are more systemic than symptomatic. At that point, they are usually eliminated.
Honing Musicianship (Implementation)
The analysis, discovery and revision phases of pre-production involve examining songs under a microscope. By comparison, the implementation/rehearsal phase involves examining performance aspects of the songs from more of an overview.
After a few days of doing revisions, the focus gradually shifts more to rehearsing. Depending on the style of music, I start pre-production with a full band. Sometimes, I start only with vocals and one instrument for accompaniment in order to focus exclusively on song structure (and gradually add the rest of the instrumentation to see how everything interacts).
No matter what instrument configuration we begin with, I focus on the rhythm section as early in the process as possible. I feel that quite often, bass and drums are treated as afterthoughts instead of essential parts of a band and I often work with them separate from the other instruments.
Why focus on bass and drums? 1) although often ignored, they are foundational, supportive and propel the other instruments; 2) they potentially provide great rhythmic and melodic counterpoint for the vocal; and 3) I feel they always sound better when played with feel and aggression, instead of being polite and stiff, but spot-on with a click.
People often make jokes about bassists and drummers, but a great rhythm section makes a song come alive. On the other hand, a great song can fall apart when the rhythm section isn’t doing their job. A cursory listen to any Beatles record will thoroughly prove this point.
As I mentioned earlier, when a band comes into pre-production well rehearsed, we are able to implement changes much faster because they are prepared. This also means that we can focus heavily on nuances in their performances, relationships between the instruments, how aggressively the songs are attacked, etc. The musicians are better able to play with more intensity and get the maximum impact from their material.
Sometimes, however, a band is relatively unrehearsed prior to pre-production. When this happens, pre-production becomes a chaotic overlapping of arranging, revising and rehearsing. Suffice it to say, this is never ideal.
Rehearsing consistently makes a performer better at what they do and a better performer guarantees a better performance. Experience has shown me that people always prefer listening to a great performance than a mediocre performance that has been heavily edited.
We who make recordings are quick to believe that average listeners can’t hear any difference; but, believe me—they can tell.