It is now common knowledge that, today, with a smartphone and good headphones, anyone (or almost anyone) can create captivating music and, for about thirty euros, get a pretty convincing online mastering.
It’s the new concept of #producerlife: compose a beat in one night, comfortably lying under the covers, release it on socials and make it viral with repost on Instagram, until you find a (t)rapper who writes “bars” on it.
Somewhere else there are those who work in the “old” way, irreducible old-school heads who fear the dust on the faders, and the “presets” save them in pen on hundreds of “recall sheets”; I even hear that there is more than one who still cuts and glues magnetic tapes.
The entire music world is in the grip of a compulsive revolution, between brutal accelerations towards pocket-sized immediacy and recurring flashbacks to the analog era: just as the commercial and distribution aspect, the creative/production aspect is not exempt from these earthquakes, yet, on a deeper level, there are some things that do not change.
Until a few years ago, the advice NOT to do everything by yourself was only, or mainly, about the technical difficulties of production and post-production, phases that it was always better to leave to “fresh” ears and expert hands.
In fact, there are very few musicians who are really capable of doing everything on their own and even less those who, even though they are aware that they are capable of doing it, have the common sense and humility to confront themselves with other insiders and with their own small circle of faithful critics, whose opinion represents an essential criterion of evaluation always and at every level of musical culture.
Today, that (almost) everyone can bring out a “decent” sound quality (also in relation to the trend of listening to music from smartphones and / or portable bluetooth sources) the above advice no longer concerns so much the technical aspect in recording-editing-mixing-mastering, but mainly the artistic sense of a musical work.
Music production: the 3 phases
In this article I try to address the theme of music production both from a more “classical” point of view that is in the studio and from a more modern point of view that is when you create an “electronic project” or make tracks of electronic music at home with Ableton, for example.
Although there is no clear distinction between the phases of music production and although there are artists who adopt their own personal and atypical modus operandi, generally the entire production process is divided into three main phases:
Music production: pre-production
The musical pre-production is the phase prior to the entry into the studio of the band, or the artist, and aims to highlight the shortcomings and potential of a song (or a set of songs). In this phase we mainly discuss all aspects related to the composition and the initial arrangement, and those related to the choice of instruments, including effects.
The writing of any parts sung (lyrics and vocal melody) can already be finished before the pre-production; you can therefore proceed by adapting the music to the same (as often happens in pop), or by choosing to pick up pen and paper and revise the lyrics and melody according to the instrumental, chosen more as a real band and less songwriting.
From what has just been written we can see that, just in this phase, most of the stylistic and compositional choices are outlined and it is, therefore, the most important and difficult phase of all, in which the musicians (or the artist and his team) can also clash and have discussions: they are therefore required to be able to sublimate their differences, so that they are transmuted into new musical ideas and a sense of renewed cohesion; usually this is possible thanks to the presence of the leader (who is not necessarily the singer).
An excellent pre-production work opens the way to excellent results and, in general, to an absolutely rewarding studio experience; it would therefore be appropriate for the producer, if outside the band or team, to be present at this stage, to supervise the musicians’ work and make sure that, for example, they do not make counterproductive choices and arrangement mistakes (which is actually very common) that would then be paid for in mixing.
The pre-production phase is also the one that should last longer: musicians often register to listen to each other again, evaluate their ideas and compare themselves. This is positive, but it almost always happens that they enter a spiral of endless variations and upheavals, getting lost, tired and with melted ears, between empty cans and totally meaningless nuances: another reason why it would be better for the producer to attend rehearsals!
Usually, in the pre-production phase, a demo is also recorded, necessary to confront with the sound engineers (if it is not the producer himself who takes care of the technical aspect) who will follow the next steps.
Until about fifteen years ago (and someone still thinks so), the demo was considered as the final destination, after which dozens of copies were sent to the attention of the most disparate record labels/production houses, and the remaining copies were sold at concerts.
Music production: recording, editing and mixing
At this point in the work, any diatribe and doubt about the compositional aspects must be overcome: finally you “enter the studio” and the studio costs time, and money.
Four useful tips before you start:
Having clear which tools to use and how to use them BEFORE you enter the studio is fundamental; further space for experimentation may be given later, but you enter the studio with CHIARE ideas, respecting yourself, the professionals who will take care of you and your fellow travelers, who would not want to shell out stellar sums of money because of your indecision;
Practicing a perfect performance and as free from inaccuracies as possible is FUNDAMENTAL, by virtue of time / money and by virtue of the fact that playing in the studio is difficult: recording today is difficult, you use a totally different approach from the years when you locked yourself in a cellar with microphones scattered around the room.
The approach to recording today requires a precise and rigorous playing, in some ways it is even cold, but the result will certainly pay off. It is true that an inaccurate performance can be digitally corrected, but the final result in this case will never be totally consistent. Practice with the metronome, even if the intention in the firm is not to use it;
When entering the studio the instruments MUST be at the top: a guitar that buzzes and that you forget every five minutes, a loose jack and precarious cables are NOT good; a synth with noisy knobs is a synth that needs to be opened and controlled, a double pedal that squeaks needs to be fixed;
Turn off cell phones. You would never want to know that your girlfriend has left you, let alone while you are recording the record of your career.
After reception and accommodation in the firm, the work plan should be followed professionally. Usually begins “tracking” the drums, so after settling and tuning the instrument, you proceed with the recording of the rhythm section.
If the project does not provide for the inclusion of the drummer, however, the above rule applies: you will do first the drum machine parts, then the bass and gradually proceeding in stages, from the instruments that make up the backbone of the song, to the instrument for longer in the foreground, generally the voice: this is because, being THAT musician in the foreground, it is important to put him in a position to benefit from the emotional transport that a complete arrangement can give;
I do not intend to lose myself in philosophizing on which instrument “should” start and which one end, the aspect on which I would like to put the accent is rather another: changing the recording order of the different parts considerably influences the performance and the emotional impact of the whole song. Your producer should be able to make the best choice.