Preproduction

copyright 1997 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue # 44 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - Sept '97



Artists announcing to their public, "I'm in preproduction for my upcoming CD release" may tend to bewilder the musical layman. That's o.k. because chances are the artist is somewhat confused too. Here is an outline for the arcane science of preproduction that may be useful to recording artists just starting out an independant project and also for people trying to understand why these artists are busy doing what appears to be nothing. This is a thumbnail sketch of the creative process in action (as opposed to inaction).

I know I've touched on the subject of preproduction in a previous article, but I'm in the process myself at the moment and as usual, have a couple of notebooks rapidly filling up with data, so this is current in my concentration. There are several coexistant considerations when starting a project, and the amount of work you do in preparation will save you money in the long run.

Your budget is the bottom line. You have to be aware of the costs before you start because if you run out of cash, the wheels will fall off your wagon. So an adequate budget is the basic requirement. How you get it is your problem but if you have some capital or equity and your credit is good, and if you are fairly business-oriented, you can get it together. {Collective groan from 87% of the singer/songwriters out there}. Yes, I know its tough, BUT if your material is good, there may be someone you know that would be willing to risk $ or help in some way.

You can get 300 CD's manufactured for under $700 now. Contact a manufacturer regarding the artwork specs and they'll provide you with the necessary info for the cover art requirements. A graphic artist will be able to put it all together for you for a reasonable cost. You'll have to get a quote on their price. It will cost you less if you can provide all the text on a computer disc file. Getting your graphics, text & artwork to a "camera ready" state with 4 colour separations will run you around $300. Printing will cost around $400. Your recording budget is another flexible cost. What you spend on tracking really depends on how you go about it. Mastering will cost around $275. I wouldn't bother too much with manufacturing tapes, they don't sell. Fifty units will be sufficient for a first run if you want them.

This puts your manufacturing costs at around $1800, and your recording cost will be on top of that. If you have a handle on your recording budget you can see how it shapes from this point.

Not to lose sight of the musical reason for all this number crunching, step one is song selection. Assuming the artist (here-to-fore referred to in the first person) has a catalogue of material to choose from, will have to consider a number of angles to pick the most suitable songs. To present a cohesive collection of tunes is a daunting task unless you're John Hiatt or Sheryl Crow. And I'm sure they've gone through their share of sweat & misdirection to get to this point in their careers.

Individual songs will have to have their lyric, melody & chord structure fine-tuned. This can be well accomplished by performing the material in a "live" setting or by privately playing them to a select critical audience with a professional viewpoint.

Its not a bad idea when you are polishing a song, to experiment with a variety of approaches to it. Try different styles, time signatures, tempi & keys. Even if its just for fun. Country, reggae, blues, jazz, hard rock or ballad treatments may bring out a nuance previously overlooked or unconsidered. I got this advice from Big Miller, and it's a good exercise. When you find the ideal mode for your creation then try out types of instrumentation. If you are a group, this will be a given for the most part, but keep an open mind.

Sometimes an unusual instrument will bring out the hidden quality of a song. Think of Leonard Cohen and his use of the balailaika or Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" with its bass harmonica (as a couple of examples). This will be something to consider further down the line, but as I always say, be receptive.

Some people try to assemble a collection that holds together in a fairly narrow category. This pleases programmers, marketers & fans of that particular genre. I'm the wrong guy to discuss this point because I don't necessarily believe in the practise. You WILL be confronted with this concept once you release your finished project. Be ready to get the big question, "What kind of music is it?" Answers: Good music. My music. Use your ears, Dumbo. If your answer to this question is "Rockin'pop'n'rollin' bluesy reggae-jazz fusion inspired by the works of Wilf Carter & Wild Man Fischer", don't tell 'em that I sent you. I have enough problems, thankyou.

The next step is the DEMO or demonstration tape. This a very important tool for the recording artist because the demo will show you what's needed or superfluous with your material. With the advent of reasonably priced digital multitrack systems there is now an abundance of cheap 4- track (& even 8-track) analog porta-studios on the market. These are great for working out the bumps before going into full production. Note: have a listen to Bruce Springsteen's album, "Nebraska". It was recorded on a Tascam 144 4- Track cassette recorder, and offers a decidedly personal ambience to this particular material. Sometimes a minimalistic approach is very powerful. Also, consider renting a digital multitrack setup, because your demo may evolve into a releasable recording. Producer, Phil Ramone uses 3 linked DA88s & a 24-track Mackie board as his medium and works from his home via fiber-optics! You can too! Hey honey, pass me another bucket of money...

One should be careful not to do too much on the demo or it will become difficult to reproduce when you are tracking for real. Remember, first takes can be very strong, so don't lose your best performance by overtraining.

Another tip, if you are a performing artist is to videotape your performance either onstage or in rehearsal. It will show you what the audience sees from their perspective. This is very revealing and will sometimes cause you to drastically rework a piece, so it's a useful endeavor. It will also improve your stage presence.

Next, you will have to decide how to record your material. Obviously there are many ways to go about this procedure so carefully weigh the considerations. There is nothing more frustrating than to be locked into a studio or other method that turns out to be unsuitable.

Visit the studios available to you and talk to people who have used these facilities. They will be able to recommend a situation or direct you to a viable alternative. Take notes and assess the collected data to your own requirements. Depending on the end use for your project, you may want to look at alternatives to the tradtional Producer/Engineer route.

If you have the technical ability to do it yourself (DIY), there are a few options. If your tunes are already polished, and you & your band are playing the spots off it "live", it may be a lot cheaper to do a "live off the floor" studio recording OR even hire an engineer to capture your performance at a gig with a supportive audience. One problem with a so-called live club recording is that you won't easily get the chance for alternate takes unless you collect recordings from a series of gigs, then you have to deal with having variant ambient concerns.

It is not unreasonable to use a combination of recording methods to get your song quota together. You could focus on two or three songs in a studio multi-track situation, aiming for "airplay", and then fill out the balance with less expensive live tracks or even an unplugged or solo representation, providing you maintain a consistant level of quality.

Another plan is to get your recording equipment together and set it up in your home or another private location. This can be a good deal but you'll need the know-how to pull it off effectively. Shop around, get quotes from pros, from rental sources and make your decision based on your needs, skill and budget ability.

One of my next projects will involve a blend of recording methods. My drum beds will be recorded in a particular studio with an engineer whom I trust to get the drum sound I want. I will do my overdubs & stacking on my digital 8 track system in a variety of private locations. I plan on doing my vocal tracks in another studio, taking advantage of their ambience & selection of superior vocal microphones. Mixdown will take place in a studio with a comfortable atmosphere, a good variety of monitors and a wide choice of expensive outboard effects. Mastering will take place using Sonic Solutions at Mark Franklin's Media Magic in Victoria. I will get the best value for my needs by blending.

Getting back to your budget - you will have to price studio time, equipment rentals and professional wages. Don't minimalize your artwork or design costs. There's no point in putting out an indie CD without adequate packaging. It's what gets your product into the hand of the prospective buyer and that's the business end of the equation.

When you're not focusing on the music, think about the hard copy of your release. Try out different concepts with a cut & paste method and use laser copiers to get it into the shape where you are satisfied.

Remember you're competing with the Major$ and there's an overwhelming glut of product flooding the marketplace. Be realistic with your sales projections. Be financially prepared to pay out your backers with minimum sales numbers. $12 x 300 gets you in the neighbourhood, but the units don't exactly fly off the shelves. You will have to be careful with generated income and bank it in a pay-back account, otherwise it will evaporate. If you break even on a release you're doing well, so don't count chickens.

If you don't have a clear concept of the expenses required to pull this off, and you don't have a fall-back contingency if your minimum sales projections come up short, you'll have some 'splaining to do' to your backers, family & former friends. Be prepared.

Next time you pick up a CD, consider the work it takes to get it to its finished shrink-wrapped state. Support independant artists. This is frontline culture, folks. CIAO!

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
Email Monte at: nordstro@islandnet.com

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