Published in Canadian Musician, August 1997
I believe many people will agree that even with world class recording gear and production, the first basic element that makes a great recording is the song writing. Secondly, but just as important, is the musical presentation of that song writing. Even a recording with mediocre sound quality does not usually stand in the way of a great song played by fabulous musicians. On the other hand, a great recording of a good song will not come off well when the music is represented poorly. How is it that we know whether we are going to represent a song in the best possible way musically? The answer is, we don’t, until it’s over.
When an artist needs to hire studio musicians and even when we hire the best “cream of the crop” players, we still don’t know how it’s going to turn out until we are actually in the studio. During pre-production and rehearsal time, you can prepare for what you THINK you want to happen but it’s inevitable that when you finally get to hear what’s coming out of the studio speakers, plans will change.
Obviously, with a self-contained group, the concerns are different since you are not hiring studio musicians. In my opinion, in order for artists to get their music represented in a way that they are happy with, the first thing to do is establish good communication with the people working on the project– producer/engineer/arranger. All three of these jobs may vary from 1 person to 3 different people. Everyone involved in the project needs to understand what the artist ultimitely desires musically. Only then, can you work together and create a production that’s appropriate for the music.
One of the biggest challenges in recording music is to not only pick the right musicians for a particular project, but to communicate to them exactly what we want from them musically, (in terms of the arrangement of their part). Musicians should be aware that contrary to what some people think, a lot of producers today are NOT arrangers and that there are many different styles of “arranging” music for the studio. Producers who are not qualified to be arrangers choose other options to communicate specific musical ideas to the studio musician. In today’s world of computers and keyboards, where you can create a bass/drum/keyboard part without extensive arrangement skill in a matter of minutes, the producing/arranging arena has changed drastically.
One of my own personal styles for “arranging” works in this way. After pre-production, when the song structures are finalized, I make a home recording and a bar/chord chart of each song (even a boom box will do for this). I send each musician a cassette and charts of the songs that they are playing on. They then can get familiar with the music on their own time before coming to the studio session. I make sure the cassette machine used records at “concert pitch”, so that the key of the songs on the tape matches the key of the chord chart. I like to send these tapes 5-6 weeks in advance of the recording sessions. If budget allows, rehearsals with the studio players are helpful but not always necessary.
Usually, these kinds of musicians are so talented and experienced, that they play amazing things even hearing a song for the first time. After working closely with the artist during pre-production, by the time the studio session comes around, we have a very good idea of what we are wanting from each musician. As each musician comes in to do his/her part, we are confident about communicating to them what it is that we are after musically. With the valuable preparation time that the musicians have done on their own and the combination of artist and producer knowing what they want, the production ‘team’ can usually fine tune a musician’s part right there on the spot. All it takes is good communication skills.
Here’s some other variations of arranging that I have seen. On a rare occasion, if the studio musician can read music, a capable artist or producer will write out a specific part that they hear in their head during the session. On other occasions, I have seen fully written out charts scrapped completely for a more “improvised” feel. Also, some producers who are exceptional arrangers (like David Foster), will most likely write out all the arrangements. Similarly, some producers do not like input from the musicians, and want them only to play what’s written–whether it’s what they have written or a hired arranger’s part. One thing I particulary like about the less strict, non-written out method, is that I can integrate an experienced studio musician’s creative input to the project. In fact,it opens up the field of producing and arranging to anyone with good musical instincts and communications skills.
Never again will producing or arranging be just for people who can read and write music. Since the studio musicians that I hire excel at this kind of creative format, I always get amazing results. All in all, in my opinion, it makes for a richer project. In today’s complex world of recording, it is good for musicians to know about all the different options and styles for getting the most out of each and every song to be recorded. And the best rule of thumb is, there are no rules!