On Preproduction

Masive calendar with people walking on it

A few quick notes on what I do in my down-time. I like to drink Guinness and listen to traditional Irish music. I now take large groups to different small villages in Ireland to do just that. In 2007, we ate the local pub/restaurant out of food. In 2009, we drank a pub, grocery store and liquor store out of Guinness. In 2011, however, the town caught wind of our arrival beforehand and was able to prepare properly.

There are two lessons here. First, Guinness is the beer you’ve been practicing for and Ireland is amazing and all of you should go there before you die. Second, preparation is the key to success.

In the recording world, we call that “Preproduction.” Before embarking on any serious project, we begin by creating the roadmap for our endeavor. That means examining all aspects of the songs and making decisions as a team on how to move forward. Here are some of the key elements you’ll want to consider before you ever hit the “red button.”

Arrangement: Talk about the flow of the song. Does it make sense? Do you have three verses before you ever get to a chorus? Do all of your parts start with the same chord? These are things we may want to discuss before committing to tape.

Key: I know you wrote this song in D, but might it sound better in a different key? Are you struggling to hit notes at any part in the song? Are all of your songs inexplicably capoed on the first fret for NO REASON AT ALL? Let’s look at that, shall we?

Spirit: What is the emotion we’re trying to convey? Is this a dark ballad or care-free pop song? Does the current arrangement/key make the listener feel what they’re supposed to feel? If so, great! If not, it’s time to re-tool.

Instrumentation: This one gets tricky, and you may want to give a little leeway to the producer. That bluegrass tune might actually NOT need a full-on jug band to get the point across. And you may not get how a pedal-steel or sitar part fits in your indie love song without making it into some weird Nashville / Bollywood monstrosity, but it just might.

Musicians: When it’s time to bring in some hired guns, pick the right guy for the part. That’s not to say that there aren’t some truly talented cats out there who can do it all. There are. But let’s say (not-so-hypothetically) that you’ve got Kenny Aronoff at your disposal for one day. Do you put him in on the piano ballad (which he could surely do well) or do you use your time and budget wisely and put him in the game on your ass-kickingest tunes? I think you know the answer to that one.

Logistics: And finally the boring part. Figure out the timeline, solidify the budgets and contracts, line up the studio players and set your target start and completion dates. Get that tedium (that my studio partner Davide graciously handles for us) out of the way so can get to the meat of it all.

So much of this falls squarely outside of the realm of what we think of as Rock ‘n Roll. It’s not necessarily cool or sexy, but it will absolutely make the cool and sexy parts go more smoothly. And if you doubt the value of preproduction, please make a record without it and let us know how it went. I can’t wait to hear all about it! And as always, thank you for your friendship, your interest, and your art.




Owen Sartori is a 35-year veteran in the music industry as a musician, songwriter, and producer. Currently, he is a co-owner of F5 SoundHouse in Minneapolis, MN and helps mentor, produce and write with/for artists wherever he is needed.

For more, visit f5soundhouse.com.