This article should appeal to anyone who writes songs and would like to produce a recording. I should note that putting together a recording session is a lot of work, and because a lot of money is being spent, a lot of pressure is involved. If, after reading this, you don’t feel you’re ready to gamble on your inexperience or don’t feel you’re ready to face the pressure, one option available is to hire a Nashville producer who has sufficient experience to achieve a predictable, high quality, outcome. Even with experience and considerable confidence, there can still be a great deal of pressure on some sessions from clients, from musicians, from time constraints, but mostly from the fact that every minute that passes generates a higher bill from each of the highly skilled, highly paid people present.
You’ll probably be recording either a master or a demo. A demo is a demonstration recording that is intended to “get the point across” to the artist, record company, or other industry professional who may later decide to cut a “master” recording intended for public release. The line between demos and masters is now very blurred and several demos I’ve produced ended up being the actual mix that went on a CD for public release.
A great recording begins with a great song, so your first pre-production step as a session producer is to gather the song material. Perhaps you’ve written a couple of songs, you obtain a couple more from publishers, and you decide to record two cover songs. Because this will be a demo, you don’t need to file a mechanical license with the cover song’s publisher; however, should your demo ever get mastered and offered for sale, filing a mechanical license at that point is mandatory.
The next step is to create “the charts” that the session musicians will read. In Nashville we use the Nashville Number System which evolved here and is based on each chord’s position in the major scale. For example: four beats each of G, C. E minor, D would be written as 1 4 6- 5. There are many nuances to the system such as split bars, stops and more, but the purpose of using numbers is so that key transposing is instantaneous. If you are not experienced at writing charts, you’ll need to hire someone who is experienced to write them for you.
Booking studio time is next. Think about things such as how many people will be on the session vs. room in the studio, if the studio configuration is set up in a way that works for your session, and how the studio sounds: listen to samples of their previous work and decide if the quality meets your standards.
Hiring talent comes next. For demo work, most Nashville musicians charge either $50 per song or an hourly rate varying from about $50 to $100 per hour. Singers typically charge $50 to $175 per song but you’ll only get the most inexperienced/least talented singers for $50. You may wish to sing yourself but if not, the singer you choose for each tune is the most critical decision you’ll make. Be sure they sing in key, have the proper tone for your song, and can easily handle the range.
Plan the session day(s) so it transpires smoothly and efficiently. Ask the studio engineer things like: How many instruments will track at once? Should the singer be present for the scratch vocal (the vocal cut with the band that is later scrapped in favor of the keeper vocal)? The remaining instruments and almost certainly any acoustic instruments such as mandolin, fiddle, steel, sax, trumpet, acoustic guitar and background vocals are typically overdubbed, not tracked with the band. These require thirty to sixty minutes each. Sometimes I’ll have two instruments go down as overdubs together such as fiddle & steel or two bgv singers. At this point you have your charts, your talent is hired, the studio is booked and you have a plan that includes the order to record parts and don’t forget your checkbook! To keep the talent happy and productive have a contingency plan for minor things that might go haywire. Pre-production is now finished and it’s on to recording.
Your job as producer is to be a leader/manager of sorts. Introduce musicians who haven’t worked together before. Distribute the charts you prepared to the players as each tune comes up. Take control of when things happen: “That’s the take I want, drummer, you’re finished for today, let’s get keeper vocal in here.” But most important: You must extract a great performance from each performer. Often what they give you is going to be just what you had in mind, they’re pro’s after all. But when it’s not, it’s your job to pull out what you want by giving the performer specific direction. Be prepared for times when they begin to take the fact that you’re dogging them personally. Be as nice as possible but ultimately you have to care more about music than about their feelings. When things get testy I remind the unruly musician, “The last thing I want to be doing right now is dogging you but this is business and I need a job done.” Within reason, stand your ground.
Once all the parts are recorded, mixing is the final step. There’s a lot to it and any advice I’d give, short of me spending two weeks with you in a teaching situation, would be completely inadequate to shed any useful light on this complex task. Unless you have evidence that your ear for mixing is superb and you have considerable mixing experience in commercial studio environments, I’d recommend hiring a good mixing engineer.
Once mixing is done you’ll walk out the door with a mixed demo, ready for marketing. How well you handled the hundreds of decisions that arose during the pre-production and recording process will determine whether or not it will be a successful one.