For our first in a series of five articles, Melbourne producer and engineer Simon Moro gives his expert view on the fundamentals of pre-production. The series will continue over Mixdown’s next four issues, covering tracking, mixing, mastering and the other essential components for optimally bringing a track to life.
Moro’s studio experience dates back nearly two decades. He studied Sound Production at RMIT in 2000 and before that he’d experimented with his stepdad's Tascam four-track and Roland 707 drum machine.
“I still remember one of the first studio production lectures at RMIT. It was led by Michael Pollard who's a live engineer for artists such as Meg Mac and Ross Wilson. He started talking about compressors, consoles, effects. At that moment I knew I wanted to be involved in studio engineering,” Moro says.
Moro has worked with indie-pop acts Stonefox and Ariela Jacobs, acoustic and folk artists Mike Waters and Jemma Nicole, symphonic pop singer Anthony Callea, rapper Sole Option and stacks more. He insists on pre-producing every track by every artist he works with.
“Pre-production is where the song selection and the overall sound are determined, composition issues are addressed, production decisions such as which studios will suit the desired sound, session player selection, schedule and final scope of work are signed off,” Moro says.
Preparation, clarity and the right team are essential for a production that hits the mark. “I’m committed to understanding an artist's vision, to help them clarify their intangible creative concepts and transform the ideas into an actionable plan,” Moro says. “I also think it's important to put the right team together for each project.”
Not all producers are involved at the pre-production stage. Some will only come in for the main recording sessions and assume a fairly hands-off role. Moro prefers a more holistic method.
“The best place to address issues is always in the stage that they occur,” he says. “So fix arrangement problems before recording parts, fix performance problems before mixing, and mix problems before mastering.
“There are so many directions in which a song can evolve. Pre-production is the time for broad brushstroke experimentation and should result in a solid plan of action to bring them to fruition.”
Although Moro typically works with artists from across the genre spectrum, the initial process of pre-production is similar for most artists.
“The first question is, how strong is the song?” he says. “The process has to start with composition. If the composition is weak, at the end of the production process the result is a very expensive, slick-sounding, average song.
“It costs just as much time and money to produce an average song as it does a good one. So getting the composition, then arrangement, followed by orchestration right is vital in the early stages.”
Demoing is an essential part of pre-production as it allows you to analyse and pick apart the track. The labour intensity of this process can differ depending on the style of song.
“From a pre-production point of view, I'd say acoustic/folk songs would have a simpler demoing stage,” Moro says. “Very often a guide vocal and guitar or piano part is enough, whereas an indie/pop record may require much more fleshed out demos.”
The ultimate purpose of pre-production is to develop a clearly defined picture of what needs to happen when you move into the tracking and production phase.
“It's about having the composition down, a few production references, then booking the right studio to record in with the players most suited to the songs,” Moro says.
“Sometimes I may only need a few hours per song, especially if the song is strong and production relatively straight forward. For example, if it's a folk/acoustic record, I've made enough of them to know what's needed and how to proceed and I can draw on that experience and the process is quite efficient.
“On the other end of the spectrum, in more of an indie/alt/pop record, there is often a lot of experimentation and time to reflect and revise. Ariela Jacobs and I spent a few months in pre-production on her latest releases. We worked on the demos, refined the sounds, structure and arrangement for quite some time. But at the end of pre-production the feeling was the same as those half day sessions – a feeling of confidence moving on to the next stage.”
To learn more about Simon's work, head to his website at NinetyNine100.