The Making of a Record – Part 1 The Work Before the Work

A couple of months ago Anna Freedman asked me if I would produce her first record of original music. Anna is a really accomplished musician who plays piano, sings and writes music. We worked together as teacher/student when she was in high school. Now she plays around Seattle and teaches at Creative Music Adventures as well.

I asked Anna if I could share the process of bringing this recording to fruition through a series of posts here to help folks who may be interested in recording their own music (or helping their students make recordings). She was nice enough to agree to this idea. So here is the first part of the series…


Unless you have a lot of money and/or time, you want the music and arrangements to be totally worked out before the recording starts. Many big artists who have six- or seven-figure budgets can afford to rent out a big studio for large chunks of time and brainstorm until they record something that “sticks”. Other people who create everything on their laptops or home recording setup, will do the same thing at home. Often taking years to create one record (or even one track).

If you’re budget is modest and you are working with a band or other musicians, the best results will come if you do as much work as possible before the session happens. Here are some essential steps to save you a lot of time, money and headaches before anything is recorded:

  • Become a Student: Find someone you totally trust who will be honest with you – maybe they are the producer, a teacher, a friend or someone in the industry you admire. Hire them to listen to your songs and genuinely ask them to poke holes in what you’ve come up with. You know how people say that real friends will tell you when you have food stuck to your face after a meal? Well we need these types of friends when we’re writing songs and arrangements. I would recommend only one person to have this role or it gets to be too many cooks in the kitchen. But to have someone you trust have the guts to say, “These lyrics in this part of the song aren’t working for me. Is there another way you could say this?” – is super helpful. We have to leave our ego aside and realize they just want us to make the best possible record. Sometimes things get defended and stay the way they are and sometimes things get changed for the better. Either way, the process is worth it.
  • Rehearse, Rehearse, Practice, Practice: There is so much extra non-musical work that goes into a recording, it’s easy to not leave ourselves time to rehearse and practice. Make sure the band and musicians are as tight as possible and know the music in and out. This isn’t just about execution either. Perfectly executed performances can make really boring recordings. Rehearsals should be about execution and energy. The emotion and energy need to be present in every take and every repetition for it to have a change to make the recording come alive. Also, practice your own parts in your own time. Make sure you are so confident in all of your individual parts that you can let things fly at the session.
  • Play the Material at Gigs: Book a few shows leading into the recording session(s). Record the shows. Notice when the audience interest wanes and see if there are parts or arrangements that can be altered to keep the engagement level high.
  • Record Demos: Make demo recordings of each song. Record each rehearsal and compile the “best takes” over time so that you have them for reference. If you listen and find yourself checking out or not paying attention to the recording, consider changing the arrangement. Share these with your producer or musical confidant mentioned above so they can give feedback on arrangements or song structures. It will also help them plan the studio setup for the session.
  • Write Charts (Bonus): This can save a lot of time. No matter how prepared everyone will be, strange things happen in the studio. People forget things, parts that sound great at the gigs sound lame in the session, etc. If you have charts nearby, everyone can quickly refer to their charts. For this session Anna took what her band was playing at gigs and rehearsals and wrote the key parts out in charts and scores using Sibelius. To have this ahead of time was invaluable. We were able to go over the scores and add horn arrangements and several other things that were added to the tracks.

For the rest of the series on making a record, click the links below: