Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Pre- in Pre-production - Lou Carlozo

Eight essentials for recording a great worship album

Recording an album can be an exciting process, especially for the worship band with enough of a following to finance its ministry through CD sales. Theories on how to record are as plentiful as the so-called "experts." But generally speaking, certain principles work for everyone. I could've made this list twice as long (Tuners, anyone? New guitar strings? Everything working?). Let's just call these the highlights of making a great first record.

Get a good producer.
Many groups think the person operating the studio tape machine and/or the mixboard is the producer. WRONG. The producer is more like a film director, the person who stands back while the camera is rolling and keeps focused on the big picture. That's not to say engineers don't make good producers. But your producer should be someone familiar with your music, or is willing to study it-someone who has hopefully seen the band live and is trying to understand the artistic and spiritual mission behind the project.

"But where do I find a good producer?" you ask. Talk to other groups. Look on the back of records you love and, if the budget permits, contact that person through the record company (some producers will drastically lower their fees if a project really grabs them).

A "good producer" is someone who:
• contributes ideas rather than imposes them.
• is a team player, not a dictator.
• brings out the best in his/her performers rather than intimidates them.
• is full of clever, creative ideas (and in many cases, a stockpile of funky instruments to make them come to life).
• is positive in nature and a possibility thinker, saying "Why not?" far more often than "Why?"
• knows the difference between following a creative bent and going off on a time-wasting tangent.

The ultimate role model is George Martin, a talented musician in his own right. Think about what The Beatles would've been without him. He scored the strings for "Yesterday," recruited every classical musician who ever played on a Fab Four disc, and figured out how to piece all those separate takes of "Strawberry Fields Forever" (in different keys and speeds, mind you) into one stunning end result.

Create a mission statement for your project.
Load it with evocative verbs, adjectives and a "begin with the end in mind" statement. I require every band that works with me to do this. A good way to start is to imagine you are listening to final result on headphones. What should it sound like? Witty? Pretty? Heavy? Does it inspire? Provoke? Encourage? What is the ultimate goal: To win souls to Christ? To provide a musical shoulder to lean on? To transcend the standard in praise and worship?

I once worked with an artist who, in response to the mission statement assignment, blew me off. "I'll know what I'm after when I hear it," she said. Never again. The recording was a disorganized, chaotic, hit-and-miss affair, like driving on a road trip without a map. Don't make that same mistake on your project. WRITE A MISSION STATEMENT!

Prepare more tunes than you will record, then weed out.
It's a simple law of averages: a) no band cranks out a winner every time and b) the more songs you prepare, the better your chances of getting winners. This applies just as much if you are an all-cover worship band; some songs will sound and sparkle better than others.

Block out the songs in your rehearsal space with a four-track recorder.
For a typical rock band, the configuration is simple: drums (track 1), bass (track 2), guitars/keys (track 3), vocals (track 4). What an education this will be! This is often the first time that bands hear their parts in fine detail-including all the wrong notes they play and the incorrect harmonies they sing. But fear not; you're taping not to beat up on yourself but correct those flaws. If time allows, tape again a few weeks later (remember, it's free in the basement).

Audition the material for a live audience.
For most worship artists, this is a piece of cake. But you may want to go a step further by polling audience members with ballots (once done by Christian rockers This Train) or taking note of a sequence of songs that has a particularly moving result.

Investigate studios carefully.
Just because a certain studio is cheaper, used by a local hotshot band or full of great gear doesn't mean it's better. Here is where a producer can come in handy by helping you find a great place to record. It should:
• fit your budget (don't forget to save money to press CDs).
• fit your personal vibe (you'll want engineers and staff who are drug free).
• fit your musical style (unless you want to try your heavy metal chops in a funk palace).

If you want to go the home studio route, that's a great idea, too. But be advised: Very few artists make good records at home the first time out, unless they have help. And if the tape machine or computer breaks down, what will you do?

Leave all egos at the door.
I worked with one band of brothers in Christ that practically came to blows picking songs for their record! Creativity can be a touchy subject. The only cure is communication and a clear sense, before the project starts, as to who calls the shots. Some groups are total democracies, while others are happy dictatorships. Sometimes, the producer steps in. Which scenario fits you? Now's the time to find out.

Don't forget the energy.
Worship artists-so used to feeding off a church crowd-can find the studio an intimidating place. Consider innovative approaches like decorating the studio and/or inviting a close circle of friends to watch you record. "In the studio, it's sometimes hard to generate the energy, especially if the recording is stretched out over many sessions," says Tim Vear, a senior applications engineer at Shure, Inc. If a take is slightly imperfect but conveys the passion you're after, let it stay, Vear advises. "Think about the old Chuck Berry records with all that distortion," he says. "Guys who go back and record those tunes 20 years later can never get the same result; it may be cleaner but the energy is gone."

Pray and practice.
Practice will save time and money in the studio and keep you at ease when the clock is running. Prayer will keep you centered. "First, make sure you're doing it for the right reason: for God's glory," says Bill Kirkwood, pastor of music and worship at Riverwood Community Chapel in Kent, Ohio. "Continue to keep your focus on Him during all preparation. Then, make sure the music sounds how you want it to sound. In a studio, you can be creative between takes. You can also fix mistakes easier. But you have to imagine the people you want to lead into worship. Although it can be intimate for the people recording, it presents a barrier to free worship. You're almost singing to the mic rather than to the Lord."

Post-script: Get a head start on the artwork and packaging.
Many artists wait until after recording before they start on art, press kits, photos, etc. But this part of the CD-making process can take just as long (or longer) than the actual recording. So get the ball rolling as soon as possible. While you're at it, now's a good time to get a ministry Web site up, since CD artwork can double as Web page wallpaper. As with a producer search, ask around to find great shutterbugs, Web designers and graphic artists (Hot tip: Newspaper photographers often love to moonlight shooting band album covers).

An acclaimed Chicago record producer with more than two dozen releases to his credit, Lou Carlozo is currently finishing work on new albums by Blue Lit Souls and indie artist Robyn Folsom. If you have questions about your studio project, he'd love to answer them. Email him at

No comments: