Pre-Production in Mixing
Delineating roles and rules in music creation isn’t something I often run
into in the field, working professionally in the music industry. While certain tasks are saved for certain phases of the recording process, there is
rarely as wide a gulf between phases like production and pre-production
as is often portrayed in music academia. Jay Hodgson discusses it further:
From a practical perspective, such divisions will always be artificial. Each time
recordists select a particular microphone to record a particular sound source,
for instance, they filter the frequency content of that sound source in particular
ways; in so doing, they equalize and mix their records, even at this very early
stage. Recording practice is an entirely holistic procedure, after all. Tracking,
signal processions, mixing and mastering cannot be separated—not in practice,
at least. They are easily excised in theory, though, because each procedure is
tailored to produce a different result. During the tracking phase, for example,
recordists capture raw audio singles which they later massage into final form
using a variety of signal processing, mixing and mastering techniques. During
the signal processing phase, recordists filter and refine the “raw audio signals”
they collect during tracking; and, moreover, we will see that many kinds of
signal processing are done during tracking. Mixing is done to spatially organize the component tracks in a multi-track production into well-proportioned
shapes, and during mastering recordists apply a finishing layer of audio to varnish their mixes, to ensure they sound at their optimal best on a variety of
playback machines and in a variety of different formats.
Mixing isn’t a process that begins entirely in the formal mixing phase
of the recording process. In practice, mixing begins in pre-production—
when the first note is recorded. To reiterate Hodgson, every decision
throughout the creation process has a profound effect on the mixing process. To further explore this phenomenon, I intend to thoroughly explore
my own personal pre-production process and attempt to describe how
mix decisions are occurring throughout. Further compounding the confusion is modern recording technology. Recordists at all levels now have
access to sample libraries recorded in rooms like Abbey Road and digital emulations of synthesizers and guitar amplifiers that were historically
inaccessible to most users. These technologies allow us to add pre-mixed
content to a project at any stage of creation. The sheer quality and complexity of these tools blur lines between the creative phases of recording
even further. While I will explore mix moves in pre-production, I am not
positing that mixing isn’t a discrete process unto itself within the mix
project, but rather that mix moves occur throughout pre-production and
into record production proper. What follows is my personal definition and
understanding of pre-production and a thorough outline of the process
taken by my writing team throughout the development of a song.
What Is Pre-Production?
Pre-production, in my experience, has become an overused buzzword
among producers, songwriters and audio engineers. One often hears it as
a meaningless platitude used to encourage hard work, or to scare a band
or songwriter into working hard. For example, “If you guys don’t do your
pre-production, this record won’t be half as good as it could be!” or “Do
your pre-pro! We’re going to have a great time if we’re prepared!”
What is it really, though? It can broadly be described as the fixing of
certain musical elements of a song into place prior to entering the actual
studio production process—in other words—writing the song and preparing the parts before recording. Colloquially, however, it often just means
that the band needs to get its act together prior to recording. Rehearse all
your parts so that they don’t eat up precious studio time and money, write
the song, come up with some production ideas, work out arrangements
and organize all of the administrative details of the whole recording process, like lining up musicians, accommodations, etc. While often minimized, I believe the pre-production stage of song development is arguably
the most important part of the whole process, as it encompasses both the
inception and the execution of the musical idea.
An issue with this chapter lies in defining terms and roles within
the recording process. Where is the line between songwriting and preproduction, between pre-production and production, between production
and mixing? The answer is beyond the scope of this paper, but I believe it
can be argued that musicians are making production and mix decisions at
every phase of the creation process. For example, microphone selection on
some level is intrinsically a mix decision in that it’s an irreversible sonic
decision that profoundly affects how an element will behave in the final
mix. Even decisions as basic as the key in which the song is played have
far-reaching effects on the final production and mix of a song. The most
obvious example is the difference between a comfortably sung midrange
vocal and a belted vocal in the upper reaches of a vocalist’s range. A belted
vocal will have a major impact on how the whole mix and production
is presented to the end listener. While reading, you might note that what
I consider pre-production you may consider production, or that what I consider pre-production you may even consider mixing. The hard line that
I draw while creating and producing material is drawn at the entrance of a commercial studio.
A track enters the production stage, in my professional
opinion, when it is vetted beyond the project studio stage and enters its
final stages in a commercial studio, or in the case of smaller acts, becomes
a formal song. That is, when the song is formally recorded for release,
rather than just a bedroom demo.
Pre-production can be a very personal process, and it doesn’t necessarily have any rules. Some producers, like Max Martin in the pop world or
Devin Townsend in the rock and metal world, take pre-production to the
extreme. Tracks enter the studio almost 90% complete, really only coming in for mix, final production tweaks only apparent on a tuned system,
and the recording of instruments that can’t be easily captured in a project
environment like drums, strings or horns. Other producers, with whom
I have personally worked, prefer to depend on ‘electricity’ in the studio,
so to speak. That is, to minimize pre-production, simply often write in the
studio and rely on luck and skill to get the song done on the fly rather than
do extensive preparations beforehand.
For the purposes of this chapter, I will outline the process I take in developing a track with a limited budget for proper recording and mixing. The
approach that I’ll outline is quite similar to that of Max Martin’s and Devin
Townsend’s processes: it takes the song as close to completion as possible in
the pre-production and project studio stages. The process focuses on creating tones at the project stage that translate into a mix-ready, and often premixed, product. It also develops a DAW (digital audio workstation) session
to the point where it can easily be transferred to a more professional listening
environment and taken to mixing with minimal changes and overdubbing.
I hope to prove that the mix process doesn’t have to be treated or conceptualized as a self-contained stage of the music creation process. Steps
can, and need to, be taken throughout the entire development of a song in
order to expedite and simplify the production and mix processes.
The purpose of this section is not to provide an instruction manual on how to
write or produce a track, but rather to describe my process and how the final
mix factors into the process—writing a mix, if you like. While at moments
it will seem rather repetitive or basic, the mix implications and reasons for
steps are intended to be the focal point, rather than the steps themselves. It
should also be noted that this entire process typically takes place in the home
or project studio and encompasses the writing process as well as the recording process. Writing is taking place as the parts are being recorded.
i) Idea Generation
It’s beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the creative process and
how ideas are generated from scratch, but we can discuss how best to capture this stage. Everyone has their own method, but at this stage simple and
transparent is better. It’s about capturing the content, rather than capturing
tones and creating productions. The simplest in most cases is to use the
dictaphone built into most modern smart phones. The purpose here is to
capture the idea for later use in the pre-production studio.
ii) Session Setup
Though difficult at this early stage of recording, it’s still important to consider mix decisions when deciding on tones for this stage of recording.
One shouldn’t hesitate to make mix-relevant choices while recording the
initial tracks, or initial ideas. When tracking acoustic guitar or vocals,
especially for more modern music, it can be common practice to compress
and equalize heavily going in. It’s also easy to be persuaded by the emptiness of the track to capture a bass-heavy basic tone on acoustic guitar
or piano, despite the fact that at mix stage the instrument would probably
be aggressively high passed, removing excessive bass from the track. If
the decision is made at this stage to capture the tone in a mix-ready state,
we’ve already taken the first step toward mixing!
iii) Developing the Bulk of the Song
In order for this process to be successful, one must focus on creative
momentum rather than perfection at each stage of the process. I do posit
that it’s important to make mix decisions as one goes forward, but that in
no way means that one should labor over these concepts. Make decisions
with confidence and move on. Mistakes do occasionally happen that will
make certain tracks worthless, but the gains made via creative momentum
more than make up for the losses, in my experience.
Writing and capturing the bulk of the ideas is a hugely variable part
of pre-production. Everyone can and should have their own process for
developing the production of the track. It even varies genre to genre for
me personally. It’s a necessity, however, to reiterate that for our purposes the pre-production process is aimed at a mix-ready or even mixed
The foundation of most modern popular music is a powerful ‘backbeat’. There are many drum and percussion libraries available commercially that are close to mix ready out of the box. With intelligent
application of compression and processing, it’s simple to achieve a commercially viable product in a project studio setting. Also, as a side note:
the importance of humanization (randomization of velocity and time
in MIDI) is often overstated. Popular songs are often fully edited to be
100% tempo accurate anyhow, so in many cases, especially in electronic
music, programmed drums are effective without using the humanizing
functions of DAWs.
This ties in closely with the process used by Canadian metal and progressive producer Devin Townsend of Strapping Young Lad and Steve Vai
and the WildHearts fame. In December 2015, ToonTrack (creators of the
Drumkit from Hell plugin) commissioned Townsend to create an entire
track from scratch live, forcing him to slam together the pre-production,
production and mixing stages of creation. The following video provides a
unique insight into this modern form of pre-production.
Townsend describes his process for developing drums for his track at
the beginning of development that often get used in full on the final version of the record.
I pick presets, and I really make sure not to over analyze or second guess
myself. I often just pick loops that sound good in the context of things, and
move on not changing anything. It’s more about momentum than it is about
having the perfect or ideal part.
The insight here is that the focal point needs to be on the development of
the song rather than the tones or actual part played often. Mix issues can be
linked to structural and musical problems within the song as often as they
can be linked to actual technical and engineering issues.
The common next step is to develop the bulk of the musical elements of
a track; this often includes bass, guitar, synthesizers, banjo, kazoo. Really,
anything other than vocals and drums. As always, a huge amount of variety of processes exists at this part of the pre-production process. As in the
session set-up step, it’s very important here to capture a tone that’s easily
reproducible and can be used as an element in a mix. That’s not to say to
shy away from unique or interesting tones, but rather make sure to document your processes, so that decisions can be recreated.
As an aside, this is a good moment to begin developing a collection of
production moves if it’s something you don’t have as a producer. A collection of presets can really facilitate flow and momentum in songwriting and
idea creation. That is, have sounds prepared ahead of time for particular
scenarios; a Mellotron pad patch for dramatic moments, a clean, dirty and
distorted guitar tone, a solid funky bass tone.
It’s important to make mix decisions as these ideas are developed. Committing equalization curves and compression settings not only allow one
to begin creating mix-ready tones early in the process, it sits elements
in their proper places, encouraging the inclusion of additional elements
that wouldn’t become relevant until the production and mixing phases of
While tracking in pre-production, it’s also important to track to the
same extent one would in studio. Specifically, things like guitar doubling
are important. Mix decisions based on a mono guitar will be very different
from those based on a wide and full stereo guitar, as will mix decisions
based on a simple single performance versus a powerful quad-tracked
heavy performance. Sometimes, underdeveloped elements can lead to an
overpopulation of elements that otherwise don’t need to be in a mix.
In the video linked above, you see Devin Townsend taking these steps
in creating his own production. Each step taken is with the final mix in
mind. As he captures even the least reliable instruments, he’s always considering the mix. For example, during the video he is seen recording an
acoustic guitar that has less than desirable intonation. Though the guitar
could never be used as a focal point in the performance, he realizes at this
early stage its value in the final mix—specifically, in this case, as a rhythmic element rather than a harmonic one. Without a mix-forward perspective during this stage of pre-production, Townsend may have completely
foregone the acoustic guitar altogether, resulting in increased workload in
studio or a complete lack of the element in the final mix.
iv) Post-Tracking Song Analysis
One of the biggest advantages of using this pre-production method is the
efficacy with which you can analyze and critique a song prior to taking it to
the studio. It can be difficult to accurately judge whether the tempo or key
of a song is ideal at the dictaphone stage of the pre-production method. In
fact, for me, the song is almost universally ten or fifteen beats per minute
too slow, due to the quiet nature of recording it, and a tone or semitone too
high for the vocalist, since it’s often easier to sing high in a quiet falsetto
than it is to belt out the note.
Once the rhythmic elements and a rough vocal are in place, problems
with the basic structure of a song become apparent. An intro that may
have seemed excessive with just one instrument may become an interesting musical element with some auxiliary instrumentation. A tempo that
may have seemed perfect may come off as dragging once all the rhythmic
elements are present. Many small problems become highly apparent at this
stage of recording, which is immensely valuable for any project heading
When the mix is taken into account at all stages of the pre-production
process, creative moves often become much more obvious. Where a guitar
seems perfect without considering mix, we can often realize it needs synth
support, or when a simple acoustic and vocal arrangement can make a
song seem passable, a full arrangement may highlight boring or repetitive
moments. This all adds up to a savings in valuable studio time and creative
v) Vocal Capture
The message here isn’t to obtain the best equipment possible to capture the
vocal, but rather to make decisions. High pass where necessary, compress
and equalize to balance with the tracks captured in previous stages. The
tracking process shouldn’t be unlike one that would be taken in studio:
capture it part by part or line by line if necessary, and create a near-perfect
composite of all the takes. It’s even viable to automate the vocal as one
would during the mix stage. A vocal that is too full and too loud can make
necessary backing vocals and harmonies less obvious, while a mix-ready
vocal necessitates backing vocals at key moments.
Following lead vocal, backing vocals are fully fleshed out, almost beyond
true necessity at mix level. While I’ll dig into this more deeply in the next
phase of the process, the excess harmonies will be muted in the editing
portion of the process. The simplest method is to do blocks of harmony for
each part—thirds, perfect fifths, low and high octaves. This gives clarity as
to what more interesting and complex harmonies are necessary.
vi) Edit, Rough Mix and Hard Mix
The final phase of my process is to fully clean and edit this session. When
I say editing, I mean editing in full. That is, cut up and quantize all components of the song (if such methods are right for the song), remove any
and all dead space with unwanted noise, and fully tune and comp all vocal
performances. Some would argue that doing this prior to recording is an
exercise in futility, since often the vocal is redone anyway, as is much of
the editing, and I would have defended that ideal two or three years ago.
With the methods described in this chapter, however, editing becomes a
very valuable component of the creative process. It allows us to take song
analysis to a level over and above that described in part iv. New flaws
become apparent as editing is completed, especially as room is being made
by removing noise and making interaction tighter between tracks. Often
one realizes that more tracks are necessary before proceeding to the mix
stage after the editing stage.
Once editing is complete, it’s time to do a rough mix—something
that sounds as close to what you’d hear on the radio as possible without
spending an excessive amount of time. This is going to be a process more
focused on sonics than on the musical placement of elements. In a typical
session, this would include adding basic reverb and delay sends and generally making every element of the song presentable.
At this point, the tracks would be sounding clean, but are likely to be
dense and busy, since across the process we focused on keeping creative
momentum in prior steps. To correct this, the next step is something I call
‘hard mixing’. It’s the process of selectively muting swathes of audio in
the interest of improving the song. In some sections, you’ll find yourself
removing guitar or vocal doubles, and sometimes you’ll even drop down
to just vocal and drums. This is a very aggressive form of mixing within
the pre-production process. It may lack the technical finesse of traditional
mixing, but the musical effects are profound. Hard mixing is important for
guiding the final mix of the song, especially in terms of dynamic range and
opening up space for production elements like delay trails and cavernous
vii) Pre-Studio, Pre-Mix and Final Processes
At this point, the song is nearly ready for the studio. Administrative tasks
such as preparing the inputs and outputs for the specific recording studio, preparing sessions for the studio’s DAW, and general simplification
and tidying of sessions needs to happen, but are outside the remit of this
When this pre-production process is complete, the song should be
nearly complete. Many of the tones should be heard in the final process,
and the time in a commercial studio could be cut down to a bare minimum.
The goals of the studio should be to capture tones that are impossible in
a project’s setting stage, i.e., instrumentation that require immense input
lists like drums, or perhaps a more exciting vocal tone using rare and vintage microphones. Even choirs, strings or horns if they are right for the
song are a great thing to capture in a commercial studio.
As outlined in the introduction, this process truly does gray the line
between traditional notions of production and pre-production. In many
cases the writing process never stops, even when the pre-production process is arguably over and the song has entered the studio. Modernization
and availability of recording equipment has truly blurred the lines between
all roles within the recording process. It’s as difficult to pin down where
engineering begins and production ends as it is to pin down where preproduction ends and mixing begins.
As you step into a studio or a mix environment following your preproduction sessions, you really do come to realize how valuable it can be
to make conscious mix decisions in pre-production. Lacking components
become much more apparent, while conversely overproduction is easily
visible, saving valuable resources and, more importantly, time and creative
Academically, this needs to be explored further. I believe that it is
apparent that pre-production is, today, an integral part of mixing as a
whole. To put it simply, one needs material to mix in the first place, and
pre-production provides some of that material, thus informing the mix as
a whole. Even though pre-production processes are individual and varied
in nature, they will always affect the mix in that sense. In closing, I hope
that outlining my process has successfully illuminated my connections
that stretch between pre-production and mixing.