When Worlds Collide: Understanding the Practice of Pre- and Post- Production in Contemporary Classical Music vs. Commercial Pop Music

Not so long ago, I asked the head of a small label for help in one of my projects. I wanted to be mentored in the recording of one of my pieces which would be released commercially. At first, they gave an enthusiastic response to my inquiry, saying they would help me however they could. I rarely ask for help, so I was quite pleased with my bravery and the response that I got. Good job me! *self-pat on the back*

We set up a meeting to talk about the direction I would be taking and what I needed from the label. But when I asked about the process of recording, the answer I got was different than what I was expecting. First, I was to hire a producer and someone to do the post-production to mix the tracks. Then, I was to ask a couple of arrangers to go over the piece and add stuff to it to make “my song” sound the best that it could. My perplexed look said it all, because the conversation stopped in its track, and the question was asked: “Does this makes sense?”

What the…

“Well… all the performers have to be in the same room for the recording, so no need for mixing layers other than levelling the instruments and splicing really… And in this case, I would be the producer and the arranger, because that is part of my skill set.” Perhaps I came across as pompous and full of myself for saying that I was skilled at arranging, because the answer I got was that I was “probably not the greatest arranger in the world” and that I would “benefit from having a second person take a look” at my music. (I regret not explaining better right then that a composer’s craft is valued on a set of skills that includes arranging, just like a singer would be judged on their ability to reach her high notes for instance.) With the arrangement being done “pre-production,” care is already taken to shape the form of the work. Attention is paid to the bass line, the counterpoint, the timbres, and the work is inherently written for the instruments that are going to perform it. Therefore, there’s no need to fix, for example, the recorded voice of a singer who had a hard time performing a song that was not written for them by adding autotune. No need!

In this meeting, we didn’t see eye to eye on whether to record everyone in the same room or not. In this era, there is no need to understand the physical and sonic properties of voice ranges or instruments, or for performers to acquire a sense of balance. That’s someone else’s job, post production, to mash it nicely together so the quiet acoustic guitar will be heard over the drums. Or even in live shows, mics and pickups will do the trick. But the magic happens when the musicians are interacting with each other, breathing together and listening to one another. The resulting frequencies meshing together creates a refined cloud of resonance and beatings that could never be reproduced by technology. The subtleties that comes with paying attention to what is going on and feeding off of it are not the same as when one is in their respective room banging away on their instrument seemingly without consequences. What about the balance? It’s been taken care of by the skillful composer. Yes, the piece is also INHERENTLY BALANCED!

What we gain from post-production arranging and balancing is an absolute control over every aspect of the sound. Sure, you can create a pretty good recording of a song in no time, picture perfect even. Flawless. But what we loose is the natural meshing of the sound, the roundness of it all resonating together, the organic evolution of the piece as the performers move as one, starting a note at exactly the same time because they can see each other and have been trained to do it perfectly for years. The result is multidimensional, and no amount of digital mixing could replace that. There is a finesse in “pre-arranged” music that is not present in popular commercial music. And here, I’m talking about the past two-three decades, not about the multilayered kind of music that felt like something and meant something: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Hearts… there’s a rawness to these artists’ recordings that is so human and relatable. And guess what? They didn’t record in separate booths…

To sum it up, the beauty of contemporary classical music is in its pre-production craft and its infinite attention to details from the get go. You can’t cheat; you can’t fix after the fact. The “fixing” happens before you hear the first note, so extensive knowledge of the instruments used is necessary while putting pencil to paper. Yes, it might more time to write and produce, but it might pass the test of time better in the end…

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