What's the difference between a music producer and God? God doesn't think He's a music producer!
Often described as the big picture guy, the person who writes the checks, the one who shows up after weeks of work and tells the bands whether they have a record or not, or, as a high-schooler recently told me, someone who makes beats - a producer is a wide-ranging concept. But seriously folks, what does a producer do?
In the age of independent music, many traditional elements of creating a record have to be scratched in order to meet the budget of an independent artist. After money is set aside for studio time, or home recording equipment, musical accompanists, a mixing engineer, CD duplication, promotional materials... you may not have funds left to throw at a producer. You may also be unsure as to why you would even need a producer, or think that the very concept runs counter to the spirit of independent music. I don’t want to squelch anyone's spirit, but I do believe that a producer is in fact necessary to make a great album. And, with enough practice and know-how, the independent artist can exit the role of the songwriter to wear the hat of the producer.
Let me set the stage with a short anecdote and a question. The first time Metallica heard their legendary “Black Album”, they were apparently surprised, and dismayed, to find all of the classical orchestration that producer Bob Rock had added. Nevertheless, Bob Rock was the producer and his vision hit the record stores. The album, simply titled Metallica, has since gone platinum in 12 countries (15x platinum in the US), and helped Metallica crossover into popular music. The question I ask is, would the “Black Album” have done this without Bob Rock; without the vision of an outsider?
Ok, so what does a producer do? The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, in Tempe Arizona, lists the roles and duties of a producer as:
1. “RULE” over everything.
2. Manage the Budget.
3. Select the songs.
4. Perfect the music.
5. Referee, counsel, guide, pick up hoagies, do whatever it takes to succeed.
6. Depending on the Producer, co-write songs, perform on a recording, write the
orchestral backgrounds, etc.
7. THE ABSOLUTE MOST IMPORTANT DUTY OF A PRODUCER: CREATE HITS!
A truly independent artist fulfills the majority of these roles already; they already “rule” over everything, manage their own budgets, select their songs, feed themselves, write and perform their own music, and do whatever they can to succeed. Perhaps this list slightly differs from that of the independent artist-cum-producer on the importance of creating hits. But whatever the goal may be, number four on the list (“Perfect the music”), perhaps the vaguest of all duties, is essential to creating a great song!
Perfecting the music, as I see it, is a three-step process. It usually begins with creating the music (although not always; another high-schooler played me something he produced that was someone else’s techno song with goat-noises added on top of it). This step (one) of producing music deals with notes, musical phrases, lyrics, instrumentation; the stuff that you hear when you write a song and try it out with the band (or computer). Next is the recording and mixing phase. This step (two) of producing music deals with capturing the right sounds and performances, editing, balancing frequencies, levels, noise, effects, spacial positioning, etc. It’s possible that a great song and a good mix could be sent off to mastering, cranked way up and be ready to conquer the airwaves. But more often than not it is helpful for an outsider, with fresh ears, to step (three) in and let you know if there is an awkward or lackluster musical phrase or lyric, when a wailing guitar is clearly missing or is too loud, where the rhythm should fall on the beat, how well the vocals match up with the emotionality of the lyrics, if there is a frequency whole that needs to be filled, whether the track should be clean, dynamic and emulate a different time-period, or distorted, smashed with compression and contemporary, etc. In other words, the producer makes sure that the artist and the engineer succeeded in steps one and two so that it all syncs up with the vibe and the idea of the song. Step three is a combination of correcting mistakes and keeping the vision on track. The strength of having an outsider produce your song, is that they have a better chance of noticing mistakes that you've already missed, and helping you find pockets of potential that you were unaware of. In visual terms, the producer might see a different hue to the aura of what’s being produced.
So, how can one person possibly fulfill both (or all three) roles without losing any of that elusive potential? Well, firstly, they have to be good at producing. It is not a role that every artist can play, which doesn’t take anything away from the artist. An artist must be aware of their own limitations, because as often as not, artist/producing doesn’t work out very well. But if the potential is there for the artist/producer role, the challenge then becomes creating sufficient space between the roles of artist and producer. In the same way that the mixing engineer battles with ear fatigue, and must break to refresh his ears, the artist battles with a mind fatigue of sorts, due to their intensely personal and mental connection to the song and tireless laboring over it, which may hinder the artist from a fresh perspective.
To quote the Rolling Stones, “Time is on my side”. Time is a key ingredient in creating the space between artist and producer. After you record, mix and master a song, I strongly suggest hanging onto it for a while before committing it to its final resting state. You can still put it up online and listen to it (labeling it with ‘demo’ or ‘premaster’ will give you leeway to fix things later on). In fact, the more feedback you receive and the more times you hear it the more clearly you can see those pockets that you may have missed as your artist-self was finishing up its job. I usually know that I need more time when I am still listening for all of the microscopic changes I want to make (i.e. I’m very much stuck in one way of looking at it).
Next, listen to music that you wish to emulate! Try and decipher the insights and tricks from other producer’s work, by listening to albums with the sound/feel you are going for. Listen for the EQ emphasis or de-emphasis across the frequency spectrum. Listen for the dynamic range and how the song breathes. Listen for the balance, or lack there of, of organic to synthetic instrumentation. Listen for where the vocals or lead instruments sit in the mix. And listen to lots of it before coming back to your track!
|George Martin with the Beatles.|
Lastly, practice makes perfect. In the early years of The Beatles, the band spent four years in Hamburg developing their talents and performing over 1,200 live shows! By the time they returned to England they were polished performers, innovative song-writers and ready to conquer the globe. It took talent, the capacity and hunger to learn from mistakes and from others, and incessant practicing to turn four Liverpudlian boys into the Fab 4. But lets not forget that the Beatles still had George Martin (and later Phil Spector) to keep them on track, to make sense of the genius whirling around the studio, and to keep an uncompromising lookout towards the end goal. With that in mind let me re-ask the Bob Rock question; would the Beatles have succeeded without the help of George Martin? It’s not a question of talent, because the Beatles had no shortcomings there. But they certainly would’ve needed to rely on a skill-set that I’m not sure that they had developed at that time. And why would they? They had George Martin around. (As an aside, all of the Beatles went on to produce later in their careers.) The point is, talent and potential must fuse, in one instance, for music to be perfected. It is possible for an individual to do this, as independent artists are proving every month, but it takes lots of experience, knowledge and talent. The challenges are great and the rewards are greater. So, get inspired by the greats, stay hungry, stick at it and best of luck with juggling hats.