All sports teams have coaches, from the peewee leagues to Olympic squads to the professional leagues. Producers are the music world's equivalent of coaches. They interface with the talent and the technicians, drawing the synergistic best out of both. Major artists don't enter a studio without one, yet local artists seldom enter a studio with one. What gives?
It could be that for many unsigned artists and project-studio owners, gear acquisition and learning to wield it is a high priority. They may focus too strongly on technology and the fact that it allows musicians to do it all — from recording to mastering — themselves. Also, many artists feel that they can't afford a producer or aren't big enough acts to warrant working with one. The benefits of adding a producer to a recording team are weighed as a secondary consideration, if they are considered at all.
The name of the game is competing with the majors. Whether you're an artist, a studio owner, or an engineer, if the right producer isn't working your next recording session, have you truly leveled the playing field?
WHY PROS USE PRODUCERS
Producers know the difference between sounding like yourself and sounding like your idealized self. Artists who sell millions of records sound like their idealized selves. This is true even when the production is relatively subtle.
Good producers tune in to the “soul of a song” and arrange around it. They aren't concerned if a piano part is felt as opposed to heard. They know how to introduce various instruments to the front of the mix during appropriate parts of a song.
Record-label executives, who are well aware that somebody has to drive the bus, view producers as watchdogs who ensure that projects will come in on time and on budget. A team of superstars like the Lakers could probably win games without coach Phil Jackson. But unsupervised talent invites anarchy, so the trade-off would be constant infighting, which would hurt the team when it came time to win the big games.
The same principle applies when artists produce themselves. CDs are often released with no production whatsoever because no one took the initiative to oversee the process.
When artists produce their own music, various scenarios come into play regarding how production choices are made:
- Whoever pays producesMoney talks, therefore the band member anteing up the most of it becomes the de facto producer. This approach diminishes the odds of achieving a great recording, because decisions can be made for selfish reasons.
- The best musician producesJust as the best athletes don't always make the best coaches, the best musicians don't always make the best producers. Because they have the chops and find the recording process easy, “one-take” musicians can lack patience with other musicians who aren't as accomplished or experienced.
- The alpha member of the band producesIn this scenario, whoever started the band or can win the most arguments takes over the producer role. Consciously or unconsciously, this person has figured out how to rule the roost. Having alpha qualities doesn't necessarily translate into having the qualities necessary to be a good producer (see the sidebar “Producer Qualities”).
- The artist and the engineer coproduceThe leader of the band or a solo artist typically winds up coproducing with the engineer (who often goes uncredited). This makes sense in producerless situations, because the engineer is often the only other person around to bounce ideas off of. Furthermore, a certain percentage of engineers are destined to become successful producers. While some engineers may have some producer qualities, they may lack many others. The sonic aspect of a song is critical. Why dilute the engineer's performance by burdening him or her with double duty as coproducer? Similarly, an artist still sweating out the lyrics for the chorus doesn't need to agonize over whether an oboe or a bassoon will bring the bridge to life.
Convincing other group members that an outsider needs to be introduced into the studio dynamic can be challenging. Many unsigned artists use the following reasoning for not employing producers:
- They don't know they need producersMany unsigned artists are vague about what producers do. They think that their favorite CDs sound great because major artists are so much more talented than they are. Or maybe those CDs have a certain gloss attributable to the “big studio sound,” which less-well-known artists assume is out of their league.In actuality, the quality of your songs may be close to that of the songs which successful artists write before producers go over them with a fine-tooth comb. The “big studio sound” is now available to anyone who knows how to configure a digital audio workstation.
- All the “real” producers work in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, or AustinMany do, but not everyone who is a real producer wants to work or live in those cities. Plenty of producers tearing it up in music hotbeds come from somewhere else. They learned their trade by recording wherever they grew up. Some of them are your neighbors.
- They can't afford a producerProducers are often viewed as an unnecessary expense. This viewpoint is generally held by people who have never worked with a producer. While you probably can't afford P. Diddy, you should realize that producers living outside music hotbeds can't afford not to work. They make themselves available for fees that the market will bear. Furthermore, in terms of budgeting for your sessions, you should consider whether you might be better off recording fewer songs with more production as opposed to recording more songs with less production.
- Producers are unapproachableMany producers will be flattered if you offer them an opportunity to do what they love best. They'll want to do it for the challenge as well as the money. While they might not get rich from producing your session, the concept of helping you reach for peak moments usually wins out over alternatives like vegging out to reruns of Baywatch. They'll also gain experience, earn money they wouldn't otherwise receive, and build up their resumes.
PRODUCERS IN YOUR AREA
Start by asking your friends who work in music stores or pro-audio shops if they know anyone who does production work. Find out who produced the local CDs you love. See if anyone who you think is an incredible musician (not just a whiz on one instrument) and who has an engaging personality has done production work. Seek out engineers who have producer qualities. Ask commercial studio owners or project-studio owners if they know anyone who can fill the producer chair. Talk to DJs.
Maybe it's the hip music teacher at your high school. Maybe it's the music director at your church. Maybe it's someone who plays in three bands and is always helping friends out at their studio sessions.
Does anyone live in your area who has produced a hit CD? Don't automatically assume that that person is too busy or too expensive for your project. I know Grammy-winning producers who, after winning their awards, haven't necessarily seen a huge increase in the quantity or quality of artists seeking their services. They still have to hustle.
Another option is the producer-engineer. Producer-engineers come in three categories: producer-engineers who track but don't mix; producer-engineers who track and mix; and producer-engineers who track, mix, and master. It's not unusual for producer-engineers to offer their combined services for a special rate. The more skills producer-engineers claim to have expertise in, the more rigorously you need to evaluate each of them. If they claim mastery in a skill and can't deliver, then you'll have to hire a specialist to redo the damage.
Call promising producers and feel them out. Even if someone has excellent credentials, if you don't buy into each other's recording philosophies, your partnership could wind up being a waste of time and money. Ask them if they can put you in touch with the artists they've produced. If the references check out, obtain evaluation CDs. Once you hear something that makes your spine tingle, arrange a test session to determine if you and your prospective producer are simpatico.
Depending on the state of your songs, the test session could be a pre-production session at a rehearsal space, or an actual session in a studio. Once you start working, be alert as to whether the producer is really listening to you. Do you resonate with what he or she says and how they say it? Does this person make you feel stupid when you ask questions? Is he or she a heart person or a head person? You want someone who gets what you are trying to do and who knows how to take you there.
If an artist is self-motivated and has ample studio experience, a producer with a “good ole boy” personality is perfect for providing some gentle steering. These types abound in Nashville and Austin. Hearing the calm twang of a good ole boy in the cans is as soothing for some artists as hearing a pilot's folksy drawl on the intercom can be for airline passengers.
Hip-hop producers working in urban areas often take on the personae of “laid-back cat.” They're adept at setting the right mood to bring out an artist's uniqueness and emotion.
Then there are times when artists are argumentative or won't compromise, and something has to give. Enter the disciplinarian. In this situation, the producer places less emphasis on placating egos and more on the finished product. Examples of band members clashing with each other and with producers are regularly chronicled on VH-1's excellent Ultimate Albums series. The shows featuring Def Leppard recording Pyromania and Metallica recording The Black Album spring to mind. Producers Mutt Lange and Bob Rock, respectively, were determined to stick to their visions no matter how much both bands chomped at the bit. The resulting CDs are among the best selling of all time. Would these band members exchange their mansions for less-contentious studio experiences? I doubt it!
Sometimes it's all right to trade a little orneriness for a lot of passion. A producer should have the gumption to suggest unusual or unexpected strategies that make a song stand out. If a producer has to be “right,” the results had better make the artist glad that he or she lost the argument.
Never discount the relentlessness factor when assessing a producer. I'd take a producer who can't read music giving 100 percent over a Juilliard grad who acts too good for the job.
Lory Kohn(firstname.lastname@example.org) achieved the “War and Peace” production double in 2003: he produced the ode to combat “One Team One Goal” for the Colorado Avalanche and the ode to serenity “You Love All” for His Holiness Cealo, a Buddhist monk.
Here is a list of important qualities to look for in a producer. Keep these in mind when getting references from other artists, and especially during a test session.
- Has spent a lot of time writing and collaborating on songs
- Plays a lot of instruments
- Has a feel for song structure
- Has a feel for placing the song in the right key
- Has a feel for establishing the optimum bpm and achieving tight timing
- Understands vocal technique and vocal issues
Plays Well with Others
- Gets along well with technical types
- Gets along well with artistic types
- Is able to step into artists' dreams
- Is someone people like being around
- Upbeat and positive
- Can deal with sensitive artist egos
- Knows when to fight and when to surrender
- Has a plan for each session
- Works methodically toward the finish line
- Schedules on-call studio musicians
- Demonstrates ability to work within budgets
- Knows gear, computers, and software
- Understands digital and analog issues
- Familiar with mixing and mastering
- Has a burning desire to create great recordings
- Doesn't get discouraged if things aren't going well at a particular session
- Flexible, not afraid to try new things if something's not working
- Unfazed by technical difficulties
- Able to visualize finished product
- Knows when an artist has a better take in them and when to move on
- Knows if it's worth it to suggest going over budget
- Has conviction in decision making without being dictatorial
- Knows when the song is done
ARE YOU READY TO PRODUCE?
If you want to compete with the big boys, your first order of business is to decide whether you have the highly compulsive production mind necessary to oversee your next session, or if another person would be more capable.
The more experience you have in all aspects of recording, the more likely you are to be a successful producer. The broader this experience is, the more prepared you'll be. Preferably, you will have worked in all kinds of studios, from project studios to large commercial facilities.
If you've observed successful producers at work, you're way ahead of the game. Would you want someone operating on your brain who never watched the same procedures in medical school?
Are you able to multitask between creative and technical tasks? Are you compulsive? Are you relentless? Do you like being on a mission? Do you keep striving for optimal performance when others are ready to knock down a few cold ones? If so, you have potential.
Even if you can handle the musical and the technical aspects of song production, you still have to ask yourself: “How good am I at amateur psychology?” When the guitar player dukes it out with the lead singer and everyone looks at you, what pearls of wisdom will you offer?