Unless your name is Phil Spector— and it’s the ’60s—being a producer doesn’t mean you get to command a bunch of lackeys to render the fruits of your genius. Most recording projects are collaborative endeavors among a producer, an artist, and an engineer. The producer is simply the one responsible for ensuring the project gets done. That’s harder than it sounds. Bands disintegrate, money runs out, songs crash and burn, equipment self-destructs, engineers erase tracks, and so on. And, while you’re steering a project towards that final mix, you also get to be the artist’s therapist, cheerleader, and scapegoat. Lucky you!
So, as producers typically must deal with a mammoth load of creative baggage and “project management” activities, it’s important to establish a studio personality and work ethic that can get things done without driving the artists to mental disintegration, or giving yourself an ulcer the size of Pluto. Here are a few helpful personality traits you may wish to consider popping into your personal studio survival kit. Then, cross your fingers.
Surrender Your Dictator’s Hat
Guess who’s the boss? It ain’t you! You have been hired by the artist, and that often means giving the customer what he or she wants. If a client doesn’t dig your suggestion to rearrange a rock ballad into electronica, don’t take it personally. You can suggest, harangue, and plead, but if the real boss doesn’t buy your idea, just get on with making the best record you can.
Be Nurturing & Wise
It’s usually a mistake to push artists beyond their limitations. A frustrated, insecure, or utterly defeated musician seldom delivers impassioned performances. Instead, strive to assess the artist’s strengths and weaknesses, and then help them get their best stuff on tape.
Yes—do your homework! The client depends on you for cogent direction, so don’t “wing” the sessions. Study the material until you know it as well as the artist. Also, schedule enough preproduction time to ensure that the material is well arranged and the musicians are well rehearsed.
When the doo-doo hits the fan—and it will at some point—the producer needs to be the only one in the room who is a vessel of strength. The artists will be looking to you to make all the carnage disappear, forge a new direction, and deliver a fabulous work—even if the entire DAW session just crashed and burned. You may be freaking out yourself, but, trust me, joining the chorus of screaming, crying, and retching will only serve to push the emotional apple cart over the edge of the Grand Canyon. Stop. Breath. Access. Strategize. Fix. And do all of that while looking as if you always had the answer in hand. (Repeat as needed: “Serenity and strength. Serenity and strength. Serenity and strength.”)
Nothing helps break the stress of creative work like moments of hilarity. You’re not defusing bombs, so every minute in the studio shouldn’t be wrapped in extreme focus and uber-serious demeanors. If you’re not a comedian, don’t try to be (see the next paragraph), but you can at least try to lighten the mood when things start getting too tense. Even subtle humor can help break the spell of angst that sometimes descends on creative projects. Of course, whatever you do to crack a few smiles, do not make fun of the artist. (“Hey, look at Steve making these kissy faces when he leans into the microphone. Let’s all make the same faces back at him!”) Unless you want a quick end to the session, the Don Rickles vibe should be left to Mr. Rickles.
Be Real For Real
It’s the music business, so insincerity is ubiquitous. If you’re working with smart artists—and pray that you are—they will see right through any phoniness you splatter over the proceedings, and they will not respond the way you want them to. In fact, they may lose respect for you at warp speeds. You know when you’re “putting it on,” so don’t. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not just because you think emulating this or that behavior will make you a hipper, cooler, more revered producer. You are who you are. Find an honest path to artistic interaction.
Do not release substandard work. Ever. If an artist has difficulty singing on pitch, for example, either help them get the melody, or pull out an auto-tuning plug-in and fix the bum notes. You can’t send an apology with every CD: “Please excuse the crappy vocals. The artist is a horrible singer, and I was too bummed out to do my job.” Your production work is judged on the tracks people hear— not feeble rationalizations about why you couldn’t make a professionalsounding recording.