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What does a music producer do, anyway ?

by Ian Shepherd

Sonic AlchemyThe term ‘music producer’ means different things to different people. Some are musicians, some are engineers, some are remixers.

So what does a music producer actually do ?

In very pragmatic terms, the producer is a ‘project manager’ for the recording, mixing and mastering process.

She has an overall vision for the music, the sound and the goals of the project, and brings a unique perspective to inspire, assist and sometimes provoke the artists.

The producer should make the record more than the sum of it’s parts – you could almost say she is trying to create musical alchemy.

Every producer brings different skills and a different approach, and this can make what they do difficult to summarise. In this post I’ve identified seven distinct types of record producer to try and make this clearer.

1. The Engineer

This is probably most people’s stereotypical idea of the “classic” record producer – hunched over a mixing desk, obsessing about compression settings, reverb tails and drum sounds. The studio is an instrument, and the producer “plays” it like a virtuoso, working late into the night to create a mysterious sonic masterpiece.

In fact this is often far from the norm though, as we’ll see.

2. The Mentor

Rick Rubin

Many producers don’t claim any technical expertise at all. Rick Rubin is a well-known example – despite being a self-confessed audiophile, he doesn’t actually sit at the desk on the records he produces, but instead specifically chooses different mix engineers to work with on each project.

“Mentor” producers like Rubin instead focus solely on the artist’s intent, motivation and performances, coaching them to produce the best music they’re capable of, by whatever means. Rubin seems to have a gift for freshly inspiring and invigorating artists and re-focusing them on their core strengths, for example.

3. The Golden Ticket

Some producers seem to have an almost magical touch – a secret formula that guarantees almost anyone who works with them success. Phil Spector, with his trademark “wall of sound” was an early example, whereas in the 80s Stock Aitken & Waterman developed and instantly recognisable template for their artists.

Of course a distinctive sound is only a good thing if the producer’s style suits the material. Paul McCartney was famously outraged at what Spector did with “Let It Be”. Dr Dre is a more recent example of a “golden ticket” producer – almost single-handedly responsible for the output of a vast swathe of the biggest rap and R&B artists in recent years.

4. The Remixer

Many people think of the ‘remix producer’ as a recent development, but the origins are actually a fusion of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s dub remixes with Tom Moulton‘s extended disco mixes in the mid 70s. Artists like Grandmaster Flash pioneered the use of cutting and scratching, and midi and sampling took this to another level. Remixing has now become so much a part of the mainstream music culture that often the remix becomes the hit before people know the original song !

5. The Musician

Trevor HornPerhaps the least recognised but most fundamental skill a producer requires is musicality. A producer will contribute, comment and advise on songwriting, arrangement and performance – and many are also musicians themselves.

Some even play on the albums they work on – Daniel Lannois contributed guitar to U2′s Joshua Tree, for example and multi-instrumentalist Trevor Horn played – well, nearly everything – on Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Welcome To The Pleasuredome” album. Also a brilliant engineer, he even combined the two skills by practically single-handedly inventing sampling through his early experiments with the Fairlight keyboard.

6. The Artist

Some producers take this musicality to another level by actually being the artist. The two ultimate examples are arguably Prince, with the infamously modest “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince” credit; and the incomparable Brian Wilson – who on his masterpieces “Pet Sounds” and “Smile” somehow managed to equal and perhaps even surpass the musical achievements of all “five” Beatles put together.

7. The Bonkers Visionary

Joe MeekOther producers simply defy categorisation – for example Lee “Scratch” Perry, who some hail as a genius but others dismiss as certifiably insane ! Without doubt he was incredibly influential, at least until he burnt down his extraordinary low-tech Black Ark studio in a fit of rage.

Joe Meek contributed to over 245 records, 45 of which were major hits, all before the age of 37, when tragically he committed suicide. This was despite having no formal music training – or even being able to play an instrument. Somewhere along the way he became a key figure in the development of multi-mic and multi-track recording, as well as experimenting with largely home-made reverbs and compressors.

So, there you have the seven styles I promised. Of course many producers span many or most of these simultaneously. In fact, this is so true of the very best producers that they simply can’t be pigeonholed, and achieve an entirely different level of production brilliance as a result.

For that reason, I can’t resist adding just one more category:

 

The Godlike Genius

I’ve already mentioned several producers who I think deserve this title – Brian Wilson and Trevor Horn, for example. Brian Eno is another. As an engineer he constantly breaks new ground – he invented “ambient” and “generative” music, for example – and “My Life in the Bush of Ghosts“, his early 80s collaboration with David Byrne, brilliantly anticipates the sampling revolution of the 90s.

He is a musician whose playing effectively qualifies him as a band-member; a mentor in his innovative working methods, embracing mistakes and random elements; and a genuine “golden ticket”, as his work with Bowie, U2, James and ColdPlay (amongst others) proves.

george_martinPerhaps the ultimate producer for me though, is George Martin. A mild-mannered English gentleman, his understated and brilliant arrangements both enhanced and transformed the music of The Beatles into so much more than the sum of their parts, and deservedly earned him the title of “The Fifth Beatle”.

His enthusiastic adoption of the latest engineering techniques ensured that there are still very few ideas in pop music that he hasn’t already exploited. He mentored the Beatles, expanding their experience of different styles of music; his use of sound effects and multiple takes and arrangements (on “Strawberry Fields”, for example) surely constitutes remixing and sampling long before the terms were thought of – and he added bonkers visionary sound effects, inspired by his time working on The Goon Show !

The common requirement running through all these types is musicality, and the ability to see the “big picture” while the artist focuses on details of writing and performance . George Martin exemplifies these qualities, and like all the names mentioned here he reminds me why I fell in love with recording, producing and mastering music in the first place.

The role of a record producer is that of a ‘project manager’, but at it’s best it can be so much more…

How to become a music producer

When most of the producers above started their careers, being a producer meant getting to work in a professional studio somehow – by hook or by crook.

Often this meant starting out working as a tea-boy or toilet cleaner (!), gradually working your way up to tape-op or assistant engineer, and waiting until one day the the engineer was sick, or stormed out in a huff and you got your “big break” – your one chance to get behind the desk and show the clients why you should be the producer of their next hit…

All that has changed.

These days, anyone can be a music producer, with little more than a laptop, some free software and an internet connection.

Or can they ?

The truth is, these days it may actually be even harder to become a music producer than ever before.

Precisely because all the technical requirements are within almost anyone’s grasp, everyone who wants to record and mix music is doing it – and that means there’s a lot of competition.

Which means it’s hard to get noticed, let alone the chance to work with great artists or gain any recognition for what you do.

So, does that mean you should give up and go home ? No way ! Just be aware you’ll have a tough hill to climb, and you’ll need dedication, commitment, skill and not a little luck.

So maybe it’s not so different from the old days, after all :-)

More information

If you really want an insight into what producers do, and how they do it, there’s nothing better than going straight to the horses mouth.

And luckily there’s a great site which offers exactly that – the mighty RecordProduction.com. Hours and hours of superb interviews with some of the biggest name record producers in the business – and all available for free !

I can’t recommend it highly enough – to check it out, click here.

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28 Responses

  1. Great article. Number 5 – Peter Gabriel beats Mr Horn to the inventing sampling via Fairlight accolade (San Jacinto for e.g.) by some months, although Horn was trendier and arguably more radical. A lot of his sound came from his engineers though – Slave to the Rhythm by Grace Jones an example where the engineer, Steve Lipson, was actually credited.

    As for “Bonkers” – surely in 2009, with 25% of the population suffering at any one time, we can deal more sympathetically with mental health? Plain “Visionary” would be enough!

  2. admin says:

    Ah, the old “who invented what” question, eh…

    In which case, let’s tackle the Big One – who really invented that gated-reverb-tom sound from Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight” / Peter Gabriel’s “Intruder” ? Hugh Padgham? Enquiring minds want to know…

    And yes, fair point – I apologise for my potentially insensitive use of the words “bonkers” – in this case, hopefully it’s clear that I mean it in a humorous context – but simply “Visionary” doesn’t fit the bill… can we come up with an alternative ? Left-field ? Idiosyncratic ? Crack-pot ? Out-there ? Maybe “Unclassifiable” ?

    PS. Fwiw Trevor Horn himself is the first to give full credit to his engineers – fair play etc.

  3. I must say Jens Bogren if for nothing else “Watershed” by Opeth. This is probably the best produced and sounding record I have heard in a LONG time. To be able to work with a creative visionary like Mikael Akerfeldt and still experiment and get new sounds and textures out of him from album to album is astounding.

    This album sounds huge without sacrificing dynamics, the acoustic sounds are to die for, the drums sounds big but not overly compressed or “produced”. Check out some of his own comments here: http://bit.ly/c9xe

    And also, Devin Townsend is one amazing dude. #wallofsound

  4. admin says:

    Jens is an *outstanding* engineer and a really nice guy – I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on a few projects. I did the DVD authoring for the surround mix of “Still Life”, plus enhanced CDs and a live DVD for Katatonia. Sounds like I should check out “Watershed”, too.

  5. Ben Walker says:

    I met Hugh Padgam a couple of years ago. He definitely took the credit for the gated reverb Phil Collins snare sound, but was also a bit of a clueless tit. So I think we should give someone else the credit.

    Great site, BTW. I’ll be recommending it. ;)

  6. admin says:

    Here’s some interesting commentary on the “bonkers genius” question: http://tinyurl.com/d42lch

  7. Thayod Ausar says:

    Great Article!!!! How about Delia Derbyshire and all the other good folks from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop… Surely what they did with physical tape editing and manipulation has to qualify as the direct pre-cursor to Modern sampling and sequencing. The music Delia produced by physically splicing together pieces of tape, of various pitches and lengths, measured in time with a ruler, fashioned into multiple tape loops, and run in synchronization on multiple tape machines… Incredible…

  8. Ian Shepherd says:

    @Thayod Good point – maybe that’s another category – The Pioneer ? But lots of the other fit into that category… have you seen this post ?

    David Vorhaus and The White Noise – Electronic music pioneers

  9. popsong 3.0 says:

    We’ll throw this out there just for the debate….
    George Strait has had 57 #1 hits…yes 57….more than any other artist ever.(go ahead google it …we didn’t believe it a first either)

    All these hits are “self produced”…

    Does this make George Strait the #1 producer of alltime?

  10. Adam says:

    Lee Perry burnt down his studio to get the duppys (bad spirits) out not out of a fit of rage. This ended up being a good move for him because in his new studio is where a lot of his best work was completed!

  11. Scott Michaels says:

    ok i know im late to the party and maybe there’s some hidden reason for this but we’re really not gonna mention Quincy in the best producers conversation? come on guys… he fits into like 5 of these categories, and had the modesty to tell jacko to go to someone else to modernize his sound

  12. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Scott,

    No question, Quincy deserves to stand head and shoulders with anyone else on this list. It’s not meant to be a best-ever though, just highlight the different types of producers – there are plenty of other greats not listed, too !

    Thanks for the comment !

    Ian

  13. I do not like the term “god-like genius”, I’d prefer “creative producer” instead. The “crows of desperation, living beyond interpretation”, to speak with Brian Eno.

    Amongst them are for example Andy Warhol, who produced “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, the famous Banana, or David Bowie who did Lou Reed’s “Transformer”.

    And what about the “goddess-like genies”?
    “I’m no fucking goddess but this is enlightenment”, Björk:-(

    Immi’s “produced, engineered, programmed and anything in between by Imogen Heap” beats Prince’s modesty(?) by far, and when You hear him giving everything he is able to on Kate Bush’s “Why Should I Love You” from the Red Shoes Album you might catch a glimpse of the power of a “larger than life” imagination.

    Hubi:-)

    PS: Search Immi’s clarity cloud for “Mathematics” to find my bubble. @Hubi1857 on twitter

  14. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Hubi,

    Great bubble :-) Do you know what you would have been doing, if you had been able to make it ?

    And of course, you’re right about my over-the-top terminology and all the people I could have mentioned but didn’t – these are just examples to make an interesting post :-)

    Ian

  15. Just listen to “Propeller Seeds” and when You hear a soap bubble burst near the end of the song it’s probably mine.

    Hubi:-)

    PS: Your blog is amongst the most nutritious ones about music, sound and audio to be found on the Internet (and there are lots and lots of them!) but English is a funny language and in German “over the top” would mean You’re running down that hill again instead of beeing “topper the the top.

    Modest, humble and extremely pleased
    H.

  16. I stumbled upon the term “creative producer” on a ride with the U-Bahn. There was an ad for a somewhat dubiuos “Popmusik-Akademie”, offering an expensive(!) graduated course and I wondered what that might be. Having returned home I saw ImmI’s Heapsong2-announcement on twitter and took the opportunity to try it out.

    It worked better than expected, Radiusmusic invited me to the video-shooting and release-party for “Propeller Seeds”. Though unable to join the pomp and circumstance of the celebrity, I went on with Heapsong3 and soon realized that “creative producing” isn’t really that easy as it seemed to me beforehand.
    Besides knowing about all those things gifted artists and skilled producers usually do, which you can learn only by watching them at work, you, yourself, need to have gone through the “mind blowing experience”(quoting ImmI) of creating a perfect song, a masterpiece of art.
    And that is not an average day in the park. It involves some pretty dangerous journeying through the unknown realms of your imagination. Remember Brian Wilson, or Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret?

    The creative producer is the artist’s companion on that journey.

    “Neglected Spaces” is due for release while I’m typing this, my fingernails bitten way up to the elbow…

    Wouldn’t be possible without Your help and advice, Ian,

    Thank You,
    Hubi:-)

  17. Update! ImmI and Thomas are on their way to China, Nepal, Tibet now. Postproduction on “Neglected Space” and “Minds Without Fear”, which I haven’t been involved in by any means, should be done soon.

    Check out imogenheap.com on sunday!

    Thanx again,
    Hubi:-)

    PS: Need a manicure and some vegetables now…

  18. Make sure to watch ImmI at work:

    The Dewarists, Episode 1 “Minds Without Fear”
    feat. Imogen Heap and Vishal Dadlani
    -> http://youtu.be/JvTwd4mTwQs

    before(!) dissolving into “Neglected Space”
    -> http://youtu.be/1gKr8X_zQuI

    Speechless, excited, exhausted,
    Hubi:-)

  19. radiocitizen says:

    Go to More Dark Than Shark at http://www.moredarkthanshark.org for everything about Brian Eno.

  20. Ian Shepherd says:

    And, click this link to see lots more Eno here :-)

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/tag/eno/

  21. RL7 says:

    Great read, Thanks

  22. Harshit says:

    Thanks for the details. Had an idea of music producers but this typing of them is new. :)

  23. Rebecca Acquah says:

    Nice,informative and educative article

  24. The term music producer has gone through so many changes. Today I think, anyone who creates their own music is a music producer.!!

  25. Mateteco says:

    Wow! wonderful article. keep it up bro.

  26. jafar says:

    armin van buuren an ATB are the best music producers of all time…………………….ya

  27. Hi Ian,

    You can actually _see_ one of my bubbles burst at the very end of ImmI’s “Propeller Seeds” video -> https://vimeo.com/40669375

    Thanx again,
    Michael E. H. H. H. Hubertz, freelance creative producer

    PS: Having shown how good you are at producing masterpieces in collaboration with gifted artists does not protect you from being sentenced to “blighty to oblivion” by the very same artist’s record company!

    PPS: Make sure to watch Sarah Maycock’s brushes
    dancing nuts on “Neglected Space” -> https://vimeo.com/40668900

    Hubi:-)

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