What does a music producer do, anyway ?

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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