A new book of mine just came out called The Music Producer’s Handbook, so I thought this might be a good time to go over some basic production techniques while the topic is still fresh in my mind. Music production is sort of a black art because the very nature of the job is nebulous in many people’s minds, but we’ll try to clear that up in this series.
Also available in this series:
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 1
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 2
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 3
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 4
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 5
- The Art Of Music Production – Part 6
What is a Producer?
Everyone on the production team usually has a pretty clear-cut job description except for the producer. Everybody knows what a drummer or guitar player or singer does because it’s pretty obvious. An engineer selects and places the microphones, gets sounds, records and balances them, and is in charge of the technical aspects of recording. Songwriters create the rhythm, melody and lyrics to the song (although occasionally that can get a little nebulous as well). But if you were asked the question, “What does a producer do?”, you might be hard pressed to come up with a specific answer.
It’s easy to see why many musicians can’t answer that question because producers in music, television and film take on so many roles. Some are honorary and some are extremely hands-on creatively, yet a producer does his job mostly out of the public eye so those duties aren’t in our every day consciousness.
But a music producer in the most basic description is different from his similarly named film and television counterparts (where a “line” producer and “coordinating” producer are specific jobs), because the producer on a musical project is many job descriptions rolled into one.
He’s the creative director. Just like the director on a movie has the overall vision for that movie and is the boss on the set, so is the producer in the studio. The producer sees the big picture in terms of how all the songs of the album fit together into a cohesive package, but can also control the day to day minutiae of how a part is played or even what the notes are in that part and how they’re played.
He’s a diplomat. A big part of the producer’s job is to bring harmony to the creative process so that everyone can create at their very highest level. Although some producers have used terror as a method to get what they want (the legendary Phil Spector for one), most successful producers make everyone feel safe about contributing and make the environment comfortable for creativity.
He’s a decision maker. A good producer will be the final decision maker in any creative argument (especially between band members). Even if the producer defers to the artist’s creative vision (which most producer’s will do), it’s still his decision to defer.
He’s a go-between. The producer keeps the pressure from a record label or the outside world away from the artist or band while making the record. In some cases, he may speak for the artist during a session with studio musicians, and generally shield the artist from anything she might deem uncomfortable.
He’s a financier. The producer is responsible for the budget. He makes the deals with the studio, engineer, mixer, mastering studio, rentals, studio musicians, arrangers, songwriters, food delivery and anything else that might need to be negotiated or paid. In some cases, he’ll also administer union contracts and submit cue sheets as well.
He’s a casting director. A good producer will choose the right group of musicians to get the feel that the artist is looking for, which might change from song to song. He might even help choose material for the artist that best showcases her musical attributes.
He’s a project manager. A good producer knows just what needs to be accomplished in a given amount of time and for a given budget. His job is to turn in the project on-time and on or under budget and he must manage each project accordingly.
He’s the “bus driver.” No matter how or on what level a producer is involved, he’s the one that sets the direction for the project. He determines the artist’s artistic vision and helps her achieve it, or may even help her find it with a vision of his own. Either way, he’s the leader that everyone will follow. He “drives the bus.”
He’s the one responsible. In the eyes of the record label and artist, the success of the project is the direct responsibility of the producer. Although the public will judge the artist on the project, ultimately how it turns out falls squarely on the producer’s shoulders.
How To Become A Producer
I don’t remember who said it, but the following question and answer is really true. “How do you know when you are a producer?” The answer - “When you have a client!”, meaning that as long as someone believes you can do it, then you are indeed a producer. And while the process of becoming a producer can sometimes follow an improbable path, usually there are two career tracks that take you there: being either a musician or an engineer.
The way a musician becomes a producer is by spending a lot of time in the studio and learning what works and what doesn’t, either by trial and error, by a mentorship with a successful producer, or by constant observation either as a session musician or as an artist of band member making a record. Plus if you’re a musician that has risen to this level as a player, it’s a good bet that your musical taste and sensitivity are already highly developed and the jump into production is short.
Another way into production is by being a songwriter since that usually means that you’ve developed pretty good production skills along the way because you need to present your song demos in the best light. Many songwriters hear the final song in their heads and they won’t rest until it’s recorded that way. Phil Spector, Mutt Lange and Brian Wilson are examples of songwriters who are mega-successful producers. Quincy Jones is an example of an arranger and writer who became one of the most successful of all time, considering the sales record of Michael Jackson alone.
The trial and error method takes the longest time by far but can actually lead to the most success. That’s because if you spend enough time experimenting, not only will you determine what works, but you might develop an unusual sound or direction in the process. Once upon a time, it was nearly impossible to learn this way (unless you were really rich or lucky) because the cost of making a record was so high, but now that virtually everyone can have a studio in their home for so little money, learning this way is more possible than ever. The problem is that if you’re not in a big media center or don’t have immediate access to people who can help you when you have a question, it can take what seems like forever to develop your style. Hopefully this series (and my book) will provide some basics to cut that learning curve down a bit.
Engineering has been a long-standing farm system for producers for many of the same reasons listed for musicians, resulting in all sorts of successes from Glyn Johns (The Who), Phil Ramone (Billy Joel), Hugh Padgham (The Police), Ken Scott (David Bowie), Jimmy Iovine (Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith), and Jerry Finn (Green Day) among many others.
Engineering is the perfect learning ground for production for several reasons. First, an engineer is able to see many different projects through from beginning to end which enables him to participate in all aspects of the project. Second, an engineer works with a multitude of artists, producers, musicians and bands and can glean something from them all. It’s that depth of information and experience that’s valuable. Lastly, an engineer can frequently become the preferred guy for a successful producer, which becomes an unofficial mentorship and can later lead to referrals as well.
While engineering can be a career stepping stone to production, it can take a long time and there’s no guarantee that your break will happen, especially if you’re not working with “name” clients and producers. Also, most of the engineers who make the jump usually have some musical training, with many being accomplished players in their own right. This gives them both the technical and musical skills required to make the jump.
And The Other Way
There is another way to become a producer and that’s to declare yourself one, find an artist and pay production costs out of your own pocket. Rich entrepreneurs, athletes and drug dealers try this way and usually fail. Artist managers and attorneys try it this way, thinking they know something because they’re in the business, and usually fail. Concert promoters, club owners, and radio personalities try it this way and usually fail. They fail because producing music takes more than just liking music or having disposable income. We’ll cover the skills and techniques in later posts, but know that being successful takes a lot more time and hard work than most people realize or are willing to put in.
You Still Need A Client
Regardless of your experience, capabilities and ambition, you still need an artist or client that trusts you with their project enough to let you produce it. The client is what makes you a producer in the first place, although your talent and experience will make you a success at it. So how do you get a client?
The time-honored way to break into production is to discover a young artist looking for a break. If you’ve been coming up through the ranks by working in any of the various capacities above, you can probably ask for a favor for some musical, arranging and studio help to get a short project recorded. Or, you can pay for it out of your own pocket. Either way, you can be on your way at that point, or not.
Success on any level tends to rub off on you and makes it easier to find a project to produce. A songwriter, musician, engineer, or others in the business are much more likely to be referred to production work only by virtue of the fact that they were connected to a hit (the bigger the hit, the easier it becomes). It’s a sad fact that it happens this way, and it sometimes bestows opportunities to the undeserving, but that’s the way the business works.
The Elements Of Music Production
Production starts and stops with the client because that’s who’s vision you must realize and execute. The client can be an artist or band on a record, a songwriter on a demo, an ad agency for a commercial, or a record label wanting to capture the essence of an artist in a recording. Regardless of whom you work for and with, music production can be broken down into a few areas of execution that we’ll call the Elements of Music Production.
There are four elements to music production (almost any production really) that a producer must be familiar with. Usually a producer is a master of at least one of the four, but most are expert in all four. These elements are Creative, Financial, Politics and Project Management.
The creative elements that a producer is required to bring to the project can be few or many, but usually many. He must bring taste, musical expertise and a keen ear for what works and what doesn’t. The Creative element is what everyone usually wants to learn about so I’ll dedicate a number of upcoming posts just to the subject.
One of the producer’s main jobs is financial, which is broken into two categories, the producer’s deal and the budget. There are many ways that a producer can get paid and many nuances around those ways. Handling the project budget also requires a deft hand in making sure there is enough money allotted to accomplish recording the project to everyone’s satisfaction. Although the Financial element is important and nuanced enough that it deserves multiple posts, it might not be of sufficient interest to many of you reading this (especially those that hate budgets and numbers) who just want the nitty-gritty of the creative side. If I get enough interest in the subject, I’ll be sure to post more, otherwise, you’ll have to read the book for the details.
Unless you’re dealing with a singer/songwriter in his own studio, every project is filled with multiple, diverse personalities. Some if these are level-headed, reasonable and professional while others (hopefully not many) are childish, diva-like and spoiled, always wanting their own way. As the producer, one of your main jobs is getting everyone to work in as much harmony as possible, mediating any arguments and channeling any resentment or hard-feelings into a great performance. This job alone could be full-time and is one where trained professionals make a lot of money, but it just comes with the territory of being a music producer.
Like the Financial element, Politics is nuanced enough that it deserves it’s own separate post (or multiple posts even), but many creative types would rather not read about the psychology behind making a great recording. Some of it’s necessary though, and we’ll go over bits and pieces while covering the creative aspects.
This leaves us with Project Management, a much overlooked element in production.
Project Management is the one element that usually slips beneath the radar of most budding producers, but it can easily break you if you don’t pay attention to it. Project Management is the planning, organizing and managing the resources necessary for completion of the project, be it just one song, cue or jingle, or an full 10+ song album.
Most projects have a timeline that they have to follow, even for superstar acts, since the days of the open-ended recording budget are pretty much over. That means that all the time elements to your project have to be planned out well in advance with a little leeway built in as needed.
Managing both project and people time is one of the more difficult jobs of a producer since it involves a lot of educated guessing. You never really know exactly how much time any one segment will take, but you do have a general idea if you’ve done your production homework. So how do you figure out how much time you’ll need? Just like any project in any company, you make a timeline that has specific milestones while leaving a little leeway just in case the unforeseen happens. Here’s how it’s done:
Take stock of the situation. There’s no way that you can determine just how long each project segment will take until you evaluate the songs, listen to the demos, listen to any previous recordings, hear the artist or band live or in rehearsal, and generally get a good feel for what’s possible and how much might have to be fixed or tweaked. This evaluation period might take a week or two or even more with an inexperienced band, but could be compressed into as little as a day if necessary, depending upon your experience in these situations and the quality of the songs and players.
Approximate how long each project segment will take. After you evaluate the artist’s or band’s songs and get a feel for the arrangements and how well they play them, you can determine how much pre-production time it will take to get everything into shape. You might determine that you’ll need a month of preproduction because the arrangements are weak, or maybe just a few days for some song tweaks. If you don’t have that kind of time or the artist is resistant to more rehearsal, then you’ll have to allot more time for basic tracking, maybe an extra day for each song, instead of the 2 or 3 songs per day (if you’re lucky) that you might expect if everything is finely tuned.
Develop your milestones. First, work backwards from your delivery or completion date. You now put in the time allotted for mastering, mixing, overdubs, tracking and preproduction. From there you can put in your milestones for completing each segment of the project.
A fairly large project usually has numerous rentals that are both long and short term. The trickiest long term rental is always the studio, since if you don’t complete what’s needed on time, then you’ll have to move somewhere else if the studio is booked after your slated time has run out. This can be a royal pain, since it means tearing everything down and setting up again, losing both time and momentum, and most likely your sound, in the process.
Studio time is broken down into preproduction, tracking, overdubs, mixing and mastering.
Preproduction can be as little as a couple of days or as long as months, depending upon the skill level of the players and the shape that the songs and arrangements are in. It’s usually done in an inexpensive or personal rehearsal space so at least the costs are low.
Tracking can be done in as little as a day (depending upon the music) or can last for months. Most producers on a budget feel comfortable with allotting one or two songs a day with a well-rehearsed band that knows their parts inside out.
Overdubs is the mostly lengthy segment of the process since it’s where you’ll do the most experimentation with parts and sounds. It’s usually done in a less expensive studio, or even a home studio, since a large expensive tracking room is no longer required. You’re really flying fast if you can do a single day per instrument overdubs. For instance, all the guitar overdubs for each one of the songs completed in a single day, all the vocals for all the songs, all the bass fixes, etc. We’ll go over this more in a later post.
Mixing can be as little as a day for all the songs (which is possible for a jazz or blues act, or even a live album), but it’s best to figure at least one song per day or day and a half.
Mastering is easiest to budget because it rarely goes beyond a day in the studio (more like 5 or 6 hours).
Short term equipment rentals are usually musical or audio gear that may be for as little as a day or for the entire length of the project. There may not be any if your budget is low or if you can borrow a few of the items, but you can usually count on at least a few short-term rentals as your budget increases.
Not only does a producer have to manage project time, but the time of the people he’s working with as well. For instance, if the engineer he prefers to use cannot be available for the tracking dates, he has to either reschedule to accommodate him or find a replacement. If the lead singer will not be available for several of the planned lead vocal overdub days, he has to reschedule them and put something else in it’s place to stay on schedule. If studio musicians are to be hired, he has to find out when the best people for the project are available and work around their schedule.
This adds another layer of complexity to scheduling and project management, but it comes with the territory of being a producer.
As you can see, there’s a lot to think about just on the project management level, and we’ve only scratched the surface. Here’s one thing to keep in mind though - Better musicians = less time needed. In a world of uncertainty, that’s the one constant throughout all facets of the project.
In Part 2 we’ll look into a segment of production that frequently overlooked but can make or break your project - preproduction.
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