what is a record producer?

It’s a common question, and it’s very hard to answer, certainly in a general way.  So I’ll try.

Wiki says: “The music producer could be compared to the film director in that the producer’s job is to create, shape and mold a piece of music in accordance with their vision for the album”

Vocalist.org says this “The Music Producers job is to help you get the recording that you want to make. In most cases the music producer is also a competent arranger, composer or songwriter who can bring fresh ideas to your tracks.”

For me,  it’s a role I take on from time to time, and its exact nature varies from project to project.  It’s never even remotely the same.

There are some various archetypal versions of the role,  which are worth mentioning quickly..  for example 1. the ‘band producer’ (often a glorified sound engineer),  or 2. the ‘writer/producer’ (for example the pop songwriter who produces his own material, usually co-written with a ‘topliner’, who then records the pop singer doing the vocal to make a finished pop record). 

Both have their merits in the right situation but are a little limiting,  I certainly don’t’ comfortably fit in either category per se so I’ll leave it at that and offer some more personal/general thoughts.  I like to think of the role as something a little more creative, inspiring and visionary.

Now a lot of the aspects of making a record are technical,  and to excel at these you need years of experience in engineering, or musical knowhow.  These things are both very important (and if you are a producer should certainly be so strong as skills that they are almost second nature, or work with people who excel in the fields you are weak at)..  the key other thing though,  is more to do with personality, character and creativity, which (like a singer with an amazing voice), you either have, or you haven’t got.

Most artists these days can do the technical stuff, and in a sense are pretty competent ‘producers’ to a degree.  Most for example, have home studios, and can program and record to a reasonable standard.  This kind of thing is often confused with ‘producing’.  What this way of working can lack is an objective outside perspective on work (from someone ‘outside’ who can be very specific about ideas, what/how needs doing to improve the work),  and of course the benefits of the wealth of experience a good producer can bring to the mix (pun intended).  The results are often limited to a certain quality level (and I don’t just mean in terms of lo-fi, homegrown sound – which I actually really like a lot of the time – but in terms of it could go further in terms of the journey it set out on).  A decent producer can take it to a higher level, or more accurately, help the artist take it there.  That’s the ideal anyway.  Of course, reality and ideal are not always pals.

recording studio mixing desk

Being a ‘record producer’ (I prefer the term ‘music producer’ whilst we are on definitions),  is one of the various musical hats I wear.  I do this for a number of reasons:

1. It keeps me ‘fresh’.  In fact one of my main criteria for taking on a project is to do something I’ve not done before. To go somewhere new, and hopefully take anyone else involved with me.

2. It pays very well.  Which allows me to be creatively quite brave in other areas (as I’m not striving for ‘commercial success’ in all areas all the time).  My own music for example has always been far too “weird” for the kind of ‘success’ some of the more high profile music achieves.  And this suits me just fine.  With production, I get to explore a more commercial world, and being fresh at it,  have tonnes of enthuesiasm, yet also lots of the necessary experience so I can get the results everyone wants

3. Working with other artists is fun.  Collaborating on a record is great fun. Simple.

4. There’s something really satisfying about someone saying ‘here’s a problem, solve it!’, and doing just that.  It’s a man thing perhaps. 

5. Working on one project (eg if you are an artist or a band) all the time can be creatively unconstrucitve, and the results will show it.

6. I’m pretty good at it.  Pretty, prettty good… (lost on non ‘curb’ fans I know)

Half of music is channelling something, I don’t know exactly what it is,  it’s not “god” or whatever, its something more indefinable and complicated than that, call it inspiration or something..  Anyway, whatever it is, if you are an artist no doubt you have experienced it and therefore I don’t need me to try and define it (badly) for you fortunately. Anyway, whatever “It” is,  it doubles in a good collaboration.  

Back to the less nebulous other half.   This is the ‘craft’ part of making records (a few obvious aspects being songwriting, arrangement, or sound engineering), ie the various learned skills which go into making a record.  These disciplines are, with experience and practice, learn-able, and the knowledge is finely tuned over time and experience to great effect,  this is certainly one of the main reasons to bring a ‘producer’ in on a record.

A few other things which a producer can be useful for (in random, shopping list format):

Expertise
Aesthetics
Song structure,  tempo etc.  A big one.
Arranging
Programming
Writing
Experience
Mixing
Quality Control – both Sonic (ie engineering) and Musical

Involving a teacher, who is able to nuture unique talent, who (hopefully) has unique talent themselves.

Knowing when to apply formula, and when originality.  And knowing which is which.

Benefit of experience / an outside ear.  Yet being open to the new

Encouragement.  Though only ever genuine encouragement – interesting that the word contains the word ‘courage’.  Being honest at all costs.

Eliminating problems (bad/weak ideas, band clichés etc)

Enchancing the good stuff.  eg making more of hidden hooks (eg a middle eight which is actually the chorus).. turning a song on its head if necessary (leaving it alone if not)

Vision.  Or help with.  Guidance with the overall aesthetic of the record.. the world it creates

Editing.  (tedious but necessary)

A conduit for group opinion / a non competing leader

Humour.  Keeping a session/project vibey and moving. 

Stopping negative situations (eg screwdriver obsessing over insignificant detail, or ego based opinions disguised as idealism). Though I personally draw the line at social work.

Perspective.

Comfort. Making a record should be an enjoyable process. Fun. 

The paternal desire to help the artist make the record they’ve always wanted to make

Tricks and secrets.  If I told you they wouldn’t be secrets eh?.

Fresh ideas on ‘old’ songs / ideas / problems

Someone to impress.  The first point of call (before the wider audience)

Taste. Opinion.

Good judgement.  The producer as a ‘taste firewall’.

Understanding of the music in hand (both a good general understanding of music, but of the specific genre).  This extended to beyond music,  to the cultural ground the record will cover (eg what books, what films, etc.)

Bring interesting arrangements and fresh sounds to the table if necessary

Introducing new/additional talent to the table if required

Patience
Enthusiasm

They can be the middle ground / translator between the musicians/band/artist and the sound engineer(s),  as can speak ‘both languages’

Management stuff (such as budgets, organising studio sessions, etc)

KK in recording studio

 I like to think one of the main roles of the producer is also to help stop the artist get stuck in creative ruts.  People often go on about “fresh ears”,  but in my experience one of the most useful things you can bring to the table is fresh ways of looking at things, so maybe “fresh eyes” would be a better expression?

I guess ‘record production’ is a kind of expertise which is naturally developped and refined through years of experience making records, and collaboration with competent record-makers. 
A few other thoughts on the matter..

Practicing the art of shutting up unless you actually have something interesting to say.  It is surprising how little credence people give this rule.

The opposite of above.  I’ve seen “producers” who simply pander to the artists opinion, who have no opinion of their own.  Having the guts to express what you think is right for the record,  not populist cowardice – to do so is not only undemocratic, but is actually a disservice to the artist you are supposed to be helping.

Not everyone works in the same way.  I don’t even work the same way on a new project to how I have done before.  Sometimes I’m quite ‘hands on’ and other times I take more of a back seat.  For me the process has become largely instinctive, even though the situations I find myself in are never the same.  The two big producers I learned from when I was in a kind of ‘understudy’ phase were Brian Eno and Steven Street,  and their approaches couldn’t really be more different, yet they both got great results.

On the other end of the scale, there’s PopWorld, which I spent a few fun years in,  mostly as a ‘programmer’ (a kind of junior producer), with big ‘hit’ producer/writers such as Rick Nowels, Cathy Dennis.  These sessions were like Pop masterclasses. I love great pop music. I still do. When its great.  I’m not embarrassed by this.

On the subject of genre isn’t it a bit patronising and erroneous this assumption that the modern musician, or music fan, listens to, or creates, in one ‘genre’ or way?.  It’s a bit backward to label people or indeed music like this. 

I like examples of music in many differing styles in fact,  it depends on what you want from the music I think.  Bjork has a very good way of explaining this one (she has very ‘eclectic’ tastes also, from cheesy pop to very abstract contemporary classical),  “sometimes you want porridge, sometimes you want a cheeseburger”.  Ie you can like both,  you just digest them at different times depending on what you fancy.  I kind of choose projects like this, ie I’m always drawn to something I’ve never done before.

I get countless demos, emails and the like about potential ‘work’,  and for the record I’m (usually) simply not interested.  Most of it is rubbish, or worse, unoriginal.  I have to love the music and see the artists originality to even think about taking on a production.  Then I need to meet them to be sure they will be good to work with.  Life is too short to work with the wrong people, or on crap music.  I used to be less discerning, but these days I really have to think an artist is exceptional for me to take on a project.   The think which usually swings it, is how different (or not) it is.

There’s often a cliché which gets brought up on the subject of record production, which is “the only rule is there are no rules”.   This is certainly true in my experience of it,  and I’m hoping it applies to blogging too, as I’ve just realised I’ve “uber-blogged” again and no doubt bored you to tears with pages of waffle I can’t be bothered to edit.   Now if it were sound not words I’d be editing as we speak….
Editing on Protools.. exciting stuff.

more about KK and his record productions at : www.21stcenturygenius.com