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Are you considering a career as a Music Producer?

Top Music Producers are always in strong demand, and becoming a Music Producer is within reach for most music students who apply themselves to learning the skills needed to succeed in such a demanding and rewarding career. Besides music skills, technical ability, and business acumen, successful Music Producers need the sensitivity to work in collaboration with artists to produce iconic music that fulfills the artistic vision and that expresses who the artist really is. This is truly an art and a science.

In this post, I’ll explain what music production is and what some different types of Music Producers do, the equipment needed, the various stages of music production, and how you can learn music production. I’ll also point you to some resources for studying to be a Music Producer and we’ll hear from an expert in music production, President/CEO of the Recording Academy and Grammy-winning Producer/Songwriter Harvey Mason jr.

What Is Music Production?

A Music Producer is the artistic, creative, and technical leader of a recording project. (There are also Live Music Show and Concert Producers, but for our purposes here we are focusing on creating recordings.) The Producer is the Project Manager who oversees the entire process from choosing or writing the songs, determining the arrangement and the sound, and coaching the artists to deliver their best performances.

Producers may also take a role in the technical aspect of recording, as well as being involved with decisions around promotional strategy.

Different Types of Producers

Some artists are self-produced, but most will engage with and rely on the services of an experienced Producer. The Producer in music is sometimes compared to the Director of a film. An Executive Producer might finance a recording, but most Producers are hands-on when it comes to shaping the recording through all the phases of production.

There’s a wide variety of Music Producers, ranging from those creating beats or loops, to others making albums in a studio or recording their own work in their bedroom. Producers often end up wearing many hats. Whether specialists or generalists, Music Producers play an integral music industry role in bringing music to the people.

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How to Become a Music Producer

It’s a long road from those early-career moments when you’re just discovering your passion for audio production to becoming a Grammy winner. But we’ve all got to start somewhere.

Harvey Mason jr. is a Grammy-nominated Record Producer and the newly appointed President/CEO of the Recording Academy. He has written and produced songs for industry legends Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Elton John, as well as for some of today’s hottest acts like Justin Bieber, Beyonce, John Legend, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown.

A sampling of his production and songwriting credits in film and TV music includes Jesus Christ Superstar Live!, Sing, The Wiz Live!, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Shrek, Straight Outta Compton, all three Pitch Perfect films, Dreamgirls, Get On Up, and Over the Moon.

We were lucky enough to ask Harvey Mason jr. a few questions about getting started as a Producer. Here’s what he had to say.

What skills do you need to be a Music Producer?

Harvey Mason jr. (Beyonce, John Legend, Ariana Grande)

You need to know music and hopefully play an instrument. You definitely should have an understanding of what different instruments can do and what they sound like. What mood or vibe do certain instruments or sounds evoke.

Having people skills is also a very important part of being a Producer. You need to be able to recognize what makes people tick and how to get the very best performance out of them. Finally, a great Producer must have good taste in music as well as knowledge of contemporary music and the history of great songs and productions.


How can a beginner start a career in music production?

Harvey Mason jr. (Beyonce, John Legend, Ariana Grande)

A beginner can start by listening to a ton of music and then sit down and figure out what went into making it. How and why does it sound the way that it does? Next, I would encourage beginners to start trying to emulate your favorite songs until you figure out what you can do all on your own…what’s your style/sound as a Producer? It takes thousands of hours of practice and many songs before you land on your first great production.


Is a music production degree worth it?

Harvey Mason jr. (Beyonce, John Legend, Ariana Grande)

It really depends where it’s from and where you are in your progression as a Producer. It’s really about learning how to get what’s in your head out of the speakers. Regardless, it really is a craft you have to work hard to master.

What Equipment Will You Need for Music Production?

Many top Music Producers have access to fully-equipped recording studios where they can record live bands or orchestras, and may oversee a sizable production team including Engineers, Arrangers, Line Producers, and Assistants. They must be adept at planning and handling the many small details of large projects, along with budgets and project timelines. Others work solo out of their own studio or a home studio.

If you are getting your start by producing music at home on your own, you will need a computer and a Digital-Audio Workstation, typically called a DAW for short.

Here are some of the most important components of a home studio:

Computer

Apple Macintosh is the best choice for computer because of the operating system (OS), which is ideal for music and media production. Plus, the Mac OS is more intuitive than a Windows system, and you won’t have to deal with endless system updates and driver installations. Either an iMac or a MacBook is fine; get a recent model with at least 16 GB of memory.

Check out our article on The Best Computers for Music Production!

Recording Software

Popular choices are GarageBand, Logic Pro X, Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Cubase Pro, FL Studio, and Reason. GarageBand comes free with the Apple computer, so it is a good place to start. Logic Pro X is considered the big brother of Garage Band, so you can easily upgrade to that when you are ready. The software is the brain of the DAW.

Check out our articles on the Best DAWs and the Best Free DAWs!

Headphones

These should be specifically designed for audio production; they are also called reference headphones. Some of the better brands are AKG, Audio Technica, and Beyer Dynamic. Avoid popular consumer and fashion headphone brands as they aren’t designed for Music Producers.

Check out our article on the Best Studio Headphones!

MIDI controller

A MIDI controller device allows you to manipulate and modify the sounds from the virtual instruments that come with your DAW software. (MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and is the universal standard for how computers and digital musical instruments communicate with each other.) MIDI controllers come in different forms such as a keyboard, or a pad controller, and allow you to add and edit notes or chords, or manipulate parameters to modify sounds.

Check out our articles on the Best MIDI Controllers and the Best MIDI Keyboard Controllers!

Audio Interface

The audio interface is an external device that connects to your computer via USB or thunderbolt. A USB interface is a good choice, since the USB protocol won’t be discontinued and is a universal connection type. If you are using loops, beats, samples, and MIDI sequences (as opposed to recording audio), Apple’s built-in audio interface will work fine. Almost all of today’s popular music uses loops, samples, and sequences.

Check out our article on the Best Audio Interfaces!

Microphone

There are many types, brands, and models of microphones to choose from, but an inexpensive large-diaphragm condenser microphone is a preferred choice to start. This will capture sound in great detail, whether it’s voice or an acoustic instrument. You will also need a boom stand, XLR cable, and a pop filter with your microphone; these accessories can add significantly to the cost but your microphone can’t function without them.

Check out our articles on the Best USB Microphones and Budget-Friendly Microphones!

Studio Monitor Speakers

Studio monitors or reference monitors connect to the audio interface and let you hear exactly what is happening in the production. They are supposed to be flat, meaning they don’t color the sound in any way. Studio monitors are more transparent compared to hi-fi speakers.

Check out our articles on the Best Studio Monitors!

Room Acoustics

You should consider the acoustics in the room where you set up your DAW. Most spaces require some acoustical treatments such as carpets or other absorbent materials like foam on the walls, so that frequencies don’t reverberate, cluttering the sound and making it difficult to adjust and match the volume of different instruments in the mix.

Pro Tip: You will not need to buy a dedicated mixer, since the audio interface and DAW software provide all the functions of an audio mixer that a home studio needs. Using an external mixer can actually degrade the quality of your recordings.

Check out our article on Acoustic Treatments!

How Much Does a Home Studio Cost?

When it comes to cost, the sky’s the limit, but it’s possible to put together a basic package for a home studio for less than $700.00 (not including the computer). An upgraded package might cost twice that. The equipment has improved greatly over the last few years and prices are lower, meaning you can get a lot more bang for your buck than previously.

Now, let’s turn to what a Producer actually does, and examine the audio production process more closely.

The Stages of Music Production

There are probably as many different stages of production as there are people doing it, but for the sake of simplicity and our discussion I’ve broken it down into the following steps: Pre-production, Production, and Post-production.

Pre-production

Starts with conception.

Songwriting and composition

When starting a project, there is almost always a song, a composition, or various cues (e.g. for Film Composers) that the Producer starts with. Sometimes, the Producer might also be the Songwriter or Composer, but regardless, most projects start with a song or a composition. Producers have the ability to imagine the finished product and how it will sound. The Producer might be working in a specific genre, or have reference tracks to describe the particular “vibe” they are looking for.

There may be other components related to what will be recorded on the track, such as beats, loops, or sequences, but in essence, production is always about bringing a song or a composition to life. At this stage, the Producer starts to map out the process for completing the recording project.

Pro Tip: It’s important to take the legal ownership of the song or composition into account when choosing music to record. If the song is a cover and intended for release, permission from the song copyright owner must be secured in advance.

Arranging

Next, the Producer will consider the instrumentation for the track, and if using live musicians, decide who will be performing on it. Arranging a piece of music means adapting it to a certain setting, and involves many decisions about the form, the key, the length, and the style of the piece. There are times where a Producer might create an arrangement on the fly, and other times there may be a written arrangement already chosen in advance.

Some of the greatest songs in history were greatly enhanced by having a new and different arrangement, and the arrangement is a very important aspect of any musical production to which the Producer pays close attention.

Setting and process

There are many more decisions to make during the pre-production process. For example, choosing a studio, the budget, the timeline for production, an Engineer, scheduling rehearsals, deciding which tracking method to use (software, DAW), transportation of musicians and instruments, catering, and so on. Producers working with a label may already have a budget and a pre-determined plan, but in most cases, the Producer is responsible for planning the project fully in collaboration with the artist or other interested parties, such as sponsors, Studio Director, or the Band Manager.

Pro Tip: Pre-production can sometimes take the longest of the three stages of production. Many artists take as much as a year or more in the pre-production stage to make a record, and it always seems to take longer than you think it will.

Production

Where the rubber meets the road.

Recording

This is the heart of the process, and if you’ve paid careful attention to pre-production planning you should be well-prepared to capture the music and sounds you are looking for. The Producer oversees the process from start to finish and makes decisions throughout that determine the direction and outcome of the recording.

Making the recording is the fun part, but can be fraught with frustration when unanticipated problems arise. Usually, the problems are technical in nature, which is why having an experienced Audio Engineer to assist can take away a lot of the stress.

The recording process includes all steps to get the music “on tape” (a holdover term from pre-digital times) and includes basic tracks, layering and doubling tracks, editing, and most of the overdubs.

Editing

Things sometimes don’t go as well as planned, and while making the recording it’s important to listen back to your work frequently. Whether working solo or with a group, there will always be small and big things you hear that you want to change or make better. This means going back in and re-recording, or perhaps deleting or muting some tracks so you can better hear what’s wrong and how to fix it.

Sometimes if there’s a wrong note it can be easily fixed with the click of a mouse, but other times you may need to start over from the beginning and re-record an entire track you’ve so painstakingly built. These kinds of decisions are always based on the experience and skill of the Producer and oftentimes made in collaboration with the artist and Engineer.

Pro Tip: It’s a smart idea to record more songs than you actually need, this way you can keep only the best work. When a song doesn’t come out as you intended, you can put it aside and use the ones that came out the way you wanted. If you need 6 tracks for an EP, plan to record at least 10-12 to start.

Overdubs

This is where tracks are overlaid with the basic tracks, for example, lead and backing vocals, doublings, horns or strings, handclaps, and solos.

Post-production

It’s all in the mix.

Mixing

Post-production begins after the tracks are recorded, with mixing, or “the mixdown.” Tailoring the mix requires many decisions, with each one impacting the sound of the final recording. For every note on the recording, the Producer works with the Mixing Engineer to determine the level, timbre (tone), effects, panning, and all parameters of the mix.

People all hear music differently, so it can be challenging to create a mix that most people will like. Sometimes the Producer is also the Engineer and produces the final mix as well.

Pro Tip: Always mix with a set of “fresh ears,” meaning you should not be tired or have listened to the tracks too much on the same day. Sometimes the ears need a rest; generally, it’s impossible to work on a mixing project for more than six hours a day, even with frequent breaks.

Mastering

The finishing stage of the recording, mastering, is usually done by a specialized Mastering Engineer. Mastering requires even more decisions, such as: How much silence should there be between (multiple) tracks on a record? What will be the overall volume and dynamic range? Are some songs louder than others, or are all at the same level?

The Mastering Engineer makes sure that the dynamic range is appropriate (that the songs aren’t too loud or too soft), that all the songs fit onto the disc with a small bit of silence between them (if making a physical copy of the recording), and that all tracks are matched for the levels (volume). It’s not quite as easy as it sounds.

While the original Recording Engineer might mix the work after it’s recorded, it’s crucial that the Mastering Engineer be different from the Mix Engineer, as a fresh set of ears is essential for mastering. The Producer oversees the mixing and mastering process and has input into decisions affecting the sound of the final recording.

Pro Tip: Mastering Engineers usually charge by the song.

Other post-production considerations

Besides mixing and mastering, post-production decisions made by the Producer might include duplication (if there is to be a physical CD), artwork, jacket design, photographs, liner notes, and any promotional strategies for the release.

The final step of producing a recording should always be to listen and enjoy! Producers always try to do better than their previous work, and continually improving your skills in music production is a worthy goal indeed.

How to Learn Music Production

Fortunately, there are many great programs in audio engineering and music production available from the top music schools today. These programs vary in scope and length from taking a single online course to 4-year bachelor’s degrees and even master’s degrees at some universities.

Years ago, most Music Producers either learned on their own or apprenticed with an established Producer, but now students take advantage of the many comprehensive programs offering a wide range of courses taught by accomplished faculty who are leaders in the music industry.

Most college and university programs in music production and audio engineering require students to have a music background and study music, but not all do. Options for music/audio production programs leading to a bachelor of arts in music (B.A.), a bachelor of fine arts (B.F.A.), and of course a bachelor of music (B.M. or B. Mus.) will require playing an instrument and core music studies, while for non-musicians earning a bachelor of science in audio engineering (B.S.), a 2-year associate’s degree (A.A.), or a certificate could be an option.

Many of the music production and audio engineering courses offered online also don’t require students to study an instrument, and a few music schools have even begun accepting the computer as a principal instrument, dubbed the digital musical instrument (DMI).

Upon completion of a certificate, diploma, or degree program, some graduates get their start in the audio production business by interning at a studio, or perhaps with an established Producer. This can lead to terrific opportunities for building the network you will need, continued learning, and also to many professional opportunities.

Being a Music Producer takes a lot of hard work and preparation to gather the skills needed, but will certainly be worth it as it’s a growing field with lots of wonderful career opportunities for the well-prepared.

Producer/Songwriter Harvey Mason jr
Harvey Mason jr.

Harvey Mason jr. has not only penned and produced songs for industry legends like Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Elton John, but also for today’s superstars including Justin Bieber, Beyonce, John Legend, Ariana Grande, Justin Timberlake, and Chris Brown. In addition, he has compiled an impressive list of film and TV music credits including writing/producing the music for Jesus Christ Superstar Live!, Sing, The Wiz Live!, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Shrek, Straight Outta Compton, all three Pitch Perfect films, Dreamgirls, Get On Up, and Over the Moon, to name a few.

Harvey was born in Boston, Massachusetts where his parents attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music. His father, Harvey Mason, Sr., is a noted jazz drummer and founding member of the group Fourplay. Mason jr. grew up in Los Angeles where he tagged along to his father’s recording sessions with the likes of Quincy Jones, Carole King, The Brothers Johnson, and Herbie Hancock. Harvey wrote and placed his first song, “Love Makes It Better” for Grover Washington, Jr. at the age of eight. Besides being a gifted musician, Harvey was also a skilled athlete. After being named a high school All American, he attended the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship and played in the 1988 Final Four with teammates Kenny Lofton, Sean Elliott, and Steve Kerr.

In addition to his work on the music side, Harvey leveraged his experiences in film and TV and expanded his business to include a new content production division. He produced and executive produced his first feature film project, the Lebron James movie More than a Game for Lionsgate. Most recently, Harvey is producing the highly anticipated biopic for MGM, Respect starring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin. With three more projects in development at studios and slated to come in 2021, Harvey has an exciting future in the TV/film space.

Ahead of the curve, Harvey started to expand his company into Asia back in 2012, which included business ventures in both China and Korea. As one of the first western companies into these new “pop music” markets, Harvey has built a reputation as one of the “go to” hit makers. He has worked with top Korean supergroups such as EXO, NCT 127, Girls Generation, and Red Velvet as well as many top Chinese artists such as Jane Zhang and Jackson Yee.

Harvey now also proudly serves as the President and CEO of the Recording Academy. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees for his Alma mater, the University of Arizona. He also serves on the board of the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission. Harvey received the Spirit of Excellence Award in 2012 by the T.J. Martell Foundation for his philanthropic efforts and has served on its board. Harvey donates his time and resources to several charitable organizations including MusicCares Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, the American Cancer Society, and Los Angeles Children’s Hospital.

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