How To Become a Record Producer
What Exactly Does a Record Producer Do?
Record Producer Adam Moseley began his career at the legendary Trident Studios in London, where Lou Reed, Queen, Peter Gabriel, David Bowie, Elton John, Carly Simon and the Beatles recorded some of the most influential albums of all time. Although in today’s climate one often hears the term Producer and thinks of electronic musicians and artists who make hip-hop beats, a Record Producer in the traditional sense has a much more holistic approach, helping to develop the record from the earliest stages of pre-production to its final mix. Moseley describes the many facets of his position by saying, “As a Producer it means getting involved right at the beginning with the songs, working on the song structure, working on the arrangement, working on every note of every part and putting that whole picture together, getting into rehearsals. Pre-production can be done in my loft here with a guitar or piano, just sitting down and playing the song. That’s the best thing: getting the song right at its earliest stage.”
A Record Producer coaches the artist and cultivates the song, suggesting changes to improve the track while in pre-production. “Sometimes it’s song structure, extending the bar after the second chorus, just a couple of beats and letting it hold to suspend the tension, to just hold the listener for a moment they didn’t expect and drop back in it,” he says. “It heightens the dynamic of suspense and the impact of when the chorus comes back in or when you drop back down to the verse. Once the basic parts are worked out, we’ll go to a rehearsal room and try every idea, try every drum fill the drummer wants to come up with, let every musician try what they want. We’ll have the song structure written down, and if we want to make a quick change to the song structure it takes a few seconds in the rehearsal room and you can do that at $15-$20 an hour.
In pre-production I let the drummer try every fill, then we’ll choose the ones that work. We’ll decide, ‘This fill is great, it definitely should be in but it’s too busy too early, so let’s save it. Let’s build the tension. Let’s keep the fills simple and then maybe after the bridge, coming out of the bridge, that’s where you can do the busy crazy fill.’ It’s all about letting the musicians express themselves while all the time you’re just guiding and filtering. I see the role of the Producer as being the catalyst and being like the mirror image of the band. When they have an idea, to take their idea and throw the next idea back at them and see where I can take them.”
Of course, what’s expected of the Record Producer will depend on the situation. He says, “At times I’ve worked with an artist where the artist has just come in and sung and I’ve put all the arrangements together, all the backing tracks, all the string arrangements, done the whole thing and the artist has just shown up to sing their song. What I prefer to do when I work with the bands is to push them and show them the way to go to do something that they didn’t even know they’re capable of, or they didn’t have that idea, to throw the next idea at them and see what comes back. It’s about making music and making something unique and special. If I’m going to be involved and to help the band, it’s about helping the band achieve something better than they would achieve on their own, without a Producer.
Once we’re in the studio it’s about capturing the moment and then after the basic tracks it’s down to doing the overdubs, additional instruments–maybe additional guitars, lead vocals, maybe some backing vocals or keyboards or extra touches here or there. But it’s always about keeping the vision or keeping the concept. The most important thing is having the concept very clear. From the first time an artist sits down with me and plays the song on the guitar or piano I have a concept for the song. I have a shape, a mood and colors, and positions.
Sometimes if I need to, I’ll do some extra programming on a song, some beats or whatever or I’ll add a little guitar part or synth part,” he adds.
Before Moseley got his first studio job, he was at Law School, then he “was a driver for my uncle in the fashion business for six months, writing letters to studios, trying to get into a studio because back then there were so many studios. Now nearly all of those opportunities have disappeared. Those studios don’t exist anymore because the business changed and there wasn’t the money being made and people couldn’t afford to spend that kind of money in studios just because the return on the record wasn’t going to give you enough profit.”
His entry into production came through roundabout means. Moseley says, “I must have written to maybe sixty or eighty studios, maybe it was even a hundred letters. I got one response. And it was for an interview at Trident. I got hired as a Chef and a Builder because I’d worked at construction sites and they were enlarging the control room to bring in a new trident A-range series, a desk. So that’s how I got into a studio. I worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, 9am-3am, for three months, not knowing if I’d get hired after the initial construction work.”
He started from the bottom, as most Record Producers and Recording Engineers do. After the construction period was over, he says, “I was promoted to what was known as a Tea-Boy. It’s like a Runner. I worked through that, then became a Tape Operator–like an Assistant, but you’re just running the multi-track all day. Then [I was] learning from these absolute legends that had come before me who made the Bowie albums or the Beatles albums, learning by osmosis and listening and watching, trying to figure out what was going on. An Engineer [would] tell me, ‘Put this mic on this guitar cabinet’ and then ‘put a different mic somewhere else’ and I was listening to the different microphones and training my ear as to why this one worked and why that one worked, [learning] what happened with a different mic in a different position. It created a different sound and a different mood and captured a different emotion.” His career path took him “from being the Assistant to engineering with the Engineer, then becoming an Engineer and working with bands. If I had ideas they liked, they’d ask me to co-produce or produce, so it was a very natural kind of organic progression.”
For most Record Producers, the process of advancement is somewhat similar. As a Producer, advancement can come in the form of opening one’s own recording studio or working with more well-known clients. However, with less recording studios and an increasing number of aspiring Record Producers with degrees in recording technology and audio production, it’s much more difficult to even get in as a Runner. Some Producers bypass the traditional climb to success by working out of their own home studio.
“I think that’s the hardest challenge for aspiring Producers and Engineers,” says Moseley. “How do they get their break? It’s much harder for someone even if they go to audio recording school. They can do a two-year certificate and come out knowing audio theory probably more than I do but they won’t have their ear trained in the way my ear is trained, to know exactly which mic and in which position and which compressor and how I’m going to set everything up. They have to find people to work with and learn in that way. I’ve always had studios and I’ve always brought people through. I’ve always taken teams of people and educated them. I loved when people came for an interview to try and see if there was an opening; I wouldn’t care too much if they had a certificate or not. If they were the right kind of person who I knew could handle the pressure and if I knew they had the right kind of personality to fit in with bands, to anticipate and also be invisible when they needed to and also give a bit of feedback when they were asked and not give feedback when they weren’t asked. If they were the right kind of personality I would hire them because I can teach them the right stuff. I can teach you everything else about the console and why I do this and why I use a certain thing or a microphone or a compressor. I can teach [them, but they have] to be the right kind of person who can also be in a room with the band fourteen to sixteen hours a day or more, keep their head and anticipate what’s going on, fit in and be the right kind of person.”
Education & Training
Although many skills can and need to be taught on the job within the studio environment, training yourself or attending a program that can teach you the basics is important. “I think going to a school helps,” Moseley says, “because if someone wants to be an Apprentice or Intern to me now I haven’t got the time to teach anyone how to use Pro Tools. If someone’s going to assist me they need to know that inside and out.
If you can’t afford to go to a school, teach yourself. There are so many clips on YouTube. Even me, when I’m working in Ableton Live, which isn’t my prime tool, if suddenly I want to do something in Ableton and I don’t know how to do it, I can find a YouTube clip for a certain topic and normally within a couple minutes, I’ve got my answer and I can just quit YouTube and be creative again. So you can teach yourself if you can’t afford to go to school. The most important thing is to train your ear and your instincts. One of the best educations I had was being trained by great Producers, Engineers, and artists, by watching, listening and learning. They never turned around and said ‘I’m doing this because of this’ and ‘I want to achieve this here with this artist.’ There was never any time for that. An Assistant or Intern is going to come in and sit with someone who’s already under pressure with the schedule and the budget and they’re just going to turn around and say, ‘Do this. Do that. I need this done. I need that.’ They don’t want to know you can’t do it. If something comes up during the day that you don’t know, make sure during the night that, even if you’ve got hardly any hours of sleep, you go home and learn so you’ll never be caught out again on the same thing. If the person you’re assisting or interning for sees that you went home and fixed that and learned it then, they’ll give you more options. They’ll say, ‘Ok, they didn’t know that was coming. Not everyone can know everything, but this person went and they learned and now they know how to do that simple function.’ So that’s the thing; to be on top of your game and never make the same mistake twice. In my day, making a mistake once would be the end of your career.”
What skills do you need to be a Record Producer?
Obviously, studio experience is essential for an aspiring Record Producer, but so are good instincts, the ability to nurture creativity, to express ideas with confidence, and to conceptualize and accomplish what you want to make happen within the song. Moseley says, “From the very first time I hear a song I have a very clearly defined idea of how the song should sound, of what its shape will be. I can visualize the song. I can draw the shapes of the instruments, and their perspectives, whether they’re out front or set back or wide or high in the mix. I have a concept right from the beginning so I know where I’m going to go with it, but what I want to do is get the band to explore and try their ideas.
I did a talk recently for Ableton and someone asked me in the audience how do you know when a mix is done (when a song is finished)? About twelve people laughed. Under their breath they’re all going, ‘ Oh you never know, you never know.’ I said, ‘How do you know when you get in the car that you’ve arrived at where you were going? Do you drive aimlessly for two hours and suddenly pull up at Ralph’s and think, ‘Oh I guess I was going to buy groceries?’
You get in the car and you start a journey normally with an idea of where you’re going. Same with a song. You have a concept and you visualize the end result. You’re really in touch with what the band wants and the song needs and you eliminate the things that won’t work and focus on what are the strengths of the songs. What are the integral components? What do we have to achieve with the song? What is the mood? What is the emotional impact that we have to find? Is it to make people want to go out and fight or go out and dance all night or sit in a corner and cry or fall in love? Whatever it is, if that’s your purpose with the song, then achieve it. Then it’s about putting the pieces together, the tracking, the overdubs. Then I sit down to mix the song and I’ll often spend days on a mix just to really get it, to play every instrument, to get every moment as special as it can be because there’s already a reason why every single note is there and why it’s played at the moment that it is and why the note sounds like it is in relationship with the other instruments and the whole sonic picture. Again it’s just to get the absolute full achievement of the concept from the very beginning, and the purpose of the song—to represent that and hopefully to capture that. So that when someone listens to it they just get it. As a Producer it’s like being a Film Director, having the concept of what you want to achieve from the performance of the song and its dynamic and emotion and making sure you get your artists to the absolute best they can in that moment.”
Of building confidence, Moseley says, “When I first began co-producing and became a Producer one of the scariest things was the band saying ‘What should we do now?’ and having the confidence to voice my idea. Luckily what I realized I’d been doing through all those years [of listening to music] was training my instincts. Trying to absorb and educate yourself as much as you can and building this kind of [musical] library and educating your instincts, then starting to try new ideas. As long as you’re in touch with the song and you have a clear vision of the concept of where the song should go, hopefully, you have an idea and it’s instinctive and based on an emotional response to the artist, the music or the song.
If I was being truthful and honest and in touch with the song generally the idea I would come up with would be relevant and advance the song. Then if the band liked it, that would breed the confidence of having more ideas, while always remembering that I have to be absolutely centered, in touch with the song and the artist, and in the moment. As long as I’m in that place, most of the ideas I’m going to have are going to work or they’re going to trigger the next idea.”
As has been mentioned above, personality can trump skills when it comes to who artists, Recording Engineers, and other Record Producers want to work alongside. Moseley describes the key personality traits for an aspiring Producer as confidence, “patience, absolute determination, and respect for the people you’re working with. At the beginning I was very quiet, when I got into the studios as a Chef and Builder and the console arrived, I was one of the twelve people who carried the console frame in. They started putting the modules in the desk and I started thinking, ‘What have I done?’ I thought, ‘I will never understand how any of this works. I should have stayed in law school. I screwed up. I will never get to know how this works.’ I’m not a technical person, but I just discovered a love for sound and for the process of making music and I just knew I had to be there in this environment. It was a very tough time. I was at Trident for four years; very few people survived that long. It was a tough process, a lot of people burned out. I saw two or three people break down as soon as they became an Engineer because of all the pressure and the head games by Rock Stars. So you’ve got to have a real sense of focus. You’ve got to have the ability to read people and also know when to adapt, when to step up and be strong and when to step back and be invisible.”
The ability to communicate and relate to everyone on the team is also important. He says, “I must have worked with 200 different Producers and Engineers. I think there are only five out of all the Producers I worked with who had such a complete awareness of sound and how to relate their concept to get the Engineer to make the changes they wanted in terms of frequencies, to add a frequency or subtract a frequency. The Producer must know how to relate to an artist, how to get a performance out of an artist, how to keep the artist on track, how to keep an artist from drinking or doing too much stuff or when to allow the artist to have a smoke or something because that’s where they need the artist to be, in that kind of headspace. [They must know] how to talk to every person on the team, including the Runner, and build a team where everyone feels that they belong and have a role and works with each other. In making music it doesn’t matter how high or how low you are in the supposed ranking. Every time I’ve worked on a record it’s about building a team and getting the best out of everyone, having discipline, making sure people are serious and don’t screw up, but also giving respect where it’s due. If the Runner is doing a good job then let them know, because if they’re doing a great job then the session will run smoother because your musicians aren’t bitching that they wanted a cup of tea a half an hour ago or they wanted a soda and it’s still not here. If the Runner is absolutely on it, if they’re listening every time there’s something going on and they hear ‘Ok, maybe we’re going to take a break in a couple of hours,’ the Runner knows to have the kitchen set up or the lounge or the dining room. So when they take a break they’ll feel great and the Producer’s going to go ‘Wow, this guy’s on it and my session is running smoother’ because the band has just walked to their break, everything is set up and we’re not going to waste time now while someone’s fumbling around trying to tidy up the room and clean up the table. The Producer, client or artist will request that Runner or Assistant for the next time they are in the studio.
You have to be absolutely determined and focused and always on. You read the room. You read the people. Anyone can learn software. Anyone can learn how to operate a board. The difficult thing is being able to operate the board when you’ve got five people in the room all asking for different things at the same time or someone in the band is really messed up or someone is just really pissed off and you’re trying to stay focused and keep your center and keep everything going. Anyone can learn the software; it’s essential. But it’s who you are and your ability to read people and to interact with people” that really matters.
Record Producers generally spend long days and nights in the studio, especially if there’s a deadline to meet. However, with less money from record labels and more bands taking a DIY approach to funding records, the amount of work a Record Producer will get is now dependent on outside budgets. Moseley says his schedule is dictated by the needs of the record, as well as the financial abilities of the artist. “Whoever is paying for the record–whether it’s the band paying themselves because they raised the money on Kickstarter or it’s an indie label or a benefactor or someone who’s putting the money–up when I hear the songs initially I have to sit with the songs and think, ‘What does this song need? Does this song need extra instruments?’ Maybe it might want real strings, a quartet. That means going to a studio. How much is that going to cost? How much can I get my players for? How few hours can I get good results in without wasting the money? How long it takes depends on what’s required,” Moseley says.
He adds, “A lot of the way things have changed now is there is much more freedom. A band may say, ‘We’re making a record, but we can only afford to do a couple songs every three months. So then I’ll map that out and that’s why I’ll have three or four different projects on the go at one time. [However] If I’m doing a record and there’s an absolute set amount of time, that can be six days a week, fourteen hours a day and all that exists is that record and mixing it.”
Landing an entry-level position as a Record Producer can be difficult. As Moseley mentioned, the best route is to find someone who will take you on as an Intern or Apprentice—even if it means writing a hundred letters till you find someone. Of course, many production degree programs have an intern component, but what separates those who simply serve out their internship and disappear from those who are hired? Moseley advises, “If you’re working with someone, often the person you’re working for is doing everything on their own and it might be hours that you’re just sitting there waiting. Don’t go on Facebook. Don’t go on the Internet. Watch and learn. Even if you’re not [involved] in the process, watch what they’re doing. Learn their method so you know how they go about things because at any second they may turn around to you and go ‘I’m going to the toilet. Can you jump in and tidy up, do the crossfades, consolidate the files and do a bounce or export?’
Make sure you constantly save the session and back everything up in a new playlist. And if you’re suddenly like ‘Sorry, I was messaging with a friend’ for me you’re gone. So always be in the moment, even if you’re sitting there and assisting for hours. See what the person is doing. If you’re in a studio or someone’s home setup and they’re working with an artist and they say they’re going to do the guitars in a bit and then take a break, set up the guitars so when they come back and tell you ‘I think we’re going to do guitars now,’ you can say ‘Everything’s set up as it was the other day.’ You’ve anticipated and stayed in the moment and that’s how you’ll keep your job and move up. That’s how you’ll get called again. That’s how people will know you’re of value and they can trust you and they’re not having to stop and say, ‘Excuse me, if you could leave Facebook alone for a minute, I wouldn’t mind if you could put some microphones up for me.’
There’s nothing worse than having to stop what you’re doing and teach someone something when you’re under pressure to do something as the Producer or the Engineer or the Programmer or Composer or whatever. You’re trying to be in the creative moment. You’re trying to stay in this place of your creative connection with the song and you don’t want to be distracted. You don’t want to be pulled out of that moment. So if anyone’s going to be with you, they’d better be able to slip in without you having to break. You might just have to leave the room and clear your head for a minute and you’ll give the Intern or Assistant some tasks to do and they’ve got to be exactly in the same moment that you were, in the same step, even if they’ve been sitting there for six hours with nothing to do. If it’s not of interest to them then they shouldn’t be there. And that’s how you will get further. Intense situations do happen. Some Interns do just get used for their initial trial period–a few weeks, a few months—or for their certification. Others will get hired. That’s the difference for those who do get hired.”
How Much Does a Record Producer make?
“Generally it’s per project,” Moseley says in regards to payment. “In my mind, I work out a budget of how long is this going to take. If I’m mixing a record and its very simple, a Singer-Songwriter [with an] acoustic guitar, very few tracks and very little instrumentation, then I can charge less. If I’m getting a band that has a hundred tracks of overdubs or a hundred piece orchestra or a thirty piece choir, I know those mixes are going to take me three or four days,” and will accordingly bring in more income.
“Again, the whole structure has changed. It used to be a set rate,” Moseley says. “Now it’s much more fluid.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
Moseley is a big proponent of online self-education. He says, “All the information is out there on the Internet. You can watch videos, documentaries, tutorials of how to use compressors, and great Producers and Engineers that are active. Pensado’s Place [and the associated Facebook group] is a fantastic resource and another great resource is Pro Audio Files. It has articles every single day on a specific topic.
If it’s something that you want to do, you can find the information and teach yourself. If you don’t understand how a compressor works, look it up. Write it down. If you want to see why a certain Engineer uses a certain compressor you can probably find a three or five-minute clip of them on why or how it works and you can educate yourself and your ear. Then try it with your plugins. The good ones are incredibly accurate so you can train your ear with a plugin. Put an instrument through compressors and just see how the sound of the instrument is different, see how each compressor changes the sound before it’s even compressing. Because each compressor has different components and electronics, a different character, reacts in a different way. Train your ear. You can do that at home. Put your bass track on and just open different plugins and see how they sound different. Read up to see what people use and used to use. It’s pretty easy to find the info.”
- “Listen to music. Listen and absorb it and analyze it. In my UCLA Extension course, I do an exercise. The whole thing about creating music is hoping to create an emotion and it’s through the lyrics, the sounds of the notes and the combination of all of it, whether it’s a dreamy sound or a very aggressive sound. The minute the music starts, the sound of it gives you an emotion. It washes over you or it pumps you up and makes you happy. Or it makes you sad or melancholy. In the course I have students choose a song that they absolutely love because it creates a certain kind of emotion and have them examine the song, to get past the vocal and the lyrics and actually listen to the sounds of the notes and try to find out what is it in the sound of the song that also makes them feel a certain way. Is it that the drum kick is very aggressive or a certain kind of snare? That kind of training is how I learned. By listening to music and just loving it and analyzing the parts, seeing how this artist or this band put their music together. It’s training your instincts, training your ear training your responses. Listen to music and pay for it.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“If you can get to assist someone, there’s nothing better than that. That’s basically how I learned all the machinations of how everything worked. If you can intern for a studio you may meet a client who’s coming in [and] who sees that you get it, that you’re reliable. It might be three months down the road that this client’s making a record and they need an Assistant, so try and get the opportunity, get your foot in the door. Every second of every moment have your head in the game because you never know where that opportunity is going to come from.
People will remember you if you’re lousy and if you screw up the session or make a mistake. But if you’re always on it–then even if that Producer or artist who was in the session might not have an opportunity, someone might call them and say ‘I need an Intern. I’m on a film’ or ‘I’m doing a record and I need an Assistant, can you suggest someone?’ and they’ll be like ‘Yeah! When I was at this place there was this guy or girl that was really on top of their game.’ I’ve done that loads of times. So always be on top of your game and try and get as many opportunities as you can for exposure to be in a place where people can see how good you are.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Not being in the moment, zoning out. Not realizing the importance of where they are and not realizing that any moment can be a make-or-break moment.
Someone else not being in the moment, not being reliable, screwing up on something because they weren’t paying attention or [they] made the same mistake twice–that is your opportunity [to step up]. So make sure it isn’t you who makes the same mistake twice or screws up, who isn’t in the moment or doesn’t anticipate what’s next [when] you’re on a session or you’re assisting someone.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“I think a lot of it is covered. Be open. Be open to other people’s ideas. When I first started I was very nervous about my own ideas. If someone didn’t like my idea, it would throw me and I’d have my confidence shattered. I’d be nervous to come up with my next idea until I learned that it’s ok; it’s an exchange of ideas. Not every idea you come up with [while working] with an artist has to be the final idea as long as it leads to another idea or leads to a reaction. Or the artist says, ‘Well, that’s crap.’ Then you say, ‘Well, what would you do?’
See what they would do. Then there’s still a purpose in you having had that idea they didn’t like because you pushed them to that next idea that maybe works. So one of the most important things is just educating your instincts through trial and error. There’s no rule book–otherwise, everyone would be having a hit record all the time.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“I think you’ve covered it. The one thing is (again) about educating yourselves. With my students, I tell them to go on the Internet. I give them a lot of YouTube clips to watch. Watch Butch Vig talking about producing Nirvana. Do your research. If music’s what you want to do, you want to be an Engineer or Producer or artist, then educate yourself by listening and trying to figure out how music works. Listen to Nirvana or Madonna or whatever kind of music touches you; find out why it touches you. Listen to the parts. Listen to the sounds. Educate your ears and your heart and its emotional response to music.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“My ability to work in different genres of music. Some Producers work in one genre and they’re great at it; they have one process because they found a formula that works. Why people come to me and why I’m successful is I think I’m able to start over completely with each artist, absorb what they’re about and find out what I need to bring. To really push them in a gentle way, but to help them dig deep and bring the very best out of them that I can, and also to really just have a very clear concept and discuss that with them beforehand, [including] how I think the song should sound, how I see them as an artist, where I think the song should go. Then the process of making the music is normally really simple and straightforward and has a real energetic flow because I do so much preparation and put a lot of care and understanding into who the artist is and just really describing where I think it should go. Did I manage that in one word?”
Record Producer, Recording Engineer and Mixer Adam Moseley began his career at the legendary Trident Studios in London. He moved to Los Angeles in 1996, eventually taking charge of the Dust Brothers’ Boat Studios in the Silver Lake neighborhood. Over the course of his career he has worked with such luminaries as U2, Lenny Kravitz, Spike Jonze, Wolfmother, Nikka Costa, Roxette, Maxi Priest, Richard Marx, The Cure, Kiss, Visage, Rush, Beck, Baaba Maal, Branford Marsalis, Talvin Singh, Earth Wind and Fire, Hoagy Carmichael, Ben Harper and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to name just a few. He teaches production through UCLA Extension and Recording Connection. You can get more of Adam on his episode of Pensado’s Place.