What Does a Music Producer Do?
When I was coming up, it seemed to me that nearly everyone was a guitarist or a drummer. At least that’s what they said.
And, if they ever got paid even a little bit for performing or they ever visited a recording studio session, they called themselves professional musicians or studio musicians. But, if all it took was owning an old Stratocaster or a pair of Regal Tip sticks the music business would be in even worse shape than it is presently. Today, the words I often hear misused are Artist and Producer. Indeed, the phrase, “I’m a Producer,” falls all too easily from the lips of anyone who owns Garage Band or has downloaded a “beat.” In truth, just as it takes hours of woodshedding to become a professional guitarist, drummer, or singer, it takes a whole lot more than simply owning a piece of recording equipment to be a Record Producer.
So, what is it that Producers do? What does it take to develop a career as a solid, working, professional Producer? And, do today’s Recording Artists even need a Producer?
In this article, we’ll explore what Music Producers need to do, including:
- Improve songs
- Fix musical imperfections
- Deep listening and reverse engineering
- Guide artists in hiring studio personnel
- Navigate publishing, promotion, and distribution
- Manage studio business and budget
The Need for Producers in the D.I.Y. Industry
I heard recently the studio demonstration recording of George Harrison’s “Something”. It is wonderful! It is also out of meter in some few spots, out of tune (the guitar is close, but not in tune with the piano), and the groove that Mr. Harrison creates on the guitar is, well—let’s just say, not very groovy. (OK, Beatles fans, my e-mail is at the end of this article. Give me what you got!)
There are, of course, many truly remarkable things baked into the structure of the song. Among them are: the song’s melody; Mr. Harrison’s tremendously powerful, yet extremely subtle, singing; and several instrumental hooks, like the now-iconic instrumental melody in the introduction, and the instrumental lick between the lines, “I don’t know” and “You stick around now it may show.” But, despite all its essential goodness, it is difficult for me, a true mega-Beatles fan, to imagine the song in this demonstration production form becoming a chart-topper in 1969 or at any other time. I think we love this demo recording today out of feelings of reverence and nostalgia for this lost musical lion, gone too quickly from our lives.
The song had very good bones. Beatles Producer George Martin heard that it did and he certainly recognized the heartfelt beauty of Mr. Harrison’s singing. He recognized what was great about the song, used those things, fixed what needed fixing, and added some of himself in the way of orchestration, quality control, coaching, and general record production polish.
Producers Have Big Ears…And They Know How to Use Them
Good Producers can hear a great song in its most basic form and audiate the finished product: that is, they hear it in their head. Successful Music Producers are idea people who can recognize what is inherently good about a piece of music, imagine how it could be made better (what can be left out, what needs repair), and what they can add to it.
It is, of course, impossible to say what would have happened to this Beatles song (or any of the rest of them), if the Beatles were not assigned an experienced and skilled Record Producer like George Martin. But, I will argue that the Beatles’ basic material was made spectacular as a result of the production work of Sir George.
Hearing Musical Imperfections and Knowing How to Fix Them
Producers need to have a Conductor’s ability to hear precise tuning and accurate timing. Like Conductors, Producers need to shape performances to fulfill their vision. And, like Project Managers and people managers in other fields, Producers need to have refined people skills. Producers need to be able to gently nudge musical artists to make subtle changes in their performance, all in the service of their vision for the recording.
One of the most important things a Producer does is what I call, deep listening. A deep listener is someone who analyzes hit records in an effort to understand what makes them tick. Analyzing successful records, doing what Industrial Engineers call reverse engineering, is an extremely helpful method for learning how one can effectively combine disparate sound elements. Deep listening and reverse engineering are skills that good Producers use all the time and throughout their entire career.
Learning to play an instrument at an advanced level will not only help establish your credibility amongst the studio professionals, but it will also help you refine your sense of tuning, timing, and phrasing.
Just Like Real Life, but Better!
The English film Producer and Director, Alfred Hitchcock, reportedly once said, “Drama is just like real life, but with all the boring parts cut out.” For me, professional recordings are like that: great records are idealized versions of songs and performances.
Our do-it-yourself record business taunts us into believing that we can do everything ourselves. Maybe we can, but maybe we are much better served when we seek guidance from a more experienced person who can guide us through the record-making jungle.
Producers Know Stuff
Listeners will hear different things in your songs and recordings than you do. This is especially true of experienced Producers. With hundreds of hours logged in a studio and successful records to their credit, good professional Producers can identify what’s good and what needs refinement. A Producer can help a writer polish her songs before they record them. An experienced Producer can guide an aspiring artist/writer in the selection process when hiring musicians, studio and Engineers. Then, on the back end of a recording project, a good Producer can help navigate the parallel universes of the publishing business, record promotion, and distribution.
Producers Do Stuff
Crafting a polished version of a song and capturing an ideal performance of a musical artist are the central responsibilities of a Record Producer. The ability to accomplish these tasks is facilitated through the Producer’s thorough knowledge of the genre in which he or she is working. A skilled Producer will have a good working knowledge of landmark recordings and current hits in more than one style but often will specialize in one or two.
Producers need to know which studio and what collection of studio professionals are the best to call on to be able to craft the recording as he hears it in his head. Producers need a good working knowledge of recording studio gear and techniques. Finally, it is very important for a Producer to have at least a basic understanding of business, money and personnel management. This is because Producers are often music entrepreneurs. In many productions, the Record Producer will not only manage her own business but will also be the key person accountable for managing how the recording budget is invested.
Getting Started as a Record Producer
Record Producers often learn their craft on the job as Studio Musicians, Musical Arrangers, or Recording Engineers. Working “in the trenches” is a time-tested method for learning the production trade and is akin to learning how to become a Carpenter or Classroom Teacher. Even though many universities and conservatories today offer courses in studio production, most aspiring Record Producers will find it useful and even necessary to supplement their classroom studies with real-world, in-studio experience. Learning by observing and assisting recording professionals as they work is probably the best training for an aspiring Producer. Working in a professional studio, even as the assistant to the Assistant Third Engineer will provide the aspiring Producer with real-world experience about how music business professionals work. It will also help the fledgling Producer make important musician contacts and, assuming he or she does good work, it will help him or her build a reputation as a trusted music industry professional.
Gee, I Hope They Choose Me…
As is the case in many areas of professional music, getting your first gig as a Producer might be the happy coincidence of having the skills, ambition, and the good luck to have somehow who thinks they need a Producer think you’re the person they need.
After you have gained some of the skills I’ve listed here, and if you think you have the right stuff to become a Record Producer, do not discount the possibility of investing in yourself. Find a special song you truly believe in or find a singer or band you think has something special. Then, find a way to get into a professional recording studio so you can work alongside a professional Recording Engineer. This will take pulling together a budget or perhaps trading services for studio time. Any way you do it, people will notice your work and your ambition. Belief in one’s self is, of course, of paramount importance. Your self-confidence will certainly be bolstered as you gain the skills and experience outlined in this article.