But What Does A Producer Do Exactly...???
Second part in our 'what do they do?' series. This month, what you do with the job.
Last month John Walters looked at the job from a band's point of view. This month he puts your bum in the chair.
A RECORD company has just asked you to produce their latest signing. How do you feel? Last month I looked at the joys and heartaches of being that fresh act and working with a producer for the first time. Now imagine yourself behind the console. What do you want from this project?
Do you want to have fun? You may relish the influx of fresh ideas and enjoy the musical naivety of a novice band. There is usually a wealth of good material: a lifetime's tunes and lyrics bursting to be expressed in the first album. The British media have an insatiable appetite for new acts. There is sometimes a buzz, a general air of collective confidence around a new record company signing that can catapult a debut single into the charts. And maybe you want to be the backroom hero who launches a new band to stardom.
Looking to the future you may hope to establish a successful, long-term relationship with the act. In your 'teacher' role you have a chance to mould the act to your methods of working, allowing more creative freedom than you might have with an established band.
There are a few factors which might discourage you, as a Producer, from diving into a studio with a bunch of Pale and interesting hopefuls. Most Producers will run a mile from a band with weak, inexperienced management; not always better than no management at all. A new band may not command the size of recording budget you need to make a good record.
And their lack of studio technique and experience may be a pain in the neck rather than a stimulating challenge. Confronted with a band that can't play, sing or write songs, you may begin to feel that you're being ripped off!
What do you want, financially and legally, for producing a record? Normal practise is that you agree to produce so many tracks for a lump sum advance against a percentage of sales. In theory, half of this is paid before you start work, and the remainder is paid on delivery of the finished master tapes. The contract will set out the financial details, specify your production credit for labels, sleeves and liner cards etc, accounting periods and rights of audit.
Some companies specify that you render 'the best of your skill and ability' to make a 'first-class artistic, commercial and technical recording'. But of course!
In practise, records of all classes are often mixed and edited before a contract has been sorted out. A measure of trust, mixed with good will and healthy cynicism, comes in handy. And a specialist music business lawyer.
A record producer is most likely to hear of a new band through the A & R person who has signed them. You'll be sent tapes and/or be invited to a gig. At the first meeting, you are in a weird situation. Here you are — a highly-paid, experienced professional person — going for a job interview with a bunch of musos who may never have set foot inside a 24-track studio. They're waiting for pearls of wisdom from the great man but they've got a hunch of clever questions (see last month's piece) to throw at you. You want to make a good impression, but not give too many ideas away too soon. That's what they're supposed to pay you for.
How do you choose who you want to work with? What is a producer looking for in a band? Do you want a quick hit with a 'flavour-of-the-month' act on a long-term relationship with a more substantial artist? Do you want to make a particular kind of music, or do a professional job on whatever comes your way?
Whatever your ideas, you will want to hear good songs — the necessary raw material of great productions. Other criteria will include the quality and character of the lead singer's voice, the rhythm section 'feel', and the confidence with which they perform on their chosen instruments. Is there some originality? Are the band ambitious to succeed? And will they go out and really sell the record when it's pressed and in the shops?
No two producers work in the same way, and most will tailor their methods to suit the act they're producing and the songs. But here are some broad generalisations about the way a producer creates a record.
The choice of songs is an absolutely crucial decision which is often taken too lightly, or in ignorance. Few producers relish the task of producing silk purse records from sow's ear songs.
You may ask the band for more material, or to re-write choruses or verses. You may even bring in some extra writers. A bad song is a waste of expensive studio time.
Routining, or knocking a song into shape, can take many forms: singing through with an acoustic guitar, rehearsing on a sound stage, reprogramming sequencers in someone's bedroom. It's cheap on studio time (though not on the producer's) and is increasingly essential for good record-making.
Recording the backing track is a testing time for the novice band. Standards of musician-ship are higher than ever, and drum machines and computers are unforgivingly accurate. Faced with duff musicians many producers have no hesitation in hiring session guys, or 'plugging in the Linn'. But what if the guys are talented but inexperienced?
Perhaps allowing mistakes and sloppiness on tape might capture the essence of the band's live feel and spirit. Or perhaps it will let the band down by permitting standards to drop.
Recording vocals can be the most rewarding part of making a record. They provide warmth, the human face of a band — to some listeners that's all that matters.
Getting a good vocal performance is much more than getting the singer in tune, in time and using the right words, although all that stuff helps. You're trying to capture a whole personality in one performance.
Everything counts — time of day, studio atmosphere, the sound of his or her voice and any effects or reverb you add to the headphone mix. One new singer may be inhibited by the whole situation and you'll have to draw on vast reserves of patience and tact to get the vocal you want. An inexperienced vocalist may have little power and stamina, or bellow too much. Some classic vocal sounds have been devised by producers and engineers desperately coping with the inadequacies of a novice front-person.
You may have to compile a final part from several good takes or repeatedly drop in one difficult phrase. Or keep the mike set up ready for inspired first takes. A great lead vocal is worth a lot.
Similar criteria apply when recording solos — mood,'vibe' is crucial, but at the very least you have to get something on tape that will stand repeated listening.
The inspiration of a crazy live performance may have to be carefully analysed and re-constituted with effects, mikes, drop-ins and general trickery. Maybe you need to create a little genuine craziness in the studio.
The final mix is the moment of truth. The details have to be perfect but the overall effect must be just right. A good mix can rescue a patchily recorded multitrack from obscurity and a bad mix can obscure a beautifully produced one. Mixing by committee rarely works, yet you may welcome some participation from the act to avoid misunderstandings — or to bring fresh ears to the track.
While lacking the essential zen-like tranquility of watching paint dry, observing a mix take place can be pretty dull stuff for the uninitiated. Some musicians find it difficult not to hear the whole mix in terms of just one element — their own instrument.
This can be the point where your powers of diplomacy are tested to the full. The singer, the drummer, the sackbut soloist and the manager may all want different things from the mix, but you must have the final say. If diplomacy fails — chuck them all out. And what do the record company want? A twelve-inch version and a dozen cassette copies!
Is it worth it? All this hard work and pressure to end up with a credit in tiny print on a label or cassette liner. The act gets all the glory, TV slots and Brian Aris photos. Then they give lavish interviews about how 'naturally' they perform in the studio and how their ambition is to produce themselves. They don't even mention you. Well if you want to be a star I guess you should go out and make your own record. Some of us still do from time to time.
It can be wonderfully liberating to be a producer. You can walk away from bad deals and unhappy situations.
You can also, to some extent, avoid the bullshit. The producer is paid to deliver a finished record. Go on and make another great track!
Feature by John L Walters
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