But What Does A Producer Do Exactly?
Very fair question. A few of the many answers are printed in clear type on page 18. Get down.
John L Walters (who is one) describes the job for those of us who aren't. Next month, what to do if you want to be one.
Now that I earn my living as a producer I have to answer the question I used to ask all the time. Envied, admired, abused and exhausted, the producer is hired to deliver the goods — to give the label a finished master it can release.
He or she (I'm glad to say that women record producers are becoming less of a rarity, but I'll use the male pronoun for the rest of this article) is bang in the middle of the record business, dealing with managers, bands, session musicians, studios and engineers, record companies and songwriters.
Imagine your band has just signed a deal. The A & R manager will want to put you into a studio with a record producer. What do you want from him?
Producers, in my view, operate in five key areas of music making. They offer:
1) Musical direction and arrangement. This can cover anything from knocking a rhythm section groove into shape to writing an entire orchestral score, from programming sequencers to a spoons overdub. Producers (like myself) who began their careers as musicians or arrangers are strong in this area.
2) Technical assistance and recording skills. Producers who trained as engineers are often sought for a particular sound; drums or vocals for example. A talent for mixing is highly prized.
3) The injection of new ideas. The producer's imagination will colour the way he employs sound, structures music and uses the musicians and technicians around him.
4) Inspiration and encouragement. The ability to draw great performances from musicians and singers and provoke ideas and excitement during the recording process.
5) Organisation, leadership and creative decision-making. The producer is the leader of a little team which may include singers, session musicians, engineers, arrangers, or just the band itself. He has to plan, budget, bargain and generally boss people around until the track is finished while remaining the patient diplomat.
There are no rules, no typical record producers. Equally successful and talented guys — my colleagues in the British Record Producers' Guild for example — will dominate in entirely different categories. In which of those areas do your band need help and guidance?
George Martin once modestly described himself as a 'Jack-of-all-trades, master of none'. A producer has to plug the gaps in the band's sound, knowledge and experience — yet know where to leave well alone.
Traditionally, he chooses the material to be recorded. A record producer doesn't really care who wrote which song nor how long it took to learn — he wants to make a great record. And there is the minefield of musical and personal problems that band members often prefer the producer to tread. Does the singer need lessons? Can the guitarist play a better solo, or is that the one? Can the drummer cut it, or is outside help needed? You can use the producer's objectivity to prevent the band beating each other up over such delicate issues. As long as you don't beat him up instead.
Matching a record producer to a recording act can be as fraught, or as fruitful, as arranging a marriage.
There might be personal contacts you can follow up — friends in other bands who know producers or produce records themselves. Ambitious engineers traditionally get their big break into production by helping out new bands.
Check out the production credits on the labels of your favourite records but listen hard! Figure out what the producer has actually done for, or to, the act. Names and numbers can be tracked down from Studio Week and the music business directories.
A & R men have their lists of favourite names: managers and publishers will also offer advice.
Beware the industry tendency to 'typecast'. It militates against the heavy metal producer who really wants to make pop records or the electro buff who's dying to work with strings. And of course sometimes a producer is hired, quite cynically, for no more than the clout his name carries.
So how does the band choose their producer from a shortlist of likely characters? What's he like? This is a guy you'll be spending a lot of time with. Try to see your band and songs through his eyes and find out what kind of record he wants to make. You have to exploit your producer — take advantage of his talents.
The first album is a great opportunity to study the techniques of record making. The band need to become better recording musicians — to understand drop-ins, studio etiquette, the importance of good timing and tuning under the critical microscope of multitrack recording. Many session musicians and producers learnt their craft in this way.
You are also in the role of a teacher. The producer is learning about your musical style. Like a movie director he is a professional decision-maker — a person with opinions. He will have the final say, but the band should make sure he is well briefed. Does he understand your intentions and ambitions and the audience you are trying to reach? Do you respect his commercial and artistic instincts? Here, a breakdown of communication can lead to costly remixes.
The producer is also a useful buffer between the act and record company. He will understand and sympathise with the band's problems and frustrations. He'll also be able to see things from the A & R man's point of view. He can get kicked from both sides, of course, but that's an occupational hazard. A producer is not cheap. He will expect non-returnable advances (anything from a few hundred to several thousand pounds per track) from the record company against a percentage of sales. These 'points', which usually come out of the artist's royalty, are typically 2 or 3%, but may vary between 1 and 5% depending on his fame or how much work you need him to do — he may be a co-producer, or end up playing all the instruments himself. He'll want to book the best studios, engineers and equipment the budget can stand: costs that again will eventually be recouped from the artist's royalties.
So what does the band actually want from this highly paid music business professional with his filofax, funny glasses and cassettes bulging out of his designer raincoat — a song-surgeon, a Svengali, or a zoo-keeper? Figure out what you want and allow the creative partnership to grow. Let him do what he does best, but don't abdicate responsibility — it's your record.
Feature by John L Walters
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