At the heart of every recording artist’s endeavour is the song – the intellectual property upon which careers are built. And to realise the artist’s vision and bring their song to life takes a team of people – the songwriter, musicians, recording engineer and record producer. But perhaps the least understood of these roles is that of the record producer. What exactly does a record producer do? Can I get away without having a one? Isn’t a recording engineer all I need?
To answer these questions the Lolly Box Producer’s Manifesto outlines the what, why and how of the record producer’s role, and can help songwriters and artists to decide whether their recording project might need one. If your primary goal is to create some great sounding demo recordings of your songs, then perhaps engaging a record producer might be overkill. But if you’re looking to create music that’s ready to compete on the global stage, this page might be exactly what you're looking for.
Firstly some background: What does a Record Producer do?
“With the exception of the Dave Grohls of the world, most people really do need some help. In fact, it is crucial to have an objective viewpoint from someone that is not emotionally invested in the material. A writer’s attachment to the music is often what kills the potential for success. Just ask the artists with boxes of thousands of unopened CDs sitting in their basements.” - Anthony Newett, Grammy-nominated composer and producer
Put simply, a record producer is responsible for the entirety of a recording project – from its inception until the music is mastered and ready for release. And that responsibility means being ‘in the artist’s corner’ to help them realise their vision – overseeing every aspect of a recording from ensuring the artist is in the right mind-set and in a conducive environment to create their art, through to ensuring that the recordings of the music are of a calibre and quality to sit in their rightful place in a highly competitive world.
To break this responsibility down a bit further, the record producer must be looking at the music from both a technical aspect - the performances, arrangements, structures, instrumentation, energy, tone, and even the tuning – and an artistic perspective – the truth, attitude, journey, destination, target, and that most elusive of ingredients: the magic! All reduced down to two tracks coming out of the speakers!
But this doesn’t all happen by accident. A competent producer should have a comprehensive understanding of instrumental skills and instrumental capabilities, arranging, orchestration, song-writing, song editing, vocal coaching, technical knowledge of equipment and its functionality, fluency with legacy and cutting-edge recording technologies, good ears, good timing and a healthy smattering of psychology and diplomacy skills. And where the producer doesn’t have specific expertise in certain areas, it’s their responsibility to bring together the right team to execute the project.
Aren’t Recording Engineers and Record Producers the same thing?
Perhaps the best analogy for understanding the difference between a recording engineer and a record producer is to consider the roles of a movie director and a cinematographer. While the cinematographer operates the camera and guides their assistants to pull focus, pull the dolly, and move lights, the movie director is largely hands off – monitoring and directing camera operators instead of handling the camera themselves. In short, a director commands the whole cast and crew.
In the music world the recording or sound engineer is the equivalent of the cinematographer, working in concert with the producer to ensure that all the technical aspects of a professional world class recording process are being adhered to. The record producer, playing the part of the movie director in our analogy, is concerned with the ‘macro’ qualities of the whole musical picture, while also overseeing the engineer responsible for the ‘micro’ of sonic integrity and how it is all captured.
While many record producers are also good sound engineers – as a producer must have a comprehensive understanding of sound engineering principles and techniques - sound engineers don't necessarily make good producers. The main difference is that while both professionals have a healthy understanding of the technical aspects of music production, producers also have a hefty dose of artistic and creative vision to make a recording the best it can be.
Hitting record too early.
The record producer’s role begins long before the artist heads into the studio. One of biggest mistakes made in recording is not being truly prepared, so the pre-production phase is the most important part in the overall process. The skilled producer must guide the artist and their music along the pathway to becoming ‘studio ready’, only booking that expensive recording date when they know that pre-production has been completed.
The producer must be present and involved in helping the artist build their vision and ensure there is a clear path to achieving it. This will include coaching at rehearsals, song selection, song structure, arrangement, instrumentation, and the mental, physical and emotional build-up towards ‘opening night’ in the studio. This Pre-production will also include studio/engineer selection, budget setting and approvals and all the elements that will make for great artistic and business outcomes (it is the music business after all).
‘Trimming the Fat’ and ‘Acceptable Imperfection’.
Sometimes the artist will bring the work fully formed in all its elements – form, structure, shape, detail, execution - all working perfectly in balance and harmony, and a producer needs to have the skills to identify this and capture it in that moment. However, this is rarely the case. So the producer must help the artist to sculpt, craft, edit, buff and polish that “magic block of musical marble” to make it the best it can be. This is called ‘trimming the fat’ and is essential to successful recording. In parallel the producer must also have the sensitivity and listening skills to allow the artist to realise their own unique vision, and must never make the production about themselves.
In the Petri dish of the recording studio, and under the ‘sonic microscope’ of studio monitors, the pursuit of perfection can sometimes squash all the life, spontaneity, initial inspiration and passion out of the recording. The producer’s role is to keep it fresh and alive and allowing the music to breathe - acting as the arbiter of what is ‘acceptable imperfection’. Like any great drama it’s the character flaws that keep it interesting and engaging, so producers must know just how far the boundaries can be pushed. They must allow for on the spot experimentation and ‘unexpected accidents’ that, if captured and handled correctly, can only lead to more personality in the finished recording.
Zeitgeist, Cultural Footprint and “What do you have to say?”
In working with an artist the producer must also be aware of all the ‘other stuff’ that goes on behind the music. Music – and particularly pop(ular) music - has facets well beyond the lyrics, melody, chords and its recording. To help the artist communicate their vision an acknowledgement and incorporation of the ‘zeitgeist’ of the genre in which this particular music sits is imperative.
What is the style, attitude and social commentary that accompanies this type of recording? Is what’s being produced true to the ethos that the artist ascribes to? What is the cultural footprint of the artist’s music and is it in synch with what is coming out of the speakers? Is the message that is the foundation of this communication – no matter how simple or complex – being reflected in the choices being made across the entire recording project?
The record producer must help the artist express themselves in all aspects of their art, while concurrently being aware of trends and nuances of the target market(s). Where is this musical project likely to find its home? Which radio format, application, genre, demographic, and playlists must all be considered in creating the artist’s sonic footprint?
The Sonic Mirror of Truth
“In the end all that really matters is do you love what’s coming out of the speakers.” - Jim Vallance, Songwriter and Producer
At some point, your recordings will be played alongside songs that are successful. So while not wanting to get caught in the trap of ‘comparison paralysis’, and although it can potentially be a deflating process, it’s important that you expose yourself, objectively, to the ‘Sonic Mirror of Truth’.
The Producers role in collaborating with an artist is to create that ‘Yes!’ moment. Enabling you to truthfully be able to say that you ‘love what’s coming out of the speakers!’