ON RECORD PRODUCTION

by Tony Rockliff

So what exactly is record production?

Record production is a skilled craft that ideally should include a working knowledge of music, engineering, writing, diplomacy, organizing, budgeting, and sometimes marketing.

THE MAIN TYPES OF RECORD PRODUCER

There are basically two types of record producer. One strives to capture on tape or hard drive the energy, the life, communication, intention and vision of an artist or band as they are with little change other than to enhance their sound or effect (often considerably).

The other type of producer goes into a studio to deliberately create something out of nothing -- to paint a picture using the colors and textures of sound. He might be using a sound or a rhythm or a concept to build on in layers of sound and there may not even be an artist as such on such projects.

Artists such as the Eagles, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and James Taylor were produced by the first type of producer, and such records as "Convoy", "Spirit in the Sky" and "Automatic Lover" were produced by the second type. Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears records are often made by a mixture of both types with quite a lot of emphasis on the second type, while also striving to maintain the key elements of the first type.

With the advent of MIDI, computers and samplers, production roles have been expanded and these days often a lot of recording is done in the control-room by the producer by himself or with one or two other people and there is as a result the combination of the two types of producer described above.

WHAT THE PRODUCER DOES

In movies the producer is the guy who puts up the money, and the director is responsible for the creative decisions. In recording, the producer primarily plays a role similar to that of a director in a movie. Very seldom does the record producer put up the money. Most often he is commissioned and paid to do the producing as it is a highly skilled art that can make all the difference between rejection or acceptance of the artist's project. When he is using someone else's money as in when he has been hired by a record company, he also has to make the record within the established budget and ensure all the participants get paid.

How much a record producer does depends on his skills and how much he creates. There are some other functions involved in making a record that a producer may or may not do. There is the job of the recording engineer, which is basically to translate the producers' and artists' ideas into real sounds utilizing his knowledge of the studio's equipment. There is also the job of the arranger, which is to decide how the tune is to be recorded musically - in other words, what rhythms to use, what instruments to use, and what and where they should and shouldn't play.

There are many producers around today who combine many of these functions and often play instruments themselves. By engineering and arranging themselves, they avoid having to explain to someone else what's in their mind hoping that the person can duplicate and translate it. Since a good producer is often also an artist himself, having someone else do these functions can sometimes be a little akin to a painter having someone else do the brushwork while the painter tells him what and where to paint.

THE PRODUCTION SEQUENCE

Basically, the sequence of production goes like this: The producer chooses a song that he feels he can make a good record of. He advises on the structure and length of the song, gets any sections that need re-writes rewritten, and works out what instruments and musicians to use, and what and where they should play. Re-writes are done where a section of a song doesn't quite communicate strongly enough for maximum impact. Musicians are chosen for their "feel" (how well they communicate emotions and energy musically), how tight they are (how well they play in time) and optimally, how they are as people (how much fun they are to work with). The more studio experience they've had the better, as they will usually have good sounding instruments and be familiar with studio recording requirements.

The producer chooses and books the studio, the musicians, and any instruments or effects units he needs. He gets chord sheets, song structure sheets and lyric sheets prepared, and he prepares a track plan. Sometimes he will set up a rehearsal with the musicians before the session, and he also arranges for all the necessary people to arrive at the session at the correct times. He ensures that, for instance, the violin section doesn't arrive at the same time as the rhythm section and have to wait around for three hours.

After the recordings are complete, he either mixes or supervises the mix of the songs as well as the mastering. After he has done the mix, he ensures that the copies are of the best possible quality and also supervises the cutting of the master to ensure quality control all the way down the line. Producers in some cases also do the marketing of the record to record companies and sometimes negotiate contracts.

IN THE STUDIO

In the studio he is the overall-in-charge but he should remember that usually he is working for the artist and should work closely with the artist to ensure that he is communicating and enhancing the artist's intention and vision. Conversely, the artist should be willing to listen to the producer's voice of experience and his suggestions, even if he chooses not to use them. It is a team effort. The producer is the manager of all the people who are involved in the making of a record. He has the final say on all matters of artistry, performance, songs, sounds and all matters technical. He either describes to the engineer the sounds he wants or gets them himself.

At the session he keeps up the participants' morale and handles anything that comes up with good control (hopefully). He should keep good technical, organizational and performance notes and ensure that people at the session are behaving appropriately and professionally, while having a lot of creative fun.

It is very important that he keeps an exterior eye on the whole recording process because the musicians will have their attention on their contribution and the engineer on his, and very often only the producer will know the overall picture that he is working towards. He is blending the colors and textures and dynamics of the sounds into a specific sound picture, and sometimes someone at the session, not seeing the picture the producer is working towards, will suggest something that will in effect be like suggesting to a painter who is painting a picture of a green field that he paint in a puce cement mixer, so be has to keep his end-product firmly in mind in order to not be swayed off his original intention.

CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD PRODUCER

A good producer knows it is optimum to have it sounding right in the studio itself before it even gets to the mixing board. He also knows the big differences between recording music, making records and making records that sell, as these all involve very distinct skill sets.

If he is making a single for radio play, he knows what an important part sound alone plays. "The listeners of radio stations and the buyers of singles are of the same average age ...about 13-14 years old. For the most part, the records which appeal to this audience do so on their SOUND. Surveys have shown that 85% of all singles are bought on this basis. After the sound becomes familiar, the record stands a better chance for success if the lyrics are accessible." Songwriter Magazine.

A good producer knows what he wants and knows how to get it. He very often has the whole sound of the overall finished record already envisioned and even heard in his own mind and he goes into the studio to attempt to create it in the physical universe. He should be able to come up with brilliant ideas on the fly and know when something is right and has "it" (magic).

He has to be able to recognize the take or performance that has the emotional impact and "feel" necessary and be able to resist the temptation to go beyond that point. He has to be able to respond to a sound or a feel or an atmosphere in the session and use that as an inspiration for creating something that takes it to the next level.

He should be aware of everything that is available to him technically to assist him in creating the effects he is after and be aware of potential workarounds if something doesn't work technically or artistically. He has to be capable of instant decisions and not let himself by swayed by opinions. He has to know how to create the atmosphere that enables him to get the best performances out of the musicians and artists. He has to be able to handle problems that can come up in recording sessions.

He should ideally understand the framework of the genre he's working in so as to intelligently be able to break the rules without sacrificing good taste. In other words, he should have studied and know his market well. He should have a good degree of sensitivity, which in an artist is basically the ability to perceive minute differences and the different effects they create. This applies particularly when he is blending the sounds together as in mixing as different blends create different emotional impacts. He should also be able to tell when the musicians are overplaying (playing more than the record needs). Most importantly he has to know how to imbue the project with life energy and "magic". To understand what I'm talking about here, listen to the difference between a Beatles record and a cover band doing a Beatles song. There is a very different amount of and quality of life involved.

These days the producer has a lot more sounds available to him and should now even more understand the different effects that can be created by imaginative use of sounds and especially how to inject the magic into the finished record. A good producer can even make a mediocre song sound good.

So, as you can see, the job of a producer is quite involved, and when done well can make or break a record, which is why so much attention is put on it by the recording business.

When choosing your producer, it is smart to bear the above in mind.

Tony Rockliff
Record Producer
http://www.artistcareerservices.com/tony.html



Joe Yazbeck