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Issue 93

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Ableton Live 12
What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.

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Hit (& Miss) Record

Some people need one; others think they don’t. But what is a producer anyway?

By

20 October 2010

In the creative life of a band or singer/songwriter there will almost inevitably come a time when the question is asked: do we need a producer?

Creative cul-de-sacs, an over-abundance of ideas, the benevolent (or sinister) concerns of managers and record labels and the simple desire to embark on an exciting collaboration are just some of the reasons why a producer may be called in. If and when this call is made then it immediately begs another question – who? In this article I’m going to try and demystify what it is that a producer actually does, and along the way provide some rough guidelines for when and why you might need one, as well as how you might actually choose the producer that’s appropriate to your needs. Indeed, while writing this I realised that the critical decision to employ a producer gives rise to many questions about the artist’s needs and wants, so I’ve also included many of these questions below to spark the readers’ thoughts and to help examine the various issues that can arise.

WHAT IS A PRODUCER?

The job of ‘Producer’ is one of the most ambiguous and oft misunderstood jobs in the world of music recording. While some records will sell largely on the basis of the producer’s credit (these people are usually the creative genius behind the record as opposed to the singer), the word can also conjure up images of major label-imposed cookie cutters sending shivers up the spines of helpless artists, old-time cigar smokers in suits poring over sheet music arrangements, not to mention the more modern phenomenon of young bands getting a bloke from their favourite, more established band to come in and ‘produce’ (i.e. drink beer) for them. There are people like Steve Albini who have built fantastic reputations as producers by effectively not producing bands (or more accurately not overproducing them) and then there’s people like Stock, Aitken and Waterman who churned out cloying hit after hit during the ’80s with formulaic precision where songwriters and singers were almost entirely interchangeable.

Most producers fall somewhere in between these two extremes and the more skilful ones will be able to quickly assess and adapt to the needs of a band or solo artist in order to develop the best possible working methods and produce the best outcomes. Bands also produce themselves of course, sometimes with amazing results, but alas, not always. In cases where the artist is very focused and competent in a wide range of musical skills, the producer may be little more than a taste filter, extra set of ears and witness to the recording process. In other cases the producer will be required to utilise every skill he or she has (and even learn some new ones along the way) in order to realise the potential of the project.

NAVIGATIONAL AID

The two classic scenarios for enlisting the help of a producer are early in an artist’s career when they need help to navigate the strange new landscape of recording studios, label budgets and popular taste, and in mid-career when things need a bit of a shove from outside to propel the artist into a new creative phase. Some bands self-produce well but then feel the need to step up a gear when they become more successful. Others need a new producer for each successive album and are always on the lookout for fresh production aesthetics to keep the band’s sound developing. There are plenty of studio-savvy musicians out there quite capable of engineering themselves, not to mention a great many gifted engineers. One trigger for calling in a producer is when good material somehow isn’t translating into great recordings; songs feel only just the sum of their parts and good recordings still feel somehow unfinished and no-one really seems to be able to pull the whole thing together and make it sing. Bringing in a producer often means a fresh approach to song selection, arrangement, keys, tempos, structures, parts and sounds, and sometimes even basic instrumentation and recording personnel as well. The artist or band must be ready to give away a little of themselves in order to give the producer the space to be creative with what they are generating, and the ideal recording process with a producer on board is one of collaborative creativity in which good ideas are magnified and bad ones quickly considered and discarded.

DECISION TIME

Choosing to bring in a producer is a huge decision for bands, managers and record labels; increasingly so since recording budgets have shrunk dramatically in recent years and many artists will be either self-funded or have painfully finite external funds to draw on.

There are a number of very good reasons to involve a producer, however, and if the choice is a good one then the benefits can be dramatic. There are various types of producers out there who offer different qualities and abilities that we’ll look into in greater detail in a moment. To my mind however, the first and foremost criterion for choosing a producer is that they should be able to draw out great performances from the artist. This aspect of the producer/artist relationship requires a certain level of personal trust and musical alignment to really blossom and gets easily overlooked in midst of studio bookings, logistical and technical details and band/manager/label politics.

One of the best strategies is to try out a producer for a day or two on one song and just see if you gel, if it’s awkward and the results not what you’d hoped for then you move on to someone else. If the vocalist can’t hit their stride or the creative genius disappears into his shell then you’ve only got a day or two to endure. This avoids the most horrible of situations where you’ve got a band/producer mismatch that just goes on and on because of time limitations and financial commitments – a recipe to be avoided at all costs!

a producer should be able to draw out great performances from the artist

KEEP THE WHOLE THING GOING BABY…

The first port of call when choosing a producer is to look at their body of previous work – you’d be crazy not to check out what records they’ve produced and whether their production style and aesthetic suits your music. Indeed, most producers get the nod because someone in the band or management likes something they have previously worked on.

Another important consideration is how much momentum they can add to a project. Can they smooth out the odd bit of friction between band members? Can they get you into studio ‘X’ at a discounted rate because they’ve worked there a lot and know the owners? Do they come up with great arrangement ideas that keep a recording on the boil and keep everyone excited? Are they the more technically minded producer who can engineer and produce at the same time and save you one person’s wages, or are they more the intuitive non-technical type that can sit in the back of the room and chime in with the occasional brilliant observation that sets both the artist and the engineer on the right path? Can they play a couple of instruments and chime in with some great parts when everyone else is stuck? Can they help tune the drum kit and fix the buzz in the mic and correct the shitty intonation on the old bass that you just bought off ebay? Do you like their aesthetic when it comes to guitar, drum and vocal sounds? Can they pull you up with an honest critical comment about the crap lyric in the really good song when everyone else is too scared or lazy to mention it? Have they got their own set-up where you can do overdubs cheaply?

Other questions that may influence your decision can be both more and less technical: can they write and read music and arrange string and horn parts? Do they have a good knowledge of the type of music you want to make and the bands that influence you? Are they easy to talk to and confide in? Do they know when to shut up and listen? Are they more comfortable with full band sessions or do they shine working one-on-one with a singer/songwriter? Jeez, I could go on for days here but these are the kind of questions you should be asking yourself and anyone else who has had experience working with them.

The Australian music scene is fundamentally a small one, or a series of small ones, so word gets around pretty quickly if someone is consistently producing dud records or coming up through the ranks with something new to offer. Listen to some local recordings and ask around and you’ll soon get a shortlist of names. While there’s a handful of great Australian producers whose names are synonymous with good quality and regular commercial success, there’s also scads of capable, often brilliant people around who have the capacity to be great producers for the right record. Some definitely shine on certain types of music and may have a trademark sound. Others can be chameleons who pride themselves on becoming the right producer for whatever they work on and try to leave few if any sonic fingerprints on their records. A hip-hop producer will need to be well versed in the touchy aesthetics of sampled snare and kick sounds while a hard rock producer needs to be able to create a widescreen sound with amps, guitars and volume as his or her main tools. Some people produce 10 albums a year while others might only do one every couple of years in between other projects. Do your research and get a good feel for the kind of person you’re going to be dealing with. Finding the right producer usually comes down to a combination of musical taste, availability, personal compatibility and budget.

WHO ARE YOU THIS TIME?

There’s another aspect of the producer scenario that deserves mention here too, and again, it’s different for every project but here’s the fundamental question: what do you want the producer to do? Do you want them to be at the heart of every creative decision throughout the entire project or do you just need them to come in now and again and help sift the wheat from the chaff?

If you’re a competent player and home recordist with a good ear and lots of ideas you might just need someone to come in now and again and give you some honest comments and advice, and engage an engineer when required instead. If you’re the poetic, fully-committed-lifestyle type artist you might need a producer who can literally drag you out of bed or the pub and transport you physically into a recording environment and organise everything including your drug supply. Do you need a producer to stay up till dawn with you and hold your hand while you plunder your soul and your voice for every last drop of emotion on the ‘big’ song? Do you need them to stand by your side looking grimly determined while you sack the drummer? Do you need them to take charge of booking in players and studio time to free you up to play the creative role without distractions? Do you just need a producer to help nail the beds in a pro studio and then you’ll take it off into a distant bedroom to finish and (maybe) bring it back for mixing? Do you just need a producer to help you knock it into shape and finish off a project once the majority of the tracking has been done? Regardless of which one of these scenarios comes closest to describing your situation, if you find a producer you like and trust you should definitely clarify as much as possible what you want them to do, and who you want them to be, for your project. Try to decide roughly where the power will actually lie and be upfront about it – will the final say lie with the artist or the producer? Or is it the label manager or A&R person who will make final judgement calls on the tracks? After weeks or months of creative slog everyone will have some kind of ownership of the project and if you can agree on a way of resolving gridlocks with some sort of clarity everyone will stay focused on the bigger picture. Give the producer too much power and the artist may start to feel disenfranchised; give the producer too little power and basically money is being spent to hire someone who isn’t being allowed to do their job.

IT’S ABOUT THE SONGS STUPID!

Some may disagree, but I think the most useful thing producers do is help choose which songs will comprise the album. The more I produce the more I see the pre-production process and track choice as the two most essential steps in the whole enterprise, and I think most artists benefit from an honest opinion and a fresh set of ears when assessing which songs will work best before embarking on a new record. It’s not always a popular thing to do but sometimes the best thing a producer can do for an artist who’s about to spend 10 grand plus on an album is to tell them to go away for three months and come back with 10 new songs. Going into the studio with no songs and prodigious talent can be successful on occasion, but going into the studio with 12 mediocre songs is a recipe for disaster!

Bring your best asset, which is good material, and you give yourself every chance of success. Always go in with at least a few extra songs to record too as it’s amazing how ugly duckling songs can sometimes turn into swans in the studio, and swans can occasionally morph into scrub turkeys! I’ve been in many situations where an album ends up one song short of greatness, and no songwriter shines when they’re under pressure to write the hit song of their life after a gruelling four-week recording block. Once you’ve made the call on the songs, a lot of production is to do with little decisions: do we like that guitar part?; is that the right tempo?; should the middle-eight be twice as long?; is that the best take?; was it better when you sang it louder/softer?

After days of tracking these decisions really do pile up and you need to find ways of making them quickly and decisively while keeping everyone involved. A good producer will be able to speed you on your way through these and other decisions while keeping the bigger picture firmly in focus.

THE PRODUCER’S OFF RESERVATION!

Of course you have to go into the process with good intentions and an open mind but there are some things to look out for, and some definite telltale signs when your project is heading south. The most telling of these is when the producer starts to work on the tracks on his own, without consultation or your blessing and annoying amounts of dubious keyboard overdubs start appearing on your hitherto sparse and Nebraska-ish folk songs. An alternate version of this nightmare is when most of the idiosyncratic but quite cool drum sounds on the record mysteriously get replaced by ‘industry standard’ kick and snare samples, again without any discussion. Other dangers include the tendency of some producers to get lost in ProTools edit-land while the band stands around waiting to actually play something, or they start taking endless phone calls during the sessions, or call in some offsider to take over and promptly disappear for two weeks. Then there’s the infamous ‘producer is more of an artist than the artist’ syndrome, where the producer will drink, smoke, snort and cavort with far more enthusiasm than the rest of the band put together (this can also dovetail into ‘producer is breaking up with wife’ syndrome), which further saps morale and tends to make for testy interactions over the headphone sends. The producer should be oiling the wheels of the fantastical machine that is your album, not steering it into a ditch or stalling it in the middle of the road!

THE ARTIST’S OFF RESERVATION!

Having said all that, artists too have their responsibilities to the producer and the project. Getting to the studio on time with a clear head and a bunch of great songs will endear you to just about everyone involved and keeps morale high. Arriving late with a posse of drunken friends can create a vibe too, but is less likely to result in timeless musical magic being captured for posterity – depends on the project and the talent though! Telltale warning signs the producer should be aware of are as follows: the artist changes their mind about what kind of record they want to make on a daily basis and there’s an unnerving lack of actual songs; the band spend most of their time glaring at each other and communicating via the producer; everyone always wants more of themselves in the headphone mix; the artist has an incredible string of ‘bad-luck’ experiences rendering them unable to pay (very bad for producer morale); the artist is so intent on getting each element of the recording perfectly in time and in tune that all life is slowly squeezed out of the recordings and everyone – including the artist – eventually loses interest in finishing the thing; the artist has had a bad relationship break-up and insists on recording a turgid flow of cathartic heartbreak songs even though the band is renowned for their high energy live shows. I could go on forever here too… you can’t make up some of the stuff that actually happens in the studio, so be alert but not alarmed.

As a producer one of the most important words I’ve had to learn is the word ‘no’. If you aren’t the right person for the job you may know this before the band does, and you owe it to them to be straight up about it. In my experience nothing good comes of taking on a project either for financial gain or because it looks good on your CV. Producers should be into the music they work on, able to work with the artist and throw real enthusiasm into the mix. Otherwise it inevitably shows somewhere down the line. Even when working on albums they love, producers are frequently stretched close to breaking strain. There are some great albums made under duress by people who have the shits with each other, and others are made by neurotic geniuses who need ridiculous amounts of ‘people management’ just to make it through. Producers are regularly asked to perform minor miracles on songs either by making something big out of something fundamentally slight or by amplifying the creative processes such that musical ideas have more emotional impact than they perhaps originally had any right to. Be kind to your producer and try not to wear them out at the get-go by keeping them going 16 hours a day for weeks on end. Treat them well, allow them some sleep and decent food, and they will provide weeks and months of trouble free service to you and your art.

ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL

If the producer/band alignment is good, the producer can help take the band to the next level in terms of their performance, their songs and arrangements and the realisation of their ideas into great sounds. They might even help sell some records too, but as always it comes back to the raw material and the intentions involved. A really great producer will bring something new to the table and energise the artist to produce their best work. This might involve sitting for hours at a computer editing MIDI notes or just being the silent witness to an awesome live take once all the pieces are in place – or pretty much anything in between. The producers that really earn their salt are the true all-rounders who can work on both sides of the glass and chip in with technical, artistic, musical or personnel management ideas and solutions that keep everyone focused on the music, not all the stuff that goes on around it.

In today’s environment the majority of producers will have technical and engineering skills they can bring to the table as well as a collection of mics, preamps and other bits and pieces to throw into the mix. If they don’t have their own premises they will almost certainly be able to offer a range of possible recording locations where they know the gear and the rooms. They will also have a mental list of phone numbers if you need an appropriate red-hot guitarist, cellist or singing saw player for a critical overdub. In more traditional cases they can also choose the songs, the players, book the studio and prop you and your martini glass up for five minutes in front of a microphone if that’s what you need, and the final mastered mix will arrive the following week by courier.

Great records are made by people in a room together bringing the best out of each other. There are many technical aspects to it of course but it’s fundamentally about harnessing human energy and ideas. If your songs are good but coming out sounding a bit flat and lifeless or it’s time for a change of direction but you’re not quite sure how to effect that change, you may be in need of a producer. If you get that choice right, great things can happen.

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READ ONLINE NOW
Online
Issue 93

REVIEWED

Ableton Live 12
What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.