Our panel of audio producers and mastering engineers explain how they work and weigh in on what they can do to help bring your musical vision to life.
The role of a music producer can be controversial one. From Kanye West to Steve Albini, producers can help make or break a musician’s studio sound. Many have achieved fame in their own right while others shape sonic trends and techniques behind the scenes. What do producers actually do, and how can they help you make your musical visions a reality?
Becoming a Producer
The journey to the chair in front of the mixing console can take many paths. Some producers are musicians, some are singers, and nearly all can make magic. Grammy-nominated vocal coach and producer Jan Smith owns Jan Smith Studios in Atlanta, where she has enjoyed helping artists from Usher to Justin Bieber sound their best. Started as a one-woman operation, her studio now has a waiting list of over two years. Smith remembers her early interest in recording that foreshadowed her future career.
For me, producing was a natural by-product of being a young singer/songwriter. My Dad bought me an old Sony reel-to-reel recorder when I was kid and that was the beginning of my production chops. I spent HOURS of my life as a teenager recording SOS (Sound-on-Sound) to be able to "multi-track" before there was really ever such a thing other than huge consoles in really big studios where only major recording artists could ever dream of making records.
Phase two was going into those "really big studios" and making records with rock ‘n’ roll bands I played in, and that got me into singing on other people's records and beginning to help other musicians out on their recordings. From there it just became a path where the more I was in the studio, the more I was in the studio, and now I own one.
Smith’s past experience helps her to be a very thorough and resourceful producer.
I am an artist first and a musician, so I feel like my relatability is as one of them. I cut my first record when I was 15 years old, and that was before every teenager on the planet was writing songs and making YouTube videos, much less recording via Pro Tools on a laptop. And so, I jump right in there on guitar or piano and work through whatever the process calls for. A producer is rather like an orchestrator of sorts who has the responsibility of a music project or recording from start to finish.
Who Needs a Producer?
With access to Pro Tools and the many other DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) music applications available today, why use a producer at all? Why not just record everything on your own? Grammy-nominated composer and producer Anthony Newett creates songs and handles production duties for Academy Award-nominated artists, many films, and well-known radio personalities.
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. I have no problem telling my clients that an idea is bad. Frankly, if they are offended, they shouldn’t be working with a producer. My name is on the project also. It has to be great.
I often have to get into the mind of the artist. They rarely know what they want—or at least they don’t know how to get there. Recorded music is different than the energy of a live performance. The band/artist somehow believes that this vibe should translate directly to the recorded version—well, no. The fact is, there are a number of undesirable moments during a live performance, none of which are conducive to a good record. Unless the band can pull off the impeccable harmonies of The Eagles, multi-tracking is the best course of action.
As their producer, I will dissect their performance and essentially rebuild it in layers. Artists are often put off by this process, until they experience the results. Now, their only problem is how to spruce up their live performance to reflect the new standards set by the recording.
Newett also reminds musicians not to take the producer’s input personally.
You’re hiring the producer to help you make a great record, not to make you feel good. If he tells you that your new song takes way too long to get to the hook, your only response should be, “OK, how can I fix it”. Expect praise and support only from your mom for the nine minute song you wrote with seven verses. That’s why your mom is not your producer!
The Many Roles in the Studio
Born in Belgium and now living in Los Angeles, Walter Clissen is an Associate Professor in the Audio Engineering/Live Sound Technology/Audio Post-Production program at Husson University’s New England School of Communications. He teaches as well as working as a producer for international musicians and on many films. Clissen explains the roles of the people you’ll encounter in the studio and in audio post production.
There are many aspects of writing, recording, and mixing an album—from purely emotional to vaguely technical. Producers often have expert help, such as audio and mastering engineers, to bring even more knowledge and experience into your songs.
A sound and recording engineer (otherwise also referred to as audio engineer) has a wide area of expertise. He/she needs to have a large amount of knowledge in audio recording techniques (e.g. which microphones for which purpose, great acoustical and technical understanding of the recording studio), and everything connected to capturing/recording a sound source.
An audio engineer operates a soundboard during the recording process. They will (with the help of an assistant audio engineer) be responsible for running the recording session, most of the time overseen by a producer. He/she will be responsible for sonically realizing the artistic vision (what something should sound like) of the artist /producer. The recording/sound engineer might also be the mixing engineer for the project.
A music producer usually selects the songs—with the help of the record label. The producer also manages a recording budget, contracts session players and supervises all of the recordings. Over the last few decades, there have been many occasions where engineer and producer responsibilities are combined in one person.
What A Producer Actually Does
There is more than technical mastery to production—producers can help musicians with everything from saving money on recording costs to saving a song from being over-engineered. Hip-hop producer Ritz Reynolds has gone from working with groups like the Roots to exploring more rock-based sounds. He explains that less can be more (except for when it isn’t).
The most important thing a producer can do is bring an interesting perspective and taste to a recording session. You have to be present and sensitive to things happening during the process and try to catch and pinpoint any special moments as they happen.
A great first step when working with an artist is to make sure their songs and material is strong and somewhat rehearsed, so they're ready to go while the clock is ticking in a studio. Help the musician make sure that they have the best general tempo and key for a given song (For example,, sometimes shifting a song to a lower key can help if a singer's range doesn't seem to be doing great on a particular idea).
In some cases, maybe the arrangement needs a little more guts and you make the call that some extra sounds or instruments are needed. Or perhaps, things might work better if you reduce a given song and let it breathe more, with less going on. It's very important to try to be a positive aid and to help the process with creative and sometimes technical viewpoints. But you also don't want to get in the way of things.
Sometimes simple is best while in other cases, extremely ambitious and dense recordings can be great as well. These are decisions you and the musician need to make. Also keep in mind it's very easy to over-communicate and disrupt the flow of recording, which can be very stressful and counter-productive for the musician being produced.
The Dark Side of Producing: Mastering
Your recording is completed, but the songs are not done until they have gone through a process known as mastering. Even if your producer also served as your audio engineer, there will most likely be a second person doing the mastering of your album.
Being a mastering engineer might not sound as impressive as being a producer, but Vlado Meller has an extremely impressive list of mastering credits that include artists such as Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and Prince. Today, he also shares his knowledge via teaching workshops. What does the mastering engineer actually do? Meller explains that mastering is a crucial step. Thanks to modern recording technology records are often produced in several different settings and studios. Mastering will help the final product sound unified and cohesive.
The mastering guys enhance the sound, and create one cohesive CD, so no matter how many pieces came together it sounds like it was all recorded under the same conditions. One track might have high bass, the other low; another with vocals mixed high, another with drums under the mix. First we enhance the overall sound of the song, and then of all the tracks on the record.
Sometimes, the mastering engineer is also the editor. We get sent separate intros, choruses, and other pieces, and then we create the final song. We may also have to edit for length. We might get sent a song that’s too long, and need to work with the producer to create a radio edit under 3:10. Or, for a vinyl release, we will need to work to get the tracks to fit on an album side, as vinyl has more physical limitations.
How does the magic of mastering actually happen? Meller explains that nearly everyone already owns the two tools that he considers most essential to the job.
The first and most important “technology” is the mastering engineer’s ears. Technology as a tool is fantastic, replacing the old methods of a razor and tape—digital makes it so much easier and doesn’t degrade the original recording. But my “presets “are my ears—you can have millions of dollars of equipment, but not the experience to know how to deliver the final sound the artist and producer are looking for. Each genre from classical to hip-hop has different requirements, and requires a different approach. Most of the time, an artist comes to me with ideas based on other records that I’ve worked on—there’s no “plug-in” for that.
It’s important to outsource mastering because the mastering engineer is the final, independent set of ears that listens to a recording before it’s distributed to the market. When an artist has been in the studio working on tracks for months, they can’t hear it anymore, and certainly not objectively. The mastering engineer’s ears are critical to the quality of the finished album.
From initial song selection to final mastering, the experience and skill that producers and engineers bring is invaluable. Expert, external opinions and advice can help you make the decisions that will result in your music sounding truly exceptional, yet true to your vision.
For other points of view about the producer’s role, check out our Art of Sound interview series.