Do I Need A Producer?
Written by Mike Davidson
Do I need a producer for my next project? This is a hot topic amongst both established and up-and-coming independent artists. When considering your options, it’s important to realize that the vast majority of professionally recorded, commercial releases have been done through a collaborative process with a producer. It’s also important to realize that when the average artist goes into the average studio, an engineer is usually included, but a producer is not.
So what is the difference between an engineer and a producer? Engineers operate equipment and for the most part, focus on the technical side of things, while producers are bigger picture. Producers help the artist to develop musical ideas (as they relate to the recording), establish concepts for the recording itself and how it will sound, and help to capture the best performances possible. Long story short, if you’re looking to achieve a specific artistic goal while in the studio, working with a producer can be truly essential to a successful project.
IN SOME CASES, PRODUCING AND ENGINEERING ROLES CAN BE PLAYED BY THE SAME PERSON, WHICH IS THE CASE WITH MYSELF. BECAUSE I HAVE A BACKGROUND IN THE TECHNICAL AND THE MUSICAL, I AM ABLE TO WEAR BOTH HATS AT THE SAME TIME. IN FACT, FOR ME, IT’S DIFFICULT TO SAY EXACTLY WHERE PRODUCING ENDS AND ENGINEERING BEGINS. I say this more so now just to put my perspective in context. All the same, there is a well-defined role the producer plays inside and outside the studio, for both myself, and many other producers. Below, I’m going to breakdown what a producer does during the professional record making process. Note that every producer is different, so I can’t speak for everyone out there, but this is at the very least, how I see my role in the process and how I go about producing my own projects.
The Role of the Producer
Most musicians will write and arrange their songs with the stage in mind, and this makes total sense. I think the stage is typically the most intuitive place for most musicians to envision themselves, and especially if you’re part of a band, it’s a place where everyone in the band has a role to play. The studio can be, and often is, a totally different beast. I actually find the projects that are most successful are the ones that operate under this assumption, embracing the unique nature of the studio environment to either create the illusion of live performance or taking things a step further by adapting the arrangement in a way that doesn’t necessarily represent what happens live, but rather, what happens in the studio itself. Either approach is valid, depending on the project. Of course, if you’re a solo musician working with session players, the band is usually hypothetical at first, as is the idea of a live performance, but still, both approaches are relevant when it comes to determining a direction for the project and seeing that through.
The most universal role that a producer plays is helping to capture and translate ideas regarding arrangement and performance from a live setting to the studio, even if a band has never played to an actual audience before. One of the most common statements about producers is that they provide an objective ear to a project, and I totally agree with this, but there’s more to it than that. Producers provide an objective ear with a particular expertise in making “successful” records. The ultimate goal of the producer is (or should be) to work directly with an artist to enhance and tailor the composition and/or performance to create something that is greater the sum of its parts.
A common concern of any artist when considering working with a producer is giving up or having less control over their project, so I want to take a moment to discuss the typical process in preparing and executing a record in effort to address this. Producing is (or should be) about serving the artist’s intentions, not the producer’s. Especially when working with independent artists, producers have no one to serve but the artist making the music, with no label or third party interests involved. Producers coach, inspire, and discuss, but there’s no iron fist. There’s a lot of rock and roll folklore out there about domineering producer personalities, and while those producers are out there and make for good stories, it’s not the norm. Here’s some insight into the process:
Courtship: If producer and artist don’t already know each other, it’s super important to establish a friendly rapport. Things can get fairly personal fairly quickly when working with art and music so having a good dynamic off the bat is very helpful. This is usually where discussion begins regarding overall concept and direction for the record. Not everyone has a clear vision of how they want their project to sound, and this is not the time to set anything in stone, but as things move forward into pre-production, it’s nice to lay down some groundwork to build upon later.
Pre-Production: This is really the meat of it. Broad spectrum, the goal of pre-pro is to work together and determine the best approach toward creating a successful and cohesive record. As the producer, this is about learning the artist’s material and helping to shape the potential of what’s already there, or is budding but not fully bloomed. What is your intention with the material? What are you trying to achieve? Once the producer has a sense of this, he/she can work to both bring out and preserve the project’s integrity and intent. On a more micro level, each song gets put through the ringer. Is this the best version of the song? Melody, harmony, lyrics, structure, arrangement: each component is examined and discussed. Preparing for a recording is like prepping for a photo shoot. You don’t want to show up looking like a slob, but you also want to look like yourself, and once the photo is taken, that’s it, one moment, preserved in time, forever. Sure, you keep growing and changing because you’re a living, breathing human being and your music will do the same, because it’s art, but the picture is a representation of you in that moment, as is the recording of the song. That’s what makes pre-production so essential. Giving the song a chance to grow before it’s recorded creates opportunities to bring out greater potential.
Creative Direction and Guidance: As producer and artist work together to establish a vision for how the project should be, this eventually frees the artist to focus on performing, and it becomes the producer’s responsibility to facilitate the recording process according to the concepts discussed in pre-pro. So long as communication between producer and artist is solid throughout the project, this actually awards the artist more control over the project, as it promotes the establishment of an artistic goal, and the proper execution of it without spreading the artist too thin.
Efficiency & Decisiveness
Another concern artists tend to have regarding producers is budget. In today’s recording industry, which is increasingly built upon smaller, independently funded projects, artists are feeling pressure to create a high quality product in effort to be relevant, but have to do so on a budget, which is of course challenging. The good news is, working with a producer doesn’t necessarily mean you need a bigger budget. Especially in the context of a higher quality production with a lot of moving parts, it’s the producer’s job to keep everything running at the desired pace, without sacrificing standards for quality. I’ve heard too many horror stories about people recording and re-recording, scrapping and starting over. Indecision can be costly, and entering the studio with a strategy in play reduces the likelihood of needing to redo or change parts. Producers provide the opportunity for things like pre-production and concept development to help put realistic plans in place that bestow confidence in the material and establish ways to efficiently record it. Again, remember, the studio is its own beast, but a producer can help tame it. Discussing ideas in advance and strategizing an approach is key to laying down ideas in a reasonable time frame, resulting in an overall better product, while avoiding a number of common mistakes. In short, the cost of producer usually pays for itself like an insurance policy: a little more now, a lot less later. Personally, I’d be afraid to go outside if I didn’t have health insurance. Producers can be akin to a security blanket in this way. With increased confidence in a project, artists experience less anxiety about the process as a whole, and can relax and enjoy it.