HOW TO PRODUCE A RECORD TODAY, PART 1

Published On January 10, 2017 | Tutorials

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The role of the record producer has encompassed everything from ‘label A&R guy’ to freelance megastar producer. These days, everyone calls themselves a record producer, so we unpack the skills you actually need to truly wear the hat.

Tutorial: Michael Carpenter

For years, when filling out my customs form to re-enter the country, I’d get to the occupation section and pause. Inevitably I’d go with the truth and write down ‘Record producer’, then brace myself for the customs officer’s inevitable list of questions. It always seemed to be a job people were impressed by, but never really understood.

“So what do you do as a record producer?” They’d ask. Or, “Have you worked with anyone famous?” To something beyond New Idea-level interest, such as, “Do you play an instrument?” Followed by supremely false assumptions like, “I’ll bet you make lots of money!”

It would go on and on, with every reply making the customs officer regret ever pursuing this line of questioning. When I finally got the stamp of approval I’d shuffle forward and remind myself, again, to just write ‘Musician’ next time.

I reckon if you got 20 musicians in a room and asked them what a record producer does, most of them would have a vague idea, but generally speaking, even musicians don’t understand the breadth of this job. Producers are often misunderstood and misrepresented, which can be frustrating and work against them in a business sense.

This series of articles will try to highlight what a record producer has done historically, and what part the record producer plays when making a record today.

HISTORY OF THE RECORD PRODUCER

The traditional record producer clearly worked for the people paying to make the record; usually the label. In the earliest incarnations of the role, the producer was often the ‘A&R Manager’ — the person in charge of sourcing the material, putting together the ensemble, and manifesting the vision for a hit record from the ‘people upstairs’, to overseeing the technical staff working at the assigned studio, often chosen or owned by the label. In this situation the producer’s role was often musical, but not necessarily technical. There are famous stories of legendary record producers never touching the console because it ‘wasn’t their job’.

In this early form of popular music the record producer was rarely working for the artist. There was no appeal to ‘manifesting an artist’s vision’. This was a job given to a person who worked for a higher business entity. To that end, producers needed to be well versed in a variety of styles, sympathetic to what was working in the marketplace, and have a team (engineers, studios, songwriters, publishers and musicians) of trustworthy collaborators who would make the job run more efficiently. In many ways, the producer’s role was to manage the talent at every stage of the creative process, while working within the constraints of the traditional studio structure. Those constraints included time-allocated session calls, and the label’s requirement to cut a certain amount of tracks in the budgeted time frame. More often than not, the least important part of this puzzle was the artist. There are stories of pop artists rarely talking with their producer about anything other than the sheet of music placed in front of them to sing.

Of course, it was never that cut and dry. Producers like Sam Philips of Sun Studios, Leonard and Phil Chess of Chess Records, and Berry Gordy at Motown started out as one-stop shops. They were the record label, often also the song publisher and writer, balance engineer, producer, and occasionally the artist’s manager. The constant was that the artist still worked for whoever bankrolled the sessions; the record label. It didn’t make a huge difference that the label guy was also the guy setting up the mics.

As music, recording technology and the popular music industry evolved, so too did the producer’s role. Artists began to write their own material and felt the need to assert themselves more on the creative process and their career trajectory. In the ’60s, the cult of the artist became more powerful and the producer’s traditional role in the studio was undermined. Talented artists started to rally against the established protocols, challenging their producers to move with them creatively. As artists’ power grew through their own popularity, the producer had the predicament of appeasing creatively voracious artists while keeping peace with the hand that feeds them — the label. In many situations, the producer’s loyalty swung away from working for the label, and more towards working for themselves, and therefore the artist. By the mid/late ’60s the role of the independent producer was born, which would shift the creative dynamic for years to come.

The power struggle between label and artist often left the producer in a curious position. While carefully nurturing the creative adventures of a growing artist, an A&R Manager would simultaneously scream at them about budgets, deadlines and ‘not hearing a single’. Meanwhile, the role of technical personnel became a fixture on record sleeves and grew in media coverage. In the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, some of the world’s biggest artists blew millions of dollars recording mediocre albums in exotic locations. Amongst that excess, there were a raft of successful projects that transported a few record producers to stardom, with some charging exorbitant fees for their service. But that couldn’t last forever.

In the early ’90s a few significant things happened. Digital recording meant that high quality records could be made anywhere. For the first time, artists could dismiss the producer and afford to self-produce a record that sounded competitive in the marketplace. It was the first body blow to the recording studio, which until that point had seemed essential to professional record-making. Secondly, because digital recording made record-making cheaper and CDs were more affordable to manufacture than vinyl, independent labels started to assert themselves. Bands would go into a ‘mate’s’ studio and come out with the master of their new single. The independent record producer was now on the outer.

As the DAW emerged, the record producer was more lost than ever. Still in demand by some artists and labels, their role was marginalised even more by artists who felt they could do everything themselves. This creative purgatory is where we find record producers now, trapped in a world where everyone who plays an instrument and owns a Macbook Pro is now a ‘record producer’.

So what does it mean to be a record producer these days?

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE

A few things I like to remember whenever I read people ranting about the dire state of the music industry today are: There’s never been a time when people consumed more music, and there’s never been a time when people made more music.

While many people within the music industry are claiming the sky is falling, we’re having a high point of supply and demand for music. The great thing about that is everyone feels like the tools to make music are in their hands and they can do it, which can also be the blinding part. The process of delivering on your creativity isn’t as simple as owning the gear and churning out product.

Whenever a discussion on the merit of record producers comes up, I always ask one simple question. “Why do the biggest artists in the world still contract record producers for almost every project?”

You see, in an industry where almost everything has changed, the role of the record producer has remained largely the same. If you call yourself a record producer without understanding all the aspects of the role, you simply cannot bring out the best in an artist. Even if the artist is yourself.

WHAT IS THE RECORD PRODUCER’S ROLE NOW?

1. A record producer knows how to finish a project.

In most conversations I have about upcoming projects, the first thing we talk about is the last thing on the list. I find it absolutely critical to have some sense of the creative end point. Establishing a framework is crucial. Especially now that we have access to unlimited tracks, virtual instruments, loops, playlists and ‘studio’ time. In many ways, all subsequent decisions related to the project come from identifying this goal.

I’m not just talking about what a record is going to end up sounding like. I’m talking about discussing with an artist what their expectations are for the project beyond the recording and release of the record. These conversations are usually reasonably informal, but they do give the prospective producer a sense of direction and expectation. It also gives the creative team a clear outcome to work towards.

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2. A record producer knows how to manage time and money.

I’ll often be approached by an artist who’s spent two to five years trying to finish their record. Eventually they search out a producer like me because they’re unable to tie all the loose ends together to finish even one song.

While there’s a select group of bedroom geniuses who can flourish working on their own, talented people eventually need others to bounce off and push their craft to a place they can’t go by themselves. However, as soon as you involve anyone else in your record, there will have to be a discussion about fees, budgets, release forms and time allocation. While these seem like perfunctory obligations, the amount of times I’ve seen an inexperienced artist misjudge all of these factors is astounding.

While a producer is asking about the end point they will also be making judgement calls related to the mechanics of making the record. That can be as little as which mixing or mastering guy to use, all the way to which studio, which musicians, how many songs, how many days in which facility and so on. Easily, one of the biggest jobs I do as a producer these days is managing the budget. It is critical for the producer to find out from the artist — and/or the label/benefactor — what the realistic parameters of the budget are, and the timeline given to achieve the required result. A good producer will be realistic about timing; planning for worst case scenarios, rather than giving an artist a figure they know is unrealistic. One approach breeds goodwill and a positive embarkation of the creative process, the other does the complete opposite.

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3. A record producer will know how to manage the personnel involved in the project.

If you’d pulled me aside before I started producing records and said, ‘60% of what you do will be psychological.’ I’d have thought you were an idiot. In reality, it’s a conservative 75% of the job. Producing is not for the faint of heart. At the very best of times, an artist will be self confident, prepared, talented and at the peak of their game. In reality, creative people are insecure, conflicted by their life choices, distracted by something in the real world, tired, nervous, under pressure, and in a sense of denial regarding how important what they’re trying to achieve is. Multiply that by a band, or even a session player, and you have a powder keg of conflicting emotional states that must be carefully handled.

The practical manifestations of this can be as simple as spending an extra minute crafting a better headphone mix, to knowing when to feed the singer to avoid post-lunch blues, to embracing a band member who feels like their ideas are being dismissed, to recognising the internal dynamics within the recording ensemble. It can be about pushing a good artist to become sublime, or cajoling a mediocre artist to perform above their own abilities. It can come down to making sure you’re delivering the artist/label’s vision of what the project is — the end point. Mostly, it’s about listening at all times and taking enough notes to keep sessions moving, especially when doubt invariably creeps into the process.

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4. A record producer will know how to make the equipment work for the project.

These days, the quality of recording gear makes it seem almost impossible to get a bad sound! However, it can be daunting for the novice — so many numbers to remember, and information from every ‘expert’ on ‘the only way to do things’. It’s easy to doubt you’re making the right choice, which can lead to insecurity, which leads to indecision, which leads to never finishing a record.

Once there’s an understanding of the end point, the producer will use studio choices, tracking spaces, microphone/preamp/compressor selection, instruments, down to decision about the liveliness of a snare drum or when to drop the bass, to confidently push an artist towards the record they want to make. A producer’s experience of seeing projects through will mean they can think on their feet and make bold statements with less gear. One of the keys is to stay focused on the goal and not be distracted by possibilities that don’t work towards the required aesthetic.

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PRODUCER’S QUICK 5

We put together a little roundtable with some of the country’s best producers in their field to get some insight into the way different producers approach their role.


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MITCH CAIRNS

Mitch is one of the country’s top Blues & Roots producers, with a couple of Aria Awards under his belt.

What is your greatest strength as a producer?

I’d like to think my ears. Having been a musician first I’m fairly good at communicating with artists and musicians. I’m usually pretty good at disarming (except in extreme cases) difficult personalities and deciphering odd requests, like ‘Can you make it sound more lime?’

What percentage of what you do in a studio is psychological?

It depends on the project. Sometimes it cruises along nicely and is only about 90% psychological!

What’s the first thing you do when an artist approaches you about making a record?

Sit down and chat, get to know them and what they want from the project. I’ll try and get an idea of what their expectations are of me and the project.

Do you ask for songwriting demos before you start?

Ideally I like artists to sit with me and sing the songs in the barest form. It’s a good way to cut through everything and just get down to You, Them and The Songs. ‘Demo-itis’ can be one of the biggest minefields on a project!

What percentage of work on an album (including admin, emails, listening, research) is done away from the studio?

I’m not really sure on the average but a lot of work is done referencing mixes, taking calls and emails away from the studio. I still do quite a lot of admin from my studio and I haven’t had a mobile setup for a longtime, so I don’t really take my work home.


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5. A record producer will have people he/she trusts.

Over time, producers ‘collect’ people. Having a team of people to call on empowers a producer to fulfil the countless parts of making a record. This doesn’t have to be fancier than being able to reach a musician by phone who performed well on a previous session. A good producer will have a number of players, programmers, singers, technicians and craftsmen at a variety of pay scales that can be called on to get the job done. It’s not just studio people. I’m also asked about graphic design, video, marketing, radio pluggers, legal advice, songwriters, photographers, repair people, computer experts and so on. When you’re a novice making a record at home, sticking points can undermine your confidence and cause a roadblock that may halt the project indefinitely. Even at the earliest stages, I encourage artists and producers to start building their team. At a time when you need them most, having someone to lean on that you trust can make the difference between delivering a record or not.

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CHRIS VALLEJO

Chris owns Linear Recordings and is responsible for producing multiple worldwide hit albums for Passenger among others.

What is your greatest strength as a producer?

I don’t really believe in producers controlling too much. I think producing records should be fairly collaborative and if there’s something I know from experience isn’t going to work, I at least try and let them feel like we explored the idea and realised collectively that it doesn’t work. Sometimes it does. As I engineer most sessions I produce, I like making the technical part of the recording feel seamless and fast; I never want people waiting around. Gear and engineering is vitally important but I don’t want the artist to think that it’s the focus.

What percentage of what you do in a studio is psychological?

About 90%. I used to think the psyholgical side  was minimal but realised that how a record ends up sounding (particularly from a vocal perspective) hinges on how confident they are feeling. Also, when we’re working on something, I want them to know it’s the only thing I’m thinking about. There is nothing worse than being in the middle of three projects at once and constantly being interrupted with things not relevant to the session.

What’s the first thing you do when an artist approaches you about making a record?

Have a chat about what they want, what they’re into and their vision for the record.

Do you ask for songwriting demos before you start?

Definitely, I don’t like going into the studio without the songs reasonably formed. Also I need to know that I can contribute to what they’re doing. If I feel I can’t, or I’m not into it, then I don’t do the project.

What percentage of work on an album (including admin, emails, listening, research) is done away from the studio?

Probably about 10%.


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6. A record producer understands songs.

We can get so caught up ruminating over budgets, studios, and personnel when we conceptualise a new project, that sometimes we forget the most fundamental building block of record production — are the songs any good? This is an especially tricky one for artists making records at home. They’re often so caught up in the process of capturing the song, they don’t have the objectivity to hear whether the song is actually worth capturing. Back in the old days the producer was responsible for choosing the songs, or at least filtering the good ones from the bad ones!

When I ask to hear demos, I may get sent 15 songs that are in contention for an album project. Listening through, you start to categorise songs into good finished songs, songs that need work, and then songs best left behind. This can be a confronting moment in the process that requires steady nerves. If an artist doesn’t like the response they get, they could question their choice of producer and possibly walk away from the project.

Despite this, it is critical at this early stage that a producer is honest. You’re building up a trust with the artist, and just telling the artist what you think they want to hear is perilous. People skills come to the fore here and constructive observations are much more effective than brutal truth! You also need to back up your observations with a knowledge of song structure and development in the chosen genre, so you can see beyond the crappy iPhone/Garageband demo and find the unpolished jewel that lies within. A good producer will be able to recognise the strengths of a song at the same time as pointing out the flaws. A constructive conversation about changing the odd chord, finding a better lyric, changing the structure, or pulling key bits into focus can give an artist confidence in the producer and the creative process that lies ahead. Remember, confidence is a driving force that shouldn’t be underestimated.

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MATT FELL

Matt is arguably the best country music producer in the country, with a few Aria Awards and a bunch of Golden Guitar Awards.

What is your greatest strength as a producer?

Arranging. Finding the weak spots and dead weight in a song in its raw form and shaping it into something cohesive that can make the production process that much easier.

What percentage of what you do in a studio is psychological?

That depends entirely on the artist. If they’re confident and relaxed then very little but if not then a great deal of psychological work is required.

What’s the first thing you do when an artist approaches you about making a record?

I ask them to describe to me the kind of record they’d like to make, and what their references may be. From there I can give them a more accurate budget.

Do you ask for songwriting demos before you start?

Always. I find it’s almost impossible to properly budget a project without hearing the songs first.

What percentage of work on an album (including admin, emails, listening, research) is done away from the studio?

Depends on the artist. Some require a lot of TLC before a project starts, whereas others are very relaxed and aware of the process.


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7. A record producer will always have Plans B, C and D ready to go.

This last point is one I only became aware of recently. For an artist — especially when the majority of records these days are self funded — making a record is a massive life commitment. They’re essentially throwing all of their eggs in this one basket, and hoping it’ll pay off down the track. One of the main reasons people go to producers is because a producer is experienced enough to be able to move with the events that take place during a session. As we all know, making a plan is one thing: knowing what to do and staying calm when things get off track is another. A good producer will be able to assess how every situation is going, and what to do when things go off track.

I had a situation recently where a project was falling behind schedule. There were a lot of musicians involved, but a routine head cold meant one of the principal players was moving through the session a little slower than expected. As the session went on, the artist, and the person paying were getting a little more frantic about the schedule. I could sense that and kept assuring them it was ok, and that ‘I had a plan’. Finally, one of them had a minor emotional breakdown. I took them out in the hall, and calmly explained that I ‘had a Plan B, C and D’. I broke down about four different eventualities and the various costs involved in all of them if this session didn’t go to plan. Just knowing that I was on top of it as a producer calmed the talent down enough, and the session resumed as normal. The session turned out fine (we went with Plan C).

An artist usually just wants assurance that someone is at the wheel. They’re usually emotionally invested in the songs, the risk, the finances, the personnel and a million other things. It’s the producer’s job to do the logistical heavy lifting!

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“EVERYONE IS A PRODUCER ANYWAY”

I saw this posted on a friend’s Facebook page recently. Yes, it’s true. Anyone can be a record producer these days. Or at least can claim they are. However, as you can see, the full spectrum of a record producer’s role isn’t as simple as jotting it down as a job description. Being a talented sound person is barely enough to get started as a producer. A record producer is as much a ‘project manager’ as anything else. Like all management type positions, you need to earn the right to do that job. There’s no shortcut to that in any career. You have to get project experience under your belt, collect your people, and deliver results before you truly can wear the ‘producer’s hat’, and trust yourself with someone else’s songs, career and money.

In the next issue we’ll talk more specifically about some of the typical approaches to working through a project, knowing what questions to ask to get the answers you need, and why it’s better to plan for worst case scenarios in every situation.

Michael Carpenter works out of his Love Hz Studios in Sydney, where he produces, writes, makes videos, plays instruments and is perfecting the art of ‘producer talk’.

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