Ok, it’s time for that question that even some seasoned pros will sometimes ask…
What does a producer actually do?
Phil Ek describing his role as “the person who creatively guides or directs the process of making a record, like a director would a movie. The engineer would be more the cameraman of the movie.”
In fact, the role has changed over time, so it will also vary from producer to producer and even project to project. Once upon a time (1950’s and earlier), the various jobs of the recording and marketing process had been carried out by different professionals within the industry: · A&R (artist and repertoire) managers found potential new artists and signed them to their labels; · professional songwriters created new material; · publishing agents sold these songs to the A&R people; · staff engineers carried out the task of making the recordings in company-owned studios.
Producers now typically carry out most or all of the various production tasks themselves, including selecting and arranging songs, overseeing sessions (and sometimes also engineering the recordings) and even writing the material, although it became a common practice for producers to claim a writing credit even if they did not actually contribute to the song.
Working with a producer
One of the most overlooked aspects of the producers job is focusing the artistic vision. Whether it’s a fledgling artist who needs guidance in developing a mature sound or finding a core audience; a ‘personality artist’ who has none of their own songs; an artist who writes songs, plays on them and has an idea of their market and direction; or even an RnB artist who needs a fully formed track to add their lyrics and/or melody on top of; they are all guided by the producer to allow the audience to connect with the song.
Often they will act as an intermediary between the artistic and technical worlds – straddle the artsy side (I need a more ‘orange’ sound [remind me to tell you that story one day] ) with, for example, the sound engineer (which microphones to use, ‘try the Neumann U87 on this piccolo’).
Logistics – a session doesn’t just happen – someone needs to book the engineer (and choose the right one), book studio time (at one with all the necessary tools for the session and the right budget), book and pay session players (musicians that are appropriate for the style, how long to spend on the project.. etc. And you guessed it – the producer does that too.
So, how does this help me?
Well, now you’re more in the know about what they do, you also need to hear the effect the right producer can have on the music.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of Sir George Martin – he pioneered new rock arrangement and recording techniques with The Beatles. Phil Spector is famous for his unique ‘wall of sound’ found on countlesss records from Ike and Tina Turner to The Beatles (Listen to Let It Be and the ‘Let It Be – naked sessions’ to hear his influence and the bare recordings without his input for a perfect comparison).
Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald), Max Martin (Karl Martin Sandberg), Benny Blanco (Benjamin Levin), Shellback (Karl Johan Schuster) and RedOne (Nadir Khayat) can all be lumped together as the guys (singly and collaboratively) who regularly create the modern pop sound that hits number one on the charts regularly. Love it or hate it, these guys have serious craft that keep their work rolling in.
Some producers have an instantly identifiable sound that cuts through regardless of the artist or genre. Listen to the work of Mutt Lange (Robert John Lange) (particularly compare the Lady Gaga song ‘You and I’ with any of the releases by his then wife, Shania Twain). You could also look at another sound palette he works with by comparing Def Leppard albums such as High ‘n’ Dry, Pyromania, Hysteria and Adrenalize with Acca Daccas Back in Black. John Shanks produced both ‘The Climb’ by Miley Cyrus and ‘All I Want To Do’ by Sheryl Crow – see if you can spot his signature sounds. One producer was put on the map by working with Taylor Swift in the early days – he originally was doing her demos before the ‘real’ producers would come in and re-record the songs. In a commendable act of artistic integrity, Swifty insisted that he be the one to record her album and then the 3 subsequent albums – Nathan Chapman. Also listen to the ‘Two Worlds Collide’ album by The McClymonts for more of the same.
Joe Chiccarelli and Rick Rubin are actually each well known for their transparent sound, that is, they don’t bring any pre-conceived ideas or techniques in the each production but rather work out what they need for each artist. Check out Boy and Bear/ and Johnny Cash’s last album, American Recordings/Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, respectively.
The Glam Rock movement wouldn’t be the same with out the Chinnichap (Nicky Chinn, Mike Chapman) formula. The Smeezingtons (Ari Levine, Philip Lawrence, Bruno Mars [Peter Gene Hernandez]) aren’t well known, but you’ve definitely heard their work…
Sometimes an artist may need to straddle two camps to reach their target audience. For example, Michael Buble released his 2009 album, Crazy Love with individual contributions from David Foster, Bob Rock and Humberto Gatica – each of them bringing their own sound and arrangements.
I hope this has given you an idea of what the role is, as well as some interesting listening homework. Until next time…