The word production comes from the Latin verb producere; “pro” meaning towards, and “ducere” meaning to lead, bring or drive (something) somewhere. The combination of both words denotes the action of driving something to its full development until the achieving of the goal. This is, indeed, what a music producer does: lead an artist (who can be himself), a song, an album, a soundtrack, etc. to the completeness and (hopefully) to the success. For using a metaphor: a producer is a gardener who cares that the plants (artists) grow sane and strong, with gorgeous flowers (songs).
In a first view of the music production world, two kind of producers appear: the self-producers, who obviously produce their own stuff (songs, sounds, movie/tv series soundtracks, videogame soundtracks or whatever); and the classic producers, who produce artists and/or bands… no need to say that both domains are intersected sets, so that some producers belong to both fields.
In a first approximation, the main task of a producer seems to consist in providing a kind of reference point that we could call, as it is usually done, “leadership”. The producer might set reasonable goals, motivate others to share or set it, and/or lead the team to determine objectives cooperatively and set too the tactics for the success in the settled objectives.
The kind of leadership of a producer depends, as we will see, of his/her own personal characteristics and skills, and also, evidently, of the produced artist’s ones (who, depending of his/her skills, background, psychology, etc. can determine in a major or minor degree the whole production process). But in general (except in the “babysitting” cases), the way which better works is the Socratic one: to make feel the artist, at least in certain way, that he/she is the source of the main ideas (even if it might not be the case in a degree from 0% to 100%).
Although music producers tend to actively direct the creative process of making music, there are different procedures to drive it more or less smoothly; their personal approach to making records and their interpersonal skills and palette of methodologies will determine the degree and the weight of this role (counting, of course, as was said before, with the characteristics of the produced artist —a considerably important aspect).
Despite the recording of music is more than a hundred years old, in our time is only one of the parts of the production process. It consists, briefly step by step explained (we suppose the case of no self-production) of a first contact with the artist, and depending whether or not it is a known one, the approach will be different (in the negative case, artist will have to bring recorded stuff to be listened by the producer, for obvious reasons). It may happen that a single artist asks for a demo of the production, so it will be the time to work with synths and samplers; once the goals, procedures, schedules, etc. are settled, it is time to record (it has two aspects: the technic, that only needs practice, accuracy and certain knowledge of the recording stuff, and the interpersonal, that supposes the capacity of the producer to drive “everything” in the right path); once recording process is finished, time to mix has come. An example can illustrate this: if you want to make a cake, you will have to mix in an accurate proportion several ingredients like flour, baking powder, eggs, milk, sugar, etc. to get a whole thing that becomes a tasty cake. In our case, it is exactly the same, but the ingredients are the instruments present in the tracks. We dispose of a mixer which controls each track, and several devices that allows us to operate in some parameters to balance and optimize the whole sound of the song. When the mix is finished (the truth is that a mix is never finished because there is always something that could be done yet, but it happens with everything) you can add a touch of power and distinction via mastering. If everybody is happy with the result, time of marketing has come (here we can meet, if the enterprise can afford it, the figure of the Executive Producer).
We can validate that from approximately two decades ago until now, it commenced, in several institutions (Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and Yale, among others), an academic/theoretical analysis of production as a process involving several “moments”, and as a system with its structure and relationship among its elements. This theoretical work has come a field of academic study within the broader disciplines of musicology, sociology, ethnomusicology, anthropology, and other disciplines with the suffix “–logy”, although it doesn’t have yet this suffix (it looks complicated^^). This is why in this set of articles the concept of production will not be treated, as usual, from the typical audio school approach, but with a logical, methodological and analytical one (also descriptive), with the goal to find out the essential aspects of the production process; the substantial moments in the productions process; the elements and the structure constituting the production system and the relations among these elements.
In the list of credits that we can find in all the audiovisual products, we can notice that there is the “producer” credit in the recorded music section. This is an all-encompassing term, describing a variety of skills, sensibilities, responsibilities, knowledge, and functions (or, in the case of team, the work of different specialized people towards the same goal, under the label of the production enterprise —or not). On the other hand, the world of music production has been forced, in certain way, to shape the different kinds of music, so for each kind of music there might be, ideally, a specialized producer. It is due to the fact that each kind of music needs a special “feeling” and certain related skills, conditioning, at least, the working way and the ears use. For instance, a producer specialized in heavy metal, trained to deal with massive percussions, strong distortions, guttural vocals, power chords, obstinate riffs, etc. will not be usually, for understandable reasons, a good fit for pop music (and vice versa). Furthermore, in the same branch, different artists may need, from a producer, different sensibility, reception and approach; in other words: different producers (or a very versatile one, an infrequently existing species).
So, producers can be successful (thus an artist without a producer doesn’t exist, unless he/she is being self-producer), specialized in a certain musical genre, good arrangers, well trained, studio owners, prestigious, famous, methodologic, psychologist, and so on. There are producers who do the role of engineer/producer, or just the studio owner’s one; there re cheap or expensive producers; we find producers who like to record everything live, and on the other hand producers who program everything using samplers and synthesizers (or producers how use the combination of both processes, live recording and programing, which is the standard nowadays).
There are also, at least, two complementary ways to face a production process: the first one is to make the music of an artist fit in the genre to which it belongs; in this case, the genre acts as a “template” which determines the development of the production. The second way is, without leaving the “right path”, trying to add a special flavor, a personal touch, and trying to involve the artist in it. So, depending on the choice, the result can be a cliché song, perfectly produced but sounding exactly the same than all the other songs in the same style; or a well-produced song with a magical touch that makes it special, although belonging to a certain style.
[Said btw, in these articles will be used “producer” meaning a single person or a team (same, mutatis mutandis, can be applied to “production”)].
It goes without saying that producers who produce themselves are artists producing their own music. Keeping aside the multi instrument players, who still can record, if they want, analogically, the digital recording and music producing technology empower the exponential growing of this class of producer, and this is a process which has no stop. Musicians or bands like Mike Oldfield, Prince (after his “Slave” period), The Beatles (with their label “Apple”, founded in 1968 and which name was deplorably copied by Steve Jobs in 1976), Ben Selvin, Les Paul, Stevie Wonder, Vangelis, Giorgio Moroder, Hans Zimmer, Clint Mansell, Alan Parsons, Gotye, Calvin Harris, Veracocha, David Gueta and so on. Nowadays, as was said before, the quantity of artists who are diving in the production technology to develop the skills to produce themselves is in an unstoppable expansion.
The music producer who owns a high degree of knowledge in music theory, composition, harmony, etc. uses to be a perceptible creative force in the production process and in its result. This kind of producer uses to be musically, technically, commercially, psychologically, etc., vigorous, making recognizable songs, arrangements, orchestrations, sounds, vocals, etc. is the ideal producer for artists who don’t write their songs or those who need a little bit of help because they don’t rise or just because they are lazy. No need to say that this kind of producer uses to be also self-producer. All the top producers belong to this type, but also some beginner ones, who make their first productions launching unknown artists to the pool making everything for them.
Nowadays —as was said before— artists use to ask the producer to make a model or a “preview” (also called “preset” or “template”) of the song (a feature made possible by the digital technology) before recording it in the studio or wherever with musicians. Mariah Carey, for example, asked this to producer Walter Afanasieff; so, he confectioned the song “Hero” programing synthesizers to simulate ad hoc orchestral sounds; it happened that, when Mariah listened the “demo” (with the vocals), she said Walter that she preferred the song as it was rather than with a real orchestra, so it was launched as it was made by Afanasieff (we have a similar story in the one happened with “I Feel Love”, a song product of the collaboration of maestro Giorgio Moroder with Dona Summer). Said btw, both songs raised up to number one in the top lists (and we can notice that this is a proof of the power of synthesizers, underestimated by some unskilled or short range producers).
On the other hand, in this branch there are producers like George Martin, whose work tends to emphasize, adopt, or complement and adapt to the identity of the artist. This is what he did during his period with The Beatles (the band recognized as the greatest in the history of pop music, and a socio-cultural phenomenon without precedents, important details to not forget).
Another example, defines the producer’s role as being the source of the music itself, and the artist being the front line of the producer (i.e. a tool for the music). Is a way to see the production as a “war” where the producer is the general and the artist is the front line soldier^^); said btw, this is the case of Timbaland, Rick Rubin, etc. and, in certain way, Quincy Jones.
A producer can be also someone who listens carefully the artist, detects the artist capabilities, understands his/her wishes and objectives, and tries to put the means to achieve it. This is the kind of producer (or producer’s attitude) indicated for talented artists, who just need somebody who understands them and friendly acts as a special helpful tool, taking care of responsibilities that the artist cannot manage, everything to help the artist to be successful in his/her challenges. This is more or less the opposite attitude than the previously seen. George Martin, as he was also very rewarding and helpful, could be included in this branch (as one of his deep goals was to make visible the own shine of each one of the artists which he produced).
When a producer acts as “another member of the band”, it brings in a lot of synergies and “complicities”. Here we can speak of the work of Alan Parsons with Al Stewart, and we have to cite again George Martin (often described as the fifth Beatle). Producers who develop this collaborative part just add to their role as producer an extra role as source of ideas that the artist can incorporate. This kind of producer is a spark that can light the “fire” of the artists.
It can happen, when a producer gains a name, that limits himself just to perform the role of a boss (or simply structure or label owner) in the production, passing time to time by the studio to see how the things are going. This is the case of Rick Rubin, who spends (as some artists produced by him say) too little time at the studio. But there is people happy with him (at least who worked with him at the beginning), and other people angry with him. Corey Taylor, for example, lamented the Rubin’s lack of presence, that he estimated in few minutes a week. For him he was overrated and overpaid, and not serious and responsible in his producer role. He became too well settled down in the chair of boss. But, on the other hand, there are skilled artist who are satisfied with this miss present producers. David Bowie and U2 were happy with the brief visits of Brian Eno to the studio arguing that when he comes back after a while he can hear things with new ears. The fact is that for them, Brian was just a solid source of opinion.
As we are considering, a producer can have different skills. For example, can be also songwriter and, consequently, write the song for their artists (or help them to do this). Can be engineer and put more emphasis in the technical approach (although as producer —not simple recording engineer— needs sufficient knowledge of the musical stuff). Can be arranger and take care of (or suggest) the arrangements and instrumentation of the songs (even to pick the musicians who will record each part, if this is the case). Or can have a more or less balanced combination of all the available skills. In this leading branch we could mention, as paradigmatic examples, George Martin on one hand and, on the other, Quincy Jones; even though they are very different in their approaches as producers, they have same success and quality level.
George Martin is one of the most successful producers of the history, not just in commercial or skillfulness terms, but because of the multiplicity of his contributions to the many records he produced, and very especially his talented production of The Beatles’. With this band, he achieved something that rarely happens: to make (regardless of the success of the band itself) that each member of the group (John, Paul, George and Ringo) shined with his own light. Despite of the greatness of his talent and contributions, Martin never constrained the freedom to the artists he produced. He did not write their songs or played on the recordings if was not necessary; he was not monopolizing the control of all parameters (implying the use of a sophisticated “meta-control”); we could say that, as producer, he applied, in a special way, the Socratic method: he just set its own sound and musical identity to each production, making it flow naturally from itself: The Beatles, America, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Stan Getz, Ultravox, UFO… each one of them had the own kind of musical color.
The complementary specimen, Quincy Jones, with same skill level, is the opposite of Martin. He uses to work with single artists instead of bands, and often uses other arrangers, and picks the best studio musicians. His productions have a distinguishing identity, with characteristics which allows to identify his works. You can compare his work with Michael Jackson’s with his one with George Benson, and you will notice the seal of Quincy (said btw, “Give Me the Night” is considered one of the best produced albums of all time). He controls the variables of his productions very strictly; and he uses a set of intelligently selected writers, musicians, background singers, arrangers, and engineers… as a good example of this, in the album “Dona Summer” (produced by Jones), as songwriters we can find among others Bill Meyers, Richard Page, Bruce Springsteen and Vangelis; as background vocals we can find Michael Jackson and James Ingram; at the synthesizer we have Greg Phillinganes and David Foster; as lead guitar Steve Lukather; as engineer/mixer Bruce Swedien …. and so on. We will always find in his productions prestigious musicians and professionals.
The important lesson that this contraposition brings, as it happens in other branches of the human activity, is that doesn’t exist the best way for producing music; as we’ve seen, the most talented producers, using notably different procedures, achieve the same goal: the completeness and the success of their productions, reaching the highest quality.
It’s been mentioned the self-production as a modus operandi. But this phenomenon transcends the small studio (or home studio) world. As it goes with the stuff, it happens that, time to time, a musician has the temptation to be a producer. Indeed, years after The Beatles founded Apple, inaugurating the period of the self-production, there emerged some artists who became entrepreneurial producers, like Jennifer Lopez (Nuyorican Productions), Moses Asch (Folkways Records), David Bowie (Bowie), Sam Phillips (Sun Records), Bono (Elevation Partners), the Chess brothers (Chess Records), Dexter Holland (Nitro Records), Bruce Iglauer (Alligator Records), Alicia Keys (KrucialKeys), Brian Eno and so on. In consequence, anyone with certain degree of musical knowledge can develop the abilities to become a producer, but it does not ensure the success in the challenge.
We’ve seen clearly along this article, that the producer needs some “know how” in interpersonal relationship and, if possible, a bit of knowledge of psychology, allowing this to proceed in the most adequate way in each “scenario” and making the things go smoothly. On the other hand, we have to note that is not the same to treat with a single person than with a set of people. In consequence, we could consider that for a band perhaps the best kind of producer (ideally) is someone like George Martin (who creates the conditions to bring out the best of each member of a band), and for a single artist (ideally) someone like Quincy Jones (who creates the conditions for the most efficient context to make the artist rise).
Obviously, these two reference models, if taken as source of inspiration, must be adapted to the characteristics of each production challenge.
In further articles we will discuss about the process of becoming music producer; the production process and system and about the music production methodology, among other related subjects.
2016 Jordi Soler Alomà