The Music Producer

In the world of music production, the definition of the phrase ‘music producer’ can mean many different things to many different people. Some producers are musicians, some are just engineers, some are actually remixer’s, while others are all three. So what is it exactly that a music producer does then?

In the simplest and most cohesive terms, the producer is actually the project manager to the process of composition, recording, mixing, and mastering. He or she is in charge of directing and maintaining the overall vision of the project, defines the sound and the goals of the project, brings an exclusive mindset to inspire, and assists with the provocation of the artist. A good producer will make the record more than the sum of its overall parts. In a way, you could almost say he or she is a scientist trying to create musical chemistry.

Each producer brings their own set of skills and approach to the project, so this can make summarizing what they do quite difficult. In this blog, I will define several recognizable types of producers so I can hopefully make this more clear for you, the reader.



The Audio Engineer

The profession of the audio engineer is what usually defines the average person’s stereotypical notion of the ‘classic’ music producer. This definition is aided by the visualization of the engineer perched over the mixing console, sweating over equalization and compression settings, effects combinations like chorus and reverb, track phasing, headroom, dynamics, so on and so forth. To many in the music industry, the studio is almost like an instrument, and it’s the music producer who plays it like a true virtuoso. For them, the project isn’t finished until the overall vision has been 100% realized. Whatever and however long it takes to get to the end goal of a sonic masterpiece, they will attempt it.

The Advisor / Mentor

There are many producers in the music industry who unlike the audio engineer, don’t have much technical expertise to speak of in the studio. They usually don’t sit at the mixing console during production of the records they make, but instead hire the best engineer who can help achieve the overall vision of the specific project in production. These advisor/mentor producers usually focus squarely on the artist’s vision, inspiration, and performance, helping them to produce the best sound and music the artist is capable of. One good example of this kind of producer is Rick Rubin, who seems to have a knack for positively inspiring and energizing the artists he works with.

The Midas Touch

There are some producers in the industry who almost seem to have a magical touch with whatever artist they work with, a kind of mysterious recipe that assures the best chances of success for the artist. Flood, with his trademark “wall of sound”, is one good example of this kind of producer whose career has dominated alternative, punk, and rock music for over 25 years. Dr. Dre, a more recent representation of ‘the midas touch’ producer, was almost entirely responsible for the vast output of some of the biggest names in R&B and Rap. It is important to keep in mind though that a distinctive sound is only a good thing if the style of the producer fits in with the artist.

The Remixer

A lot of people from today’s generation think the profession of ‘remix producer’ is a recent evolution in the music industry. However, the origins of the ‘remix producer’ actually began in the mid 70’s with the fusion of edits in the disco genre. These edits would be comped together to form what are known as ‘dub edits’ or ‘dub remixes.’ In the early 80’s, artist’s like Grandmaster Flash invented the sound of cutting and scratching. Shortly afterwards sampling and midi took remixing to a whole new level. Now, remixing has become such an essential part in the evolution and marketing of a song, that the remix often becomes the top ten hit before fans have heard the original version of the song remixed.

The Musician

Musicality, while one of the least recognized, is probably one of the most fundamental skills required of a producer. A good producer will add to, remark and counsel on the performance, songwriting, and arrangement of a song they are producing. Many producers are usually great musicians as well. It is also not uncommon to find them playing on the albums they produce.

The Artist

Some artists take their musicality to a whole other level by actually being the producer of the project. One famous example of the artist taking on the role of producer is Chicago’s very own hit maker, R Kelly. Not only has Kelly produced a continuous stream of hit records for his own brand name, he has produced hit after hit for virtually every major label artist in the dance, pop, r&b, and soul genres. Another great example of the artist/producer is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, who does everything from write to perform and engineer his own records.

The Rough Mix: The Art and the Risk

As an audio engineer, the start of a recording/production project is usually one of the best parts of the project; the teamwork is all there, everyone involved is optimistic, and the overall focus of the big picture is challenging, invigorating, and most of all fun.

However, when it comes to the end of the project, it usually is one of the most taxing and least gratifying parts of the project. This is intensified by shifting focus to each individual involved in the project; all the endless detail and waffling of editing; the infinite possibilities of mix tweaks allowed by our computer systems; etc.

Strangely enough, that pivotal moment in the project where things change between collective ideology and individual artistic vision is usually during the time of rough mixing.


THE LOVE AND NEED OF ROUGH MIXES

In an ideal audio engineers world, daily rough mixes would be an essential step in moving a project forward. However, this isn’t always the case due to things like session time constraints, client financial issues, release dates, etc. Therefore, the limited number of rough mixes made during the project become even more important to the overall scope of the project. Each rough mix must represent a significant advancement in the overall vision of the project; inspire future creativity within the project; and help determine how much more time is needed before final mixing begins. Here are a few guidelines to think of when you are at the rough mix stage in your project.

The first rough mix of a project is sometimes referred to as the ‘raw mix’ or ‘organic rough.’ This is because it allows a unique opportunity to hear what the recorded tracks really sound like together with natural dynamics and unused space. When it comes time to begin the first rough mixes, keep in mind these mixes should be nothing but a representation of the initial recorded performance. This means that the first rough mix should only focus on the balance of all the recorded tracks together with very few edits, EQ, and processing. No overdubs either. The rough mix is actually raw and unproduced, but if recorded properly, still hi-fi. Allowing the imagination to open up, the rough mix helps the engineer, producer, and especially the artist contemplate what to do next in the song and how to fill any open space.

As the process of overdubbing begins, the next batch of rough mixes will understandably increase in complexity. It is this second round of rough mixes where you can and really should try things out. Take some f’n chances. You never know when you might discover something new and useful that will help take what you are working on to the next level. Experiment with different outboard combinations, try a new plug-in, create an over the top effect or two. And the good thing is, if it doesn’t work out, you can just get rid of it. Knowledge is power!

After all the experimental foray’s have been successfully/unsuccessfully attempted, it is time to do some rough mixes that one could say are dressed up rehearsals of what the final mix will become. Using the collective knowledge from all the experimentation as well as the overdubs and initial recording, I’d fashion together my most glorified mix of the project all while attempting to locate and resolve any problems from poor recording to bad performances, bad editing, etc. These mixes are then aided by having the artist or band go and listen to them on their own preferred sound system in hopes of providing meaningful feedback.

One thing to keep in mind, the rough mix process doesn’t always work out so well for every client. It’s always best when making that first rough mix to verify if the artist or band would like to hear it raw and organic or if they prefer it polished up a bit. Some current musicians and artists wouldn’t even think of listening to their part or song without at least some kind of tuning, quantizing, Eq-ing, or manipulation. They would likely find the organic rough mix to be faulty to a point of questioning the engineer’s proficiency and qualifications. They would never question their own. If some of your recording methods rely on drum replacement, comping and editing, virtual amplification then you might have to do a fair amount of work before presenting the first rough mix to your client.

In the second stage of rough mixing, where it’s good to experiment and create options, the liabilities can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Remember, even though experimenting and over effecting is fun for us because we’re engineers, to an artist who fears hokey exuberance and manipulation of their sound, it can be an all out declaration of war. Once again, it is always good to check with the artist or band member before experimenting or radically changing their sound, especially a vocalist. For some vocalist’s, having their voice washed in effects can really chap their ass, driving them to question your judgement, which in turn prevents you from making simple recording suggestions like ‘you should double this or stack that.’

By the time the third stage rough mixes are complete, they better be almost as good as what one would hear on the radio. Having a near perfect rough is just the beginning, it is now also all about ‘temp mastering’ (EQ, compression, expansion, limiting) on rough mixes so artists don’t throw a fit over low levels in comparison to final mastered albums.

So what exactly is the flip side to all of this? If the rough mixes are too good, they might get prematurely distributed. This is either because of an anxious artist posting their rough mixes on the web, unintended airplay or unintended leaks via insider moles. If people think a rough mix sounds finished, then it might get overexposed and diminish any chances of success the final mix could have.

As important and fun as rough mixing can be, the modern audio engineer should always make sure his or her approach and overall intentions are acceptable to everyone involved in the project. A rough mix is sometimes going to create disharmony and strong opinions amongst everyone involved in the project, but that dialogue and concession is exactly what is required to bring about the best in our art. As time passes and you begin to build a stronger reputation as an audio engineer through success, people will begin to hold more merit to your opinions and experimentation, which at the end of the day means your job as an engineer is just going to keep getting better, and better, and better, and better………

Day in the Life of a Session

You have come up with a great new song. Overcome with a great sense of pride and achievement, it is now time to ponder what to do next. After shoddily recording a few demos on your laptop, you decide that it is time to provide your music with the love it deserves – the professional treatment of a commercial recording studio.

Once you’ve slimmed down your list of local studios, you decide to choose a Chicago recording studio that is warm, economical and operated by people that go out of there way to making your project the most important. On the day of the session, your nerves start to unsettle as you make your way to the place that will help you immortalize your song. Upon arriving, the chill vibes and pleasant nature of the staff and engineer have a calm and reassuring effect.

A half an hour later, everyone is in position. The meters bounce and glow. In just a few minutes, the nervousness that you entered the studio with has now turned to jubilation as you realize that the sound that you are hearing is coming from you. It is your sound. And, paired with the proper recording environment, gear, and engineers, what started as a simple idea is now becoming a really good song.

Now that the recording of the music and lyrics has been completed, the engineer of the session tells you that they will need some time to mix your song so that it has that “radio” shine and is ready for distribution through Itunes and other internet stores. You listen to the sound that is coming out of the speakers in the control room. Faders are raised and lowered, knobs are tweaked, the audio engineer massages the computer keys and bends the software to his will. In a little less than two hours he plays the result for you of both his and your efforts. As a smile leaps from your face, there is only one word that comes to mind – “WOW!”. Going to Studio 11 to record your new song was the best decision you could have made.

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