What IS a producer, and WHAT do they do?
As musicians, we often hear the term “producer” used in reference to new recordings, new artists, and even new sounds in a particular musical genre. It’s evident that producers are an essential part of the recording process, and in an artist’s or ensemble’s development. I mean, there are Grammy's awarded for Producer of the Year in both the rock and classical music worlds… So, what does a producer actually do? And how does that affect me as a recording artist? I’d like to answer some questions, specific to the classical world, that have come up in situations I have been in.
Stated simply, the producer should be there to provide overall quality control of a given recording session and project. Of course, there’s a lot that goes in to that!
First, what is the producer’s administrative responsibility?
The producer’s administrative responsbilities can run the gamut! One of the biggest tasks can be securing a recording venue (or suggesting venues). This requires a knowledge of excellent venues within a given geographical market, acoustically-speaking, that are also accessible and affordable based on the budget of the project. An overall knowledge of an area, or at least resources to be able to call upon in a given city, can be critical in setting a session up for success. Time management can also be extremely important. This can apply to the overall project as well as to the session itself. Helping formulate a gameplan for the session, that allows the musicians the chance to make the best recording they are able, managing the time during the session, and keeping an ear on the fatigue level of the players, all are crucial to success. Seeing the project through each stage of completion, so that the project is completed in a reasonable amount of time and doesn’t drag on for years can also be an overall responsibility.
What are a producer’s musical responsibilities?
From my point of view, a producer’s number one goal is to serve the artist’s ability to bring their best musical product into public view. A producer that serves that goal with honesty, integrity, and tact, are a huge piece of the record making puzzle. Being able to make suggestions to an artist, while in the heat of a taxing recording session, and to do so with kindness and honesty, while also being effective, is an art in and of itself. A producer that can’t or won’t make those suggestions is a major hindrance to a great musical product, in that the artist will not perform or present their art to its fullest potential. Personalities play a key role here, and many artists are only comfortable with people they know well. However, hiring a producer that has the appropriate skills and musical experience can go a long way in making your project stand out in a crowded musical world.
During the session, your producer should be marking musical scores. What this means is that for each take, notations are made in the score regarding things that didn’t go well, or that were better than a previous take. This allows the editor, in post production, to have a good starting point to edit together the best takes from the session. Ideally, the artist needs to get the producer copies of the scores well before the sessions start. Demo or live concert recordings are always helpful, even if they are not great quality. Communicate any troublesome pieces, spots, or movements that you are concerned about as an artist. That gives your producer much more information with which to help you formulate a recording plan.
Musically, your producer should also be your guide regarding how you want your album to sound, and how you’re going to get there. Reference recordings in this instance are crucial. Find your favorite sounding album of your genre and instrument, and discuss it with your producer. What about it do you like? How can you record a similar sound? What do you NOT like about it? At this point, the engineer should be brought in to the discussion if that person is not the same as the producer. A good engineer can help decipher how a recording was made, and help you get close to that ideal. Going in to a recording with a strong idea about what the finished product should sound like makes everyone’s job easier! Begin with the end in mind, anyone?!? :)
What are a producer’s responsibilities once the sessions are wrapped up?
Following the successful tracking of all the music on the record, it’s time for post-production. That will encompass the editing, mixing, and mastering of the album. Editing can be done a number of ways, but keep in mind you are often charged on an hourly basis. So, it needs to be efficient! Your producer can be a good choice to make the edits, provided they are fluent in editing with the recording software. Often, the engineer will be engaged to make the edits. It can be very helpful to have the first round of edits made using the producer’s notes from the sessions, and to refine from there. First edits can go fairly quickly, and can then be digitally delivered to the artist for review. The artist can send their revisions or wish list, and the editor can further refine through the 2nd and 3rd rounds of edits.
Mixing duties will usually be handled by the engineer, and include balancing the levels of the various mics, as well as EQ and dynamic settings as needed to fix significant problems. The sound of the album will really depend on the way the levels of the various mics are set, and should reflect that “overall sound” that the artist and producer settled on in their pre-production reference recording study.
Mastering involves the final “sweetening” of the sound of the recording, as well as the final assembly of the finished product ready for delivery. This can accomplished through subtle EQ changes to the overall sound, or subtle dynamic compression, and possibly adjustments to the reverb if needed. The mastering engineer sets the final loudness level of the tracks as well, so that they play back on streaming services and CD at the proper level, and with the best quality available. Finally, the mastering engineer puts the tracks in order, sets the final fade ins/outs, and provides a general final quality control check on the finished album. The value of a good mastering engineer, and fresh set of ears, cannot be underestimated. After the artist, producer, and audio engineer have likely spent many, many hours listening to the album over and over, having someone with fresh ears and no emotional investment in the project put their ears on it is a huge help!
PHEW! That’s a lot to digest! It is, but it is really simpler than it sounds. Every step of a recording is a complex process when done right, but it is a process, nonetheless. Having a good team, led by a good producer, can make an artist’s experience really wonderful, and help them to do their very best work.