What IS a producer?

What IS a producer?

Well, if you believe the internet it's everyone with a laptop who has at any point constructed a cheesy dance tune, or a hip-hop "beat". You can do this in about 5 minutes in Ableton, Garageband or what have you and sure enough, that IS one type of producer. I am not disrespecting the concept - the people who are actually good at this I'd more accurately call a writer/artist producer as they should get half the songwriting credit as they write the music, but at the other end these are also the people making beats for $10 all over your Instagram feed. If this is you, you are undervaluing yourself. The seriously talented artist/producer is maybe even the most valuable and dangerous in my eyes - look at someone like Timbaland, Jack Splash, the list goes on - the backroom boys responsible for half the hits made these days. I have also seen someone look through iTunes looking for tracks to rip off/inspire them, then make wack-ass versions, all very successfully.

But what about the rest of us? Now, traditionally I'd liken the role of a producer in music to that of a director in movies. You're responsible for the thing from start to finish and have to oversee every aspect to ensure the product, the music is suitable for commercial release as well as live up to the artists artistic vision.

Let's look at a few types of Producer. How about someone legendary a traditional producer like Quincy Jones? An artist, composer, and producer who's musical knowledge is invaluable to an artist as they make a record, who used a top class team of technical people to support the process. He's probably not going to ever touch a mixing desk, or open a laptop but sure as hell can write a score, and direct musicians, and knows what's good or bad. Another part of the job would be dealing with the interests and goals of the record company and balancing that with those of the artist, not always easy. You may have to handle budgets, schedules, know where to get the best string section or pizza on any given day.

What about a hit-making genius like Rick Rubin? What does he do? Well, Rick is notorious for not even showing up at the studio, or recording anything. He is mainly a song guy; a get the work done up front type, perhaps offering mysterious inspiration, working on and choosing songs, adding arrangement help and so on, who then hands off to a competent team who actually records the project. Maybe he comes in and edits the thing back taking on the role of "Reducer" as Kanye called him, and it obviously works for a lot of people, apart from Muse who didn't seem to get on with the concept when they said "he taught us how not to produce a record." Still. Can’t argue with his success - so he does something right!

Often you get the engineer-producer who records the whole thing like Michael Bienhorn, a talented engineer who also manages every aspect down to the mic cables and sure enough has an opinion on everything he records. You get a sliding scale of less and less participatory or talented versions of people in this genre, and I have worked with a few of each. Technical prowess is not everything, you need musicality and taste to pull this off. Can you re-write a lyric, know what is cutting edge in the genre you’re working on, re-arrange a song, play a mean guitar but never do and still know when to STFU or go to war?

Maybe you get a co-conspirator producer to push you, your Brian Eno type character throwing curveballs into the process, cheerleading maybe, being a camp counsellor, a third wheel or perhaps someone I call the voice of reason producer - the person who doesn't give a shit about your nose flute solo and knows it has to go and will be the unpopular guy that tells your rapper their flow is crap and they should re-write that verse.

Can you do it all? Sure - but the best I have ever seen know exactly when to hand off to others. You may be great at the long jump but how's your head for heights when it comes to the pole jump?

I remember my first session with a guy who had been a successful producer in the 80's recording vocals for a pop track line by line, word by word for hours until it was good enough for him. It was very quick so as not to break the flow, but he'd say what was wrong to the singer, and we'd go again. It was probably six hours for one song. Now, contrast that to those who offered no constructive advice at all, leaving the poor band to do things again and again, one asking me as our leader went for a pee "...is it us, or is this session lost in time?", waiting only for the wave of approval from the Mighty Oz. It was depressing. It's dudes like that that make me think, you know what I am at LEAST as good as you...it's time to step up.

The problem here when I made this call, I was nobody, and the Grammy winning guy is gonna get the job even if you are better. And a lot of artists just don’t WANT to be produced! We'll cover that another time.

Yes, the guy who writes this is Bald, English and mixes records at baldenglish.com

Adam Whittaker