Major record labels always hire producers when organizing a recording project for one of their artists. This suggests that there is are very good reasons to have one. Record labels, above all, never waste money! Today, more and more artists find themselves recording on a small label or entirely independently. Can someone like you take a tip from the large labels to help ensure the success of your project? Hiring a producer may just provide the edge you need.
But, what is a producer? You know who the other players in the recording process are. There’s you, the artist, any session players, and the recording engineer. You know what you and the musicians do, and you know that the engineer sets up the mics and does all the knob twiddling to get the sound recorded. So what is left for a producer to do?
Fundamentally, the producer’s job is to help you achieve the recording that you (and your label) set out to make. This may sound like the engineer’s role, but many elements other than purely sonic clarity go into the crafting of your final product. On the music side of things, these may include songwriting and arrangement adjustments, as well as coaching musicians and coaxing peak musical performances. In the control room, there are decisions to be made about sonic treatment and creative mixes, while style and popular idiom must be addressed in anticipation of marketing the disc. In short, the producer must keep an eye on the Big Picture. The engineer is already quite busy with the technical side of things, and isn’t necessarily listening with a view to the ultimate creative goals of the project. Further, recognize that it is extremely hard for any artist to maintain this view while in the thick of recording. This view requires an objectivity which is unfair to expect of yourself while pouring your heart into your performances. In essence, the producer is there to help keep you on track. The producer is the go-between: translating the artists’ needs, the engineers technical point of view, and sometimes the label’s interests.
The producer’s role is not limited to the recording studio. Ideally, a producer brings insight to the project’s songs long before recording starts. Many producers are talented arrangers and songwriters who can bolster your songs with their fresh ears. Similarly, producers have often been around the block a few times and have many helpful hints, or even connections, to help you promote your recording. For the indie recording artist, a producer is a good resource for guidance about publishing, mechanical royalties, performance rights, and referrals to the entertainment lawyers you will need.
Of course, there are many styles of producing. However, they can be broken down into three general descriptions which are helpful to think about as you begin looking for a producer. First is many an indie artist’s nightmare, producer as supreme dictator and superstar. Certainly such producers do exist, although they are much less common today as compared with the early days of rock and roll. Nowadays, superstar producers, such as Don Was, take a more collaborative approach. The second type of producer is the invisible or documentary style recordist. This producer aims to record just what has happened during a performance with as little influence or intrusion on the events as possible. This is a rare bird in rock music as well, but is quite a common approach to classical, jazz, and even blues recording where the style of music or the written music helps define the style of listening experience expected by the consumer. The third style which is most common and best suited to rock and roll is producer as creative partner with the artist. This often brings together the talents and experience of an outsider with the creativity and vision of the artist. Let us assume that if you were to hire a producer you would choose “producer as creative partner”. After all, it is unlikely that you want to give up all control of your project, but similarly if you’re going to hire someone you want someone who can add creativity and depth to the recording.
How do I choose a producer who will work well with me? This is a very personal judgment, but certain general principles apply. Think of this process just as you would think about hiring a new musician. Recognize ahead of time what you expect the producer to do for you and think about how someone might best help you with your project. Begin your search with some professional history of each candidate producer. Get a list of credits, listen to past projects, talk to past clients. Remember, however, that these are just starting points and the best basis for your choice will be mutual “fit”.
If you were hiring a new bass player you might consider many factors: can he sing, does she know the style you play, does he have the look, do you all get along, can she both learn the material and contribute to it? Similarly, ask yourself after meeting with a producer: does he like my music, does she get my music? You want someone who is enthusiastic about your material and knows your genre. Does he offer criticism and is it constructive? You don’t want a wimp who won’t tell you honestly what is good and what isn’t. At the same time you need someone who is sensitive to your pride as a group and as a songwriter. Does his perspective seem helpful? After all, his suggestions must seem to you to be an improvement over the way things were.
When you boil it down, a producer is most helpful in assuring that your project arrives where you want it because of her unique position. The producer is a creative partner who will work hard with you to bring out the best you and your material can be. At the same time, he is a relative outsider, not so involved as to be blinded by love of the material. This crucial combination of creativity and objectivity is what hiring a producer is all about. Since time began, runners have needed coaches, orchestras have needed conductors, and likely your next project would benefit from the perspective of a producer.