While the verb ‘to produce’ is used to describe the various, wide-ranging processes that are part of making music, it doesn’t exactly clearly explain the differences between a producer and an executive producer. Since few people actually know what a producer does, this blog aims to give you a little insight into their tasks and responsibilities.

What Does a Producer Do?

The Producer at Large

A producer is someone who’s closely involved with the creation of a piece of music or a complete record. They might be the one who’s written the song, mixed or recorded it (mixing engineer/sound technician), or someone who’s in charge of the entire project and responsible for the ‘design’ of the track or record. An executive producer, on the other hand, is often the one who’s made the financial investment to make the entire project possible in the first place. While executive producers generally aren’t involved with the music itself, they may take it upon themselves to manage any commercial promotion. Ultimately, they’d like to see a nice return on their investment.

Anyone Can Produce Music

What’s said above continues to apply today, even though the world of music production has almost changed beyond recognition. For independent artists and bands, it’s become much easier to manage their own professional productions due to the technological advancements of the past two decades. Using a computer, DAW software, a MIDI controller and an audio interface, anyone can produce their own music these days, which means that booking a session at an expensive recording studio is no longer necessary per se. Of course, you can always outsource certain aspects of your track or album like the mixing, mastering or promotion.

Easier Yet More Complicated Than Ever

As mentioned, the tools available today make it easier to produce music than ever before. Still, though the threshold has been lowered, the success rates haven’t gone up in terms of exposure and profit. Some feel like the industry has saturated, since, in the past, hard work coupled with a welcome dose of originality could earn producers, engineers and songwriters infinite fame. Legends like Brian Eno, Trevor Horn, George Martin, and more recently, Pharrell Williams, Jay-Z and Steven Wilson, dared to experiment and come up with refreshing music. Being innovative these days is difficult because it seems like everything’s already been tried before. Nevertheless, that doesn’t take away the fact that you can still produce good music and build up a vast fan base. No one could ever use up the magic that is music.

Producing for Others

Perhaps you’d like to get into producing music for other artists. This means that you’ll be doing the mixing and mastering for them and, in the process, adding your own ‘signature’ flavour to it. Just like musicians, every self-respecting sound engineer has their own style or trademark. Not only will you be helping musicians to make the most of their sound, you’re offering up personal contributions to the entire creative process. Whatever you do, give it all you got, work hard and do things the right, but also your own way. It may not be easy at first, but perseverance is key and will gradually pay off by helping you stand out from the crowd.

Interview with a Producer: Giving the Band a ‘Musical’ Face

Producers have to put in the miles to gain that all-important experience and get better at what they do. Drummer and producer Nico Outhuijse started producing when he was a teenager, working with nothing but a pair of cassette decks, which means that he ended up producing more noise than music. Now, he considers himself an ‘old dog’ on the production scene, and while he has worked with some bigger names, he much prefers working with the kind of band that’s still rehearsing in a mate’s garage. In this interview, we try to find out just how he’s able to bring these young, dream-filled and self-assured musicians back down to Earth.

Interview with a Producer: Giving the Band a ‘Musical’ Face

Sometimes, bands don’t come prepared to record.

“Yes. Haha! I have a lot of experience with this. I had a lot of garage bands walk in when I first started the studio.”

Garage bands?

“Yeah, one of those bands that sits making noise in a garage all day but ultimately have no idea what they’re doing. So, you always have one or more members that have no clue what chord the others are playing. In that case, you’re really starting from scratch, but that can also be a lot of fun. If a band comes in with every detail precisely planned out, then it’s much harder for a producer to put their own stamp on things. Of course, some bands come into the studio and leave with the realisation that they really aren’t as good as they thought they were.”

So recording can be confronting?

“Yes, and then some. Sometimes I ask a drummer to play along to a click-track because they’re not keeping the beat steady. They try once then tell me – ‘that’s hard!’ But the fact is that, if you’re a drummer, it’s something you’re just going to have to learn to do, since it’s going to come up at some point. The other problem is when drummers are too locked into the click and have to remember to break away a little to play freely. I mean, I can edit out little mistakes here and there, but I can’t do much with a faultless recording that has no energy to it.”

But if the song is good, everything will work out.

“Yes, I think the song is the most important thing. I once worked with a band that came in with a song that wasn’t necessarily the best single I’ve ever heard. The tempo of the finished recording fluctuated and the sound even squeaked and cracked a little in places. But later, a live recording was made of the same song where the entire crowd was singing along and it was that version that was released and became a hit. In my opinion, the studio version would never have had the same magic and atmosphere as the live version. The point is that a good song is a good song. Even if it’s badly recorded it will always sound a million times better than a perfectly produced bad song.”

Playing in a studio can be an entirely different story.

“That’s so true, yes. I actually experienced that myself when I first entered the studio as a drummer. I also had to play along to a click track, which went ok, but I didn’t feel like myself – didn’t really feel free. I was wedged into this tiny drum booth and every time I hit a cymbal it would echo back maybe six times through the headphones. There’s a lot that you have to get used to pretty quickly when you step into a studio for the first time.”

What makes a good musician a good studio musician?

“An understanding that you’re there to serve the song. So, you need to have a good feel for what a song needs rather than trying to wedge breaks or licks into every gap you can find. Basically, you should always be looking at the total picture. This is the reason that I enjoy producing so much. You need to be able to think in layers and consider each little sound, rather than being a bunch of separate musicians grabbing ‘territory’ within the song – otherwise, you’ll never get a result that feels cohesive and whole.”

And your gear needs to work, right? No instruments that can’t stay in tune or squeaking amps?

“Of course. The sound is important. When I first started, I had no idea about sound. You have some musicians that know everything there is to know about their instrument and the gear that’s available, but I really didn’t have that. I’m a drummer, but I play the guitar, bass and I like to sing, but I’m left-footed and right-handed – which is a nightmare for a drummer. My body is not that good at translating the moves I have in my head.”

Can you really fix bad singing with a computer?

“Yes, but no. You can tune a vocal track but you can’t copy and paste expression or emotion into a performance. A vocal track can be in perfect tune, but if it has no feeling, then no one is necessarily going to want to hear it. So, not everyone can sing, no.”

Is there no way to fix it in the mix?

“There are some things you can do, but if there’s no energy in the track, then you can’t suddenly weave magic. Music is feeling, and if the feeling isn’t there, it’s immediately noticeable. I mean, no matter how hard you try, you can’t polish a turd.”

Bands need to build their profile around a record.

“Absolutely. These days, pretty much all bands will have some form of online presence, and anyone can promote themselves on Youtube and so on, so you need good material to back it up. Once you have enough views or followers, you can even score sponsorship deals, or even bypass the radio and TV wall by building up your own fan-base before approaching the right people at the right time. There are other routes that have sprung up, including national competitions, like The Voice and so on, but making music in the way that bands do doesn’t really match up with the narrative of reality TV, I think. I think the biggest challenge for bands these days is knowing where to go with what they’ve made. Record companies are no longer offering multi-record deals. But writing and recording some solid work, making a video or two and building a good online presence, as well as playing as many good gigs as you can get, seems to be the best way these days.”

So, you need to stay true to yourself.

“Yes. Always keep making what you want to hear, not what you think other people want to hear. But be open to learn anything and everything.”

So what kind of role do you play as a producer in helping to shape the profile of a band? Can you give a band a ‘musical’ face?

“Unless a band has figured it out already, you can help shape what you might call their ‘signature’ sound. In some ways, that bit is easy. What’s less easy is that, when you gain some success with that ‘signature’ sound, there’s an expectation to stick to the formula, rather than allowing your sound to develop and evolve. If you look at bands like Coldplay, and especially Radiohead – both started out using similar production techniques to make big, bombastic anthems using a lot of reverb and choir-like passages and so on. But if you look at the progression of both bands since then, while very different, there has been a clear evolution in their sound because they have an awareness of everything else that’s going on in music The point is, if bands keep making the same thing just because it’s ‘cool’, then you essentially have a hundred bands making the same thing.”

So, manage everything properly and get word out there that you’ve made a great record?

“Pretty much. And don’t forget that you have to pay for everything yourself. The days of record deal advances are long gone. Even if you do manage to get an advance from a company, you have to pay them 50% of what you make for any gigs thereafter.”

Does being a musician yourself make you a better producer?

“Definitely. I started with nothing but a couple of cassette recorders. I’d record something on one, then play that back and play along while I recorded to the other. Once I was done, I’d hear a lot of noise, and way in the background, you could just make out a finished song. Then came multi-track recorders, and after that, computers. Every demo I made sounded better than the last one, until at some point, I realised I had been learning to produce. Producing is really a very specific profession and you really have to put in the mileage to get really good at it. You have to dive deep into the music, get to know how sound and frequencies actually work and work with each other. It’s not always easy, but it’s hard work in a good way. Musicians can work on a song for months before they bring it into the studio. And if you suggest maybe adding this chord or moving the bridge, then that can be a pretty sensitive thing for them. Especially the first time. If you’ve worked together before and created a really good product together, then it can be a little easier and bands will take on suggestions. Sometimes, I’ll just do exactly what the band wants, and then show them my take on it. Usually, they end up going for my version.”

You’re only as good as your last production.

“That can depend a little bit on the kind of projects you work on. Sometimes I get to work with bands with masses of experience that have already made their name, and have made work that I’ll always be proud of. But the week after that, I might be working with another garage band, which brings you back down to Earth a bit. But that’s fine, it keeps you sharp.”

See Also

» What’s the Best DAW Software for Me?
» What Do You Need to Produce Music?
» Why Artists Use Ghost Producers

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