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What IS a producer?

Updated: Mar 17

music producer making music

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 too can do this yourself 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 really good at this - I'd more accurately call an 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 pointless Walmart type beats for $10 all over your Instagram feed. If this is you, you are undervaluing yourself.

Before you send me hate mail be clear that 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 in this category look through iTunes back in the day looking for tracks to rip off/inspire them, then make wack-ass versions of them, 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 single 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 whose 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 play, write a score, and direct musicians, is wiser than most of us will ever be 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 as well as deliver the record on time.

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 (perhaps immortalised as "willy show" in the adventures of mixerman?) , or recording anything. He is mainly a song guy; a get the work done up front type, perhaps offering mysterious inspiration early in the project, working on and choosing songs, adding arrangement help, curating 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" on a project 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 not only produces but records the whole thing like Michael Bienhorn, a talented engineer who also manages every aspect down to the grade of mic cables and sure enough has a very very strong opinion as producer on everything he records and understands the complexities of artistic direction and the art of record making. 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 right now, re-arrange a song, play therapist, 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 care 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 as they have an eerie sense of what people actually LIKE.

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 another also very successful producer who offered no constructive advice at all, leaving the poor band to do things again and again and guess what was wrong with the last take, one asking me around midnight as our leader went for a pee: " 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 made me think, you know what - I am at LEAST as good as's time to step up. If you want to go for it, take every opportunity to learn all you can from every type, and be ready!

Hope you enjoyed the article, there are many more on the site you may also enjoy. And don't forget - if you want a world class mix for your next musical masterpiece - contact me.

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