That’s the question on so many musical minds – what does a record producer do? I think that’s often what people mean when they ask me “what does a music producer do?” And we all know he produces records. (NOTE: when I say “record,” that means an album, or CD project. Usually, in the industry, they’re still called records. Because that’s what it really is – a record of a performance.) So… how? Well, it’s not rocket surgery. Here is a simple breakdown of the steps a good record producer might do in order to produce an album for an artist. He will:
ASK & LISTEN – A smart producer will START by asking the artist what he/she wants to achieve with this project, and actually listen to the answer! Including style, mood, instrumentation, vibe, songs – everything. A good producer will listen to his artist before he starts forming a plan.
FIND SONGS – Every recording project starts & ends with songs, so that’s where the producer should start with his part of the project. He will help the artist find songs, and write songs; and once they’re chosen, help guide the development of them. That is one of the major jobs of a record producer, and a huge reason the artist needs the producer. A producer will hopefully provide an expert, unbiased opinion of original songs, and often help write (and rewrite) them. He will also have access to other songwriters that might have songs the artist could record, or even cowrite on. We’ll talk about that more later.
DEVELOP A PLAN – One of the most valuable things a producer brings to the table is contacts. Your producer should know tons of studios, players, engineers, and songwriters. He’ll listen to the artist’s ideas & songs & hopes for the project, then make intelligent decisions on where to record, who should play on it, who should engineer, who should mix, who should master, who should do artwork, who should manufacture – it’s a big job! But a seasoned producer will have contacts in all those areas, plus many more. He’ll be well worth the money he gets paid.
PUT THE PLAN INTO MOTION – This is where it gets a little more complicated to explain. Your producer will choose a studio setting, whether that means his laptop (with a mic & a good preamp), or somebody’s home studio (sometimes one of the players’), or a commercial room, or anything in between. Sometimes he’ll record the rhythm section (drums, bass, keys, guitars) all at the same time in a room together, which is called a “simul” session. More often, though, he’ll piecemeal it together here & there – maybe send a rough demo (tracked to a click) to a drummer who has a personal drum recording setup, then send that to a bass player with his own setup, then add guitars in a similar way, etc. Sometimes it’s done completely online, without even ever being in the same room with the players! Every producer has his own way or ways of doing it, and there’s no one version that’s better than all the others, necessarily.
ENGINEERING – Some producers are recording engineers, and some aren’t. You don’t have to know engineering if you’re wanting to produce music; but often people learn how to handle it themselves in order to keep more of the money. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as they’re good at both producing & engineering! I would prefer to use an engineer on my projects, so I don’t have to be distracted by all the technical stuff (that I’m not really the expert in anyway). In recent years, the engineer has become an important part of the creative team though, so it’s often the same guy or girl that’s doing the producing.
MIXING – Just take it from me – mixing should be done by a mixing engineer. It’s such a specific job that requires such a distinct skill set & unique tools (plugins, outboard gear, etc.), that even your producer probably shouldn’t try it. Unless, of course, he’s also a mixing engineer! I’ll expand on this a little more down the page, but this little item can get expensive. A good producer will have a handle on mixing, whether it’s doing it himself, or hiring somebody else.
MASTERING – Mastering is… um… well, nobody but mastering engineers even know what mastering actually is. I don’t get it. But it makes everything sound better! And often louder, too. You won’t be doing this yourself, even if you’re a producer. Unless you’re a purveyor of the secret dark art of mastering yourself. Most likely, you’ll just pay some geeky dude in a dingy room in some warehouse district to do your mastering for you. And a good producer knows how to find him!
…AND THE REST – Sometimes your producer will take you on past this point, like helping get the project on iTunes, manufacturing actual CDs, and so on. But that’s a different article.
If you’ve wondered what does a record producer do, you’re not alone. It’s hard to put a handle on it, because there are so many ways to do it! Sometimes the producer is barely even involved, he just knows how to hire amazing musicians and get a great product out of them. Sometimes he’s extremely involved, and is the driving force behind all the musical creativity in the studio. But suffice it to say – every record project has a producer, in some way. And now you are among the few who will be ready with an answer the next time somebody asks, “So what does a record producer do, anyway?”
Now go make some music!