The Role of the Producer

by SaskMusic

August 5, 2009 in Recording & Production

Your band has decided to record an album. Great! You've decided which studio to record at, because you've heard a few other bands that recorded there and you like what their discs sound like. The guy behind the mixing desk is easy to work with and gets the sound you want. You've found your producer, right? Wrong! This is a common misconception that people have about the recording process. A lot of bands go into a studio thinking that the RECORDING ENGINEER is the PRODUCER. There is a big difference between the two.

A recording engineer is responsible for getting the best sounds possible out of the instruments in the studio, and mixing them so that they will sound the best they can (in his/her opinion). This means a good working knowledge of the equipment at his/her disposal, and how to get the best results from it. That is basically the extent of a recording engineer's responsibility. Most recording engineers, however, do take on some of the roles of a producer. I'll explain a little more on this later.

A producer is responsible for the content of the album as a whole - what the album sounds like in the end. This entails (to varying degrees with each producer) anything from choosing which songs will be recorded, to what tempo they will be, what the instrumentation will be, whether the tune will be a rocker or laid back, how loud the guitar solo will be in the mix, and every step in between. Each producer/band relationship is different. Some producers are in complete control of the project, and others are more of an additional member of the band. The producer is the person who is responsible for making sure that the band gives the best performance possible for each song. This may mean standing in the studio directing the band during the session, it might mean telling the singer a moving story just before they do their lead vocal on a particularly emotional track, it might mean making the drummer play to a click track in order to keep his tempo consistent, it might even mean hiring a different player to play a part that the band can't pull off. The extent of a producer's responsibility is unique to each project. A producer is also paid a fee for his/her services. This is on top of studio time. This may be a few hundred dollars for someone just breaking into producing, to millions of dollars and a percentage of album sales for guys like Bob Rock or Mutt Lange.

A good producer is usually someone who has done some recording, or has done some engineering. Both are invaluable experience for a producer. It is much easier to know what the band members are feeling when they are recording if you've been there yourself. The key to getting the best performance out of a band is making them feel as comfortable as possible while recording. In order to know how to get the sound he is after, or how to tell the engineer what he wants, he has to have a good working knowledge of the gear in the studio too. That's where the engineering experience comes in. (To get this sound you use this mike with this preamp, and plug it into this effect pedal.)

When you are hiring a producer for your album you are handing over control of what the album will sound like to that person. A producer should be someone that you feel enough confidence in to hand over that control. The reason for hiring a producer is because that person has enough experience in your type of music that you feel they have something to add to your project. You are willing to trust that their decisions will be best for the project. This is a very scary proposition for most people! Finding the right person to produce your album is a crucial decision! A lot of people go into an album project feeling that they are the ones who wrote the songs, and therefore they are the ones who know what's best for the songs. Being a songwriter is a very parental thing! It isn't easy to allow someone else the power to alter your children! However, it is almost impossible to be objective about your own songs, considering you have been so close to them since their inception. This alone is a good reason to hire a producer. If you want the songs to be on the radio, there are certain things that work, and certain things that don't.

A producer can help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can turn a promising record into a bargain-bin, dust-collecting coaster! The producer can watch for problems such as, is the song too long? does it get to the hook quickly enough? is it mixed for a radio release? and hundreds of other points that will make or break the record, as far as radio is concerned. There is nothing worse than seeing a potentially successful song miss its mark because the band overlooked one or two vital issues while recording.

A well-known producer can have a profound effect on an album's success after the recording studio, too. Having a recognizable, successful producer's name on your record will open a lot of doors that you couldn't have opened by yourself. An A & R rep for a record company might take an interest in a record that otherwise wouldn't have been listened to, simply because of the producer. The producer may know a publishing company that is looking for your particular sound, and so on¶The producer has his reputation on the line, too, so he will be doing everything he can to make sure it's successful. Having someone with experience in your corner can be an invaluable asset!

Some bands will produce their own albums as their career progresses. After doing a number of albums with an experienced producer, they feel they have learned enough to do it themselves, and have specific things they want to do. Other bands find that producing the album and recording it can be too much to deal with. They would rather work with someone they trust, and concentrate on making music.

As I mentioned earlier, most recording engineers will take up some of the roles of the producer if there isn't one hired. If the guitar player is horribly out of tune, and can't tell, it's in the recording engineer's best interest to tell him so. If the song needs a second guitar part to sound as full as the band wants, he might suggest that. After all, if the band wants a huge guitar sound, and has only one guitar part tracked, it is almost impossible to create what they want with the material he has. His reputation is involved in the project too. He doesn't want bad recordings out there with his name on them. Whether the guitarist decides to take the advice is entirely up to him. Each engineer will have their own limits as to how much "producing" they will do for free. After all, it is a separate title with separate responsibilities, and deserves a separate payment. (Most recording engineers are paid out of the studio rate charged by the studio). If they are asked to produce the record as well, they are taking on a much larger responsibility. Maybe your recording engineer is a producer as well. If that is the case, then you might have both jobs filled by the same person. A lot of engineers are producers too. After all, they have to do a little of it on most projects they work on.

Whether you are in the studio for the first time, or a band doing their second or third album, a producer is a good idea. A lot of bands will try doing an album on their own and find there is more to it than just recording the songs, especially if you want radio airplay. Without a producer's input, your disc might be restricted to "sales at gigs", and the occasional local station airplay. Having a producer's input might have made it a legitimate commercial success. Having a producer with you if you are doing a first time demo is a great idea too. You will learn a ton of things that will help you write better songs when it's time to record your album. You'll save time, money, and disappointment later.

Neil Meckelborg is an engineer/producer/songwriter at Meckelborg Music Services based in Saskatoon, SK.

By Neil Meckelborg for SaskMusic. Originally published December 2001/January 2002.

These archive versions of The Session Feature Articles are posted as initially published. Deadlines, contacts and links have not been updated. Please keep this in mind when using this resource. In some cases, updates can be found in a more recent editions of The Session.