There is really no way to clearly define the “job spec” of a producer. For every skill you might deem necessary, there’s a successful producer who doesn’t have it. But there are a few qualities that producers have in common. A producer has to be good with people. He must be a leader, a motivator, a negotiator and a psychologist. He nurtures the artist to get their vision in focus and onto CD. A producer cannot produce without a vision. Sometimes this vision comes from the producer (or even from the marketing department of a TV production company) and the “artist” is just a figurehead. Most artists are too preoccupied with being artists to have the time or energy to figure out the technicalities of making a great record. This is where the producer comes in. He or she will not only be the bridge between the artistic and the technical, but also the administrative and financial. The record producer will decide how and where the record will be recorded, who, if anyone, will help to make it, what technical equipment will be used, how the budget will be spent, what material will go on the album, and how much the artist’s creative input will be supplemented. Sir George Martin says that a record producer is like a film producer and director rolled into one. On a less stellar level a good producer can earn his bed and breakfast just by good organisational and management skills. Practical organisation of the sessions can save thousands- offsetting part if not all of the producer’s advance and royalty. If producers didn’t pay for themselves many times over, no one would ever hire them1.
Perhaps at this point we should try to classify producer types, and give some examples of real life producers. I will use Richard-James Burgess’ categories2.
a) All Singing All Dancing King of the heap:
This type could easily be artists in their own right. They write the songs, play the instruments, sing the demos and engineer and program too. Their work is always recognisable even if the vocalist is unfamiliar. Their clients fall in to one of two categories- the all time great singers who don’t write but can deliver someone else’s song with conviction; or the puppets, such as soap stars or TV talent contest winners.
“I like to do everything” : Walter Affanasief- Mariah Carey and Michael Bolton.
“If you can’t come in to the studio and sing a song the way it’s meant to be sung, then you don’t need to be working with me” :Teddy Riley- Michael Jackson and Bobby Brown.
In the nineteen eighties Stock, Aitken and Waterman were the “hit factory” production team that literally created music careers for Rick Astley, Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue. Pete Waterman later went on to invent the band Steps.
b) Humble Servant
This type is almost always credited as a co-producer. They started out as an engineer, programmer, musician or co-writer, and often connect with an artist early in their career. When the artist goes “mega”, they become indispensable. This type is not a good choice for an artist who doesn’t have a strong sense of vision and direction, but is perfect for the self directed artist who needs someone to bounce ideas off. They will take care of all the things the artist doesn’t want to deal with or doesn’t have the expertise for- the administrative, technical and engineering aspects of the production process. They will act as an unobtrusive extension of the artist, and are comfortable to work with. Often the relationship lasts for a long time, and can be very lucrative for both parties. Andy Jackson- “You can roll in to the next album and it’s like riding a bike. You pick it up where you left off and you haven’t got to reinvent the wheel”3.
Few would admit that they fall into this category, but Steve Albini is probably the most outspoken example of this type. He has written a lot on the internet about how badly the industry treats the artist. He believes that the producer should not be entitled to points because they are not the creators of the musical work, merely the facilitators. As far as he is concerned, the standard 3% cut for the producer is just another way to steal money from the artist, because it’s the artist that sells the record and no- one else: “Remember that nobody ever goes in to a record store shouting ‘Give me the new album on label X, produced by producer Y, whose deal memo was hammered out by A&R guy Z and lawyers A B and C!’ People like records because they like music. You’re just sitting in the chair with wheels and pressing the button. Do not forget your place! You are not the star, and you must be content with that.” 4 Like Brian Eno, he believes that there’s no right or wrong way to do the job: “The band at hand, no matter how small in stature or weak aesthetically, deserves your respect. This also means you can’t lie to them, or misrepresent them to the label or the listening public. Perhaps the guitar player wants his guitar to sound like that.”5
This type often started out as bass players or drummers, because these are also collaborative roles. They enjoy collaborative situations and bring that band member mentality to their productions. They usually prefer to steer the band towards a unanimous decision and use their casting vote sparingly. Their hallmark is flexibility and a willingness to see the value in other people’s ideas. Their own ideas are thrown into the pot with everyone else’s, and not given more weight than those of any other band member. Their catch phrase would be “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.
The majority of producers would fit in to this role, and I will give examples later.
d) Merlin the Magician
“The best leader is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and the self restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it”- Theodore Roosevelt.
This is my favourite type of producer. Often they don’t even attend the recording sessions. Sometimes, his or her mere name on the album can get everyone fired up about the project, especially the A&R man who often feels that his job is more secure if he has a big name producing the band.
If Merlin does decide to spend time in the studio the direction he gives can range from the very specific, subjective and detailed to the vague, general and philosophical. Sometimes it can be quite obscure. Brian Eno is a good example of this type.
His approach is more about philosophy and inspiration rather than the technical side of music or sound. However, is strong on collaboration so he’s also a type C. His work with Daniel Lanois on every U2 album since The Unforgettable Fire is exemplary and broke a lot of new ground sonically. For example the drumkit was treated as a single instrument (often by using only one microphone) a move away from the more clinical multi- miked “American” sound perfected by the likes of Roger Nichols and Elliot Scheiner with Steely Dan. Like Albini he rejects the idea that there are “correct” ways to do things and thinks that we should “earn and enjoy from all the different ways we CAN do things.” 6 In keeping with his philosophy he developed his Oblique Strategies cards (see example 1 for an explanation).
Eno is a very cerebral character, and has a lot of worthy things to say: “Normally I don’t stay with the project for the whole time. I deliberately keep out so I can come back in and hear things with fresh ears. Some things will seem completely obvious to me straight away. Like ‘that doesn’t work, that works brilliantly, this is confused.’ I can very quickly, within an hours listening, set up an agenda which says, ‘This we must talk about philosophically, we have to look at that structurally…’ etc. His primary approach to a project is to establish the cultural territory: “Where are we culturally? Where are we trying to be? What books? What films? OK, if this is where we are, then we are not going to do that or that… let’s just get them out of the way and narrow the field a little bit.” “You want to create a situation where there is a meaningful amount of attention on something, rather than a small amount of attention on everything.”7 Burgess takes a similar approach: “I like to get right inside their heads, find out what they listen to, what movies they watch, where they hang out, what books they read, what type of people they are, what makes them happy, what upsets them…”. 8
Eno’s view of technology is a very useful one: “I can’t play any musical instrument, but what I can do is work with many of the interesting new devices that enable people to put music together. It was called cheating when I started doing it. Now it’s what everyone does. It’s called using a recording studio.” 9 But contrary to what that statement might imply, he is not attached to technology. He is well aware of the negative effects of the computer in the recording studio: “As more and more options have become available, and equipment more and more complex, the temptation can arise to forget the possibilities of simplicity. It’s a question of balancing external influences and technologies with your own instincts and beliefs.”10 He prefers musicians not to get hung up on the latest gadgets, and instead be comfortable with their personal skill set. Sometimes, all he does is to help the artist discover themselves. That said, he is still not averse to using a gadget if it aids the creative process. Because he is more of a philosopher he tends to collaborate with individuals such as Daniel Lanois, who is a very accomplished musician. He’s the one who takes U2’s jamming sessions and spots the elusive germ of an idea and preserve throughout the recording process11.
Many bands operate a kind of democracy, where no idea is pursued unless everyone thinks it’s a good idea. The only problem with this is that ego can get in the way. The singer might have issues with the drummer suggesting lyrics, or the producer might feel that he has to pursue one of his own ideas to justify his fee. Eno turns this all too common scenario on its head: Usually what people are practising is not democracy, but cowardice and good manners. We all have sufficient trust in one another to believe that if someone feels strongly then we let them lead…”11 So if the keyboard player wants to try an accordion solo, he will be given the space to develop the idea. And it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work- often a silly idea can lead to something great that is far removed from the original idea, but would never have come about if the artist wasn’t given the space to explore in the first place. It’s very rare that someone has a fully formed creative thought.13 Apart from the idea itself, the courage of the creator’s conviction can be a source of inspiration- Burgess: “Excitement and passion are more likely to produce a great record than conciliation and compromise”. On the subject of the ego attached to the idea, Eno talks about how he will take total control of a song for half a day and see if he can make it work. Sometimes it doesn’t, and of course anyone else can take the same role. He says “you have to have the respect for people who say ‘look you’re grown up, you can take an option and not pretend that it’s interesting when it isn’t.” U2’s Bono has said “With him we discovered the spirit in our music and a new confidence in ourselves.” This is an incredible endorsement, because major stars are not renowned for being very complimentary. No less than George Martin also rates Eno highly: “He doesn’t follow the herd like most people do… I admire him very much”14. Finally, here is Eno’s own take on the producer’s role: “What has become interesting is that artists are people who specialise in judgement rather than skill.”15
A very important aspect of production is teamwork. No solo artist does it all on their own, and neither does a producer. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys is thought of as the solitary genius- he wrote some of the greatest pop songs ever, such as Good Vibrations and God Only Knows. But even someone as talented as he was needed a team. The peak of his achievements was the Pet Sounds album. He collaborated with the lyricist Tony Asher, and his session players were the cream of the LA jazz and pop scene. On the out-takes of Pet Sounds, you can hear him directing the musicians and the engineer during the sessions for God Only Knows in 1965. You can clearly hear how drummer Hal Blaine translates Brian’s musical descriptions into standard terminology. Brian was not classically trained, but that didn’t stop him from creating great orchestrations. He knew what he wanted to hear, and he used the studio and the musicians to achieve that. Brian would write out the chord names and hum or play the tune to Blaine. With the other musicians they would work out some sort of chart while engineer Chuck Britz set up the balance. But you can hear that they are still largely guided by ear, and what Brian hums or beats out. You can also hear the musicians making some suggestions. Wilson has no problem whatsoever using their ideas. This was a team that he had worked with for almost five years. In 1965 they recorded three Beach Boys albums, all of which went to number one in the US- clearly this was a good team!
Wilson was extremely influential. It was Pet Sounds that spurred the Beatles on to make Sgt. Pepper. These two albums were the point where record production started to be taken seriously. George Martin was the first person ever to be credited on a record as a producer: “Hearing Pet Sounds gave me the kind of feeling that raises the hairs on the back of your neck and you say, ‘What is that? It’s fantastic!’ It gives you an elation that is beyond logic.” Paul McCartney has spoken about the competitiveness between the Beach Boys and the Beatles in the mid sixties. Wilson has said of their Rubber Soul “That’s it. I really am challenged to do a great album.” Pet Sounds was his response. But when he heard Sgt. Pepper, he reportedly gave up- this was around the same time that his drug addiction became a serious problem. This competition really raised the standard of pop music production, particularly the application of orchestration and creative layering with multitrack recording.
Is probably the godfather of record production. He was the first to ever be credited as a producer, and the first independent producer. Prior to 1966, the producer was an employee of the record company. After George Martin discovered how much money his work made for EMI, he left his job there and forced them to rehire him and give him a royalty on every Beatles record. Unfortunately, artists are still legally employees of the record company, and very often don’t make as much as their producer! Martin brought his classical, avant garde and spoken work experience to his work with The Beatles, and helped to change the face of record production. In interviews, he often discusses the more ephemeral aspects of his work rather than the technical. One of his issues is snobbery towards pop music. He is in fact one of many producers who has worked with equal success in the pop and classical fields: “I’ve never subscribed to the view that pop music is trivial, though it’s ephemeral in many cases. There have been great moments in popular music, as there have been in classical music.”16 He has made his career by applying classical techniques to pop music, most notably on the arrangement and structure of their last album “Abbey Road”. Some of this snobbery probably arises from the fact that many pop artists never had a formal musical education. Martin doesn’t see education as a pre-requesite.17 But just to illustrate the point that no two producers are the same, here’s Arif Mardin’s contrasting view of this issue: “Some people think they know Italian if they can say “marinera”. In the same way, some people think they know music. No, you have to know the language”.18 Both have worked with great bands- Mardin with the Bee Gees and Martin perhaps the most successful band ever, The Beatles. It’s significant that both agree on what it takes to make a band great: Without a good song, they’re nowhere (Martin)19.
Is perhaps the ideal record producer. His achievements straddle the sixties, seventies, and eighties right up to today. He has produced Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, Brandy, Carly Simon, Roberta Flack, Patti Labelle, and Jewel. And those are just a few of the females! He was instrumental in developing the groove driven music and falsetto vocal style that made the Bee Gees into megastars in the mid seventies. His latest success is Norah Jones, proving that he still has what it takes.
“I am particularly proud of I feel for you, by Chaka Khan” he says. “During the meetings, the brother of Chaka and me joked with the piano, by playing a riff and by singing “Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan, tchiki boom, tchiki boom”. I thought afterwards: “Why not use this riff in a percussion part?” So we got the tape, and assembled certain passages randomly and backwards and so forth… Stevie Wonder came to play the harmonica, I added the sound effects in the mix, and the applause; the funky groove and the voice of Chaka made up the rest! In spite of all these disparate elements, it is not a jumble of sound; one still can feel the song. In a way, this song was the result of wanted accidents; it is a piecemeal construction that became an instantaneous hit. This experiment taught me a lot.”20 Like all good producers, Mardin is clearly an advocate of the happy accident, and letting the creative mind run wild. The key of course is to harness this into a cohesive recording of a song.
Respect, to quote Aretha Franklin, is his main criteria in selecting a project. “I don’t work with an artist if I don’t respect the artist,” he says. “Respect for the artist’s genius is vital to me in making excellent music. I love good music that is honest, regardless of the genre,” which explains why Mardin has been at the top of his game since the early 1960s. The song is also of vital importance to a Mardin project. “While technology has dramatically changed the way we now record,” he notes, “the song remains the same. Things go forward, but a great song is a great song.”20
This echoes the attitudes of Brian Eno and George Martin to technology, and it’s very important. It’s a very useful tool, but it doesn’t make a good song out of nothing. Mardin says: “It has to hit me in the chest. I cannot describe it. You cannot computerise it”.21 Too often I have witnessed the obsession with details that either make no difference or actually detract from the feel of the music. When people see waveforms drawn on a computer screen they become distracted from what their ears and hearts are telling them. I have often seen groups gathered around the screen watching rather than listening to the playback. My solution is to turn the screen off! The computer becomes a black hole, sucking in time and creative energy. Snare drums are moved by fractional amounts so that they line up visually, regardless of what it sounds like. Computers crash, discs get corrupted and the whole point of the song is neglected. Musicians forget what their skills are and what it is that they love about music. They become engrossed in operating the machines, when what they really need to do is let the engineer and producer get on with their jobs. This is the curse of the home studio. The producer is especially vulnerable, because he is the bridge between the artistic and the technical. There is a constant compromise between the take that feels good and the one where the snare sounds perfect. Phil Ramone: “Don’t stop, please don’t stop once you’re in and the mood is here.”22 “So many great records have been made- Bob Dylan’s Blood on the tracks- from run throughs, not even takes.” “We’re taping, you hear guys talking, you hear mics falling over.”23 Ramone is an excellent engineer/producer and a good musician. He is a perfectionist, but not to the point of ruining the magic that can happen when musicians are playing together without any expectations. In fact, his engineering skills are so good that he can get a superb and consistent quality of sound even though the microphones were being set up during the take! Flood: “But that human spark- quite often after the first time you go for it- you never get it again.” It’s all about preserving spontaneity So the skilled producer will allow technical imperfection if it makes the song feel right. The key is to always be recording, whether you’re ready or not! Flood “ …use technology to your advantage and don’t ever let yourself become used by it.”24 Bruce Swedien: “I learned from Quincy Jones to listen to your instincts. We have a tendency to cerebralise what we are doing, and it’s wrong. What we are doing must provoke an emotional response, not a cerebral response.”25
To quote Richard-James Burgess 26: The producer’s role is like a blank cube in Scrabble. The blank can be substituted for any letter in order to complete a word. The producer needs to become or supply whatever is needed to complete the record. On projects that have gone particularly well, I’ve felt that the production process is one of discovery more than creation, almost like an archaeological dig. The archaeologists know there is something precious there. They may not know what it is, how big it is or even what it is made of, but their job is to uncover whatever is there without damage. It’s as if the recorded already existed before you started work on it.
Clearly there’s no such thing as the average record producer.
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1. Burgess, Richard James p.162
2. Burgess pp.1- 13.
3. Burgess p.7
4. Burgess p.6
5. Burgess p.118
6. Burgess p. 72
7. Burgess p.55
8. Burgess p.100
9. Burgess p.48
10. Burgess p.83
11. Hot Press p.24 Vol.27 no. 7 Apr 23rd 2003.
12. Burgess p.53
13. Burgess p.54
14. Massey p.74
15. Burgess p.48
16. Massey p.75
17. Burgess p.198
18. Massey p. 38
19. Massey p.81
20. Dede (html)
21. Ross-Coulter (html)
22. Massey p.56
23. Massey p.55
24. Burgess p.46
25. Burgess p.174
26. Burgess P.228
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The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys Today!
Los Angeles: Capitol/ EMI, March 1965.
Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)
Beach Boys’ Party!
The Joshua Tree
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Albini, Steve: Nirvana.
Ramone, Phil: Bob Dylan, The Band.
Brian Eno: U2, James, Roxy Music, David Bowie.
Bruce Swedien: Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson.
Burgess, Richard- James: Landscape (also writer, vocalist and drummer); Spandau Ballet, Kim Wylde.
Alan Moulder: Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails.
Over 100 worthwhile dilemmas by Brian Eno & Peter Schmidt.
These cards evolved from our separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognised in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were formulated.
They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear. They are not final, as new ideas will present themselves, and others will become self evident.
A random selection of Oblique Strategies
Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities
The tape is now the music
Change nothing and continue with immaculate consistency
– the most important thing
Use an old idea
Left channel, right channel, centre channel
Take a break
Remember those quiet evenings
Emphasise the flaws
Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them
Work at a different speed
Twist the spine
Question the heroic approach
Overtly resist change
Is the information correct?
Define an area as “safe” and use it as an anchor.
Get your neck massaged
Discard an axiom
Make a sudden, destructive, unpredictable action; incorporate