What does a producer do (and how to be a great one!)
May 22, 2020
How to be a music producer
What does a producer do? What is a music producer, anyhow? And how can I be a good one?
These are all questions today’s independent musician needs to ask at some point, and the answers can be pretty hard to find. Often, when you find them, they’re not much help. This little guide will answer the question of what does a music producer do and tell you all you need to know about how to be a producer yourself. Let’s get started.
What is a producer?
“What is a producer?” comes the question just as soon as somebody claims to be one.
Wiki calls a producer someone who “oversees and manages the sound recording and production of a band or performer's music.” That’s true, but it’s nowhere near the whole story. Wiki goes on to note that “a producer has many varying roles,” including:
- Start with original musical ideas for a project
- Collaborate with artists to select cover tunes or original songs for an album
- Work with artists to help improve their songs in the studio
- Select session musicians to play with artists for the recording
- Co-write songs or propose changes to songs for a recording
- Coach vocalists and musicians in the studio
- Work as a recording engineer while doing one or more of the above
“What is a music producer” can be summed up in fewer words, though. A music producer is the person in the studio who does creative things but is not the artist.
Lots of people confuse the producer with the engineer, who is the person in charge of the technical recording, running the professional sound board or DAW. People get the producer and the engineer confused because it’s easier to be an engineer today than ever before, so lots of producers have become sound engineers and do both jobs.
Rule of thumb: are you helping to decide what a recording should sound like when you’re not the artist, yourself? If the answer is YES, then congratulations! You’re a music producer!
What does a producer do, anyhow?
What does a music producer do, though, like what do they actually do is a more exact question. There are two things music producers do, and they do the first thing much more than they do the second thing.
The first thing a music producer does is listen.
The second thing a music producer does is talk.
But when we talk about what does a producer do, the answer is that they do an awful lot more listening than they do talking.
Which brings us to the useful advice part of discussing how to be a music producer: how to listen listen like a music producer, and how to talk like a music producer.
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How to be a producer: listening and talking
What does a producer do? As we mentioned, they listen, and they talk. So let’s go over how to do those two things like great music producers do.
What does a producer do: Listening like a producer
The first thing a producer does in the studio is take into account what the goals of the recording are. What kind of recording are we looking for? What is the finished recording supposed to sound like? How do we want the audience to feel when they hear the music?
Almost always, the band or the music label will tell the producer that they want their album or single to sound like somebody else’s release. Maybe Eminem wanted to sound like Nas. Maybe Bob Marley wanted to sound like Desmond Dekker. Maybe the Monkees wanted to sound like the Beatles. In all these cases, it would make sense, because the producers of their recordings made them sound exactly that way.
Artists will tell you how they want to sound. Ice Cube is totally open about how he wanted “Amerikkka’s Most Wanted” to sound like Slick Rick and classic mix tapes. So that’s what the Bomb Squad went for when they produced it for him.
When you listen as a producer, compare the sound of the recording to what you’re aiming for. That example of sound the artist has given you is a bullseye. Aim carefully at it. Listen as a producer for the following things.
- Tone: does the recording in the mix have the same balance of treble and bass? Is it too smooth or too rough? Is it gritty and raw like a punk-rock recording, or smooth and precise like an EDM release?
- Performance: you need the very best take from your artists. If they screw up, it’s obviously not a take … but if they don’t screw up, can they do better? Eventually they’ll tell you they think they’ve done their best. When they do, tell them to give you another take. And another. And another. Exhaust them. When they give you something that makes you want to cheer, that’s the performance you’re listening for. And if they don’t give you that “holy sh-t that’s it!” moment, you can take the best of their takes. (You did save all the good ones, right? Ofc you did).
- Technical precision: You’re looking for good, strong volume levels that don’t peak or “pop.” You want your artist to have a consistent volume, too. If they’re bouncing all over the place getting close to the mic and then far away, coach them into staying put. If they whisper into the mic and then scream into it, tell them to back away and shout at the ceiling to even out the input.
- “Holes:” Some songs have “holes” in them — something is missing. There’s no way to describe what this is all the time, but for example: vocals without any harmonies anywhere; rap tracks which could benefit from fun samples or sound effects; or singer-songwriter songs which don’t have a guitar riff or hook (common problem with folk music and church bands).
- “Crowding:” the opposite of “holes.” Too much stuff in the mix. Sometimes the vocalist or rapper wants too many vocal tracks, making it sound like a crazy mob. Sometimes the guitarist wants seven tracks of guitars all doing different things and it sounds like chaos. Sometimes the beat doctor or drummer wants 26 tracked drums and cymbals and starts adding in congas, castanets and maracas until it sounds like a hippie drum circle. Calm these artists down and delete those tracks if they’ll let you. (And if they won’t let you, bury those tracks in the mix with low volume. This almost always works. Don’t feel bad — it’s a studio tradition).
If you’re listening for all these above things, you’re doing a ton of listening. The producer is the guy standing in the corner looking at the floor with his chin in his hand, just listening … listening. She’s listening for crowding, she’s listening for holes, she’s listening for tech precision, she’s listening for the artist’s best take, and she’s listening for the proper tone which matches that sound she’s going for.
Once you can listen like a producer, you’re ready to talk like a producer.
How to be a producer: Talking like a producer
How to be a producer means talking like one — after listening like one, of course.
After a music producer listens to the material being recorded and to recordings of what the artist wants to sound like, they should hear differences that can be altered to come closer to the target sound. The differences will land in one of the areas listed above: tone, performance, precision, holes, and crowding. When you hear an issue, it’s time to talk to the artists and engineer.
How to be a music producer really means being a coach, and that’s how you should talk. Some producers aren’t very good at coaching, like the legendary Phil Spector who would simply hold his artist at gunpoint. Don’t be like Phil. Just coach your artist.
See below for a handy list of DOs and DON’Ts.
What is a producer? A music producer is a slick talker
When you’re talking to your artists, tensions are going to get a little high sometimes. That’s because you’re working for hours and hours at a time in a hot little room full of insulation. The worst thing you can do is contribute to the stress. Keeping to the following list of DOs and DON’Ts will help you keep your artist nice and cool under pressure.
DO — Use “I” language: “I don’t think I’m hearing the all the space between the beats.”
DON’T — Use “you” language: “You’re off-time. You’re off the beat.”
DO — Always say what you like when you need to say what you don’t like: “That bass tone is great, I love it. I wonder if we can’t make the bass line a little less busy, though?”
DON’T — Say more than two negatives in a row, ever: “The bass is too busy and the beat is too loud in the mix, and we need to put you on a click track because you’re off-time.”
DO — Spread your coaching around. Never coach the same person all the time. If you’re only working with one person, coach yourself out loud to break up your criticism: “I think maybe less drums during the chorus? But I also think I need to listen to them more carefully. Let’s hear it again.”
DON’T — Ride one of your artists, even if they’re clearly the weak link. If they’re in the group, they’re part of the chemistry that got them into the studio. Worst thing that can happen is the crew boots a member in the middle of a recording. Total. Disaster.
DO — Give examples of what parts should sound like. Look them up on YouTube. The music is always on YouTube in a pinch.
DON’T — Try to describe what you’re talking about in English unless you’re some kind of poet. It’s much more effective to simply have artists hear what you’re looking for from them.
And that’s essentially it. If you follow the above rules, you’ll be ten times the music producer overnight. Just don’t forget them! Print them out and keep them in your pocket, if you have to.
What is a music producer? A music producer is a professional music fan!
What does a music producer do, in the end, but listen to music more carefully than everyone else and tell artists how to be the best version of themselves? Honestly, not much. And if a music producer were to do that and only that, they’d be one hell of a producer.
So get your listening ears on and your careful, mellow talking voice, and get ready to help musicians in your area sound better in the studio than they ever have before.
Thanks for reading! And thanks for wanting to be a better producer than anyone else you know.