Is it all about music production? What the hell is a music producer in 2018 anyway? Do you even need a producer nowadays?
In this episode we will discuss the traditional vs the new producer and you’ll even hear a really good story about what a music producer can provide for your act.
Who’d like to have their album produced by a superstar music producer like Robert “Mutt” Lang, George Martin (RIP), Daniel Lanois, Rick Rubin or Brendan O’Brian?
Alternatively you might have a laptop with some wicked beats, samples and a midi keyboard? So what’s going on here?
You know, I just love this subject, but not in the way you might think. I reckon pre-production and production now needs to exist in the ‘almost redundant’ file.
Once upon a time, there were indeed ‘superstar producers’, but not as they are now known. Pre-production and production are part of the duties executed by ‘music producers’ that I believe, are now in decline.
And I just love producer lingo: fly it in, make it angular, fix it in the mix, it’s too fruity, rough mix, it’s a keeper, it’s a little bit orange, drop it in, ride the mic, etc. …
In its new guise, it’s common belief that a producer is a person with a laptop and some loops. They blend sounds together at home or in their garage, and then release them. Just switch on Triple J and listen to the announcers gush over this producer’s new track or that producer’s new tour.
Don’t get me wrong, there has been some incredible work put out by the new producers, but it’s important we make the distinction between the two. Let’s just call the old school producer the ‘traditional producer’ for clarity.
The Traditional Music Producer
The traditional music producer, in my opinion, is a quickly disappearing species. They once ruled the music universe. They were highly sought after, revered creatures that were paid ridiculous amounts of money and took points (percentage) on anything they touched.
I’m not being critical here. I’m just stating the facts, so we can move forward.
For those of you who have never worked with a traditional producer, they’re more like a director – in movie terms that is, than a producer. Their role was to guide and support the band through the recording process and impart their particular style into the project.
That influence could involve anything from just sitting at the console sipping coffee and looking at their watch through to organising studios and engineers, co-writing, coaching, performing on the recording and shopping your final product.
Real producers are usually trained and accomplished musicians who bring an outside opinion to the table. I’ve seen both in action.
You can understand why, in this current climate of declining record sales and hostile record company takeovers, there is declining demand for traditional producers. There just isn’t the money around anymore. There are, however, still a handful of American and British producers hanging on like a protected species.
They are the exception. And yes, they do amazing work. Sure. But their time is running out, and so is the money because of the shift in the business. As long as you have pop stars like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Justin Beiber, and Beyonce, there will likely be an over-paid clique of high-end producers around ready to milk the masses.
But I will say, it’s not an easy task being a music producer.
I’ve produced quite a few acts in my studios over the years. I always take the route of the traditional producer, and go above and beyond the call of duty mostly for free because indie acts today, just cannot afford it!
I always want the bands I work with to release amazing, original music. Period. If it meant being up all night singing obscure backing vocals or flying in little guitar motifs and keyboard pads, I would do it alone after the band had gone home. More often than not, the band wouldn’t even notice these little additions.
Had I been in Los Angeles or London during the 1970’s, I might have cleaned up financially. But, those days are pretty much over. That’s not a bad thing, though, because technology and information can now make you the producer, and you can run with it. It can be tricky, but it’s not rocket science. You do have to have a good ear to start with.
You only have to listen to the new producers to see what can be done if you apply yourself, and you can absolutely do it. The great producers always had a musical background. Audio engineers who graduated to become producers had value, but more in a technical sense, which we’ll get into shortly.
I worked with several big name producers. One in particular, had worked with Midnight Oil and Split Enz and himself was an accomplished keyboardist and songwriter.
Our relationship started when I initially sent him four songs the band we had previously shortlisted for the intended single with two B sides. We had demoed these tracks at The Sound Vault in West Melbourne.
We were scheduled to travel up to Sydney and begin pre-production with him on January 18, 1998. He had a rehearsal studio booked, so he could come in and work with us on the songs – make suggestions and song alterations if required, a day or two before we began recording.
This was good, and I was feeling excited about it all!
Well, on the way up to Sydney, it was averaging forty degrees in the shade, and our Falcon station wagon was struggling in the stifling heat. Unbelievably, it decided to break down in Tarcutta, somewhere in the middle of New South Wales.
We spent the whole day, sitting on the roadside throwing sticks at each other, waiting for NRMA assistance. They never came. As evening drew closer and the old falcon cooled down, it eventually fired up. And off we went, again.
By the time we arrived, it was late into the night. We had to go straight into recording, which certainly undermined the producer’s plans. Further complicating things, the band had decided to drop a song that we had included on the demo called Don’t Look Down.
He loved that track – it was his favourite. So we were off to a great start!
A touch of velvet
Among other things, our producer had organised to bring into the studio a preamp lunchbox – a portable rack, that is, of vintage Neve 1073 preamps and a bunch of great classic mics.
For those who don’t know, Neve 1073 preamps are the revered highly sought after and incredible sounding preamps responsible for decades of sensational recordings. This kind of additional and personalised gear can make massive sonic improvement in your recordings.
Velvet Studios in Pitt Street, Sydney was a state of the art recording facility at that time. It was great chilled space to record, and to be in the heart of the CBD where all the action was. Although, we were usually too exhausted after each session to hit the town.
To our producer’s credit, he worked very hard and guided us all the way through the project. He was involved in all parts of the recording including playing percussion. Even though we were restrained by time and money, he made it all come together and kept us relaxed and focussed.
The sessions were long with very few breaks, and alcohol free I might add. After he had mixed the songs on the last day, we returned home to Melbourne. Later that week, he took the masters to Don Bartley at Studio 301 for mastering – all for no extra charge!
When the single called Anything But You with B sides Invisible and Black Or White was pressed and released through MGM records on July 4, our producer was still plugging it around Sydney even after the release.
That began to open some doors for us with Triple J and other radio stations although, we weren’t fully aware of it at the time. He wanted the best for us, and we remained friends with him for years.
Each time we toured through Sydney, we’d all try get together and have a beer and a laugh. He was a great new musical ally and friend of the band.
I reckon by now you might be wondering the big question – how much does all this cost? For us, as an independent band, we had to cover everything in this case.
However, often a producer will negotiate down his fees for an indie act, which our producer did for us on this occasion. He took points or percentage on the record, which was about 5 or 10 percent from memory.
Some of the biggest fees encountered are for studio hire, travel and accommodation – not the production itself. That said, some of the big time producers’ fees begin at about $3000 a day and that’s without studio hire!
This story is the up-side of working with a actively involved and caring producer who will go the extra mile to fan the flames of interest of your growing career. Not all experiences are going to be like this one.
Good producers cost money, yes. But, they can sometimes almost act as an agent or an extended and connected member of your band. Particularly if all the stars have aligned, and they can see you’re passionate about pushing the envelope and giving it a genuine go.
When it comes time to record your EP or album, you’ll need to make that big decision between the traditional route with the traditional producer and the way of DIY.
I’ve done it 100% DIY with bands like Five Mile Sniper, Prettymess and Magneto and had very good success.
But what I will say is, there is no substitute for association with big names. It can be a powerful tool, and it’s great on your press release.
Engineer it please!
I have also worked with plenty of ‘engineer producers’. These guys and girls certainly know their stuff when it comes to creating sounds and miking gear up.
But because they don’t generally have a background as a musician, they don’t usually have the skills to step up when you need to overcome typical studio issues like chord changes, modulations and suitable backing vocal lines. These kinds of problems can soak up time and money if not resolved quickly.
That is not to say they don’t have the kudos of the musical producer. Far from it. Some bands prefer this kind of producer because they don’t interfere with the bands creativity.
In the world of alternative and indie rock bands, you’ll find a lot of individuals who are fiercely idealistic and autonomous in their workflow. They’ll call all the shots and won’t appreciate interference.
The last thing this breed of artist wants is some dude behind the console suggesting they re-write the song in another key. But they do enjoy a producer who can get amazing drum and guitar sounds, set up a comfortable studio vibe, and allow them to work without any intrusions.
Many of these sorts of producers can sometimes bring their collection of vintage snare drums and guitars with them to the sessions.
So, which one is best for you?
Horses for courses
This episode on producers is not about what’s right or wrong with production. Some production skills are required, regardless. It really is a personal preference.
So, it’s handy for you to know how it all works and, of course, production is evolving quickly like everything else. There won’t necessarily be a wrong or right answer to any of this subject. It’s horses for courses and you’ll need to decide where you need to take it.
For me, I wish I knew this stuff earlier on in my career, so I could have made better more informed decisions, and maybe cut some corners. I could have saved a few bucks along the way.
Much like in the world of publicity and pluggers, it’s almost a dark art, or at least it was for me, back in the early days. Unless you were being mentored, or had a manager, or record label, the type of producer you needed was uncertain. It was a game of trial and error until you found out what worked best for you.
You’ll need to keep your ear to the ground also, because you’ll find like with most things, who’s hot and who’s not. There are always trends going on with producers, just like musical styles and fashion.
Not all producers will suit what you do. I once saw a great Melbourne band split up due to working with the wrong producer. He was a legendary superstar producer and he pushed them over the edge. For the band, it looked good on paper!
Try your best avoid the producer who is chasing a pay cheque and is happy to take on any act! You’ll need to find someone who is genuinely interested in you, your sound, and aesthetic so keep your eye on the business.
Do you have any tales of producers you’d like to share? You don’t need to name names but I’d love you to share them with us.
Let me and others know of your producers stories! Don’t forget to sign up to my mailing list for updates and giveaways and this blog can also be listened to via my podcast here.
The next episode is about saying NO. Why would you say NO? Does it matter? Tune in next time to find out how critical this is.
I’ll catch you soon.