What is a Music Producer?

By Ivan Valles

All of us who have come in contact with the music creation process have heard the term "music producer." But what does it really mean to be a producer? What does a producer do? And how do we know we’ve picked the right producer to work with?

To begin with, back in the day, producers didn’t really exist in the music business. Recordings used to be made capturing all the musicians playing at the same time, over and over until they got the song right. They would agree, by themselves or through their musical director, on all the important aspects of the song. Along came the 60s and 70s in music, and technology made it easier and more affordable for record labels to have more than just a few tries at recording their albums. It became clear that an extra pair of ears was needed to help create music and record it to its best quality for posterity. Someone who would have the ability to listen to the song, suggest necessary changes to improve and make it more appealing for the listeners, and coordinate the project from beginning to end. This person became known as the producer.

The producer’s role in the recording process today is Critical. In modern day studio recordings, instruments are generally recorded separately, sometimes even in different parts of the world and even on different days and platforms (PCs, Macs, etc.). So a producer acts as sort of a project leader, deciding the necessary tools for the project, as well as the right musicians and engineers to work with. Producers also have to choose what studio or studios to record, edit, mix and master their projects in. These days, technology has made it possible for whole albums to be accomplished with considerably lower budgets. When this is the case, producers most times accomplish most of the project with their own skillful hands and at their personal studio, only hiring a few other professionals to help them take the music to the next level.

A producer should be present in all the stages of a recording. He/she will start by listening to and choosing the songs that will be recorded in the album, making the necessary changes in structure, music and lyrics (if this is called for), key, tempo, feel and all important aspects of the song. A producer should dedicate a considerable amount of time and efforts on what is called the pre-production phase, The pre-production is basically, through preliminary recordings and arrangements, finding the right vibe that will be present throughout the song. I like to think of the pre-production as being sort of a scale model of what you’ll hear eventually when the project is finished. At this point, the actual recordings start, anywhere from drums, bass and any instrumentation that has been chosen for each one of the songs.

As producer, you get a chance to listen to the tracks over and over as if you were putting together the small pieces of the bigger puzzle called music. When recording, a producer can choose to re-record and/or edit the music as many times as he or she feels necessary to obtain the best possible results. Special attention must be given to the vocal tracking. I like recording reference vocals several times from the beginning of the project because I believe that it gives the artist a chance to listen back and critique themselves, thus working on their performance before attempting to record the final vocals. Nearly all artists get some extra help from different software tools that help them with tuning, timing and other problems derived from vocal tracking. Nevertheless, I try to get vocal performances as best as I can.

After mixing and mastering, a producer is ready to present the project to whoever hired his/her services. If he/she decided instead to make a production agreement directly with the artist, the producer will now look for the best possible channel to place this artist as a key player in the music industry. After all their hard work, producers are now done and they will now move on to the next project.

So now that we know more about what a producer does, how do artists know how to pick the right producer to work with? Well, as with any other relationship in life, you can really know if things are going to work out until you try, but at least a few of the following pointers should help artists find who’s best for their project.

To begin with, you should be able to communicate openly and speak out when you feel the music that is being recorded does not represent you at all. Remember a producer will get many chances to make it in the music biz. Artists, however, have only a handful of opportunities throughout their lives as artists, so they need to always present themselves with the music that truly represents them.
I can’t think of a worse way to get started in the music business. Also, it’s important for an artist to work with a producer that has enough knowledge about their particular style of music. This is important because different styles of music are like different languages and require different arrangements—you will communicate much better with someone that speaks your language (style). I also recommend that artists listen to music the producer has worked on beforehand. Even though each musical project has its own signature and identity, this will give them a general feel for what your songs will sound like.

Finally, a producer who is enthusiastic about the artist’s music and can provide constructive criticism should be a must. You should search until you find the right producer for you, as finding him/her is key to a successful recording.