There’s a lot of confusion about what a producer does. Maybe when you hear of a producer, you think of the slick corporate guy from the latest rock doc you’ve seen or, more likely, you think of the legendary Bruce Dickinson demanding more cowbell. In reality, a producer is a skilled professional in your corner who helps your artistic vision become reality. There is a huge difference between what a producer brings to the table and what you may get if you simply rent out some studio time and take a swing at creating something. Here are ten things a producer will do for you that you won’t get if you record in a studio without one.
1.) Perfecting your song. Music isn’t always objective. Songs are meant to be improved and perfected. It takes a collaborative effort, as well as talent, skill, and even industry knowledge to move a song from good to great. Take, for example, “Yesterday,” which was originally titled “Scrambled Eggs,” until someone—thank the good Lord—stepped in to improve it. If your song is seven minutes long and you want it on the radio, some editing might be necessary. With the help of a skilled producer, even well-constructed songs can be pushed to near-perfection.
2.) Pre-production. With the help of a producer, you’ll be able to hear your song in a new way. Are the kick and bass parts conflicting during that second verse? Do we need to consider a key change when the singer is struggling to reach some of the notes? Is that damn cowbell still not loud enough? A producer will be able to give you priceless insight into the inner workings of your song so you can make decisions before you’re paying for studio time and the pressure of a limited budget leads to bad decisions like “oh well, we don’t have time to redo it, we will just fix it in the mix.”
3.) Finding/hiring of musicians. As a singer/songwriter, you may need help finding a band of top players to finish out your instrumentation. Instead of grabbing a few random friends of mixed talent levels, a producer can find the right people who are genuinely equipped to play in your genre. These musicians will get recordings done faster (which saves you money in the studio) and your song will sound astronomically better. Even if you are a band, you may realize cello/didgeridoo/cowbell would be really cool on that bridge. A producer can help find the right musicians to make it happen.
4.) Choosing the right studio. A producer usually has experience in working in a few different places, and knows that every studio is not equally equipped or experienced for recording your style of music. They may also be able to negotiate a better rate for you based on their relationships and quantity of work in these places.
5.) Planning of sessions. Organization before you record and anticipation of issues that may arise during a studio session will save you hassle and money. Are you going to record your parts individually or as a band? What things will get overdubbed and in what order? Will you use a click track or do you prefer a looser feel? Maybe, to optimize your budget, the foundation tracks (drums, bass, maybe guitar/keys and a scratch vocal) will be recorded in the studio and other overdubs can be done later in a home studio environment. Going in with a clear plan always saves you time and money and delivers better results.
6.) Choosing the right tones for your style and song. Once in the studio, decisions must be made that will be crucial to your finished product: What microphones are you going to use on which instruments? How should the drums be tuned? Should you use the guitar player’s amp or the studio amp or take a direct signal to re-amp later? How much bleed between instruments is acceptable? Commercial studios tend to be formulaic only because they’ve nailed down a safe way to get a good sound, yet their method may or may not be the right thing for your music. Using a producer to track the best sounds for your particular song is the most important thing you can do for your mix.
7.) Encouragement and direction at your session. When is a take truly good enough and when do you need to record it again? When do you need to take a quick break to alleviate some stress? In what moments are you not quite communicating the emotion of the song, requiring a little push? When it comes to recording—especially regarding vocalists—there are millions of ways to perform. When you’re already in the studio, it may be difficult to determine whether you’re recording the next Thriller or slapping together the next Friday (no offense to all you Rebecca Black fans out there). Encouragement from a good producer can keep you in the right emotional space—giving you room to deliver your best. They can also offer just the right amount of direction to improve or alter trouble spots in your recording. You can avoid the time-wasting frustrations of being trapped in a creative rut and yielding diminished results. Not only does this save you time, but it saves you money as well.
8.) Protecting you from listening to your rough mix a million times. No kidding, this is crucial. Countless musicians have been there. You just did your first recording at real studio and you’re blasting the rough-mix in your car on repeat on the way home where, for the benefit of your mom and your girlfriend, you blast in on repeat some more. You might even be tempted to post it on social media. By the time you get a real mix, you’ll hate it (even though it’s amazing) because you fell in love with the subpar rough by listening to it too much. This is a documented disorder called “demo love” and together, we can eradicate it forever!
9.) Advocating for you with those who are finishing your song(s). Often yourproducer will mix your songs. However, if this isn’t the case, your producer’s been through the mixing process before and can be amazingly helpful. He can guide you in choosing the best mix engineer available for your budget—someone who has experience and a fantastic track record in your genre. When your first mix comes back and you gotta have more cowbell, your producer, who in many cases has a previous relationship with the mix engineer, communicates things in a way that is helpful, not harmful, to the process. Also, your producer can provide an objective opinion that enables the band to hear whether the mix is right for the song, rather than the usual “my bass part isn’t loud enough” arguments that come from a group of individuals not really used to listening to the song as a whole.
10.) Therapist/Counselor. No seriously, we’ve all seen the movies. As we all know, the hardest part of being in a band is dealing with the humans, and the number one thing that derails good projects is the emotions, egos, and drama created by relationships. A producer has been through this many times, and is skilled at navigating the common tension spots that arise in the very emotional process of making a great record.
So when a band has a record you really love, check who produced it. Odds are, if you follow that producer, they’ve made records with other artists you love too. This is because producers have huge influence in the process of creating your art. A recording studio is a by-the-hour business whose job entails setting up microphones, waiting until you’re ready, and then hitting the red button. Most studio engineers are masters at what they do, but being invested in your project isn’t part of their job, and they probably aren’t going to tell you if what you’re chucking into their microphones sounds like a cat caught in the garbage disposal. The misunderstanding of the roles of a producer and a studio engineer—often on the part of first time recording artists—is why good musicians, who are simply excited about being in a “real studio” so often come away frustrated, with costly and lackluster recordings in hand. If you would rather have a better sound, spend less time fumbling through mistakes, save money in the studio, and have loads of fun making your songs a reality, you really should consider working with a producer.