Do we really need a producer? - Part 2

I was talking about the mp3’s and I am going back to them for a second: they do not sound good, but people listen to them. Why? Because the most important thing is the message, the melody and the lyrics and the arrangement! They are coming together into the song and create what is specific to an artist. Sometimes that “specific” makes the difference versus other songs, however, a good song is a good song period. A good producer recognizes what is unique to an artist, and helps him achieve it, while he understands what needs to be done to have “the song”. I do believe the producer is essential, and let’s dive in the most important aspects where the producer comes into play.

Today, in the DAW era, there is no limitation when it comes to how many takes you can do and add whatever you think is required. That is a blessing and a curse; it makes it easier in a way, but also harder, you need to know when you get that take that fits the song. Going back in time, it is amazing when you think that George Martin produced Beatles’s album Sg. Pepper’s Lonely Heart – one of the most influential albums on only 4 tracks! 

It is a fact that the listener doesn’t care about perfection, but cares about emotion, feelings and communication. In way too many instances, people agonize at mixing on trying to make it perfect, which accounts for maybe less than 10% of the final results; the professional producer knows that very well. Of course, a great mix provides the interest, the clarity, the tension, the balance, but, in the grand scheme of things the song comes first! The sound of a record (or song) is all about how the musician is playing, not about how he was recorded, how was the mic placement and so on!

This is very important; I had clients complaining about other mixing engineers, as they were the reason the song was not good! The mix may not have been the best, but there is quite a difference between the mixing engineer and the producer. The mixing engineers does his job having in mind the balance, the interest of the mix, carves the space for vocals, places everything in 3D, makes everything work together. And there isn’t only one option on how to come up with a mix! However, the producer has in mind an idea that fits the song, and he did work at this idea from the very first stage of recording, as he knows his artist. So, he makes most of the time the decision when a take is good or not, recognizes something that is unique, that will give the song something unique.

It is the producer that in most cases understands what’s needed in terms of arrangements; sometimes he brings in other musicians to play a specific instrument, even in a specific style, or backing vocals, etc. You may want some vocal harmonies in the vein of Crosby, Still and Nash; the producer most likely will know where to go and find musicians that can sing in that style and arrangement.

The artist is almost always too close to his project, missing the objectivity; that’s not to say that the artist does what the producer wants. Essentially, the producer brings to life the artist vision and helps him identify what’s needed. Eddie Kramer said it very clear that Jimmy Page knew exactly what he wanted, what sound he was looking for, and it was Edie’s job to make that happen! Of course, some artists are there every step of the way during the production, like Madonna – Nile Rogers interview about working with Madonna tells it all. Others, like Barbara Streissand or Celine Dion trust completely their producers (Afanasieff, Clive Davis- hello, what’s not to thrust here???); they do the whole arrangement and the artist comes and sings and that’s it! Some artists do not have a sound, and the producer helps them find it and capture it: Mike Clink worked hard with Slash/Gun’s N’Roses and they tried tons of amps until Slash was happy with the sound.

Almost every producer has some tricks up to his sleeves, like knowing how to achieve a certain sound, what mic / preamp / compressor combination; usually the producers have a great sound intuition. Gatica didn’t have to look and waste time for Celine recording chain: he knew the right combination is Elam251/API512, and it was! Al Schmitt knows how to get a sound, he knows everything about mics and how to place them.

Being a producer essentially is the job of somebody who can establish great communication with people, who understands music, who has a vision or can understand the artist’s vision, who knows many things about how to perform, to record, to get a sound, to be smart financially, in essence it’s impossible to try to classify what a producer should know and should do, as he is a somebody able to wear many hats.

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