Do we really need a producer? - Part 1: Many formats, a single desire: an original sound!

I wasn’t able to post for a few weeks nothing new, as I’ve been busy with a couple of projects. And I decided to take a short break from exploring the music marketing subject, due to a situation I was having lately.

One of my clients recorded a hip-hop song, with very good lyrics. However, the mixing became a hassle; he wanted many changes, without being able to settle for a solution. He doesn’t have a producer, so I tried to help him with the producing part, however he made it clear that he wants to lead the production. I advised him to listen to the song on multiple devices (boombox, computer, home stereo, car) and his decisions are driven mostly by what he hears on the computer. He wants a perfect sound, especially on the computer, as he believes most of the people who listen to the song are doing it on the computer. You know how it is, the customer is always right, however, the whole thing raised a couple of problems.

We all know that, with the advent of all the mp3 players, ipads, iphones, etc, there are implications on the way mixing/mastering are done, in regards to how the final song will sound. They are not fundamentally different than the normal situation: in the end, the final master has to sound good in any system, so you have to hit that point of balance that provides a solid ground no matter what the listening system is. The song brings forward the intent of the artist. Enter mp3 era, in the world of computers, with thousands of small bad 10 to 100 dollars speakers and is just logical that things are getting really complicated. A home system is in the range of hundreds or thousands of dollars (some in thousands or tens of thousands) and in a computer, the audio card and the speakers in most of the cases are less than 100 dollars. I don’t think the answer to this matter is complicated.

Right of the bat, an mp3, regardless of the sophistication of the encoding algorithm (be it Fraunhofer or Apple one) decreases the size of the file, like from 40 MB a 16 bit resolution typical for CD file to 4 MB. That in itself has to tell everyone that something gets lost in translation, affecting the quality of the song. We all understand that sales/ promotion / marketing through internet is vital, and mp3 format allows faster loading times, and, while the download speeds improved a lot we will still be using the mp3/AAC/etc formats for a while, so is there a solution? The short answer is yes, and the solution is to actually do a master for release on CD or higher resolution, and a master for mp3, and have both of them for sale / marketing, letting the people choose what they want to download.

 As a principle- without going to details- the mastering engineer will do the high resolution master, than he will use a real-time encoder for mp3/AAC/etc to listen and do some tweaking to improve the sound of mp3/AAC. The Mastered for iTunes implemented by Apple actually promotes 24bit/96kHz resolution masters, and it requires that the masters are checked so, when encoded for AAC by iTunes or aggregators, no clipping/distortion will be introduced (aside of the fact that creating an mp3/AAC from 24 bit files provides better results than using the 16 bit file as a source).  A major positive side to this is that, during this process, the mastering engineer listens to how the AAC file will sound when making decisions.  Of course, all of the above add to the cost, and in a world that the production costs are pushed in the lap of the artists, it may seems unfair.

This is actually a decision that the artist has to make; and here is one of the fundamental differences between a professional artist and the rest. A professional artist (or one who is serious and aspires to be) understands that, if he wants to sell, he needs to have a good sense of production, a good sense of sound and excellent understanding of the public taste in his genre- again, if the main purpose is to sell your music. I dealt with extremely professional people who actually were way more interested in artistic integrity than following the rules of commercial, but they also did not expect massive sales, their decision was the right one from the artistic point of view.

Enter the professional producer: he is a guy hired to bring the artist vision to life. The famous producers have a good sense of the public taste and an excellent musical understanding. They bring to the plate the dose of objectivity required. They know how to handle personalities. They have a deep understanding of the song arrangement and uncanny ability to feel what is the strength of the artist and how to bring that to life. They have up their sleeve a bag of tricks on how to achieve the proper sound through recording techniques, through knowing the sound of the instruments, which allows them to identify what else is needed in a song. They also know when somebody else is needed (like a musician with a particular set of skills and sound for a certain project). They have the vision. The most important part is maybe their objectivity; an artist is too connected with his project. Many of my clients are recording, and then they bring some examples of music in the vein of what they are trying to achieve when it comes to mixing. I always welcome this, it helps a lot, however, that may be too a little too late in the process.

Most of the times, in order to achieve a certain sound, you need to tailor your recording process. That takes a vision for which you have to have a experience. The pros understand this. The others are just complaining after the mix to their friends that the mixing engineer did not achieve the sound they were looking for. I went through this situations some times, so, whenever I have to record an act where no producer is involved, I try to explain all the above issues to the musicians. Most of them understand where I am coming from. They understand that is in their best interest to follow some advice being aware of these issues they never had in mind. Of course, there are exceptions, but that’s a fact of life.

Almost always the jazz people know their sound, and know what they want, because they are the most serious and prepared musicians, so it’s definitely an advantage. The same goes for the artists that are coming with a producer, who knows what he wants for his artist, and has in mind the sound. With the others, it is a bit more complicated, communication is key, and I advise all the artists in this situation to do their best to communicate to the recording and mixing engineer before the project starts what exactly they are looking for, provide samples of music in the vein of what they are doing before putting any mike up for recording, and make sure they tell to the record and mixing engineers the best they can what they want different in their sound versus the norm of the type of music they are doing. There will be communication issues- talking about sound looks easy, but it’s not, however, it will help a lot. When all is said and done, there are limits as to what can be done in order to achieve that particular and specific thing that the artist is looking for, but there is the other side of the coin, with an open mind, some great and unexpected things happen.

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