The Producer’s Role

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6 keys to the recording process

by Kenny Lewis, engineer and producer, Mixed Emotions Music

In today’s constantly changing recording industry, the lines between the producer, engineer, writer, arranger and artist get a bit blurry. In my experience, I’ve learned the producer must be the team leader. It is his or her job to pull together the right people to make a great record.

Photo by: Peter Tentindo
Photo by: Peter Tentindo

One of the biggest mistakes young producers make is to not see their own weak spots. It is important to hire the right people to fill those gaps. From this standpoint of the producer, I would like to walk you through a record and touch on the key actions you must take to get a great recording.

1.    Understand the artist.

The team you pick will be critical in making the right record, but before you choose your team, the producer must first understand the artist and the project scope. The first step is to sit down with the artist and understand who the artist is and what he or she does. What are the strong and weak points of the artist? How does this artist like to work? What makes the artists feel good while working?

Remember to capture that intangible magic we call a hit record, the environment and work flow has to be right for the artist to perform at his or her best.

2.    Choose the right team.

After getting to know your artist, the next step is to sit down and decide on the team. One consideration the producer needs to address before building the team is the project budget. Once you sit with the artist and make some basic decisions, put together some numbers to present to the person or company funding the project. Keep in mind you may have to tweak the budget to fit what the financier can afford.

You need to have deal breakers and trading cards — what I mean is certain things you may want, you may not be able to do or you may need to trade one thing for another. For example, if the money people say no to certain requests, you may have to do fewer songs, or turn around and say we absolutely can’t do a good quality record for the budget.

A good producer must fight for what is right for the record. It is important to see to it, even when the budget is tight, that you have the right people on the job. Doing everything yourself may save money, but often you sacrifice the record. If there is no budget, then the artist’s team may have to get creative to raise the funds. Many new forms of doing that are popping up daily.

3.    Prepare for production.

Once you have the business aspects and the team in place, the next step is pre-production. You have to make certain that the arrangement will be right, whether it is programming (making a beat) or using live players or some combination. Once you have a scratch demo, have your artist try singing to it. It can be a disaster to find out the song is cut in the wrong key after you have spent budget and time recording. As the producer, the responsibility for those mistakes stops with you, and you will pay out of pocket for them.

While preparing for each session, part of your job is to clearly communicate with everybody involved. Make certain they have the demos, the charts and everything they need to do their job right. Be clear about expected schedules and also be open to input from people.

Be clear about the load-in time and place and as we call it the “downbeat” (this is for live players). Also, make certain your schedules are realistic. Ask your team if your plan looks realistic. For instance, be careful about scheduling a 12-hour day of singing. In a perfect world, that looks good. In reality, the singer may burn out after three hours, leaving you hours of costly dead time. Taking input from your team can save you from some of these disasters.

4.    Set an example during recording sessions.

Being a good producer is like everything else in life, showing up is a big part of the game. You have to set the example for everybody else. That means you are the first to show up and last to leave. During the session, make certain that the work flows smoothly.

Also, it is your job to deal with curve balls and the many personality quirks of the talent. I always joke that a lot of producing is a third music, a third business and a third child psychology. No offense to artists, but all of us creative types (including me) can have some really interesting personalities. That is what makes us great artists sometimes, right? The job of a producer is navigating those strange waters. A good producer has to have a sense of when to be understanding and when to be hard on the talent.

5.    Maintain quality control.

Quality control is your responsibility. Some of this goes back to hiring the right people who will complement what you are trying to do. The personalities and playing abilities of the team all count. Above all else, providing the leadership and environment for the talent to function in is a key job of the producer.

I remember years ago, we were never allowed to discuss business in the control room. The creative area needed to remain that. All business was conducted in the reception area. Today, a lot of studios don’t have the luxury of those areas, but the principal is the same. Discussing business while the talent tries to record a track takes the magic out of the session and stresses the talent.

A major job of the producer is to keep all stressful situations away from the talent. That means during the session, buffering them at all times. If you see the artist or players become frustrated, it is your job to remove the irritants from the session. Maybe a friend decides he is the producer or one of the players does something that disrupts the environment. It is your job to deal with it.

Between sessions, get and listen to working rough copies of the session and make notes. This will help save wasted time in the studio. It is also important to be at the sessions to direct the talent. Even if the session is remote, listen to the takes and make certain you get what you need.

Calling players back can get expensive. This is something you as the producer must pay close attention to — remember, overruns are out of your pocket in most cases.

7.    Oversee mixing and mastering.

Once everything is tracked, the next process is mixing. It is your job to oversee the mixing and mastering processes. Again, the mix engineer is a key player on your team. He or she needs to be willing to get behind the vision of the artist and producer. A mix engineer who wants to be the producer will not be helpful. A good mixer, like a good producer, will take some time to get on the same page as the team.

As the producer, just like with the musicians, you should be able to guide the engineers through your ideas. A good mixer can bring a project to life. Many producers fancy themselves as mix engineers. They can greatly hurt a project if they are not. At times like this, ego or the need to save a dollar can really stop a great record in its tracks. In this highly competitive business, you hurt yourself as a producer and hurt the artist by making poor choices. With that said, once you receive and sign off on the mixes, the final stage is mastering.

Again, the right mastering engineer can make or break the record. The first thing I look for in a good mastering engineer is somebody who is willing to work with the producer and mix engineer to make the final stage of the record go smoothly. Finding a mastering engineer who is a good fit for your mix engineer and project is important.

Having the mix engineer and mastering engineer fight over levels and compression can be a disaster. A mastering engineer who wants to be a mixer can be a problem. Each person needs to do the job he or she is hired for. A team will run the smoothest when that happens, and the producer needs to ensure it does.

After the mastering process is done, the producer must do the final quality control before signing off and turning in the record. Making certain the song order, graphics and credits are right is important. As I’ve already mentioned, fixes come out of your pocket, if they are your mistake.

Depending on the level you work at and the style of music you do, you may need to tweak the six-step process I have laid out. However, the idea and flow of the process should be the same. In your role as a producer, I hope you find this helpful.

Kenny is a producer and mix engineer . As producer he is known for his work with Erika Van Pelt (from American Idol), Michael Sweet, and Stryper to name a few.  As a mix engineer Kenny is known for his work with Freddie Jackson, Andre Ward, Stryper, Erika Van Pelt,  Marty Walsh, as well as numerous tv and commercial spots. Kenny runs Mixed Emotions Music and uses Phase X speakers. To learn more about him visit www.mixedemotionsmusic.com or contact him at mixedemt@aol.com.

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