The two roles in recorded music which are generally the least understood (by musicians and the general public alike) are those of the producer and engineer. Given that I am a producer and not an engineer, I'll try to give an overview of production in general and my approach in particular.
First off, you may wonder, Just what is a producer anyway? Well, I'm glad you asked. The producer is the person who makes the final decisions on just how a record will sound. There are any number of particulars involved, such as selection of material, musicians, studios, and instrumentation. There is the approach to and arrangement of the music to be considered, which means structuring the piece to it's best advantage. The producer must decide what key and tempo are best suited to the moment. During the recording process, it is the producer who decides when a "take" is the right take. Likewise, the producer must ensure that the artist's vocal is the best possible performance, and work with the singer to bring that out.
It is also the producer's job to work out a budget with the artist, and determine how to get the most bang for the buck, to make sure each dollar the artist spends counts for something in the final product.
There is further the matter of scheduling, of lining up the right players in the right place at the right time. This is far more involved than you might think.
And then there is the matter of mixing the record (yet another phase in which the engineer is utterly indispensable), which is such an esoteric and time-consuming process that it's difficult to describe in brief. You might think that mixing a record is just about setting relative volumes of the various tracks. But there are myriad factors one must take into account, with relative volume (level) of a part being almost the least of it. There are the considerations of tonal separation, equalization, effects selection and assignment, and placement within the stereo field as well, as we bring definition and detail forward in the final product.
Now as to production styles, these vary as dramatically as human nature itself. Some producers take a very "type-A personality" approach, deciding in advance absolutely every aspect of everything, from each individual note played to the exact drum part to you name it.
Others delegate virtually everything to others, preferring to let things sort themselves out with very little direction, checking in from time to time to see how things are going and perhaps throwing their two cents' in.
Either of the above styles can work under the right circumstances.
My approach, on the other hand, is to work with maximum consideration given to the best interests of the artist. This generally means having a number of pre-production meetings where I become familiar with the material and wishes and philosophy of the artist, and formulate a general game plan. Occasionally (rarely), as well, it means disagreeing firmly with what the artist may have in mind, for their own sake. Most times, though, the client and I are able to achieve a degree of trust a terrifically important part of the process.
When I arrange the material, I consider who is best suited for the session, based not only on musicianship (which must be at the highest level), but also with an eye to complementary personalities. It's important to have everyone on the same page. I like to give musicians as much latitude as possible, while giving them the best direction I can. (After all, while I may know a fair bit about the instruments involved on the session, each of the players is far more intimate with their specialty than I will ever be.)
I bear in mind always that while recording is something that I do on a regular basis (and cherish it), it typically signifies something quite special for an artist. Very often the artist has borrowed money, or mortgaged a home, or saved for years to be able to afford what is a very expensive process. They have committed themselves to this project, and so my commitment must be equal.
Having said all that, the studio environment is such a wonderfully creative one that a session is not a session unless it is absolutely bursting with life and laughter and the sheer joy of making music.
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