So you want to be a record producer?
Having produced a handful of albums for other acts, co-produced almost all of my own albums, and been involved in dozens of other recording projects either as a session player or production consultant, it seems clear that “people skills” are every bit as important to the process as knowledge of music theory or recording technology.
In the studio, you can make the most of your “people skills” (enthusiasm, empathy, charisma, humor, leadership, etc.) if you minimize the gray areas and B.S. beforehand.
When it comes to helping other artists make great records, your job as the producer is to create an environment of camaraderie, supportive and clear communication, and focus. If you can tinker with sound like Brian Eno or make string arrangements like George Martin– bonus! But you’ve got to bake the cake first before you can add icing and sprinkles.
Here are some of the bigger details you want to work out in advance of any recording project.
7 steps to producing a great album… before you step foot in the studio
1. DETERMINE YOUR ROLE
This is the first conversation you should have with any prospective act that wants to hire you. It will help set clearer expectations on both sides and all other discussions can flow from there.
Why did the band or artist call you? What are they hoping you’ll bring to the sessions? Will you be arranging, co-writing, performing, deciding on takes, choosing songs, etc? Will you be engineering AND producing?
In my case, I made it clear upfront that my engineering skills were remedial at best, and that if they wanted to work with me they’d also need to hire a studio/engineer separately. But nowadays in the indie world, many engineers also act as producers in some respects.
2. DETERMINE YOUR ROLE, PT. 2
Once you’ve discussed what you’ll be doing for the artist, it’s time to discuss HOW: the decision-making process! Who is in charge? Do you have veto power? How does the band vote? Does the songwriter have an extra say? Are you an equal voting member in this process?
Carefully consider your “say,” because your name will be on the album as the producer; you don’t want to be embarrassed by decisions that the band has made on your watch. At the same time, making a record is a collaboration. If you’re not being hired by a major label, you’re probably being hired directly by the artist– and that means, in a way, you work for them; they may not be comfortable giving you too much creative control.
These types of conversations can be sticky, but far less so BEFORE you go into the studio.
3. HELP THE ARTIST SET CLEAR GOALS
Artists get all excited when it’s time to head into the studio, and they begin to suffer from a kind of time-warped delusion– “Oh, we can knock out 5 songs in 2 days!”
Getting the right basic tracks, overdubs, and mix takes TIME! Then factor in smoke breaks, deliberations, and lunch.
It’s part of your job to help the artist relax into this process, and also to make sure they’re budgeting the appropriate funds and time to complete the album. Make a detailed calendar/schedule for pre-production, studio dates, basic tracking, overdubbing, mixing, sequencing, mastering, etc. You don’t necessarily have to stick to to the mile-markers, but most folks feel a little bit more sane when working within some parameters.
4. TO AVOID OR EMBRACE “SIGNATURE SOUNDS?” THAT IS THE QUESTION!
Does the artist want to preserve their own signature sound, or are they hiring you to put a bit of your “stamp” on their album? Do they want you to completely overhaul their habitual process and give them a fresh approach?
It’s good to discuss, in a kind of broad sense, how much of YOU they want to be evident on the record. Some people think production should be transparent, allowing the band to do what they do best. Others like a very heavily imprinted album (one of the common examples being Emmylou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball,” which has Daniel Lanois’ signature tones and vibe all over it)!
5. TALK TURKEY ($$)
What is their budget? Will you be getting points, or just a flat fee? Will you be paid per hour? Per day? Per song? Or will they pay you one sum for the whole album? If you’re paid per hour, is that rate consistent or changing based on your involvement (arrangement, performing, or simply helping direct the session)? Will you be paid after each session? At the end of the project? Throughout? Will you be credited as a co-writer if you significantly alter a composition?
Iron out these details ahead of time and you’ll avoid a whole bunch of awkwardness later.
6. SCHEDULE PERIODIC CHECK-INS
Before you start recording, schedule a few check-ins that will take place throughout the sessions (meetings OUTSIDE of the studio to discuss how things are going IN the studio). It’s good for both parties to know that you’ll be able to assess your collaboration as it unfolds, and to make any necessary changes.
The check-ins will allow both of you to adjust if expectations are not being met.
If things are going great, awesome! If not, work to fix it. You might also consider having an upfront agreement about what the procedure would be if either party wants to cancel the collaboration mid-stream. How would production credits and fees be divvied up if you quit early or if the band sought another producer before the album was finished?
7. SELL THE ARTIST ON THE VALUE OF PRE-PRODUCTION
The more time you spend in pre-production preparation, the more productive you’ll be in the studio. If the artist can afford to enlist your services ahead of their studio dates, you’ll have a great opportunity to work with them on songs, lyrics, arrangements, vibe, and tightness.
I recommend you take three approaches simultaneously. First, attend band practices. Work with them in that setting on parts, dynamics, energy, etc. Then do a kind of stripped-down rehearsal where you can listen to the songs (chords, melody, lyrics, basic groove, etc.)– and make suggestions as if it were a writing session. After that, let the band work through the ideas you’ve suggested on their own. Encourage them to record their next full-band rehearsal and send you the demos. That will allow them to be critical (in a good way) of their own material and performance, and give you the chance to listen to how well (or not) your suggestions worked.