The Producer’s Chair
“The production on this is fantastic – it sounds so good!”RandomDudeOnYouTube42069
“Nah, this sounds too produced for me, I prefer the old stuff, it was more raw!”
“Sick production, bro!”
“I think I’m passing on this one, the production kinda sucks.”
Reading comments like these on YouTube or social media always makes me feel torn between different emotional reactions. A part of me wants to chuckle and brush it off, move on with my life, while another wants to reach through the screen and grab people by the shoulders, eyes open wide like a raging maniac, screaming “Do you even know what production means?”
“Production” seems to be an oddly elusive word when used to describe the pros and cons of a musical offering, especially in the metal scene, where most fans pat themselves on the back for having “elite” musical taste and usually at least a little bit of a musical understanding from playing instruments as a hobby. Even in the music industry itself, people are nowadays often clueless about what it actually is that a producer does (and why they would need one). Go to dance-music or electronica scenes and you’ll find a completely different definition. Being part of a dwindling group of people who’ve sat in the “producer’s chair” as well as the “engineer’s chair” many times on a variety of releases, let me try to shed
some light on the issue:
First of all, the production on an album does not automatically mean the way it sounds, because the recording, mixing & mastering have a more direct influence on that. Yes, the word today colloquially means “how an album sounds” but it didn’t use to mean that. What was lost? The production on an album, the actual production rather than the stand-in it signifies today, has a crucial impact on the final product. But today, even as the word itself changes meaning, the art of production and the role of the producer are being lost.
Production means a lot of things but if we would simplify and brake things down to a basic level, we could make this broad flow-chart:
- the band writes and performs the music
- the producer works with the band and staff to create the most accurate representation of the intention and vision behind the music
- the mixing-engineer shapes the sound and creates the balance between the recorded tracks
- the mastering-engineer finalizes the tracks and ensures maximum compatibility with playback systems and the demands of the market
- the record label provides funding and music-biz connections in exchange for a product to sell
Part of the confusion about this topic seems to stem from the fact that the music industry has almost (some would say completely) collapsed since the rise of the internet. Of course, lots of interesting and exciting things are happening in the music industry today and amazing new music is being released. Financially, however, the industry has completely lost its “mojo” over the last 10-20 years. And, as budgets are shrinking each passing year while more and more releases of questionable quality flood the market, inevitably the amount of of highly trained and skilled people who work with and alongside the artist, have been reduced to a minimum.
Until the 1990s, on a well-budgeted album backed by a bigger label there would have been an entire team of specialists working on the project:
- the artist(s)
- the producer
- the recording-engineer
- the mixing-engineer
- the mastering-engineer
- the assistents
- the studio staff
- the label’s staff (including A&R, marketing, publicity)
Some of the biggest names in audio and production today started as “tea-boys” in a recording-studio, quietly observing the producers and engineers at close proximity, soaking up everything that was happening in the room.
Today, however, it is rare that even a mid-level metal band hires more than one person to help them create a new album. Partly because of budget restraints, but partly also because, in the age of home-recording and laptops, there is a new mindset prevalent with bands: “If I can record an entire album on my laptop, why do I even need a producer?” But four ears hear more than two, and having a team of creative professionals working together to ensure the final product is of the highest possible quality, that is something else entirely.
No matter how good you are in your profession, you still have a limited perspective, especially after working on the same set of songs
for a long time. Having other people to bounce ideas off of is something that’s often not placed enough emphasis on these days. And of course, nothing beats having a world-class producer’s input. Together with a world-class mixing-engineer and mastering engineer, it is a recipe for rising above the mass of mediocrity and above the sea of competition.
In the Days of Yore
To get a more in-depth look into the recording-process, let’s look at how things were done in “the old days”:
The label’s representative (usually the A&R) would set up the budget and suggest the right people to be involved in the making of the record. The producer would then start working with the band and go over their material. They would provide an outside perspective to the writing, arranging and performances. Usually, pro-producers are people whose own musical backgrounds include playing several different instruments and having experience in many different genres, as well as methods of writing and composition. All of those things enable the producer to provide insights into the material that the musicians themselves couldn’t possibly develop on their own. That is also why the producer is often a bit older than the musicians they’re working with. They’re the mentor-figure, the musical shaman and ritual elder, who’s putting the secret ingredients into the musical stew that’s being cooked.
A classic scenario would be the band either cutting a demo of the new material or performing it for the producer in rehearsal, as a first step.
The producer would then suggest changes in the arrangement or performance of a tune, which will benefit the overall product. Once all parties are happy with the way the songs developed, they would take it to a studio, where the band would work closely with the producer & recording-engineers to ensure that every performance, piece of gear and recording-technique is within the specifications for that particular project. Sometimes, the recording process would spark more changes and new creative avenues would be explored in the studio.
Often times, there would be more songs being tracked and written than would end up getting used for an album. The rest would be either released as B-sides or re-worked for a later project.
Once tracking was done, the material would be given to one or several mixing-engineers, who would take over in order to make the best-sounding
record possible. Their job is make sure that all recorded elements are well-balanced and in harmony with each other, as well as shaping the sound of the individual elements to sonic perfection. The mastering-engineer then would provide the last bit of “fairy dust”, further shaping the tone of the record and making sure that the product would translate perfectly to the listener, even on wildly different playback systems.
But today, some of your favorite metal bands work with “one audio guy on a laptop”, to put it a bit provocatively. Now, without a doubt it is amazing that every musicians now has such a wide array of resources and tools available to him at an affordable price. I myself have benefited greatly from that, having made my first recordings on my first PC, back in the 1990s, and having recording my first solo recordings at 18 in my parent’s living room.
But there is something being lost here, something that we cannot get back when music-making gets democratized to the point where “anybody with a laptop can make a record” – we often lose the excellence and the brainpower of the people who developed their skills and craft through having to overcome every possible limitation and obstacle, back when the producers and engineers were a well-paid elite that not everybody had access to. We loose the awareness for what “excellence” even means in this field.
As a well-documented example, consider a true metal classic: “Sad But true” by Metallica. If you listen to the band’s original demo, the tune is quite a bit faster. Bob Rock (among other things) suggested to lower the tempo to what you hear on the album – a simple, but genius move, giving the song just the impact and swagger that was missing previously. Furthermore, the sound and arrangement style of that song’s parent “black album”, that Bob Rock created together with the band and engineer Randy Staub, would shape an entire generations musical taste and break several sales-records.
Or consider Iron Maiden‘s even more legendary and genre-shaping The Number Of The Beast: Legend has it that producer Martin Birch made then-new singer Bruce Dickinson repeat the legendary extended scream after the intro dozens of times until he got the intensity that he wanted. The result inspired generations of musicians. An equally legendary example would be Bob Ezrin’s work on Pink Floyd‘s The Wall. Much of its everlasting appeal lies in the way Ezrin worked with the band on shaping the arrangement and connecting the disparate musical pieces to shape the genius rock opera we all know.
If you listen to the demos for the album (which recently have been released as part of an anniversary edition), they make a great case for the importance of a producer: all the elements and basic ideas are there, but often they fail to connect emotionally and the limited vocal palette seriously impacts songs like “Another Brick in the Wall” in a negative way. But then the way all of the dots are connected and the ideas fleshed out on the finished product, with Michael Kamen’s splendid orchestration fleshing it out (of course, he was brought in by Ezrin), is on another level entirely.
In addition to purely musical skills, don’t underestimate the value that a producer can provide when emotions and/or egos are running rampant in the studio and relationships between band-member are falling apart: A good producer is equal parts psychiatrist, drinking-buddy, translator and
military instructor – making sure the record gets done no matter what and that ALL obstacles are overcome.
Working in a recording studio is a high-pressure situation and if you spend a lot of time working on a record, cut off from the outside word, you need to have somebody in the room who’s being respected but who also understands each band member’s unique struggle and challenge, as he helps to navigate the entire band through the challenges of the recording process and makes sure that everybody is on time, in the right frame of mind and that the studio stuff is on their a-game to capture any moments of magic that may occur.
The producer may also suggest bringing in different gear or studio musicians to enhance the material with different “colors of sound” that the band itself wouldn’t have been able to provide on their own. Maybe some strings for the ballad? The producer will know a guy. Maybe the bass-player isn’t as good on a fretless as he is on a fretted bass, but one song still demands that slidey, fluid tone? Our producer knows a guy and will use his fine-honed skills in psychology and awareness of social subtleties to talk the bass-player out of quitting the band, because he’s feeling unappreciated and useless. Maybe the singer is a beast on stage, but struggles to bring the same level of intensity in the studio? Our producer knows just what to do and how to get into Mr. Singer’s head to motivate him and light a fire under his rockstar ass.
On a sidenote: I once had a session where the singer of a indie-rock band that I was working with, was only able to either convey the necessary emotion OR hit the notes correctly, but not both at the same time. After some high-level male bonding, the solution was to go into the studio at nighttime when nobody else was around, armed with a bottle of Jägermeister and several packs of cigarettes. I operated the controls in near-darkness while the singer was performing in the both completely naked – bottle in one hand, smokes in the other. Mission accomplished.
After the recording sessions have been completed, the producer may help to communicate the band’s vision to the mixing-engineer, who is responsible for shaping the sound, creating the right balance between instrument, making decisions based on what he feels are the most important elements of a song, and maybe enhancing the material with sonic effects and tricks of his own. A good mixing-engineer will ask the question: “what is the emotion behind this piece of music and how can I exaggerate it?”
Sometimes the producer may even be the one who will have to defend the direction of the new material against angry record-label executives who demand an easier-to-market product with a nice, catchy single…
In a nutshell, one could argue that you don’t really “hear” production, you’re hearing instrumentation, arrangement, performance, mix & master. But the production is responsible for you being able to hear all these things in the first place, and for the level of expertise they have been executed with. Really, the next time you hear somebody rant about the “horrible production” on a recent album, chances are that there is none to begin with – in a lot of cases what people are talking about is the overall SOUND of the album. Which, unfortunately, is often the result of one poor overworked aspiring engineer trying to make the best out of half-baked home-recorded and often UNPRODUCED tracks.
Love it or hate it, but Guns & Roses‘s Chinese Democracy is an example of an extremely PRODUCED album where dozens of high-level professionals have been working on the same set of songs for over a decade. In this particular case, you could argue that it’s been changed, mangled and re-worked by different people so much and so often that the essence of the songs and ideas is sometimes lost….which a lot people would call “overproduced”. (Psst, it’s still worth picking up for the amazing guitar solos, though.) On the other hand, albums by big pop stars like Madonna, Adele or Micheal Jackson are inseparable from their production, as those are cases where many highly skilled people work hand-in-hand with the artist, making him or her shine in the brightest possible light in a variety of musical situations.
Consider Devin Townsend’s production style, which is pretty much inseparable from his music and signature vocals. A wall-of-sound approach that is equally influenced by 80s metal like Def Leppard as it is by industrial artists like Skinny Puppy or Nine Inch Nails. Often, his music is simple and direct in rhythm and harmony, but has an enormous depth in terms of layering different sounds and tracks on top of each other. On the other end of the spectrum, you have somebody like Kurt Ballou, whose signature style is defined by a highly aggressive and raw sound, often tracked live, with few overdubs and augmentation to the sound of the artist itself.
I hope you’re not “too trve” to check out two amazing feats of production in the pop world: “Toxic” by Britney Spears, where the production work is stunningly effective in not only keeping a simple & catchy tune interesting, surprising and fun until the very last second – but it’s also also cleverly hiding the fact that Britney isn’t exactly a vocal powerhouse.
Or consider Robbie Williams‘s “Tripping”, where, in a similar matter, “a rather limited vocalist singing a simple and catchy tune” gets turned into
a joyride of musical ideas where genre clichés get turned inside out and Robbie’s strained falsetto is used to work for the song instead of against it. And all without coming off as calculated or, worse, a self-important mess.
Obviously, in metal, things would be a little different, because “our music” has different values. For metal, a producer must be able to get to the core of what a particular band is doing and why they are doing it. It’s not so much about making the most “expensive-sounding” record, but about bringing that special kind of vibe and energy that metal’s bands and sub-genres have. Imagine the first Korn album with a shiny 80s glam-rock production. Necrophagist with the sludge-y sound of EyeHateGod. Dream Theater with the raw “necro” sound of Darkthrone…You get the idea.
One of my go-to examples in the larger metal world would be Obsolete by Fear Factory, an album that has strong songs and musical ideas, but would not have nowhere near the coherence, impact and quality that it has without the astounding production work of Rhys Fulber, who made sure that every inch of music on the album is fine-tuned to the underlying concept-story’s futuristic science-fiction content. Sure, it sounds a little dated today, where robotic drums and the idea of “the band as a machine” have been become a standard in itself. But it’s still a fine example of how the artist’s unique vision is taken to the next level by a producer with a unique skillset.
A producer who makes sure that at every step of the way, the end result represents the direction that the band is going in a hundred percent. You could even argue, that this (and the band’s prior album, Demanunfacture) started the trend in the first place. Ironically, Rhys Fulber also played, co-orchestrated and co-mixed Obsolete, which brings me back to the situation we find ourselves in today, where oftentimes there is simply no budget for a producer and, more often than not, one engineer will do what little production-work they can. This is a situation that I’ve found myself in quite often.
Here are some examples of the different roles I myself played as a music-producer in recent years:
On Requital‘s Trinity, my responsibilities included guiding the band through a tough time where they needed to make a recorded with almost no budget (we ended up tracking the drums in the band’s rehearsal room and everything else in my home studio), one guitar player MIA in Thailand and the vocalist quitting during the production phase.
Part of the job was to provide continuity and a steady rhythm to proceedings, providing a safe harbor where we the band and I would work on the material and performances without too much time constraints, helping out in arranging the music, helping out with the performances by providing solutions to physically challenging parts, bringing in sound effects and sound-strategies that would help make the material more interesting and last but not least, working on lyrics, performance and vocal patterns with Björn, the drummer – who had stepped up as vocalist and lyricist to complete the recording and had not performed death metal vocals in several years.
The Astronauts Return‘s Now Then Waves was is one of the most intense examples of production work in my career, where I was producer, engineer & session-musician in equal measure, helping the band to create and realize a unique vision of sound (which we ended up calling “meditation metal) from the ground up. When I joined the project, all they had were midi files. I then chose studio-facilities, working methods, studio musicians and guest-performers with the band, co-arranged, performed and helped make difficult decisions like cutting down the material from an 80-minute mountain of music to a more manageable 30. Finally, I mixed the rest, having between 100 and 200 tracks of audio for each song. And I don’t mean to take anything away from the band here, it was still their vision and their songs. Yet, without bringing all of these skill set to the session, the album would’ve never been possible.
On, NYN‘s Entropy – Of Chaos & Salt, an extreme technical death metal album (that you can hear bits of pieces of in every Heavy Blog podcast) I’m not even credited as a producer. But in addition to playing guitar solos, mixing and mastering the album, I’ve made many changes to the material, like suggesting re-tracking of certain guitar parts, taking out a few less-than ideal vocal takes, coming-up with vocoder-harmonies whenever requested by the artist, pointing out moments where instruments would be fighting for space and attention in the arrangement and subsequently providing solutions. In other words, even though I wasn’t present for the writing and recording of the basic material, I provided production-work later on to make sure the end result would meet certain criteria of professionalism and translate to the audience as well as possible without sacrificing the confrontational intensity of the material.
And then, other times, “producing” would mean making sure everything was running smoothly while the band did their thing without interference. On a recent session for Shaped In Dreams, whose debut single recently came out, my role as co-producer wasn’t involved in the writing and recording of the music at all. However, on top of mixing, mastering and playing the Turkish oud, I would connect the artist to several of “my people”, as guest musicians to perform previously programmed tracks, suggest the right vocalist, balancing the material out by suggesting that one of the instrumental tracks would get vocals, and finally make some music-biz connections for the artist to help promote and release the album.
The same goes for an EP that I’m finishing up right now for “Intercepting Pattern”, a polyrhythmic fusion-metal extravaganza in one giant 30 minute composition. The artist had such a strong vision for what the album was going to be instrumentally, that I stepped out of his way and only helped
him to choose the right session musicians for the job, the right studio and the right visual artist for the cover. But once we got to the stages that the artist wasn’t as competent and experienced in, meaning mixing/mastering, sound-effects, vocal arranging and lyrics, I was there every step of the way to guide him in his decision-making.
This collaboration was also a very rewarding one, as both the artist and I believed in the value of having a open and constructively critical discussions, in order to arrive at the best possible approach to any given problem. Sometimes I wonder whether they decline in actual production-work on metal albums might have something to do with the artist’s unwillingness to open themselves up to critical discussion. Again, even if anybody now CAN easily program an entire orchestra into their home-recorded metal album, doesn’t mean that they SHOULD. But having the ability to do these things at the push of a button can often lead to an inflated sense of artistic importance and grandiosity, which can lead to the artist undervaluing professional outside input.
Now, all of that being said, sometimes being a producer just means getting out of the way altogether and not interfering when the music starts happening. The awareness to know when to get involved and when not to is as essential as a good musical ear and the ability to work long hours without complaining or losing your temper. Just ask Rick Rubin, producer of Slayer‘s genre-defining Reign In Blood!
And finally, on several projects where I was not sitting in the producer’s chair myself, I was able to benefit and learn from the people doing the job. On Obscura‘s Akroasis” album, producer Victor Santura handled contrasting visions, approaches and abilities (as well as working with a
line-up that had not yet performed together before going into the studio) with grace and determination. I remember many instances where he had to make quick decisions for the greater good, while reacting to scheduling nightmares and the sometimes irrational demands and changes caused by one of the band members. He would sometimes be forced to work late into the night, and on a rabid pace.
But I should also mention that during those session, there was a song called “Ode To The Sun” that I saw very little potential in as a demo and didn’t feel like I had very much to contribute to. Subsequently, I ended up not playing on that song at all, while concentrating on the rest of the material, especially the music that I had written for the album. But upon hearing the final result of “Ode…”, after Victor had worked in the orchestral percussion, choir and vocal harmonies, the song had really come to life and ended up being a highlight on the album – proving that I had been wrong and that he had heard something in it that I didn’t at that time – just like a good producer should.
I hope that I was able to shed some light on this complex topic. If you are interested in the production-work that I have done, please do check out my current audio-showreel here:
If you want to hire me for production, mixing or mastering-work for your project or band, you can reach out to me through:
You can also check out the producer-page or discographie on my website, http://www.thefountainhead.de.
Sound & vision, Love & Light.