A lot of people think that producers are people with bags of money who pay for their recording sessions. That's not the general reality. Producers are commissioned contractors who are paid a fee up front against royalties from the sales of the record. The fee varies widely based on the experience and track record of the producer and typically runs from $1,000 to $5,000 per song against about a 2% royalty. Producers are as picky about what acts they work with as the acts are picky about the producer. Both have to like each other, both have to feel the other has something to contribute to the session.
Sometimes producers work at studios or are studio owners and they negotiate a flat rate for the session in exchange for producer credit (instead of just studio or engineer credit). Keith Olsen (Fleetwood Mac, Grateful Dead, Pat Benatar), Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, Eagles), Phil Ramone (Billy Joel), Alan Parsons (Hollies, Pink Floyd), among many other producers all started out as engineers and then migrated into producing.
Record companies have lists of producers in all price ranges that they provide to their acts for selection on the next project. One act that I did some work with, Shiva Burlesque, had a very successful independent record on the Nate Starkman label and received a first right of refusal from a major record company. They were given a nice size budget and a list of producers from which to select a person who would pick a recording studio, work with them on their materials and then produce a finished master that the label would review. They picked someone I knew and worked with in past, Peter Kelsey, who had previously worked with jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
David Bowie negotiated co-producer deals with studio owners, and then both he and the studio owner would be listed as producer on the inner cuts. Bowie and the record label then picked the most promising cuts for single release and these were re-recorded or re-mixed by what is often termed an "A list" producer -- someone with a hit track record.
Dallas Austin (who worked on TLC's Grammy winning Fanmail CD) is one of the most sought after A list producers in this era.
The producer either has their own studio or goes out with the band to 'audition' a studio to record in and perhaps another to mix the final master (there are different considerations for recording and mixing -- the room, mic selection, headphone system, studio drum kit or price might be a factor for recording while the monitor speakers, board and outboard gear become the all important issue in mixing the final tape).
Today radio stations often demand re-mixes before agreeing to play a given song (or the record executives may want something added to fit a marketing strategy) -- this was the case recently for the Dream hit "He Love's U Not" which has 5 re-mixes used at various radio stations around the world, the Enya Song "Only Time" had drum machine added to the original for airplay on hit radio in the U.S. Merrill Bainbridge's hit "Mouth" didn't cut the mustard in first mix so they went back in a changed a few things which turned it into an international hit song. Sometimes these re-mixs flop, was the case with a re-mix of OMC's "How Bizarre" for the Power and Hip Hop stations or Natalie Imbruglia's "Wishing I Was There" which was given an alternative re-mix that got pulled after only a few weeks.
As to what producers actually do, it varies widely. Sometimes it's as little as listening for the best take on a song and then adding effects to the voice and mixing the instruments to get a good blend, leaving the creative process largely to band. Sometimes it's constructing a full song around a basic idea.
I've worked in both situations where sometimes all I do is clean up start and ending to get rid of the noise (other producers may leave this noise in, like Sheryl Crow did for "Favorite Mistake"), then I pick good reverb or delay for the vocals and just get a blend.
New artists virtually always have to work this way, as even on a major label you budget is limited to about $200,000 which must pay for the tape, the studio, the cover and the producer. This limits you to about one month of block time in a studio, since it can take one or two days just to get a drum sound and a week to ten days to mix the final product that leaves you with a little more than two weeks to record 14 songs, add lead solos, vocals and harmonies. That's two days per song for everything! No band or producer can squeeze more than 14 hours per day out of a session so 24 hours dedicated to recording, overdubbing and mixing each track on a CD and that is not a lot of time! Three takes on each set of basic tracks. Then you pick the songs you can add vocals or solos to quickly, then pick a few songs to produce as hits. In this situation a producer must be fast, efficient and use established tricks to generate a hit sound, as radio only adds one or two new songs a month from all the record labels and they must drop songs to add songs!
At other times I've had to work from the ground up. Recently I received just a vocal track, done without a click or metronome, from the songwriter. No one has perfect meter and this track, while averaging around 128 beats per minute, sometimes sped up to 130 or dropped to 126, so I had to cut the singing into short phrases and lock this into sequenced drum track.
Near the top you can see the checkerboard vocals edited to fit the drums which are below center. At the bottom are keyboard and bass tracks.
Once I had a full verse, chorus and bridge I then had to put all the instruments in to create a song. After determining the key and chord progress, I looked for a cadence (groove or feeling), locked a drum track that fit this movement or flow of the singing. Key elements of the drums must always compliment the vocals, stepping with them not over them. The next step is to lock a rudimentary bass groove into the vocals and drums. For a song to flow it must groove and that groove stems from the kick drum, which follows the cadences of the vocals. From there I found accent points for keyboards and guitar.
Once the track was flowing I went back in and re-did the bass tracks experimenting with new ideas I even added a second drum sequence over the first (so there are two different drums track -- one a rock beat and the other a dance groove) to take the simple rhythm and make it more complex. By now I had a complete third of the song so I mixed it, copied it and pasted these clones to cover the rest of the verses. This now became the "basic tracks" for the complete song.
Finally I clipped various elements of the scratch vocal into small files and dropped these in to various areas of the song to create counterpoints and scats in and effort to show the singer my ideas for the final vocals elements. The singer was given both a no vocal and scratch vocal track with which to work on for the final vocal sessions. From there finished vocals (sometimes as many as 10 vocal tracks) would be added to this work track. Once the real vocals are in place I can go back as far as I want in the arrangement and change things musically. I can even re-do the whole concept of the song because everything is lock into synchronization on the computer. This is the beauty of the digital world -- you can flop R-DAT tracks two at a time from your Tascam to a SoundBlaster card and link all these up in a program like Cakewalk or Cube base, as digital is always rock steady! Generally speaking, as long as you use the same digital sequencer the internal clock will always match another digital copy to within 1/128th.
The process of piecing a song together is not done over night -- in fact on this one song I worked part-time over two months as I had to come up with every played musically accompaniment part and make it fit the singer-songwriter's composition faithfully and in the process I faced the same thing every creative person faces -- writer's block, lack of ideas, futility, tools that don't work right and the feeling you bit off more than you can chew. Eventually you grab the tiger by the tale and make things works. It's like moving into a new house or out of one old one. What do you do first! Once you find a few pieces that fit, you start to see the whole picture and the rest of these seem to just fall into place. It's the skills, patience and ability to think forwards, backwards, inside and out that makes a person a producer instead of just a mixer working at a studio.
Some would say I wrote the music but that is not the truth. The singer-songwriter created the actually melody and feel, all I did was build around this. In the finished release I may negotiate for part of the credit on writing the song or get some of the publishing or maybe just get a better fee for producing.
What I did here was no different from how Peter Asher and Linda Ronstadt worked on songs like "You're No Good" where Asher brought in Andrew Gold who experimented musically with song playing all the drum, keyboard and guitar parts. Dreams by Fleetwood Mac was also done in a similar manner. Stevie Nicks had a two chord song, she went into the studio and sang this will Mick Fleetwood played a drum part, then the rest of the band working with their producers Richard Dashut and Ken Caillat fashioned all the rest of the music around this initial scratch take (and they even used some of the scratch vocals in the final product).
When the Beatles were working on their landmark sessions with George Martin they'd do take after take live in the studio, because back then they only used 4 track recording equipment. Some songs would have the entire band live on a single track, then vocals and lead solos were done on the remaining three tracks. Sometimes they switch ideas, for example after recording a rock track with the Beatles on "Strawberry Field's" John Lennon asked to have an orchestra arrangement done. Producer George Martin would write this part for the instruments, bring in strings and horns and conduct the session. Since horn parts need to be in a different key they moved the arrangement a half tone from the original. After all of this was done John Lennonís asked if the two different records could be combined into a single mix! Producer George Martin did this by using several 4 track machines and changing their pitch using a speed control so that one tape ran faster while the other ran slower. He then found points in both mixes where he could cross fade from strings and horns to guitars and drums. The finished product is an all-time classic. It was a collaborative effort between what John Lennon wanted as an artist, what the Beatles performed as a group and what producer George Martin did to make it all work to Lennon's concepts.
Complex projects like this cost money. Studio time can run as high at $500 an hour and doing what all these people did could ending up turning one song into a final cost of $100,000 and you have no idea if it will even get played on the radio or be accepted by the fans! If it flops you and the producer are in debt and will never see one cent of royalty money. If it succeeds you might become rich, sought after and crowed with glory and rewards like a Grammy!
Another job of the producer is to know when things are not working right. One session I was doing with Jeff Sherman (who runs a pro-audio equipment service), Charlie Garcia (who publishes PAIN music magazine) and Chris Atsas (who toured with Dennis Yost and the Classics Four) reached a peak and then started to deteriorate take by take. I call a halt and sent the players down to the Jacuzzi for three hours to relax. We got the song on the third take after they came back up to the studio area.
Sometimes it is in the best interest of the production for the producer to totally blow $5,000 worth of block recording time simply because today the band is barely there in body and somewhere else in mind, heart and soul. Maybe the producer will stay on work and do mixes or simply take them all out to the park for a picnic. It comes down to a judgment call as to if the band will be in even worse shape tomorrow if they don't take a rest today or can you actually force something good out of their fatigue.
Producers also have to save sessions. One session I did for a local artist just didn't work. He had no real solo planned. The ending had problems. He had me move on to record another song. After the session was recorded and I went about mixing the tape I finished everything pretty quickly and while he was taking a break downstairs I pulled up that one aborted song. I slapped an electrostatic delay on the solo track and played with both the dwell (depth of repeats) and the delay time. I put the whole song into a reverb chamber and by the time he came back up I actually had the tracks sounding so good that it ended up high in the order on the final compilation. I essentially gave the song a "50's" feel like an old Elvis Presley track and by tweaking the delay I put over the lead guitar I turned an improvised solo that didn't work all that well into an interesting sound that even blended back into the next verse with flare. He was quite happy with the results! Another time a rye guitar note we didn't hear during the session because we were burnt, stuck out like a sore thumb the next day. I again turned to a delay line to cover this up by manually turning the repeat dwell to create a type of science fiction sound heard in show like the Twilight Zone where the alien saucer takes off and heads home. The swell of the massive repeat also blended right into the crash cymbals making a perfect change from verse to solo.
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