Old 02-23-2009, 07:18 PM   #1
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Default Producing yourself-- WDYRSLA spinoff

So I've been thinking about where to go next in the "Why do your recordings sound like ass" thread in this very forum, and there is still an awful lot of ground to cover with the technical stuff, but more and more I have been thinking about the role of the PRODUCER in the record-making process, and how that diverges from the role of then engineer and from a lot of the technical stuff.

So this is a kind of spin-off, where I will respectfully ask participants to steer clear of the technical nitty-gritty (although there will certainly be some overlap) and focus more on the procedural and "big picture" stuff. I suspect this could be a more free-wheeling and open discussion, because everyone has something to contribute.
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Old 02-23-2009, 07:43 PM   #2
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First off, there is a lot of confusion about what a producer actually DOES, which is understandable, because it is in fact a pretty vague role, although a hugely important one in most modern commercial records.

The producer is usually the most highly-compensated individual in the record-making process. The producer usually gets a 2% royalty, which is slightly less than a typical band member, except the producer gets paid BEFORE all the deductions taken by the band's manager, accountant, and breakage fees and all that. Moreover the producer probably works on a lot more records than the band does, so yours is just one of three or six or eight records the producer might make that year.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the producer, if there is one, is likely to be the person most trusted by the record label. The A&R rep might ASK you how it's going, but then he meets with the producer to find out how it's REALLY going. So the producer is swinging a pretty big dick, as my old friend Musashi would put it.

So what exactly does a producer DO, to earn this kingly status, and kingly chunk of your record sales?

Well, first off, a PRODUCER is different from an engineer, even though they both often sit side-by-side behind the mixing console (for one thing, the engineer is paid by the hour, and is usually lucky to be making minimum wage, so that's one difference). Some producers do their own engineering, but this is by no means a requirement.

This is where it starts to get really confusing for a lot of music biz novices-- after all, we WRITE and PERFORM the music, and the engineer RECORDS and MIXES the music, so what else is there for anyone to do?

HOHOHOHO! Coming up.
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Old 02-23-2009, 08:17 PM   #3
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The producer is a sort of "project manager" for your album. The producer plans the whole project, budgets time and money, keeps everyone focused and productive, and makes sure that the thing actually gets done more or less the way it was meant to be done.

I can hear the outcry now: "What a racket! These people actually get paid more than the artists for doing THAT?!? Who needs 'em? Why won't the record company just let US keep the money and buy a calendar and write up a f'n schedule ourselves?!?"

Answer?... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Democracy

It sounds like a joke to say it, but one of the producer's primary functions is simply to keep the band from breaking up or drastically changing their sound during the record-making process. And scoff all you like, but the likelihood of a band breaking up before completing an album is HUGE. MASSIVE. Probably a majority, without some coaching and guidance. For real.

And even worse (from the record company's POV) is that there is some gene in musicians whereby, as soon as they have the opportunity to finally bring their musical vision to the world, the vision that they have slaved over and nurtured through years of all-ages tuesday shows in front of twelve people and months of sterno ramen dinners in the back of a van, they decide to CHANGE IT. They decide they no longer want to do hard-edged blues rock about partying, instead they want to do socially-conscious rap-metal. Or afro-cuban-infused instrumentals. Or acid jazz over techno beats. It sounds funny, but this kind of stuff is RAMPANT. And from the record company's point-of-view, it's a DISASTER. It's like investing all your savings in Microsoft and then having Microsoft decide to take all the capital and become a vegan communal farm in Vermont.

Musicians are a bit like revolutionaries-- they are often more built for fighting than for winning the fight. You or someone you know may have experienced a little something like this when you first started computer recording-- what starts out as a desire to record some ideas for straightforward songs you've written turns into an open-ended odyssey of reinvention. Imagine if your copy of REAPER came with a rented house in Beverly Hills and a $200,000 advance. Maybe you'd have your own little "Chinese Democracy" start to emerge.

So what does a producer actually do? And how can thinking like a producer help you? That's what this thread is here for...

Last edited by yep; 02-23-2009 at 08:20 PM.
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Old 02-23-2009, 08:48 PM   #4
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Producers are generally people who have some practical experience in the record-making process. Some are engineers who kind of expanded into it. A lot are former artists, themselves, or studio musicians. Some started as club owners or band managers or studio managers or tour managers or some other practical aspect of the creative world.

The first producers were basically straight-up mooks, A&R men who churned through artists like a line cook turns out patty melts. They were middle-managers for industrial-era record companies, and their job was managerial, to book the sessions and to get the musicians in on time and so on, like a shift manager. In time, it became clear that some producers were producing consistently better-sounding and more salable records than others. Sometimes this was the way they matched up talent, sometimes it was their own creative contributions in arrangement or engineering, sometimes it was the vibe or dynamic they created in the studio, and sometimes it was just their ability to pick winning material or performances.

Whatever it was, it amounted to a sort of "golden touch" where some producers were basically churning out hit after hit with pretty much any artist the record company threw at them, while others plodded through one bland recording after another, no matter how talented the incoming artist.

The golden age of the producer was probably pre-Beatles american pop, where different cities and different record labels each had their own prized "sound" made up of a local cadre of stable musicians, studio engineers, songwriting and arrangement teams, and record producers were the ringleaders of the whole thing.

Sort of like present-day Hollywood directors, who may or may not have any specific talents in cinematography or screenwriting, but who make the whole razzle-dazzle spectacle happen. Some of them actually operate cameras and edit film, but a lot of them just sit in a chair and "direct" a rather massive process that still reveals a unified artistic vision.

Phil Spector was probably the most iconic "golden age" producer, being part-arranger, part-engineer, part studio manager, part talent scout. But a lot of producers had none of these technical skills, or entirely different ones. When the Beatles came along and ushered in the era of name bands, supergroups, and "stage full of stars," the visible role of the producer began to recede into the background, to the point where the public widely perceived the movies to be made entirely by cameramen and actors, so to speak. But this was mostly just a perception thing.

Modern-day hip-hop and R&B probably most forthrightly showcases the producer's artistic fingerprints, but make no mistake, the producer almost certainly plays a massive role on the sound and gestalt of your favorite records of any genre. An engineer will point the mics at your instruments and record an accurate and flattering representation of what they sound like, but it is the job of the producer to get you from what you DO sound like to what you COULD sound like, if only you had a million-dollar producer.
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Old 02-23-2009, 11:06 PM   #5
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So here's how all this starts to come into play for home recordists in a practical sense.

99% of all human endeavor is accomplished through prioritization more than inspiration. The entire science of management can basically be boiled down to prioritization. First things first, and second things not at all. If you can get through the first priority, then the second priority will become the first, and so on, until the only things left are fairly small.

So the first aspect of prioritization is deciding what is really important and focusing on THAT. This can be a little tricky and counter-creative when you're doing stuff like writing and practicing, but actually producing a modern studio record is a big project with a lot of details and technical aspects, and if you just allow inspiration to drive the process, there is a strong likelihood of having inspiration run out or meander before the project is done.

Ironically, this is often particularly true of the most accomplish-able stuff. The more that you have the big idea stuff in order, the bigger the niggling details become, proportionately. This is where the SECOND part of prioritization comes into play, which is deciding when to fish or cut bait. A short-hand way to put it might be to say that it is a matter of deciding when good enough is good enough.

But a more nuanced and accurate way is deciding when whatever you're working on is close enough to finished so that it is no longer the first priority. Sometimes that means that the specific material you're working on is pretty good, but that other aspects are still rough and need to be sorted. Sometimes it is a matter of acknowledging that you're driving down a dead-end street, and that it's time to cut bait.

Last edited by yep; 02-23-2009 at 11:21 PM.
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Old 02-23-2009, 11:21 PM   #6
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One of the great challenges of working alone is that boredom tends to creep in the closer you get to perfection. The consequence of this is a tendency to keep changing direction every time you get close to something finished. The idea that seemed brilliant two weeks and eighty takes ago starts to sound lame and tired by the time you finally start getting it right.

A producer's primary job is to prioritize. To keep the project on track. To keep everyone focused and to steer the decisions regarding fishing vs cutting bait.

This does NOT mean that the producer is a Nazi who is going to take over your music and force you to sound like something you're not. The best producers are very good people, dedicated music fans who know how the process works and who are on your side 100%. They are supportive, enthusiastic fans who are also honest and willing to be critical when it's due. They become like a fifth member of the band, a coach and mentor who can guard against both the self-doubt as well as the delusions of grandeur that can affect all musicians.

They guard against distractions, protect you from the record label, take care of logistical and technical details, and create an environment where you can concentrate on creativity and music, in a focused, productive way. They know enough about the process to rule out dead-ends, and to direct you towards methods and approaches that will bring out the best aspects of your creative vision.

They know when to go for an authentic, raw, lo-fi sound, and when to pull out all the stops and go for a full-blown, lavish, major-label 128-track production with strings and gospel chorus and 20 tracks of guitar and percussion. They know when you're getting burnt, and to call time out and move on, and they know when you need the extra push to get through a creative roadblock. They can negotiate disputes between band members in neutral, diplomatic, but authoritative ways.

They warn you before you get bogged down wasting time, and before you get carried away with aimless wankery. And they do it in ways that are supportive and inspiring, not dictatorial. Their reason for being is not a cynical contempt for the creative process, but a reverential devotion to it. And they take care of all the details. Their intervention is not tampering with your music, it's allowing you to focus on it, and to present it in the best possible light, in a thousand critical ways that have little or nothing to do with actually playing or recording the instruments. It is pretty safe to say that nobody else in the record industry is going to be as purely dedicated to the quality of your record as the producer (after all, she's getting paid on the royalties!)

So, the challenge to the self-producer is how to focus and prioritize without that guidance and shelter. That's what this thread is about, and all ideas from all comers are welcome. As far as I know, there has never been any coherent guide to doing this aspect of the record-making process yourself. I have some ideas, but here, the experiences of real-world home recordists trump the methods and techniques of studio pros. So questions, ideas, thoughts, and ramblings are welcome.

More to come.
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Old 02-24-2009, 02:37 AM   #7
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Hmmm... I thought producers are actually playing the bass on recordings before the band found a bass player for later live performance...

prioritization:

The first idea which crossed my mind reading this word was: From the 20 song ideas of a particular band pick the 10 to 12 best for the album and "eliminate" the others - to not waste time and money.

Not at all an easy job for a self-producer. On the other hand professionel photographers are very much used to that procedure. They are throwing away 99% of their photographs and publish just the rest meaning the best.
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Old 02-24-2009, 10:11 PM   #8
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Prioritization happens every step of the way, with every element of the project. It starts with deciding what the scope, time, and budget are going to be. Then you decide how those resources will be allocated.

e.g. three full days and eight half days to record and mix a 5-song demo. This might be a project over two weeks, where you "book" three consecutive Saturdays in your home studio with four after-work days per week.

So we might say the first Saturday is four hours to get all the instruments and mics set up, and then 4-6 hours to cut live rehearsal tracks of the ten or so songs under consideration, two or three takes each.

Day 2,(The first after-work session) is spent with the whole band selecting which five songs sound best (tightest, fewest mistakes,most "complete") in the rehearsal tapes. Those are the ones that will be quickest to record, so those are the ones that make the cut.

day 3 track drums and bass. record the bass DI along with drums, using the scratch tapes as a click. aim for 4-5 takes of each song. No editing or pre-mixing, just tracking. everyone else can stay home and practice with the scratch.

Day 4 rhythm guitars, double-tracked, 4-5 takes x2 for each song. Everyone else stays home.

Day 5 rough edits and pre-mix of the rhythm tracks. Just the engineer, comping the takes and knocking them into shape.

Day 6 (second full saturday) is tracking vocals. everyone else stays home.

Day 7 comping vocals and rough pre-mix. engineer only.

Day 8 full-band review and meeting. Decide whether intros or choruses need sweetening, whether punch-ins or overdubs are needed, etc.

Day 9-10 record sweeteners, solos, overdubs, punch-ins, synth pads, whatever, comping and pre-mixing as you go (this is just cleanup and ear-candy, whatever you have time for).

Day 11 (full saturday, final day) Final mix. Engineer should have at least four hours alone before the band shows up for last-minute input. This is just a demo, after all, and the main thing is to get it done.
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Old 02-24-2009, 10:17 PM   #9
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The above schedule allows for some time off, and also leaves a few in-between days that could be used to keep the project on-schedule. It's a fairly manageable and realistic pace for a respectable demo of songs that are already fully written and performable by a real band. And it goes by fast enough that there is not really any time for second-guessing to creep in.

Inch by inch, everything's a cinch. Yard by yard, everything is hard. If you break it into easily-manageable chunks, it flies by.

If the songs are NOT fully-written and rehearsed, or if the only parts written are acoustic chords and the only band member is one do-it-all guy or gal, then the planning has to be much better. That is where pre-production becomes a much bigger deal, and sometimes the best approach is doing demos BEFORE you do the actual demos.

More later.

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Old 02-24-2009, 10:40 PM   #10
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damn good post... i don't have much of inputs.... but, i have to say, this has been more enlightening, for me, than most of the 'techchie posts'.
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Old 02-24-2009, 10:55 PM   #11
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If the songs are NOT fully-written and rehearsed, or if the only parts written are acoustic chords and the only band member is one do-it-all guy or gal, then the planning has to be much better. That is where pre-production becomes a much bigger deal, and sometimes the best approach is doing demos BEFORE you do the actual demos.
Hi yep. That seems a point worth emphasizing.

It occurs to me there might be something even more important that has to precede the kind of prioritization, budgeting, and scheduling you've outlined: Having a clear idea of what the recordings are for, and what they're sposed to accomplish.

This would seem especially true if you're the do-it-all gal or guy. If that's the case then you may well be... are likely to be... functioning not only as songwriter and performer, and producer, but also engineer and assistant engineer and assistant's assistant. You're also likely to be more competent with, and more interested in, some of those functions than with others.

Under those circumstances, prioritization might include the difficult task of deciding just where you're going to compromise, even on such important things as sound quality, mix balance, and so on. Do you just push ahead and complete as many songs as you can, as well as you can, knowing that the songs are great but the recordings really lack, or do you wait until you're competent enough to, in fact, do-it-all? How long should that take? And what will it cost, not only in dollars but, more importantly, time and creativity?

That's a level of prioritization that I think many home recordists never make. That's what leads to the search for the perfect plugin and the scouring of forums for tips and tricks and how-tos, and reinforces the idea that you're somehow supposed to do it all.

Does the songwriter/singer/rhythm guitarist/big-picture-concept person really want to become a recording engineer conversant with compression ratios, Fletcher-Munson curves, and how best to mic the Marshall next to the bed, or is that just the undertow that pulls her down?
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Old 02-25-2009, 08:15 AM   #12
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Marah,
Those are exactly the kinds of questions that I think often go unasked in home recording books and threads.

There is nothing wrong with planning to write and figure stuff out in the studio and the production process. In fact it's commonplace. But it's made exponentially harder if there is not a plan or a set of clear milestones or objectives.

How vague or open-ended those goals can be and still be meaningful depends a lot on the circumstances and the competencies of everyone involved. So it's perfectly legit to go into the process with just a riff and some lyrical ideas, and to say, for example, that day 1 will be spent figuring out the rough arrangement, i.e. the number and length of verses and choruses. And that might be just a process of singing nonsense lyrics over a drum loop, just to kind of stake out the boundaries of the song and see how long it should be. And then day 2 might be spent constructing some bass loops to drag around and start to build a song as though you were a band trying out ideas in a rehearsal room.

Or maybe it will be trying to extract a chord progression from the riff idea that suits the test vocal. Or maybe it will be a hybrid back-and-forth process, or a structure-building day of sorting out where bridges, solos, turnarounds and breakdowns will ultimately happen. Maybe you'll simply copy the structure of a favorite song and all it takes is five minutes to block out the rough framing. Maybe it takes several days of experimenting with ideas before a fluid and natural structure takes shape.

But the main thing is to have a reasonable and realistic sense of how important each step is, and how much time you're going to spend on it before you move onto the next step. Otherwise you risk getting caught in the trap of spending two months creating one perfect measure of of a single riff, that is basically just an over-produced recording of the same idea you had in the first place, and you're right back where you started.

This is the kind of process that a good producer can guide and direct. Without a producer, it is something you need to figure out for yourself. This requires having a pretty realistic sense of your own strengths and weaknesses. You HAVE to have some faith in yourself and in your own creativity and ability to solve problems that are currently unknown. It can be a little scary to pencil in "write chorus" on the calendar for day 3, but that's exactly the kind of thing that a producer does, because they DO have faith in your ability to work out a chorus in a day, or a week, or however much time is alloted.

And the thing about all the compressor ratios and fletcher-munson curves is that they're actually not that hard or complicated if you only have to deal with one thing at a time. If all you have to do today is to set up mics on a drum kit, and all you have to care about is getting clean, good-sounding tracks, then it's a pretty easy job if you have the mics and stands. And then you can set the drum sounds completely aside until two weeks from now when it's time to pre-mix. And then you'll have a whole afternoon where the only thing you have to do is to is to get the kick and snare to complement each other, check the phase relationships, and set up a reverb bus. Anybody can do that if that't the only thing they have to do. And so it is with every step of the process.

Where people get bogged down and overwhelmed is when they try to write the song, record the drums, change the guitar sound, experiment with drum samples, mix the drums, and change the bassline ALL AT ONCE.

The role of the producer is to make sure that you are working on the important stuff, and that you are spending a proportionate amount of time on it. Juggling is easy if you only have one ball. If you can sit down with a calendar and put on your producer hat and plan a project made of manageable chunks, then your creative self will be free to focus on each piece without getting distracted by the big picture. And at the end of it, the big picture will have taken care of itself.

The hard part of the "demo before the demo" approach is not letting that FIRST demo turn into a sprawling, open ended process. The reason to do the pre-demo (or "scratch" as I tend to call it) is just to get your thoughts in order without having to worry about sound quality or awkward transitions or embarrassing flubs that you don't want anyone to hear. It's the equivalent of the rehearsal tapes. Once you have that rough mumbled vocal, a riff, and a couple of bass loops, it's time to stop pre-production and move onto the actual production.
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Old 02-25-2009, 09:44 AM   #13
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Yep, I really have to chime in here and say that this and the original thread completely described my home recording experience. Too much the engineer/gearslut/forum reader immersed in self doubt, never compromising always looking for the "best sound". Inch by inch - absolutely. My last single took me 2 weeks from writing to finished released master (and that's a good thing for me). After reading and soaking in all the advice and giving my head a good shake. It's so easy to get distracted and bored and not prioritize. I thank you and all the contributors here again, it's helped me immensely.
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Old 02-25-2009, 05:46 PM   #14
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...prioritization might include the difficult task of deciding just where you're going to compromise, even on such important things as sound quality, mix balance, and so on...

Does the songwriter/singer/rhythm guitarist/big-picture-concept person really want to become a recording engineer conversant with compression ratios, Fletcher-Munson curves, and how best to mic the Marshall next to the bed, or is that just the undertow that pulls her down?
Let's come back to this, because it gets to the heart of why I broke this thread out.

The technical stuff is actually NOT that important, and it's NOT that hard, and you DON'T have to know it. Anymore than you need to think about triads and modes and harmonization rules to write a good song. All you need to get good sound is ears, and focused critical listening. Understanding all the technical theory is just a bonus. And if you miss something, and get the reverb predelay wrong or set the compressor ratio to 2.7 when it really should have been 4.2, nobody is every gonna notice or care. And it certainly will not diminish the artistic merit or commercial potential of your music. Of course we want everything to be as perfect as possible, but at the end of the day it's the painting, not the frame that counts.

Super-advanced engineering and production CAN sometimes turn mediocre material into a potential hit, but its absence does not prevent a basically adequately-recorded song from being a hit.

A band goes into a studio and spends eight months and half a million dollars with teams of assistants and drum techs and editing specialists and comes out of it sounding like a soulful burst of inspiration that was captured on a moonlit veranda one summer night. That is a factory-produced illusion, same as when an action star jumps off an exploding building onto a helicopter while negotiating a billion-dollar business deal with perfect hair. Don't get me wrong-- the talent and creative vision are real (whether they come from the artist or from the producer is another question), but the fulfillment of that vision came about through a systemic and controlled process.

To stretch an analogy to breaking point, a lot of young musicians sit down on the veranda on a summer night, pour a drink to fuel the inspiration, and then are disappointed when the results come up short. And they start to get it into their heads that they must need whiter teeth or better hair gel, to mix metaphors.

Especially if you are not a real band that actually rehearses real songs in real time in real rooms, you really need to put the effort into production to keep the results from sounding homemade. It doesn't have to be hard. It should be fun. But it can be intense and sometimes frustrating.

It's really important to not lose sight of what got you started, and what you love about music in the first place. Be sure to spend time away from the computer, just playing, for pure enjoyment. And then make your time at the computer count for something. Trying to record every idea as a perfect "take" is a recipe for soul-sucking discouragement.
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Old 02-26-2009, 02:15 AM   #15
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All you need to get good sound is ears, and focused critical listening. Understanding all the technical theory is just a bonus. And if you miss something, and get the reverb predelay wrong or set the compressor ratio to 2.7 when it really should have been 4.2, nobody is every gonna notice or care. And it certainly will not diminish the artistic merit or commercial potential of your music. Of course we want everything to be as perfect as possible, but at the end of the day it's the painting, not the frame that counts.
The other day I listened to an audio book in my car. From a producer/song writer who scored 600+ golden and 100+ platinum records. And he expressed just the same. He said, the bigger bunch of theory (including composing and arranging!) he learned way AFTER having had a dozend top-10 hit records! He just had used his ears and changed stuff until it sounded right. If I remind correctly he expressed that all the theory he learned afterwards just made him faster, not necessarily better. And he mentioned that he is a 100% self-educated person and that this is the better way to go.

That is just the OPPOSITE of what clever studio gear salesmen are telling us. Am I right?
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Old 02-26-2009, 03:18 AM   #16
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Hello there,

funny because I was just trying, this week, to understand what the word "producer" mean. I thought it was the just guy with the money, and taking the risks and making the decisions...

I was surprised when I discovered (especially in HipHop and R&B) that the "producer" is the guy who also... makes all the music... I did not know that. Most of our "R&B" singers (in France) have simply a voice, and nothing else. The producer will often compose, arrange, and even play the music himself.

With the huge "virtual" instruments we have now... it seems that the same guy does all the music - only the final mastering is done by an engineer (not a problem of competency, but also because "fresh ears" are important in this domain I guess)
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Old 02-26-2009, 04:24 AM   #17
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Here's what I think a producer does. This is also the reason I hope to become one someday.

A producer figures out your sound better than you are able to. he cultivates it as best he can within the time frame that is allotted. producers change songs, they co-write songs, they pull the band together and create an atmosphere that is going to give the best recording possible. A producer gives a musician focus by really digging into why the songs were written and what their purpose is. A producer enhances the songwriters' love for the songs as much as possible so that when it's time to record it's like hot sex.

usually it's an executive producer that handles money and scheduling. the producer handles the volatile, insecure musicians and turns them into champs.
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Old 02-26-2009, 02:34 PM   #18
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OK yep - come clean, man. who are you, really? does the label know you're spending so much time on here when yer sposed to be working?



great stuff, these threads are going to be linked for years. I hope somebody's archiving this stuff.
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Old 02-26-2009, 05:31 PM   #19
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OK yep - come clean, man. who are you, really? does the label know you're spending so much time on here when yer sposed to be working?



great stuff, these threads are going to be linked for years. I hope somebody's archiving this stuff.
Yeah, no sh*t! Or better yet, YEP, will you produce me?
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Old 02-26-2009, 10:13 PM   #20
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Quote:
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OK yep - come clean, man. who are you, really? does the label know you're spending so much time on here when yer sposed to be working?



great stuff, these threads are going to be linked for years. I hope somebody's archiving this stuff.
ha! if you're referring to my post I'm flattered. I do some producing here and there, but nothing big. I'm a much better producer than a sound engineer though, I'll tell you that much. The best feeling is when someone respects you and requests you to produce them based on previous work you've done. I think a beam of light came out of heaven and warmed my face when this happened to me recently...
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Old 02-27-2009, 04:34 PM   #21
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The other day I listened to an audio book in my car. From a producer/song writer who scored 600+ golden and 100+ platinum records. And he expressed just the same. He said, the bigger bunch of theory (including composing and arranging!) he learned way AFTER having had a dozend top-10 hit records! He just had used his ears and changed stuff until it sounded right. If I remind correctly he expressed that all the theory he learned afterwards just made him faster, not necessarily better. And he mentioned that he is a 100% self-educated person and that this is the better way to go.

That is just the OPPOSITE of what clever studio gear salesmen are telling us. Am I right?
Yes and no, I think.

Better gear makes it a LOT easier and faster to get the best results. And so does understanding the theory and mechanics of audio. But if you have the time to tweak and tweak and revise and refine, then I bet a targeted $2,000 home studio with a bunch of free plugins could eventually get sonic results that are absolutely competitive with a commercial studio. But bear in mind that a commercial studio could probably get sonic results in a week that might take a bedroom studio months to get.

But the other side, and specific reason why I started this thread, is that sonic results are not necessarily all that critical to a great record. And way too many home recordists get severely bogged down in sonic minutiae that they don't really even understand, and lose sight of their own creative talent and vision.

They pick up a shiny new mic and a fast computer and an awesome software package and enter the process all excited and inspired to track the songs they've been working on, and three months later, they're glassy-eyed, huddled over the computer, downloading eight thousand free plugins and reading preamp reviews and "8 tips for fat bass tracks" and asking whether they need a UAD card and whatever. And they get stuck churning out uninspired, (badly) over-produced recordings that suffer from multitrackitis and preset overload.

It's not that the gear and the production value don't matter, it's that the quality of the recording is usually not nearly as important as having a vision worth recording in the first place.

If I had to pick a single favorite musical recording to listen to, it would probably be the song "Karate" by the Emperors. And it's a terrible recording. It's actually not even a good song. The lyrics are hokey and corny, the changes are hackneyed, the melody is almost nonexistent, all the instruments and lyrics are muffled and distorted and hard to make out, the bass is unbalanced and the song and mix are both extremely static and repetitive, but the energy and the enthusiasm of the performance get me every single time. I can listen to it over and over again and it just puts me in a great mood, every time.

On the flipside of that is another song that I can listen to over and over again and never seem to get bored of, which is the Dropkick Murphys' "Shipping up to Boston." This, in contrast, is a brilliant piece of production. It's not really even a proper song, basically just a guy yelling the same verse (that doesn't even really work) over a single chord. And it would flat-out fail the solo-singer-and-piano test of good songwriting-- you'd just sound like an asshole if you tried it at a party. What makes the song is the outstanding production value. The massive, dynamic, and brutally focused instrumentation and production arrangement create a grand hollywood spectacle of a guy yelling in a monotone about his wooden leg.

I referenced the two examples above not because they are empirically important stuff that everyone should love and study, but because both show completely different sides of how a great recording can be made. One is a record that gets by on the sheer energy and inspiration of the performance. The other is a carefully crafted and staged studio production. Your own record collection probably has countless similar examples. You might not even like either of these songs, but you can probably find examples of your own.

Whether a record will ultimately be worth listening to is not a test that has binary "matters/doesn't matter" ingredients. "Karate" would probably not be improved by adding strings and tin whistle and all the production sizzle, and "Shipping up to Boston" would almost certainly not work as a "three guys in a room" demo-quality recording.

Anybody who says "what really matters is X" probably doesn't know what they're talking about. Either that, or they're just talking to have something to say. Nobody really knows. It's fashionable to think that formulaic hits can simply be manufactured, and maybe sometimes they can be, but somewhere in the chain is somebody who can find the elusive "it" that speaks to people.

The best producers might or might not actually know anything about music or about audio in a technical sense. Some of them can't play an instrument and don't know how to work a tape recorder. But they have an ear for "it" and the ability to bring it forward, the way that some actors can be captivating to watch even if they are not actually that good-looking or intelligent.

There used to be fairly settled guidelines for good songwriting. In the days of Tin Pan Alley, the standard was clever lyrics, sophisticated but singable melodies, and rich, multi-layered changes. The composer HAD to fit all the artistry in the sheet music, because that was all they had.

Then the electric guitar came along, and allowed anybody with an idea to have direct, immediate control over not just the notes but the SOUND. A complete novice with three chords could make the instrument wail, howl, moan, scream, roar, whisper, or sound like a helicopter or a machine gun. And they could fill an entire auditorium with sound and these real-world performances could be captured and broadcast.

Now we have music where the artistic merit and creative vision might have nothing to do with what's printed on the score. How could you write a meaningful lead sheet for a Skinny Puppy or Run-DMC track? And increasingly the "live" sound is actually an elaborate reconstruction of studio trickery. It's not like you can really sit around the campfire with an acoustic guitar and bongos and play an Enya or Wu-Tang Clan song.

Trying to distill this stuff into rules or systems is like trying to hold onto water. The tighter you grab it and the more you try to pin it down, the more it slips through your fingers.

My point is not to say "this matters" and "this doesn't." You're the only one who can decide what matters for your music. But if you FAIL to decide, if you can't set out a vision and then come up with a method for seeing it through, then there is a very high likelihood of just getting lost in a horizonless ocean of possibilities.

Last edited by yep; 02-27-2009 at 08:23 PM.
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Old 02-27-2009, 08:21 PM   #22
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another Amen
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Old 02-27-2009, 08:52 PM   #23
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Righteous: musically and spiritually
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Old 02-27-2009, 11:06 PM   #24
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OK yep - come clean, man. who are you, really? does the label know you're spending so much time on here when yer sposed to be working?



great stuff, these threads are going to be linked for years. I hope somebody's archiving this stuff.
HOHOHOHO!

Thanks for the compliment! I gave up audio engineering as a profession years ago, because the money sucks and the music business is basically dying unless you're doing car commercials. I am nowadays mostly a real estate investor and a designer of industrial controls and building automation systems (understanding signal circuits comes in handy in other fields than audio!).

I occasionally take on audio projects but they don't keep the mortgage paid. The way the music industry is going these days, you could almost certainly hire a much bigger name than me.

Seriously, if you want to work with a top-flight producer, give them a call. You might surprised at how accessible and flexible they can be. Steve Albini is famous for taking on worthwhile projects based on what they can afford, instead of what he could charge. And in the piracy era, a lot of pretty famous names are living at their mom's house, looking for anything that will pay the studio rent (this is not a joke).

Frankly I am a *very* below-market name who would have to charge above-market rates to make it worth my while to take on a full-blown production project. But like most audio types, I am always amenable to working with acts that fit my approach, schedule, and tastes, whatever they can afford, given that the level of service and the time commitment is somewhat commensurate with the budget (i.e. I can't quit working for three months to do a pro-bono hobbyist project).

But honestly my first tip would be to just call up the producers listed on the back of your favorite albums. Chances are, most of them do not have six-figure day jobs, and you might be surprised at how approachable they can be.
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Old 02-27-2009, 11:24 PM   #25
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Well even if you won't produce me, you still rock! Keep it coming, I'm the guy you're describing in all the posts so I need to know how to get better
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Old 02-28-2009, 01:42 AM   #26
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"A producer gives a musician focus by really digging into why the songs were written and what their purpose is. A producer enhances the songwriters' love for the songs as much as possible so that when it's time to record it's like hot sex." pixeltarian

How timely this thread is. My wife has just started recording her 'first' album, working with the guy that plays guitar with her on gigs. He is Producing, Engineering, Arranging, etc. So last week I went over to sit in on a session, and see what goes on. My God, it was an eyeopener! When it came to recording a vocal, he was basically giving her singing tuition/coaching, teaching her HOW to sing her own song, because he had deceided to arrange it in a style which she never normally works in. He was pushing her to bring out the meaning of the lyric, which she hadn't been doing in her performance, even though she wrote the d**n song! So it was pass after pass of the same thing until it was staring to sound right. I mean, I've tried recording her songs at home, with some sucess, but we just didn't WORK as hard as that! It was too easy to just call it a night, too tired to go on, etc.
Great thread, yep. Thank you.
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Old 03-01-2009, 01:25 PM   #27
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as I can remember I've never finalized a project so far about since 2002... few fishes in my bag, no bait cut so far....

I definitely need a producer, serious...
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Old 03-02-2009, 04:27 AM   #28
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I find that exercises like the RPM challenge (see www.rpmchallenge.com) can be very useful - where you set yourself the task of writing and recording an album in a month. It cuts out the endless wringing of hands over which reverb plugin to use and forces you to actually get the track done, and move on to the next one... and at the end you'll have an album! Even if it isn't the best album ever made, at least it will be done... and you're guaranteed to have learned something along the way too.
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Old 03-02-2009, 10:21 AM   #29
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Yep - Another really good read.

I think a lot can be taken from this. Never underestimate the fact that each recording project is by definition a "project", and in reality; for every project, there is someone managing the underlying process.

In my limitted experience, I've found that so many home based musicians have very lofty goals, but don't have the ability to manage themselves through the "process" portion of the overall project. And honestly, that's not to say that they're unable to, but home based musicians (myself included when I am flying solo) sometimes lack the 'seperation' necessary to make objective decisions on their own projects, and therefore have trouble committing to a specific idea.

To sumnmarize, one has to learn how to balance the "perfectionist" side of themselves with the "goal oriented" side of themselves. Sometimes, the two are not at parity and clash - this leads to wasting time, etc.

On a serious note, you need to author a book. Your explanations are very easily understood and well written. And, you're analogies are humorous at times which lends itself to the reader wanting to read more.

Many thanks for sharing this.
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Old 03-02-2009, 10:41 AM   #30
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On a serious note, you need to author a book. Your explanations are very easily understood and well written. And, you're analogies are humorous at times which lends itself to the reader wanting to read more.

Many thanks for sharing this.
+1

Was reading all I could grab about recording and production the last 30 years... but the way Yep is describing stuff is really shaking some nerves in my brain until they settle at the right location...

Thanx and cheers
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Old 03-03-2009, 07:26 AM   #31
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thanks Yep for your effort to share your knowledge in a forum...

it worth so much because for the first time I can see unveiled the very secrets of audio (there're actually those everyone knew yet, but always unsaid...)
You call the home recordist' mind to creativity being the only gun we have (otherwise, no chance to get a good record at all).

It should be easy and funny. Like fishing, where it is not much amusing all the baits and worms preparing stuff, but what counts is going to get some fish on sunday...

cheers
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Old 03-03-2009, 08:25 AM   #32
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I'm a hobby-level songwriter and a computer addict. Almost a year ago I started speculating on whether it was sensible to create a first CD as a completely DIY project. I'm now waiting for the discs to come back from manufacturing.

In retrospect, a year seems like a long time, but considering it was a spare-time only activity, and that I had few clues about what I was signing up for when I started, I'm surprised and pleased that it got completed at all.

I think my main salvations were 1) low expectations and 2) frequent slaps on the wrist. :-)

That is:
1) My original goal was to create non-embarrassing versions of my own songs for exposure rather than aiming at grand productions. Only after I proved to myself that I could do that did I up the ante a bit and involve some side musicians who made the whole thing sound better.

2) Every time I learned a new technique or encountered an interesting new toy, I evaluated it for what it could do to advance the project rather than for its intrinsic coolness. I now have a massive list of audio things to investigate, but they didn't become dead-end detours (which, given my normal attitude to techie stuff, is a minor miracle).

I realize that these approaches may not get other people where they need to go, but for me they were the management precepts that made it happen.
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Old 03-04-2009, 02:00 PM   #33
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...My original goal was to create non-embarrassing versions of my own songs for exposure rather than aiming at grand productions. Only after I proved to myself that I could do that did I up the ante a bit and involve some side musicians who made the whole thing sound better...

...I now have a massive list of audio things to investigate, but they didn't become dead-end detours (which, given my normal attitude to techie stuff, is a minor miracle).
I think that these are some of the key concepts at work. Not necessarily that you have to start with "low expectations," but that manageable and realistic expectations are far more likely to result in a finished product of some sort. Especially if they are not a wildly-moving target.

Going back to prioritization, part of prioritizing is deciding what is important, and part of it is deciding what is immediately doable. Personal finance advisers will often encourage people to pay off small loans first, even if they are lower-interest, just to get them crossed off the list.

Similarly, there are some tasks that you can do in one sitting, and that are closed-ended with a known outcome (e.g. tracking a part that you already know and can already play all the way through). There are others that might be somewhat hazy or complex, or that may have a variable outcome based on what you find along the way (e.g. tracking a part that is yet unwritten, or only half-written or that you're not entirely happy with or able to play, yet).

The latter kind of thing is where the project-management aspects of production become key. Everything that has ever been done could probably have been done a little bit better. The question is whether this project aims to get 99% of the way there, or 70% of the way there, or even just 20~30% of the way there. This last might actually be a perfectly reasonable goal for a simple singer/piano demo or live recording.

The danger with setting unrealistic goals is that they often end up with a couple of 99% elements, a couple of elements that are unfinished or that contain embarrassing mistakes or omissions, and some that are just never even started. Moreover, following the old 80/20 rule, the first 80% of the results come from the first 20% of the effort. A typical band recording with a drum loop, a rhythm guitar track, bass and vocals probably sounds about 80% finished to most listeners. But that could all be done in a day if that's your only goal. It might be another week of work to write solos, edit breakdowns, get a complete, varied, multitrack drums with fills and frills, overdub and layer vocals, add sweeteners and production value, and mix in earnest. And it could take forever if you're trying to mix and re-write each element as you go.

Spending that extra week to polish and perfect the results is fine, but it should be structured. For example: how much time do you want to spend on drum fills? If you HAVE a brilliant drummer who can tear through the whole song in one pass and never play the same measure twice and never loose the groove even while continuously varying the intensity, great. But if you're trying to construct the drum performance that stops the world in your spare time, then it might take a lot of years before you move on to bass. Or it might result in a lot of time spent on overblown, ridiculous-sounding drum mania that has to be scrapped when you realize that all that effort spent working one-measure-at-a-time produces drums that sound stupid in toto.

The best goals to set are probably ones that slightly exceed your current ability. Because the reality is that you WILL get better and figure things out as you go, and you will often be surprised at how much better things start to sound as you actually get closer to completion. Those solo tracks that sounded lame and naked start to sound a lot better in a good mix.
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Old 03-05-2009, 07:33 AM   #34
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I have to thank you, yep, for taking the time to write here and in WDYRSLA, which I discovered right after I started using Reaper.

...Especially for the advice "Finished is always better than perfect." I've had it on a vague agenda to make music for years, and by that philosophy I was able to record five demo songs completely solo (see "homepage" in profile). The first song was a carefree venture, but I'd probably have gotten stuck on the second one and never finished it if I hadn't read your advice.

None of the songs are perfect--I even avoided EQing for the most part because I don't have monitors--But they exist now, and that's pretty satisfying. 80% is better than 0%, for sure.

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Old 03-08-2009, 10:07 PM   #35
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The new yep folder is up!

http://www.filesavr.com/yepthreadsupto3-8-09

Enjoy!:cool
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Old 03-23-2009, 12:36 AM   #36
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New yep file is up!

http://www.filesavr.com/yepthreads-upto3-23-09thread476

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Old 04-06-2009, 01:54 PM   #37
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New Yep file is up!

http://www.filesavr.com/01yepthreads...-6-09thread510

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Old 04-19-2009, 08:31 PM   #38
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New yep file is up!

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Old 04-20-2009, 02:20 PM   #39
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OK...I've been lurking in the shadows for moths on these two posts. superb stuff really.....and while the technical post is fascinating, this post is where its at-for me! From getting started to getting done seems to take forever. The best success I have had was the Saturday that I recorded 6 (or was it 7 ) songs, multiple guitar tracks, occasional banjo tracks and multiple vox on each- in one day! Rather than getting brain-lock, I just did it. And you know....the songs turned out OK. On key..on tempo....all first takes.

So what do I take away from that day and the year since during which I have hardly finished a d*&^*m thing? First, I need to stop thinking so hard and start playing. I play acoustic and sing. I occasionally add string backgrounds when I can "hear" them, but mostly after the fact. No percussion...just acoustic and vox. Its amazing how hard I can make that.

My only concern with this whole discussion of the producer role is that it could increase the delay to start. I can see myself thinking I need to have it all planned so that I don't waste time. I need to know what I am recording first, what all the tracks are going to have, maybe I need to play it with metronome, in case later I want to lay down some percussion (even though I never have...)...you get the picture - major planning-producing-brain freeze.....

SO part of me says, hey, get your a$$$ in the studio, play some chords, sing some words ...remember to press record. Go back, add some harmony...add some other guitar parts

HAVE FUN WITH IT.....why else would we do this to ourselves???

But get started. It strikes me that the producer in us could come out in the development of the song, the building of the parts to the whole.....

But......he says in his best bi-polar accent....how will I know when to stop? How will I know when I'm done? So I need a plan before I start.....................................aaaaaaar rrggggggggg
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Old 05-03-2009, 11:38 PM   #40
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New yep file is up!

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