How Do You Become a Music Producer?

In document Music Production (Page 44-52)

Successful producers come from diverse backgrounds and seem to travel down one of about seven paths. As we have seen from the discussion of typologies in the pre-vious chapter, background skills may not defi ne the role the producer plays in the studio. Nevertheless, certain background skills provide an entrée, and the presence or absence of a skill affects how a producer interacts with the artist, technology, musicians, and other contributors, including the record label. Experienced produc-ers often manifest multiple skill sets accumulated over time. With the ubiquity of digital audio workstations (DAWs), most producers, since the turn of the century, have been capable of recording and manipulating audio in their workstation of choice. This further blurs the distinction between audio engineering and produc-tion. In this context, the eight habitually used routes to becoming a music pro-ducer represent centers of ability rather than clear demarcations. Many propro-ducers develop multiple skills on the winding road to success, but leading music producers’

beginnings are traceable to one or more of these eight core routes:

Musician or artist Audio engineer Songwriter DJ

Self-taught/school-trained Discoverer

Entrepreneur Multipath


Producing uses many of the same skills as running rehearsals and participating in the standard creative practices of any music group. Writing songs and playing music with other people is an organic way of learning to be at ease giving guidance and being sensitive to creative moments—skills producers use everyday. Developing a solid musical reputation, as an arranger, musical director, musician, or artist can lead to opportunities for production work, but it is most likely that you will have to be self-motivated and produce some high-quality work of your own before a label or artist will trust you with their music and money. It used to be that produc-ing demos was a low-risk way to begin, but the distinction between demos and a self-released or small indie production has all but disappeared. Today, in order to move up the ladder, anything you produce has to compare favorably with currently successful recordings.

Producing your own music is a tried and tested route for musicians and artists, but it requires some startup capital to hire a studio or buy your own recording equip-ment. Even with the low price of digital equipment, cost can be a barrier. Beginners often seem to suffer from the impression that an extensive professional setup is required, and that is not the case. Depending on the kinds of productions you wish to make, inexpensive or free software with a low cost interface and microphone can be suffi cient to start with. Books, magazines, DVDs, and free online videos can be helpful in learning good engineering and production practices. Developing your

“ear” by listening analytically to the best recordings from your target market, as well as recordings from other genres and eras is imperative.

Certain techniques commonly understood by experienced producers may appear arcane when you are locked in your bedroom with your, so-far disappoint-ing, fi rst production and big ambitions. It is worth remembering that learning to produce and engineer a recording takes as much practice as learning to play an instrument. According to K. Anderson Ericsson et al.’s research cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers , you have to invest 10,000 hours in order to become expert at any complex cognitive skill. 1

There are distinct advantages in coming to producing from a music back-ground. You can speak to musicians and artists in terms that they understand and sense any diffi culties they may be having in the studio. It is useful to gain experience recording yourself for this reason. I recall the frustration of standing in the studio having given my all on a take, watching the producer through the glass chatting on the phone or talking to someone in the control room.


The traditional recording studio apprenticeship system was predicated on starting at the bottom, in the mailroom, setting up and breaking down the studio, sweeping fl oors, and making tea and coffee. This phase could extend for years going from

tape op to assistant engineer and eventually engineer. This thorough if somewhat tortuous training system barely exists anymore. With the demise of so many profes-sional studios and particularly the large complexes, opportunities to assist without prior experience or training are limited.

The advantages of this system lay in working in the best studios with world-class engineers and producers who let you literally look over their shoulders, study their techniques, write down their EQs and reverb settings, and observe the qualities of the interpersonal relationships that create great records. Assistants participated in the most intimate studio moments and could study in a Zen-like manner the almost unteachable secret of the record producer—how to get the best out of the artist. The assistants I knew who became successful producers did not regard the job as beneath them. They recognized their essential role in the production team as the lubricant that kept projects running smoothly.

This is Chris Lord-Alge’s (Green Day, Madonna, Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen) recommendation for getting started as an engineer:

Find the best studio in town and fi ght your way in. Get a job, whether you’re pushing a broom or cleaning the toilets, and work your way up from there.

Don’t be scared to take a chance on anything. The only way you are going to learn is by watching the best at what they do. 2

This may seem like archaic advice in today’s environment, but Benny Blanco did this with Disco D, and Max Martin did it with Denniz Pop at Cheiron Studios. 3 Working with the best producers, engineers, and artists is the nascent producer’s equivalent of a Harvard or Oxford education.

Moving from engineer to producer can be gradual and organic. Going from gofer to assistant to engineer typically takes many sessions with different art-ists and producers. Observing various creative styles techniques and approaches develops a broad perspective on the processes. As Mitchell Froom (Sheryl Crow, Crowded House, Paul McCartney) says, “Good engineers contribute a lot to the production. People need titles, but every record has production suggestions from other people.”

Today, in place of the severely diminished apprenticeship system, there is a spectrum of audio engineering and production courses and programs in schools, colleges, and universities. Many are excellent and are taught by experienced produc-ers and engineproduc-ers. A student can come out of such programs with a more complete and formal understanding of the technology and the business of audio production than they might get from a hands-on environment. But the studio etiquette and the subtle interpersonal techniques that producers and engineers acquire from experi-ence are more diffi cult to teach in college.

A common complaint from producers and engineers regarding assistants who recently graduated from a college program is that they are sometimes overconfi -dent, have unrealistic expectations, and can be insensitive in a production environ-ment. If someone has spent a lot of time and money to complete a course or degree

in audio production, music technology, or the like, it is understandable that they may be frustrated making tea and coffee, and not getting their hands on the equip-ment or having their opinions considered.

Based on the principle of supply and demand, the producer of a successful record becomes desirable and more expensive. This can open up an opportunity for an engineer to get his or her break into production. A new group discussing who they would like to produce their fi rst record will probably suggest a producer who has current hits. The A&R person may say something like, “Well, I just spoke to her yesterday and she is not available for at least twelve months.” If the A&R person is being honest, he or she might say, “She’s going to cost you at least X thousand dollars per track, and that’s not in your budget.” It is not uncommon for them to suggest using someone who works with the requested producer, and this can be an entrée into a production career.


Some of the most enduring productions have come from producers or teams who produce material they have written. It may be that a songwriter is not necessarily eager to become a producer, but experiencing poorly produced versions of your songs is suffi cient to convince some writers that they can do a better job. Wendy Page, who has produced songs she wrote for Hilary Duff and Lulu, said she got into production, “Because I wanted to make the songs I wrote sound how I wanted to hear them.” 4 I had the same experience: I would submit a good demo of a song and when the album came out, the producer had not only ignored the positive qualities of the demo but also missed the essence of the song.

The line between writing and producing has blurred in recent years. Writers began producing demos that were more sophisticated. Publishers, artists, produc-ers, and A&R people became used to hearing high-quality song demos and now, unless you are a very successful songwriter, the opportunity no longer exists to play your song on a piano to an artist, publisher, or A&R person. Labels and publish-ers want high-quality demos in the style of the target artist. If you are looking for songs for a less famous artist during the six months after, say, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, or Katy Perry fi nish an album, publishers will send you a collection of highly produced demos that sound like these artists. These are songs that have been released after being “on hold” for the past six, 12, or 18  months, waiting for one of the coveted slots on those artists’ albums.

Additionally, many of the songs that make it onto these albums are co-written with the artists. Collaborating with artists on songs is a more reliable way of getting the production job. You have the opportunity to build a relationship with the artist and establish your production abilities in his or her mind. They now have a stake in the song, and if they like it and found the writing process enjoyable, continuing on to fi nish the production is a likely outcome.

The consistently successful songwriter/producer is in a strong position and typically becomes the auteur type of producer. In the fi rst week of September 2011, auteur producers who wrote or co-wrote the songs they produced commanded more than 90 percent of the top ten tracks on the Billboard Top 100. This contrasts with 0 percent in 1960 and, apart from a small decline in the ’80s, the trend toward songwriter/producers has steadily increased each decade (see fi gure 2.1).


Producers who start out as DJs have been increasingly prevalent since the early ’80s.

They became fi xtures in club and hip hop production, eventually spilling over into R&B, pop, and most other genres. Base genres for producers with a DJ background are often dance or hip hop because those are the most common forms of music played by DJs in clubs. At the time of writing, the top hits on the Billboard Hot 100 chart are predominantly dance-infl ected pop, with producers such as French DJ David Guetta. Being a successful music producer has a great deal to do with under-standing how music affects people, and DJs get direct feedback from the dance fl oor when they are spinning. DJs pace their programming to keep the fl ow going on the dance fl oor. They learn how the dynamics of a set and a song, and certain beats, tempos, artists, and song types affect the audience. They become experts in certain genres and subgenres of music. The DJs that scratch are using basic production techniques in a live forum. Turntablists beatmatch, beatmix, and beatjuggle, blend-ing tracks, samples, and beats together. Remixers use similar conceptual arrange-ment techniques to make loop- or beat-based tracks, particularly in the hip hop,

0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 90 100

1950 1960


1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020

FIGURE 2.1 Percentage of Producer/Writers in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, First Week of September each decade since 1960.

dance, and pop genres. Most DJs now mix from laptops loaded with tens of thou-sands of tracks, but the sophisticated conceptual and physical techniques they use via software date back to early hip hop.

Producers need an intuitive understanding of how successful records work emotionally on an audience. DJs who experience this nightly often continue to spin after it ceases to be an economic necessity in order to maintain that connection and remain on the cutting edge. French DJ/producer David Guetta underscored this point: “I headline concert halls for 20,000 people, but I still play smaller venues.

Everything I do comes from the clubs. If I lose that, I’m done.” 5

DJs develop technical and musical skills, an understanding of repertoire, and something about the history of their genre, being dedicated fans with large collec-tions of music. They learn how to ramp up excitement in a club in a similar way that live musicians do. Although Jack Douglas came up through the traditional tape op/

assistant route, he said, “There’s guys out there that just walk into a studio from a club where they’re DJing and they sound phenomenal.” He attributed this to the fact that DJs spend so much time listening to records.


More than a century ago, John Philip Sousa perceptively pointed out that “[t] he tide of amateurism cannot but recede until there will be left only the mechani-cal device and the professional executants.” 6 This was Sousa’s way of saying that recording technology would be the death of amateur musicianship. 7 In many ways, he was correct; not only recording technology, but also fi lm, radio, and TV ushered in a century of passive entertainment. It is easy to forget that Edison’s machine was a recording device not intended just for playback, and once he gave up on the idea of it being strictly for dictation, there was still the thought that people would (and they did) record themselves and others.

Emile Berliner, inventor of the gramophone and the fl at disc, did away with the recording aspect, but with motion pictures taking hold, radio about to start, and TV in development, a period of passivity in entertainment was assured. The wheel turns of course, and entertainment is becoming progressively more inter-active via computers, electronic games, and mobile devices. There are increas-ingly powerful programs and apps for recording, providing a host of ways to experiment with recording inexpensively with little expertise. In the same way that still and video cameras have become ubiquitous, so too has audio recording technology.

Access is no longer a signifi cant factor; preteens can have recording technol-ogy on a number of devices that are more powerful than professional equipment of 50 years ago. This has become a DIY route for the curious. There are a plethora of free samples and MIDI fi les online and many more to buy. Musical parts can be constructed by dropping colored blocks onto a grid with a fi nger or mouse.

Musical training and experience still help, but neither is required. Music software

can appear complex, and input cables, output cables, and connectors intimidate some, but these apps and programs present much like electronic games, and the mil-lennial generation is at ease in this world.

Books, magazines, Google, and YouTube, along with trial and error, provide a massive instructional resource, not all of which is reliable but still generally help-ful for the discerning. This is where schools and colleges help, although courses do not instantly generate a professional. Nonetheless, combined with a proactive DIY approach, a good school program can fi ll in knowledge gaps and instill a deeper understanding of the fundamentals while increasing awareness of best practices. It is oxymoronic to expect to learn interpersonal skills from a book or a course with-out real-life practice. Withwith-out an internship or apprenticeship, it is necessary to be aware in dealing with the various personalities during sessions and to be self-analytical afterward. This means mentally rerunning the session and asking your-self, “what happened and could I  have handled that better.” Good interpersonal skills for a session are fundamentally similar to those used in any organization, but they become more critical in a creative environment. Recording, being a process of group creativity, tends to create or exacerbate tension, and a signifi cant part of the producer’s job is to reduce or eliminate it.

DIY is a proactive self-learning approach to the production art and craft that can make you aware of the questions and problems that all producers face daily.

With more than a century of well-tested production skills and techniques, any opportunity to work with or observe successful professionals can speed the path to the solutions. Confucius (551–479 B.C.E.) appeared to know a thing or two about producing when he said,

By three methods we may learn wisdom: fi rst, by refl ection, which is noblest;

second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest. 8

Refl ection and experience are essential, but save yourself the agony and learn as much as you can by imitation from the most experienced people who are available to you.


A successful production career is inseparable from the producer’s ability to fi nd the very best and most appropriate acts. The answer to the question “How do you produce a great record?” may be “Find a great artist and great material.” Of course, there are other elements, but without those two, the chances of success are slim—at any level and in any genre. At the height of a successful career, it is a matter of using your time most productively. This is the concept of opportunity cost—once you embark on a production, you block out time that might be better spent fi nding or producing a superior project. 9 Discovering a talented new act can launch a career and revive a moribund one.

George Martin signed the Beatles; Tony Visconti discovered Marc Bolan; and John Kurzweg produced Creed’s multiplatinum album My Own Prison for $6,000 in his home studio before they had a record deal. My fi rst real production opportunity came from seeing very early Spandau Ballet gigs before labels had heard of them.

Being there early, watching them play, getting to know them, and understanding their tastes, concerns, and ambitions enabled our relationship to develop before the industry feeding frenzy happened. I  had no sole producer credits on hit records, but when it came time for them to choose a producer, they chose me over

Being there early, watching them play, getting to know them, and understanding their tastes, concerns, and ambitions enabled our relationship to develop before the industry feeding frenzy happened. I  had no sole producer credits on hit records, but when it came time for them to choose a producer, they chose me over

In document Music Production (Page 44-52)