How To Become A Record Producer, Part 1: What Is A Record Producer?

Tips & Techniques

Published in SOS January 1996
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People + Opinion : Industry / Music Biz

A record producer's career is seen as glamorous and exciting, but what does the job actually entail? Over the next few months, DAVID MELLOR will be talking to top producers about the whole process, from initial concept to final pay cheque. This is the first article in a two-part series. Read Part 2.


This month he looks at the different types of record producer in the music business.In the course of my work I meet literally hundreds of young people who want to get involved with music and sound engineering in one way or another. When asked what their ultimate ambition might be, "To become a record producer" is probably the most common reply. But out of every hundred people who want to become record producers, perhaps only one has the raw talent. Out of a hundred people with the raw talent, only one will have the determination. And out of a hundred people with the raw talent and determination, only one will ever get the opportunity! Only a small proportion of people who ever get a production credit go on to make a serious and lasting career as a record producer, so why is it such an attractive option? I have to say that the vast majority of people I meet who want to become producers don't seem to have much idea of what the job entails. They are attracted by the glamour of the record industry, by the possibility of socialising with the stars, and by the prospect of a fat pay cheque at the end of each successful project -- the three myths of record production, one might say. To take care of each of these myths in turn: the glamour in the music industry is created by a massive publicity machine for the benefit of the public at large. For the people working in the industry it is just an everyday job -- an immensely satisfying and enjoyable job perhaps, but certainly not glamorous. The idea of mixing with the stars may be initially attractive, but once you have met a few, you begin to realise that they are mostly pretty ordinary people. They may happen to have an extraordinary talent in one way or another, but they are still normal human beings in every other sense. As for the final point, there are certainly a number of people who make a lot of money out of music, but the vast majority probably don't make as much as they could in an 'ordinary' job. For instance, if you were among the top 10% of songwriters and composers, you might still not earn enough money to call it your living.

I think the best way to discover exactly how a record producer earns a living is to look back in history to a stage where a recording was seen as a live performance captured on vinyl, rather than the studio constructions that are now the norm. (I should note at this point that while the jobs of record producers and music producers are very similar, I will be thinking about the record, or more likely nowadays the CD or cassette, as the end product, rather than the music produced for film or broadcasting for example.) In those days it was pretty much taken for granted that an act that was worth recording could perform, and nothing more than the performance was needed for the record. All that was necessary was a studio, and perhaps a little musical help in the form of an arranger, musical director and session musicians. The project was overseen by the A&R (Artists and Repertoire, or Artists and Recording) department of the record company to make sure that everything was progressing as it should. Effectively, the A&R manager was the producer, and to a certain extent modern A&R departments still have a significant influence on how a record is produced. Gradually, the process of recording became more of an act of creation in its own right, rather than the replication of a live performance, and producers began to split from record companies to become freelance workers, or set up their own production companies. George Martin was the first producer to follow this route, leaving EMI Records in the mid-sixties to set up Associated Independent Recordings (AIR), and leasing his services back to the record company he had just left.


I have discovered a number of distinct types of record producer and think it is worth covering each of these in turn.

One of the great myths about record production is that you need to be a genius with studio equipment. This is absolutely not true, because the equipment is only a means to an end. If you can achieve your musical goal with a little bit of technical knowledge, then why should you have to know every last detail about every piece of equipment in the studio? Remember that equipment is designed by electronic and software engineers, not music recording engineers, and although most manufacturers do their utmost to ensure that their products are exactly what recording engineers need, inevitably most modern pieces of equipment offer a range of functions far in excess of real life practicality. The key to engineering is not technical knowledge, it is knowing when something sounds right, and what's more, knowing what to do to make something that sounds almost right, exactly right in its musical context. So, if you know how to route signals around a mixing console and can operate the basic outboard equipment, the rest of it is really down to listening. Your ears will tell you which microphones to use and where to place them, they will also tell you when to use EQ and compression, and which settings to use. As you develop your experience, you will instinctively know when a musical idea is working and when it isn't. I don't believe that you need to be a musician to develop from an engineer into a producer along this route. Any engineer will start by learning the basic equipment operation and how to spot technical faults in a recording, such as excessive noise, clicks or distortion. The engineer producer who lacks conventional musical skills will probably work with a band that can supply all the necessary musical knowledge, and translate their work from a brilliant stage performance into an equally effective studio recording.

As long as you can communicate effectively and have a basic awareness of what the studio equipment can do, you don't actually need any technical knowledge at all to produce a record. This point is more easily understood if you think of the director of a TV commercial. He will be very visually aware, and will know what can be achieved with telecine and digital video effects. He cannot be expected to be a technical expert, but as long as he can communicate clearly with the telecine operator and digital artists, the result can be visually amazing. So, the musician producer needs to know what can be achieved in the studio, but someone else will be pushing the faders. A musician is obviously in a much better position than an engineer to know how to put together a piece of music for a recording from scratch, but the one thing that successful producers from either field have in common is that they have a clear image in their mind of the importance of the final product.

As well as the engineer producer and musician producer there is a third type, which I shall call the executive producer. The executive producer doesn't know anything about engineering or about music, but knows the right people with the necessary technical and musical skills to handle all the elements of production, and most importantly, knows when something sounds right. Executive producers don't need to be present all the time in the studio, they just need to hear work in progress occasionally. Their instinct will tell them whether the product is marketable or not. DJ's often find their way into production along this route as they are in an ideal position to know what will, or will not please an audience. The difference between something that sells and something that ends up on a cut price market stall may be incredibly small, but the DJ will usually be able to tell.

Any type of producer may work as a freelance producer. In this situation, a record company might have signed a band or act and be scouting round for someone to co-ordinate them in the studio. Obviously, all the producers know the record company A&R people, and the A&R people know who the key producers are. Matching an act with a producer is an important A&R skill. Sometimes the decision will be made on a 'flavour of the month' basis. If a producer has had a series of successful records, then he may be seen as being on a roll and the next production will be a big seller too. The act and the producer must also be compatible in some way, though. Perhaps they will share the same musical vision and have a deep understanding of the style of music in which they work. They may get along well together because they are musically in tune, or the band could be wilful and potentially difficult to work with. The producer must be capable of exercising a degree of control to shape the band into something that will work on CD as well as it does on stage. Maybe an older and more experienced producer will have more respect in the band's eyes, or maybe they need someone who is able to share their vision and will simply smooth over the rough edges. The freelance producer will be paid by the record company (who will get that money back from the band's share of the eventual profits), and he is then free to go on to work for another record company.

'Entrepreneur producer' is a title I have invented to cover the type of producer who initiates a project and then sells it to a record company in the form of an act with writing, recording and management already in place, or as a partly developed idea working towards the same end. Either way, the producer will be at the top of the food chain and will receive the lion's share of the rewards. The project could be a band in which the producer takes the roles of songwriter and musician, with a front man or woman to handle the vocals and provide a focus for the marketing machine to work on. Alternatively, the producer might be an engineer or musician who takes on the role of A&R scout and looks for a band or singer to work with. There will probably be a certain amount of investment involved, since the band will need studio time and promotional material. The entrepreneur producer will need to be able to promise the band or singer the earth, and give the impression that he is capable of delivering it. A track record of success will of course help! One of the advantages of working in this way is in the payoff. Not only is the entrepreneur producer entitled to a larger slice of the financial cake, he is also in control of an ongoing project, rather than staggering from one to another.

By now I'm sure I have put off anyone who is attracted to record production for the wrong reasons, but for those of you who are still interested, I hope that by the end of the series you will have a better understanding of the steps you should take in order to follow a career as a producer. In Part 2, I will be discussing the selection and development of material, pre-production, and rehearsal.



Stephen Street is a producer with both a musical and an engineering background. Bands he has produced include The Smiths, Blur, and The Cranberries.

"I would say that to be a producer you have to be 80 to 90 percent a musician. There are people who are especially good at knowing how to balance sound and I suppose their career really should be more in mixing rather than production."

"I reckon I only use about 60 to 70 percent of what it's capable of, but that's enough for me to know what I what it to do. Ergonomically, I think the SSL is a very well laid out piece of equipment and I think the computer is very easy to use. I have learned it well enough to know how to do what I want to do."

"Normally acts come to me, but the one exception was Blur. I heard their first single and said to their manager, 'I love that band and I would like to work with them if they are looking for anyone'. They were going to carry on using the same guy they had used for their first single, but in their next session it didn't quite work out, so I got a call asking if would like to have a go. I went in with them and it was a success straight away, and I have been with them for four albums now."



M People don't use a producer. Co-writers Mike Pickering (the band's founder) and Paul Heard produce themselves, starting in their home studio working out ideas and laying down basic tracks, and moving to Studio One at top London studio The Strongroom for recording.

Paul Heard: "I was the bass player in Orange Juice (with Edwyn Collins) for about two years and I was working more and more in the studio with Edwyn. Because I was comfortable in the studio and had some good ideas, I started becoming more involved in production."

Mike Pickering: "I got involved when I was with Factory Records -- I was in a band and we couldn't afford producers. The first real production I did myself was for Happy Mondays. It's a process of finding out and learning in the studio."

Mike Pickering: "M People was my project initially. I was doing so many productions and remixes, I wanted to be more on the creative side. I wanted to do an album of songs with people I liked. Heather (Heather Small, M People's vocalist) was one of the people I wanted to work with and it just clicked."

Paul Heard: "M People is completely self contained -- we write and produce everything ourselves. We have never worked with a different producer. The last 10 years have been a learning process. The more you are in the studio, the more you learn."

Paul Heard: "We have been recording for a number of years and have built up a team where everyone is comfortable with their roles. We have an engineer and a programmer who we often use. They know our sound exactly -- what kind of equalisation and what kind of compression. They work towards the sound they know we want to hear. It's important to know what the technology can do, but I'm not that interested in being 'hands on'."

Mike Pickering: "I understand what the equipment can achieve, but it doesn't really suit me and I don't really bother with it. I prefer to work with Paul, standing by the piano with a dictaphone or small tape recorder on top. He'll play chords and I'll sing what I think. If you are using computers you tend to start with the track, but we like to concentrate on the melody. We use a programmer for sounds. We ask him for a certain sound and then leave him to it for half an hour. If you spend all your time looking at a screen, it dulls your creativity."



By day, David Mellor is a composer of production music, technical writer, lecturer and sound engineer. By night he attempts a synthesis of classical, gothic, avant garde and jazz musical styles, recording as The Days Of The Moon and, collaboratively, as Evil Twin. He has never been very good at sticking to a 9-5 job!

This is the first article in a two-part series. Read Part 2.
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