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Working As A Team

How To Become A Record Producer, Part 3 By David Mellor
Published March 1996

To the budding pop star, A&R managers hold the power of life and death — and it's not much easier for the producer. David Mellor explains how to win friends and influence people...

The motto of one of the biggest‑selling recording artists in history was "surround yourself with good people", and this holds true for producers too. You can try to be a 'one man band' producer, especially now there is an incredible array of equipment available to make that possible, but when you consider that virtually every record that hits the charts is a joint effort, you have to face the fact that two (and usually more) heads are better than one.

So, who else is likely to be on the payroll? Well, as a typical example, many dance tracks are created by an artist, programmer, producer and engineer under the ultimate guidance of the record company's A&R manager. They'll all be 'good people', because top professionals only work with other top professionals. So, how can you compete when you are working from your bedroom studio?

The First Step

The first step is to accept that you can't go it alone, and you need to find other people to work with, to pool your talents and abilities. The one advantage you have over the top professionals is your creativity. Creativity, that is, in the sense that as a newcomer to the industry you will find your own methods, techniques and, most importantly, sounds. The Top 40‑buying public basically demands 'more of the same', but almost always spiced with something new that they haven't heard before. You might have this magic ingredient where the top pros have used up all of theirs.

All you have to do is work out where you want to specialise; as a musician, programmer, engineer or producer. Then, find other like‑minded people as talented as yourself to work with, and go out and make that hit! If you can't find someone to fulfil a particular role, then you will have to pay for the necessary expertise. There's no shame or stigma in paying a professional musician, engineer or whatever — it just hurts! You will reap the rewards of knowing that the people you hire are doing their job professionally, and allowing you to give your full attention to your own role.

Perhaps the most difficult form of production is trying to take a mediocre band or musician and make them sound good, and I'm afraid this is the route upon which many aspiring producers start off. It may just be the road to nowhere, but on the other hand, some people might find it just the challenge they need.

The A&R Manager

The A&R manager (A&R stands for 'Artists and Recording' or 'Artists and Repertoire') is certainly a creative person in his or her own right. Of thousands of artists, musicians, writers and bands, the A&R manager has to pick the one that is going to be successful, and nurture their career into the big money zone.

Many people outside the industry see the A&R department of a record company as a barrier, an obstacle to their success. But in fact it is the opposite. The A&R manager is going to be the enabler of success — but only for the chosen few. And of the few to be groomed for stardom, many will fall at the first hurdle: their CDs don't sell, the record company invokes one of its many 'get out clauses' in the contract, and bids them goodbye. Among the many who would like to be successful as an solo artist or band, most see that elusive recording contract as their goal. In fact, a recording contract is only the beginning of a high stakes game of snakes and ladders where unfortunately the ladders are few, long and steep, and the snakes are many and exceedingly slippery — as any contract artist‑turned‑van driver will tell you!

As a producer, your dealings with the A&R department of a record company will take one of two forms. Either the record company has signed an act and approach you to produce it, or you're associated with — or have even created — an act, which you offer to the company. Choosing a producer is a key part of the A&R manager's role, because the producer can potentially make or break the record. It is usually considered important that the artist or band gets on well with the producer, and can work with them comfortably. If there is stress in the studio, sessions are not likely to be musically productive, although there have been exceptions to this rule.

The Top 40‑buying public basically demands 'more of the same', but almost always spiced with something new that they haven't heard before.

The band also need to respect the producer. Many bands have the attitude of, 'we know what we are doing and we don't want to be produced', but you just have to look at how many bands have made it big with a producer's assistance, and how many bands haven't. Naturally, the producer should also have respect for the band, because if he or she doesn't think that the band is any good, then the motivation to do a good piece of work just won't be there.

Often, the A&R manager will look at a producer's track record. If a producer has a history of success with guitar‑orientated bands, then it would be a safe option to choose him to produce your newly‑signed guitar band. If a producer has had dancefloor success, then he could be exactly right for your new solo artist.

But there's a little more to it that that. Perhaps a band has already done an album and achieved moderate success, enough success to be allowed to do a second. If you were the A&R manager, would you choose the same producer? Perhaps if the producer was new to the business and you thought he might be capable of greater achievement, then you might choose the same person again. But if the first album had been produced by an established name, then you would start to consider why it had only been a moderate rather than a stunning success. Since the album did sell, there must have been something good about it, so the trick is to choose a producer who can replicate all of the good points, and add even more to the band's sound, songs or performance.

This was the case with the current Pulp album, Different Class. Pulp's management, who are handling this aspect of the A&R role, decided that although they had been pleased with the previous album, certain elements had been missed. They felt that there was a richness and depth to the band's live sound which hadn't been fully captured. Chris Thomas was engaged to produce the record, and their subsequent chart position (number four as I write) vindicates that decision.

Alternatively, you might start your career as a producer by associating yourself with a band, developing and recording them, and then presenting them to a record company. This is a slightly risky business, because the record company might say that they like the band, but they don't like you! If you have done the groundwork properly, you won't be too upset, because you will have drawn up an agreement with the band, so that you receive a payoff, or at least reimbursement of any costs you have incurred. A&R people I have spoken to confirm that this is a viable approach, but you do have to present an 'act', and not just a recording. A band that can play live is an act, for example, and so is a solo singer with obvious sex appeal. Other than that, you will have to find an angle that the record company can use to market the material you produce.

The A&R manager's role certainly doesn't end with finding bands and choosing producers. He or she will nurture the creative team all the way through recording. The producer's skill will be in creating great music, or at least assisting in the creation of great music.

Engineers, being dedicated to achieving the ultimate in recorded sound, sometimes don't know when to stop.

The A&R manager understands what sells — and I'm sure you are well aware that there is a lot of great music about that hasn't sold nearly as much as it deserves to. Some A&R managers rely on their instincts to make a good choice, and then let band and producer get on with it. Unless they think something's going wrong in some way, (for instance, that there are no obvious singles among the tracks that have been recorded) they won't interfere.

For many acts, singles are a vital marketing tool, without which an album cannot be a success. In this case, the A&R manager will get the band to write some more songs, re‑record one of the songs with more attention given to chart potential, release one of the album tracks as a single and hope for the best, or if the worst comes to the worst: scrap the whole project! This last situation is one you would probably prefer to avoid, because you'll find yourself on the scrapheap too.

The Engineer

Producers who started their careers as engineers are obviously perfectly capable of doing the engineering themselves, and some do. In a decent studio, there will be an assistant engineer available to handle all the menial tasks of setting up mic stands and plugging in cables, so the producer will be able to concentrate on getting a good sound whenever he wears his engineer's hat.

The problem with this arrangement is that being a great engineer is a very difficult and demanding job, and so is being a producer. Those who can fulfil both roles all of the time are fairly few and far between. There are also many producers who probably wouldn't know what a sweep mid was, let alone know how to twiddle it. In these cases, an engineer is necessary, and not just a studio junior taking a break from boiling the kettle. With a first‑class engineer at the desk, a musically‑orientated producer can concentrate fully on creating a good arrangement and maximising the potential of the performance, while the engineer deals with the sound.

In this situation, you might think that the producer takes a superior position to the engineer and tells him what to do, but where top professionals are involved this is unlikely to be the case. The engineer may take a couple of hours getting a drum kit sound, and during this time, the producer will usually trust the engineer's judgement, unless he has very specific requirements. His only comment might be to give the go‑ahead to record, once he's happy with the sound. Engineers, being dedicated to achieving the ultimate in recorded sound, sometimes don't know when to stop.

One problem about being an engineer/ producer is that you have no‑one to ask what they think about something. You could ask a member of the band, to which the reply would probably be, "I don't know, you're meant to be the producer". Having an engineer as a sounding board for your ideas and opinions is a great help, because you can rely on a good engineer to give you good advice, and he'll probably also have the psychological skills to know when to give you the answer you are looking for, and when to disagree with you openly. An established engineer may even suggest to you that something isn't working well, musically. You may regard this as an intrusion into your role, but you would be unwise not to pay attention to the advice of someone who has probably worked on thousands of sessions, and achieved an understanding of music equal — or superior — to your own.

If, as a producer, you don't have any engineering knowledge or skills to speak of, then at the very least you should develop an awareness of what the engineer can do for you, what tricks and techniques he can deploy, and gain a feeling for how long something you ask for may take to set up or perform. One of the worst things that will happen to an engineer is for a producer to bring in a demo cassette and say, "I want it to sound like this". This situation isn't as common as it used to be, but it is still very easy for a musician to be working in his or her home studio and come upon a particular sound just by chance, which they then develop into a major feature of the song.

The problem may be that the song structure will change, the key may change, the multitrack tape of the demo may be of poor quality, or may have been lost. Any of these factors will mean that the sound will have to be re‑created somehow, and anyone who has any experience of this will tell you that it is sometimes very, very difficult. You may have to accept that it could take a long time to work out how the sound was achieved (unless the musicians involved have long memories), or you may have to settle for a near alternative. Of course, you won't settle for second‑best, but trying to re‑create a sound — sometimes not even of the same band — may prove impossible. On the positive side, the chances are that along the way, you will stumble upon something at least as interesting, that you would not have thought of if you had just started from scratch.

At the mixing stage, producers often just leave the engineer to get on with it in his own time. You might have thought that if the producer is supposed to be in charge of the recording, then he or she should supervise every aspect of the recording process, including every detail of the mixing. Of course, any engineer will tell you that you have to be an engineer to appreciate fully the subtle art of mixing. Having a producer in the studio in the early stages of mixing would only be inhibiting. If the engineer is left to his own devices for two or three hours, then the producer can come in and apply his fresh ears to the mix and comment on what is going well, or what isn't working.

There is always a balance to be struck between how much the engineer will stick to what's on the tape, and how much he will alter the sound of the individual tracks with EQ and effects. I'll return to this delicate subject next month.

The A&R Manager's View — Geoff Travis

Geoff Travis is Director of A&R for two labels, Rough Trade and Blanco y Negro. With Rough Trade Management he works with acts including Pulp and The Cranberries. He realises the importance of the producer, taking Stephen Street as an example. "Stephen Street (producer of both Cranberries albums) has a very clear view of what works and what doesn't, but he's not afraid of trying things. He is the kind of person who is there to bring the best out of a band rather than impose his will. He is totally open‑minded, and he is more likely to say, 'That sounds like an interesting idea, let's try it', than he is to say, 'That sounds like a crap idea, why don't you go home and let me get on with it'."

    "If I didn't know a producer, I would listen to what they had done and then meet them. The same way when you meet an artist — if they talk sense to you, and they've got a kind of spark, I give them a try. The band need to feel comfortable with a producer; they are the ones doing the work."
    "I like to go to the studio and see what's happening. Some bands invite you to make comments and want to get feedback. Other people just want to get on with it. I don't try to impose and interfere, unless there is something drastically wrong. My experience of bands is that the better the band, the more they know what they want."

The A&R Manager's View — David Bates

David Bates is A&R Director of Phonogram, working with many acts ranging from Oleta Adams to Definition of Sound.

    "You wouldn't necessarily put Oleta Adams with a heavy metal producer, but if the safe option is busy, then sometimes you try a more adventurous choice. I work with Chris Hughes a lot, and he has produced people like Paul McCartney and Tears for Fears. I put him with Definition of Sound ('Pass the Vibes' was their recent single), because they wanted to be different and not forced into a rap mould."
    "Not cutting off creativity to meet a deadline is one of my weaknesses in the eyes of the accountants. I don't try and make something fit into a budget; I try to make the best record I can. You only get one shot at a record. If you had an idea you wanted to try and you didn't, and then the record didn't chart, you would be cursing yourself."
    "We spent a year with Lloyd Cole, getting him to try and write a single with different people, but it just didn't work. Having done that, we said, 'Let's just mix the record and see if there's a track that stands out'. Suddenly this track 'Like Lovers Do' began to stand out. It was Lloyd's first hit in nine years!"

The Engineer's View — Gregg Jackman

Gregg Jackman is a very well‑established and respected engineer, and is one of the few engineers who can command royalties on his recordings rather than just a flat fee.

    "The Seal album took a very long time. Trevor Horn (pictured right) doesn't worry too much about the time it takes, or the budget. He just wants to make a great record. Sometimes when you think you are getting somewhere, he'll scrap it and start all over again: 'Now I know how to make this record. Wipe it, and we'll start again'. You learn not to take any of these things personally."
    "Very often, people will ask me my opinion. As long as they are prepared to accept that I may say something they don't like, that's fine.

"Producers tend to observe what it sounds like. Sometimes they'll point out something you haven't heard. They'll say, 'The vocals sound a bit toppy,' when all you're worrying about is the bass guitar. It's good to have two sets of ears concentrating on the job in hand."

    "Some producers don't know anything about sound. They are just very good musicians, good at sorting out arrangements. As long as there isn't something terribly wrong with it, they hardly ever seem to comment about the sound. Having said that, there are many more technical producers than there used to be."