Explain to me, what is "production" in music?
January 4, 2005 11:44 PM   Subscribe

Explain to me, what is "production" in music? [MI]

You hear it a lot in reviews. "Muddy production and dull songs". "A typical production". "... bring fresh sounds to the now somewhat formulaic feel of indie hip-hop production".

I listen to a lot of music, a lot of downtempo electronic, and I feel pretty stupid for not knowing this. I would appreciate it if someone could explain the concept to me with music I know, say Baby Mammoth or Röyksopp or Thievery Corporation or Plaid, so that I have some reference material.
posted by Skyanth to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: That should have been "A typical <name> production", by the way.
posted by Skyanth at 11:49 PM on January 4, 2005

Well, for one thing, the term "production" is difficult to apply to the music you listen to -- a lot of production work revolves around trying to capture a particular sound from an instrument in a studio. The rest of "production" lies in how you choose to combine that sound with the other sounds you've captured. Does it sound like the vocalist is right inside your head? Does it sound like the drummer is at the bottom of a stairwell? That's production.

In the case of electronica, I imagine that "production" is how you can tell one artist from another without being told -- the auditory texture of the record.
posted by jjg at 12:03 AM on January 5, 2005

It is an umbrella term referring to a composition's structure (beats, chord progression, melodies, etc.) and or the engineering (sound levels and eq of the various elements of the song).

In Hip-Hop and Downtempo it refers, more often than not, to the nuts and bolts of a track. The samples, instruments and stylistic nods a track employs that results in its overall identity.

For example... the Neptunes production is pretty friggin' passe already... all those ridiculous hats and sirens and hoover basslines have been played out. (See what I did there?.. references to the skeletal structure of a song == production in this case).
posted by basicchannel at 12:04 AM on January 5, 2005

jjg is correct in a broader sense... but "production" has a very specific meaning in the more 'lectronic world.
posted by basicchannel at 12:05 AM on January 5, 2005

I will illustrate... WITH SOUND! Here are two versions of a bit of my music:

On the first, there has been very little production work at all.

On the second, there has been a great deal of production.

Notice how different the sound is. How it seems wider, deeper -- the highs are excited, and the bass is tight. It's louder, too. I've applied a number of different filters to the sound.

- An EQ to bring out certain parts of the song.
- A multiband compressor to change the dynamics of the sound -- so that the low-end can be loud without drowning out other parts of the sound.
- A stereo exciter/widener to create a larger soundstage.
- And so on, and so on...

Basically, production is taking a sound and making it sound different. I produced this track to sound crisper and sharper. Someone else's production might've made it sound smooth and deep. Yet another person might've made it distorted and crunchy.

Mind you, this is just one definition, as it applies to electronic music. Analog production is something else entirely, and involves the arcane arts of microphone placement, pedal selection, and all kinds of things. The term 'audio engineer' is also pretty apt.
posted by Jairus at 12:06 AM on January 5, 2005

Response by poster: Jairus.. psst. That's two times the same track.
posted by Skyanth at 12:10 AM on January 5, 2005

that's some sneaky subliminal ninja style production.
posted by juv3nal at 12:12 AM on January 5, 2005

Skyanth: Yes. That's the point. The track is the same, but the PRODUCTION of the track is different. Try listening with headphones to hear the difference.
posted by Jairus at 12:13 AM on January 5, 2005

I have produced Jairus' track and uploaded it to his server.

(Jairus your two links are to the exact same file. Great example, by the way.)
posted by Loser at 12:15 AM on January 5, 2005

I'm so awesome.

So, yeah. Listen to that second link that Loser posted and pretend I had linked there in the first place. :)
posted by Jairus at 12:16 AM on January 5, 2005

Just wondering, what are you using to "produce" this music, if you are willing to share your secrets?
posted by ALongDecember at 1:04 AM on January 5, 2005

Jairus' definition may be right in the electronica world, but to me it sounds more like it's referring to the mix or the mastering, jobs which are performed by mixers or mastering engineers.

Production is usually associated with a stage in the process which is earlier than that. The producer will be involved in deciding how the overall track sounds. Some producers are like a film director, making decisions in terms of the song's structure or the choice of instruments or sound; other times producers are like film producers, watching over the budget and putting together a team of musicians who will themselves be more responsible for the sound.

So production is generally a way of describing the overall sound of a track. You can produce the same song in ten different ways - and hopefully the transition from a rough home demo to the finished studio recording will demonstrate an improvement in the production values.
posted by skylar at 1:29 AM on January 5, 2005

Production refers to the specific process a song undergoes when making the transition from the raw talents of the songwriter and performers to a recorded work. While a song could be said to be technically "produced," or created, by the writer, the term production is derived from "record producer", the title of the person who coordinates the process of recording the track. There are several people involved in the process of making a recording -- the arranger, session musicians, the recording engineer, the mastering engineer -- who aren't directly managed by the songwriter or "band." These people are managed by the producer, in the same way that a film is managed by a director. (Director versus producer appears to be an arbitrary semantic thing here.)

Production is used in language in two ways. It can refer simply to the quality of the recording (the "muddy production" example you give above). This is as opposed to a live, or unproduced, performance by the performer.
It can also refer to the dynamic of the recording, a specific type of musical sound. This sound is often the result of the influence of the producer, who will often take the song from the songwriter or performer and have them arranged in a distinctive way, record using similar techniques on similar equipment, and use certain session musicians, giving all of the work of the producer a certain kind of "signature sound." When you hear that Royskopp produced Annie's Anniemal, for example, you would understand how the base songs that Annie wrote were then arranged and recorded by Royskopp, adding Royskopp's influence to Annie's original songs.

Production is also used to describe the type of music possible in a studio that may not be possible live. When someone complains that an album is "overproduced," they're referring to too much studio tinkering or overarrangement. A producer may have additional instrumentation -- strings, brass, drum lines, electronics, turntablism -- or other sonic flourishes to a song not originally in the songwriter or performer's raw work, and in some cases, those added touches can be distracting. On the other hand, those touches can make a song wonderful; to each his own.

This definition doesn't change much from normal music to hip-hop to electronica. In the electronic world, however, a song is more likely to be "self-produced," where the person writing the song also coordinates the arrangement, engineering and mastering of the original work.
posted by eschatfische at 5:08 AM on January 5, 2005

With regard to Hip Hop production specifically, as a rule, anything that is not the rhyme can be considered the work of a producer, and is an area in which you see a great deal of highly noticeable ingenuity in it's own right.

In the rock world, Production tends to be shorthand for recording quality, as a few have noted, with a few notable exceptions - mostly producers with a signature sound, such as Phil Spector and his "wall of sound" techniques (which consist of bringing in tons of session musicians to overdub every part in the song into oblivion), or Steve Albini, who is notorious for extremely clean, sparse recordings that are clearly meant for very very very high volumes.

The best thing you can do is to try to compose something like what Jairus has provided above if you want to understand.

Track down an artist with a lot of back catalog, and dig up a reissue w/ some bonus tracks. Odds are it has some live tracks and studio demos of songs that have also been released on album. Compare them.

The recent reissue of the Cure's "Three Imaginary Boys" has some great examples for these purposes. Particularly the demo/produced versions of A Fire In Cairo.
posted by TTIKTDA at 5:23 AM on January 5, 2005

When George Martin advised Paul McCartney that he couldn't really put drums on "Yesterday", that a string quartet would be more appropriate, he was being a producer. Similarly, when he merged two takes of "Strawberry Fields" into one despite the fact that they were in different keys and involved different instrumentation, he was being a producer.

In the first case, he was making an artistic decision about the performance of the song, based on the material the songwriter presented to him, using his instincts and repertoire of musical ideas and skills to best capture the feeling and concept of the song.

In the second case, he was getting involved in a microscopic way, adjusting tape speeds to correct the key of the song, controlling the entrances and exits of certain instruments (and their overall sound), and generally constructing a performance of a song, using various technical skills and tools.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 7:38 AM on January 5, 2005

Outstanding explanation by eschatfische. (Interesting handle.) I also recommend listening to this article on the Beach Boys tune Good Vibrations. [.ram format] It's an excellent example of how production influences a song in the course of the recording process.
posted by Scooter at 7:58 AM on January 5, 2005

You'll hear people say in hip-hop generally the producer produces the whole backing track (beat). Also note that they also basically do this on pop records where the artist doesn't play an instrument or contribute to the arrangement or song.

Basically, the producer does roughly what in a movie would be called the director - coordinates editing and engineering, sometimes helps with arrangements and songwriting, gives direction to the track. The role as overseer of engineering is relatively new for the last few decades: previously engineering was a whole separate task, but now days when someone says "muddy production" they overall mean muddy engineering.

Generally electronic artists produce and engineer themselves, save for mastering, so in your musical preference it doesn't matter much.
posted by abcde at 9:38 AM on January 5, 2005

It bears repeating that in Hip-Hop (especially Indie Hip-Hop) "Producer" refers to the man behind the mpc2000/Protools who is actually making (and hence, in this context, PRODUCING) everything that is NOT the MC's voice. Whilst the shaping of the tonality and balance of the individual pieces is involved, engineering (as it's technically known) is NOT actually what's being referred to, but rather the unique confluence of samples and musical references ("beats") a "Producer" stitches together to form a track.

Everyone elses' definitions are very, very true in a more general sense. However, Hip-Hop and Dance/Techno music sort of dorked the meaning of the word: A producer in these specific genres is NOT the dood who brings the talent together, secures financing or anything else that a "Producer" typically does in other genres and mediums (ie: Film).

RJD2 is a producer. El-P is a producer. They "produce" "beats" for artists.

I think what is confusing people about your question is the "muddy" sound part of it. To this I believe the context of the blurb is referring to the character/personality of the "Producer"'s output. El-P, for example, is well known for sampling at 22kHz which gives his "productions" a very "muddy" quality that actually works to define the aesthetic of an El-P "production".

Sorry for posting to this thread so much but I'm acutely aware of the confusion brought on by this weird set of nomenclature. As I was getting into this area of music some of the terminology through me for a loop (hyuk hyuk) and as such I really researched what all this meant.

Everyone here makes some really solid points that I found very insightful... again, hope this helps. :)
posted by basicchannel at 11:01 AM on January 5, 2005

abcde beat me to the punch and is 100% correct. Curses!
posted by basicchannel at 11:02 AM on January 5, 2005

To get a feel for how the different roles play out in the studio with a rock band, the hilarious Mixerman Diaries will give you some idea how the producer and engineers work in the recording situation, with each other and the band.
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 12:13 PM on January 5, 2005

Also note that Mixerman Diaries is semi-fiction, a conglomeration of many experiences into a summary pseudo-journal. One of those too good (or bad in this case) to be true cases
posted by abcde at 3:45 PM on January 5, 2005

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