What do album producers do?
March 27, 2016 9:10 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes, when you read a record review, you'll hear references to this-and-such famous producer or the quality of production and how that's determined the album's sound. I've always read these sentences and nodded without knowing exactly what the fuck it is that a producer does. So what does an album producer do?

I'll throw a name out there -- Steve Albini. I've heard his name invoked as a producer of some repute. If you know anything of his production oeuvre, could you explain what he did on a specific album and how that affected the overall sound? But if you are more familiar with another producer, by all means, use that example instead, including, but not limited to, examples from your own musical careers.

Short warning: I can't read music. When people talk about chords and notes and progressions, my eyes glaze over and I mumble something polite and non-committal . Please keep this ignorance in mind when composing your answer.

Let us go forth and boldly build the metafilter database of answers!

posted by the hot hot side of randy to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Well, this is a sticky subject, but I'll start with saying, Steve Albini does not consider himself to be a producer. He considers himself to be a recording engineer. He famously won't take producer credits on albums.

I'll let other people comment about music production. It's not a subject I know a whole lot about. But in general I think it's kind of like producers in movies - it can range from "means nothing" to "made a lot of choices about where/how the album is recorded"

(Also, I think it varies a lot by genre - in rap/hip hop I tend to think of "producer" as "the guy who made the beat/backing track" but I'm not sure that's universal)
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:14 AM on March 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

I can't find a good short clip or interview excerpt now, but I think it was Billy Joel on Here's the Thing where he talks a little bit about how Phil Ramone totally changed the arrangement on several songs.

So the producer can be an arranger, kind of like a director.

I seem to remember that they go into this a bit on Steve Albini on WTF with Marc Maron.
posted by straw at 9:41 AM on March 27, 2016

Steve Albini is absolutely an engineer, not a producer.

It can vary a lot. In some cases, it's short hand for "this person paid for the recording," or knew the right people to talk to in order to make it happen. In others, it means they helped guide the entire process, helped pick out arrangers, session musicians, various production staff, sat in on the mixes and gave feedback, etc.

The Wiki article is a pretty good explanation.

There is overlap between engineers and producers in practice - part of both of their job is to get the best performance and recording out of the musicians. Steve Albini does to quite a bit of that with the way he interacts with the musicians. A big part of "his" sound is using certain types of mics (especially ribbons) in certain ways and certain pieces of processing equipment. Read his TapeOp interviews for more on him. He's extensively been interviewed and written about so, it's better to start by doing the background reading first and then perhaps asking if you have any questions to clarify.
posted by Candleman at 9:51 AM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Producer" has become such an overloaded term now that it's hard to give a single concise definition, but I'll try: a producer a person who works with an artist or band in the studio to get the best out of their recordings. This can be everything from simply capturing the band on tape and making them sound as close to 'them' as possible (Steve Albini falls into this category with his famed not-a-producer style), right up to writing and recording the entire backing track for an artist to sing along to (think basically every pop song you've ever heard of).

Different producers bring massively different skillsets: Steve Albini knows which microphones will work on what instrument, how to use a tape machine, how different spaces will sound and how to get the fuck out of the way so the band can just be the band; Calvin Harris knows how to program a synthesizer and build an arrangement for a massive club banger; George Harrison was effectively a fifth member of the Beatles who brought a whole bunch of ideas for how they could use studio equipment in their songcraft as well as recording them onto tape; Max Martin writes the songs and arranges the entire backing track for every pop song you've heard in the last 18 years.
posted by parm at 10:00 AM on March 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Well for general overviews past producers are well documented. "The Wrecking Crew" profiles Phil Spector's style and his use of studio talent to help his artists and there are numerous looks at what George Martin did for the Beatles.

Of course a look at Tom Dowd's work is available; Tom Dowd and the Language of Music
posted by Freedomboy at 10:04 AM on March 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Just chiming in to say that parm probably meant George Martin. George Harrison was more of a fourth Beatle.
posted by univac at 10:14 AM on March 27, 2016 [20 favorites]

I hired a producer for my record. Before we began, he helped me define my goals. This covered what I wanted the record to sound like, what other records had similar sounds and production, and what I hoped to accomplish with it (do I want to get signed? Sell a ton? Get played on the radio?). He helped me rewrite my songs, adding bridges and changing chords, and helped me arrange them. We wrote two songs for it completely from scratch, together. He helped me choose which instruments we should have in the studio (that's part of arrangement), which impacted the studio we went with, and which session players I hired. He came to every rehearsal and helped make sure it was sounding how I wanted it to.

In the studio, he listened and helped me choose takes. He never tried to overrule me, but we did have some heated disagreements! He helped me stay focused on how to spend my time so that I didn't sink my whole budget into trying to get a random backing harmony perfect. He spent a significant amount of time worrying over the tone of the instruments, the depth of the snare hits, the brightness on a guitar tone, etc.

During mixing we set levels together, whether the vocals should be in front in this part, if this guitar part should fade into the next phrase or ring out, etc.

I'd consider him to have been my trusted consigliere. Making an album is grueling and scary, and it was invaluable to have a partner helping me realize my vision.
posted by pazazygeek at 10:24 AM on March 27, 2016 [21 favorites]

I think a film director can be a reasonable, albeit imperfect, analogy. They don't (generally) write or perform the work, but they guide the creative process and can make many decisions which influence the final product. Listening to works by different musicians but the same producer can help to illuminate the producer's style.

Production often overlaps with engineering, arrangement, and mixing. The producer is often the one guiding the recording session, making decisions about which takes are keepers, when to move on, giving the musicians performance notes, etc. Any given piece of music can be realized in innumerable ways as a finished recording -- a producer's role is to collaborate with a musician in finding the right approach for their work. To name one easy, famous example -- George Martin, the Beatles' famed, recently deceased producer mentioned above, was the one who suggested that McCartney's composition for acoustic guitar and voice, Yesterday, be performed with a string quartet. Martin wrote the string arrangement, and the rest is history.

Some producers leave more of their own mark on a work than others. Not every recording has a producer at all -- sometimes there's just a recording engineer whose objective is to capture sound without adding creative input, and a mixing engineer who is trying to achieve a balanced sound according to the musician's vision.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:37 AM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Because Steve Albini also writes about cooking - maybe a culinary analogy is also relevant.

If you add salt to your food, in reasonable quantities, it tastes more like itself. If you add a jar of ready-made sauce or a packet of spice mix, it will taste like those things - and maybe also of the original ingredients, if you added only a small amount.

Steve Albini is the salt in this analogy, other producers maybe the spice mix. My favourite record that he worked on is Ys by Joanna Newsom, and the only thing you can hear there is more of the music.
posted by rd45 at 10:40 AM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

univac - yep, brain slower than fingers error. Thanks :)
posted by parm at 10:53 AM on March 27, 2016

It might be interesting to look at the different producers that David Bowie worked with - he chose different producers depending on what he wanted to do and there are plenty of interviews with them around. Look for Bowie with Eno, Visconti, Nile Rodgers and Hugh Padgham (for an example of how things can go badly) .
posted by tardigrade at 12:00 PM on March 27, 2016

Film Director is a pretty good analogy. One of my frustrations is how little people understand about the making of albums vs the making of film. The process is very much the same, it’s more a matter of scale. People seem to understand film making to a large degree, but music making is mysterious magic.

A music producer is like the director. They are responsible for the overall project, the vision. (In the case of a label production they are financially responsible, any cost overruns or failure to deliver can come out of their pocket, depending on the deal.) The engineer would be like the cinematographer and other technical crew, they turn the knobs and get the sounds at the direction of the producer. In many cases the producer and engineer can be the same person, working with an assistant usually. Sometimes it personal preference that draws the line, many times it’s simply money that dictates. Producing and engineering are two different jobs and it’s twice as much work to split attention between them.

As an example; while recording a take with a band the producer will be paying attention to what they are playing, if it’s correct, if there’s a better idea, if they are in tune, if it’s too slow, too fast, if the arrangement is working, how what they are playing will work with parts that will be added later, all kinds of things. The engineer will be paying attention to the sound, are the levels right, did a mic quit working, are the sounds working together, etc. These things too are ultimately the responsibility of the producer, but at the moment they will be more concerned with the sound in matters of taste and leave the technical aspects to the engineer. There’s a lot of teamwork between them, and many will have a long standing working relationship.

In reality Producer can be a lot of things, but that’s because album production can be a lot of things depending on the type of music and the budget, just like film. If you make a film on your iPhone you are the director, even though that seems like a lofty claim. That doesn't make you competent to direct a studio movie, but you could be Director on iPhone movies and do great work. In the same way many are labelled Producer on projects that would have no idea where to start on different type of music project. That’s one reason you don’t see a lot of crossover between musical genres.

Some producers will do everything from help write and choose the songs, engineer, arrange, play and sing, as well as choose the studios, hire the crew, manage the budget, act as a liaison with the label, and buy lunch. Some will simply hire the right people to do all that and give a thumbs up or down. If you see Executive Producer on a record that means they are getting paid but didn’t really make the record.

As far as chain of command; the producer is in charge. Everything will be hashed out between the producer and the artist. The engineer, assistant, string arranger, hired musicians, any else that would be involved will usually not even offer an opinion or become involved in any way in artistic decisions (if they’d like to keep working). The producer is the only one to interact with the artist in this way. Even the label and management will usually work though the producer with any requests or ideas they have.

In short, you want to make a record, the producer says "I know how to do that" and makes it all happen and takes responsibility for it. Whereas if you show up at a studio with an engineer they expect to record you, that’s it. They would certainly be helpful, but would not expect to help you work out your songs and all the rest. It would be like hiring someone to paint the inside of your house and expecting them to design the whole interior.

Steve Albini operates from a political position that many don’t understand. It’s not that his position is wrong per se, he just seems to make too much of it. It’s like insisting "I am not a bass player, I’m a guitar player" even though you played bass on the record. Some engineers have their credits listed as "recorded by" for a similar but less militant reason, as it’s more of a artistic skill (like playing an instrument) than what one would normally think of as "engineer".
posted by bongo_x at 12:35 PM on March 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

To get some idea of what the producer adds, you can listen to demo recordings and compare them to the finished album recording. This is easy for Albini, since PJ Harvey released the demos for the Albini-produced Rid of Me. Just listening to the differences in the title track is instructive.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:16 PM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

pazazaygeek's description is just fantastic.

For tales and info from the trenches you could try prowling through the online archives of Mix Magazine, ProSoundNetwork, Recording Engineer and Producer (REP) Magazine (active 1970 to 1992), ProSoundWeb, and SoundonSound.com.

As others have mentioned, different eras and genres tend to have slightly different practices - the Wikipedia article kind of glosses over this, but before George Martin struck out as an independent in 1969, record producers were label employees, and often had a lot of authority over the process, equal to if not (sometimes) actually greater than the recording artist's. Country, pop, and R&B still tend to give the producer quite a bit of authority. Even when (technically) freelance independent contractors, producers are often hired by the record label, and bringing an album in on time and on budget is often a large part of a producer's job.
posted by soundguy99 at 2:12 PM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

bringing an album in on time and on budget is often a large part of a producer's job.

Yes. In label situations the producer is the only one of the crew with a direct financial interest in the success or failure of the album. Normally they are paid half their fee up front and half at the end if everything is on time and on budget, with penalties if they’re not. Then they get a percentage of sales (every deal is different and negotiated each time). Everyone else gets paid a set rate for their work no matter what happens, even if it never comes out, or even gets finished.

From what I understand Albini’s position mostly has to do with this. He doesn’t take "points", a percentage of sales as he feels this isn’t proper. He asks a fairly large flat fee, while others make take a smaller (or larger) fee and a percentage. I don’t know that this is actually a better moral position as he then has no skin in the game, it doesn’t matter to him whether the record does well or not, or what happens (except for reputation, which everyone involved banks on). That’s his position though, and it does make certain amount of sense. It’s also not quite what it appears nowadays though since record sales are so much lower that the points do not pay anywhere near what they used to, and many people don’t think it’s worth gambling on an artist and would rather just take the flat fee.
posted by bongo_x at 2:28 PM on March 27, 2016

Pre-mp3 destruction of the music industry, it was not uncommon for big name recording or mixing engineers to get points too.
posted by Candleman at 4:40 PM on March 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

As several people have mentioned, the role of the producer can vary quite considerably based on the producer, the musicians involved and the situation. Andrew Loog Oldham, who was an early manager of the Rolling Stones, is also credited as the producer on the records from 1963 to 1967. I haven't been able to locate the quote myself, but several sources (including the Wikipedia article on Oldham) report that the Rolling Stones' website says Accounts regarding the value of his musical input to the Stones recordings vary, from negligible to absolute zero.
posted by layceepee at 5:31 PM on March 27, 2016

Have you ever heard a band warming up in a garage or a basement and thought to yourself, "wow, they sound like absolute rubbish"? The drums overpower the guitars, the vocals are a little off, everything just feels disjointed. And then one of the band members gives you a CD, and you listen to it and think, "that's actually not that bad"? In a nutshell, that's what a producer does*: he makes a record sound good. There are hundreds of ways to accomplish this, from Albini minimalism to Spector's Wall of Sound, but the end goal is always to make a record that sounds good.

If you're into Nirvana, compare Nevermind with In Utero, then listen to live versions of the same songs. Cobain felt that Butch Vig overproduced Nevermind, and went in the other direction with Albini for their next record. In Utero's guitars sound a lot rawer and less processed - closer to how the band sounded live. Nevermind has more... processing, for lack of a better word, and less space.

*In rock music, at least. In hip hop, as others have mentioned, the producer is the guy who makes the beat.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:47 PM on March 27, 2016

Albini's position also has to do with his belief that bands should sound like themselves. There shouldn't be a ton of overdubs and digital post-production; the record should be a faithful documentation of what the band sounded like in the studio. He (claims he) is not adding anything to the band's sound, just recording it as it is (hence, "recorded by Steve Albini").

Steve Albini is a fascinating dude for a lot of reasons, and, although this doesn't real relate to the original question, I would recommend reading as much about him as possible.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:01 PM on March 27, 2016

It's funny to me that Steve Albini is being discussed in a thread about record producers, considering his opinion of that title.

You all might be interested in Jack Endino's take:

How To Overproduce a Rock Record

... and I highly recommend general clicking around his little website. For example, the article on the hair-pulling insanity of guitar tuning, the Nirvana FAQ (he recorded Bleach for $600), the cassette transfer article ... his stuff is indie rock gospel.
posted by intermod at 9:09 PM on March 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

> It might be interesting to look at the different producers that David Bowie worked with

Stop whatever you're doing and watch this fascinating video where Visconti talks about and demonstrates how the song Heroes came to be.
posted by rtha at 9:22 AM on March 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

This isn't actually the best example for reasons having to do with things other than Albini, but Fugazi first recorded a version of In on the Killtaker with Albini at the controls. You can find the "Albini Demos" around, including on YouTube. It does give a sense of how the same song changes in relation to things a "producer" might do.
posted by JohnLewis at 10:13 AM on March 29, 2016

For another "before and after" example, look at Fiona Apple's "Extraordinary Machine." She had recorded it with one producer, that version leaked, she later re-recorded it with different producers and released it. Listening to the leaked version versus the final commercially released version is very interesting. Granted, the bootlegs weren't finished versions, but comparing different versions of the same songs, written and performed by the same person for what was eventually the same album, can give a good perspective on what a producer can bring to a record.
posted by oblique red at 3:44 PM on March 29, 2016

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