Production quality?
March 21, 2021 6:54 PM   Subscribe

When someone comments on the production (“The production on this song is great, it reminds me of the production on Abbey Road”) - what are they referring to, specifically?
posted by jitterbug perfume to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I wrote out a much longer answer, but I'm not particularly experienced or anything, and I know other MeFites are, so I'll leave details to them. Let me just say: Have you ever seen a band live, and thought to yourself "wow, they sound so much different on the record"? That difference you hear is production. Very few records actually sound like a couple of musicians sitting in a room jamming.

There's a lot more to say about it. Steve Albini, who's one of the more famous record producers even though he refuses to let anyone call him a producer, recommends getting a degree in electrical engineering as a prerequisite, and he's actually kind of an old school guy.

If you're interested in a quick behind-the-curtain, Rick Beato's "What Makes This Song Great" series on YouTube shows a lot of production tricks on well-known songs.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:15 PM on March 21, 2021 [14 favorites]

Best answer: This sounds like something I have actually said word for word about Abbey Rd. It would be in reference to the warmth of the sound. I've tried searching for youtube videos about the frequencies increased or decreased at the mixing stage to create "warmth" but they're not great. This one is weird but clearer than the others I've seen.

I should point out that the engineer (Geoff Emerick?) likely didn't need to do much of this as their analog equipment probably achieved that sound all on its own.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 7:32 PM on March 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One thing I appreciate in a well-produced song is that I can listen to whatever element of it I want; if I want to concentrate on the lead guitar, I can. If I want to concentrate on the bass, I can. If I want to sit back and let it all play as the producer imagined it, I can. (This is not a universal desire.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:37 PM on March 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Production quality refers to the quality of the recording and performance but there's no precise definition of it other than really good. Up until relatively recently, the quality of gear that was affordable to even well off musicians paled in comparison to what would cost studios hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars (plus the cost of things like acoustically designed rooms to record in).

If you compare the quality of the demo version of major releases from the 80s and 90s to the final product, you can hear a massive difference between the home/demo recordings and final product.

One of the major tipping points in the shift was the release of the Alesis ADAT in 1991 (and to an extent, the less popular but better quality Tascam DA-88) which provided digital recording on low cost video tapes. They allowed reasonably good digital multitrack recording in lower cost studios or home rigs and all of a sudden, the low end setups could compete with the studios using 2" reel to reel 24 track recording setups. Jagged Little Pill is a notable example of the first wave of ADAT recordings.

The second two major revolutions were the shift to hard drive recording in early 2000s and a flood of low cost Chinese microphones that mimicked (to be polite) much higher cost classic German mics around the same time period. Also around that time, digital replicas of high quality analog gear also became practical, particularly the Universal Audio line of DSP chips and software emulation packages.

Those three factors combined to the point that it became pretty practical to make a quality recording with a relatively cheap setup and at this point what is and isn't "production quality" is blurred. Sufjan Steven's Illinois album was recorded on quite low end equipment but holds up extremely well.

Expensive gear doesn't guarantee good results - I've heard exquisite recordings captured on low end equipment and terrible recordings captured on high end gear. "Production quality" is the intersection of a great performance with great talent using equipment in a highly effective manner. "Production" can also include the human factors in driving a great performance - some musicians thrive while being coaxed to perform whereas others do best when told that the last take they did was terrible and to do it again but better. Being able to read what motivates musicians to create great works is a big part of what makes a great producer/engineer.

The production on this song is great, it reminds me of the production on Abbey Road

Abbey Road, the studio where the album was recorded, had access to world class technology and operators when the Beatles were recording there. So it's basically saying that the selection of equipment to use and people making the decisions on all the facets of recording (which can range from what equipment to use to exactly what angle to place a microphone towards the sound source) is world-class.
posted by Candleman at 7:58 PM on March 21, 2021 [11 favorites]

The 'production' refers to how the song is crafted sonically on the recorded medium. There can be many facets to this, or cooks involved, but ultimately, it's how the thing comes out of the oven in the end. ; ) Confusing, but it *can* refer to

- the way the parts of a song are arranged (eg, bass is loud, vocals are quiet, parts are panned in the stereo field a certain way)
- what kind of instrumentation is used (live performers, samples, a hybrid, computers)
- what kind of recording gear is used (analog, digital, high or low quality, all of the above)
- where the thing is recorded (studio? bedroom? Radio City Music Hall? cave? simulated radio city music hall in a cave?)

And it is all a matter of taste. Usually things that are considered 'very' produced aim for a very high of technical performance or sonic perfection. A lot of pop music has been this way for some time.

Some music that may be less produced sounding might sound like the recording is of a lesser quality, like it has noise in it (perhaps the crackling of vinyl, or some hiss) or it's tough to separate the parts you hear, as The Corpse refers to. Older recordings may sound less clear, or kind of muffled, because of the limitations of technology. Or this can happen sometimes just due to novice ability.

Now, some people as an aesthetic choice over time have purposely lowered various sonic qualities on purpose, whether it is just 'cool' or because they want to emulate a particular time period or another record's production they want to emulate. (You see this kind of thing in movies all the time, where directors have visual nods to other directors of films of different eras).

There's no right or wrong, it's just what the people making the record believe serves the content best.
posted by bitterkitten at 8:09 PM on March 21, 2021 [10 favorites]

If there's a guitar, is it acoustic or electric? Do the strings sound twangy like metal or warm like nylon? Is it distorted? Does the distortion sound warmly retro-bluesy or abrasively industrial or what? If the guitarist plays a single note, does it ring for a long time? Does it get quiet right away? Does it echo, so that it sounds like a whole series of notes? If the guitar plays one note very softly and another very hard, is the second one actually that much louder than the first, or is the difference mostly in tone? (For instance, does playing a note very hard make it more distorted instead of louder?) Does the pitch of the notes wobble? Are they put through a wah-wah pedal or another effect that changes their tone from one second to the next?

If there are vocals, do you feel like you're right next to the singer's mouth or across the room from them? Do they sound like they're singing at a particular point in space? Do they sound like they're singing inside your head? Are the vocals louder or quieter than the guitars? Is it easy or hard to make out the words that they're singing? If they whisper, does it become so quiet you need to turn the volume up or does it stay audible? If they stop singing suddenly, is there some kind of echo or reverberation that continues? If you listen carefully, does it sound like two people singing in unison instead of one person? Or even, does it sound like one person who's been recorded twice? (One clue to this is that sometimes the two recordings of the person will sing a syllable at slightly different times.)

Do the singer and the guitarist sound like they're in the same room? If you had to guess, could you say something like "the singer is to my left and the guitarist is to my right"? If you had to guess, could you say something like "they're singing in a giant church" or "they're singing in a tiny room with no furniture"? Can you hear any background noises? Can you hear the guitarist's fingers moving on the strings? Or guitar or bass strings slapping against the wood of the instrument? Can you ever hear the singer, or anyone else, breathe? Can you hear anything that sounds like audience noise? If there's audience noise, is it awkward and weirdly timed and kind of sloppy, or does it happen just at the perfect moment (usually a sign it's been added after the fact)? Is there ever a moment where it sounds like someone's yelling but their voice gets really quiet, like they've moved their face away from the microphone? Or when they're crooning but it's really loud, like they've moved their face right up close? Does anyone's volume change very much at all?

Can you ever hear electrical-sounding noises, like the buzzing sound an old headphone jack makes when you unplug it halfway? Can you ever hear the sort of hissing noise that old cassette tapes made? Can you ever hear the sort of garble-y-glitchy noises that bad mp3s make?

That's the stuff people mean when they say "production." It's not about the choice of notes or the musicians' technique — it's about the equipment they use, especially the sound equipment, and about how that equipment is set up. Using a different microphone, placing the microphone differently, running its signal through effects, playing in a large or small room, having everyone play together or recording the parts separately, and so on, are all production decisions that effect the final sound even if they don't change what notes anyone is playing.

(Sometimes people also use "production" to mean decisions that go beyond equipment. Imagine the Rolling Stones recording "You can't always get what you want" and saying "Oh! I know! Let's hire a boys' choir!" or "Let's get someone who can play the French horn!" Those aren't really decisions about equipment, but they still get called production. The maybe-kind-of-problematic idea is that there's the Real Band who play the Really Important parts of the song, and then there are the things that the Real Band decides to spend money on, like microphones, amplifiers, and French horn players.)

In any case, none of those decisions are necessarily wrong. It's not like hearing the singer breathe and the guitarist's chair creak is objectively good or objectively bad. They'd be great in an intimate warts-and-all acoustic blues album and distracting in something that was meant to be incredibly slick. That's why people talk about them as artistic choices you can love or hate, and not as requirements that an artist either meets or fails to.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:10 PM on March 21, 2021 [12 favorites]

Sometimes people also use "production" to mean decisions that go beyond equipment. Imagine the Rolling Stones recording "You can't always get what you want" and saying "Oh! I know! Let's hire a boys' choir!" or "Let's get someone who can play the French horn!" Those aren't really decisions about equipment, but they still get called production.

That's actually a good example of what real producer might do rather than what some A&R suit might do. The recording engineer decides what equipment to use to get a specific sound whereas a (real) producer might decide what sound to go after in the first place.
posted by Candleman at 9:38 PM on March 21, 2021 [4 favorites]

Geoff Emerick wrote a really interesting book about his time sound engineering for the Beatles, with a lot of detail about exactly what he did to get precise effects -- everything from angling of microphones to stuffing sweaters inside Ringo's drum. I'm not a musician, but came away with a sense of the effect producers and engineers have on a recording.
posted by apparently at 4:00 AM on March 22, 2021

It sounds like you're most interested in rock production given the Abbey Road reference, but worth mentioning that in a hip-hop context, production commonly refers to basically every non-vocal element of a song. That encompasses a lot of what people are talking about above for songs that involve live instrumentation, but also includes the practice of sampling, the design of synthesizer and drum machine sounds, the application of vocoder/autotune effects to vocals, etc.
posted by UncleBoomee at 7:18 AM on March 22, 2021 [5 favorites]

I came in to mention a reason why a lot of modern music doesn't sound as good: The Loudness War, which drove producers since the 1990s to make the music louder and reduce the dynamic range. A real shame.
posted by Don_K at 7:25 AM on March 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

My opinion: they are almost always trying to praise the sound without meaning anything particularly specific.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:41 AM on March 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Great answers already. Just want to second kevinbelt's recommendation of Rick Beato's Youtube series, 'What Makes this Song Great.' He talks about many different aspects of the music, but has access to individual tracks and frequently talks about the production choices and why they matter. A good example is his recent video on The Cars' 'Just What I Needed', in which he explicitly talks about how innovative the production was.
posted by googly at 8:35 AM on March 22, 2021

(Sometimes people also use "production" to mean decisions that go beyond equipment. Imagine the Rolling Stones recording "You can't always get what you want" and saying "Oh! I know! Let's hire a boys' choir!" or "Let's get someone who can play the French horn!" Those aren't really decisions about equipment, but they still get called production. The maybe-kind-of-problematic idea is that there's the Real Band who play the Really Important parts of the song, and then there are the things that the Real Band decides to spend money on, like microphones, amplifiers, and French horn players.)

I think this should be stressed more, depending on what type of music you're talking about. Much of hip-hop, pop, and electronic music has a "producer," where the producer might even be more accurately described as the "composer" -- they are creating the music from the ground up, with the performer just recording one line of the piece (the vocals). So if someone says "I love the production Justin Timberlake's My Love," what they're saying is that they love the swirling, staccato electronic synths that the producer Timbaland created, the way in which the music builds and fades and comes back to itself, the combination of highly precise beatboxing with operatic synths, and so on. Even though record labels for a long time didn't usually give the producer anything more than fine print credit on their marketing materials for most songs, some producers have such a distinctive and compelling style that they become major selling points in their own right -- and then major artists. For example: Kanye West, The Neptunes, Timbaland.

Who is the true "creator" or "author" of a piece of popular music is a major question, one which this post touches on.

c.f. this recent post on the blue:
posted by lewedswiver at 2:06 PM on March 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

You might be confused because on regular headphones or speaker in a regular streaming app it is very hard to hear minute details of music production. My best friend, who is a music nerd, has very good headphones, and subscribes to .. Tidal, I think? With lossless audio. It absolutely makes a huge difference.
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:48 AM on March 23, 2021

You can see in the variety of some of the answers, 'production' is used in a few different ways.

Tying together some of what others noted: If it reminds someone of Abbey Road, they most likely mean a) it sounds good to them, and/or b) it sounds good to them in specific ways (e.g., the drums sound clear and not harsh, or sound live, or sound some other way that they enjoy, or the bass guitar is more audible than on a lot of other songs -- the comparison to Abbey Road is always going to be in contrast to most other songs -- or the bass is louder than on a lot of other songs, or the song sounds like people recording in a room, like you can picture the room, or the song sounds very analog, not digital like much music does now, or there's a lot of dynamic variation -- it's not just slamming your speakers at top volume from start to finish, and/or any number of other things that are just other the ways the song sounds good to them).

Not all of these things are exactly production, in that they were decided by the producer. But all of them are production, in the way that a film is called a production. Artist, engineer, and producer all affect how the song sounds.

Last record I made with my band, we had a friend serving as engineer and producer. Engineer: He knew how to mic the drum set, the guitar cabinets. Producer: He talked us into shortening the bridge on one song, and would find non-guitar/bass/drum/vocal sounds to add in spots, or would play something himself there, usually adding heavy effects so it sounded less like a guitar. That's not uncommon either; George Martin with the Beatles, or Mutt Lange singing on Def Leppard's Hysteria.

We wrote and played. He recorded and mixed -- the volume balance, the stereo spectrum, the frequency spectrum, fading out songs. When he convinced us to shorten the bridge, he was helping arrange the song. Frequently, a band will record 20 guitar tracks and the producer decides to not use 17 of them. But we also arranged the songs. He also played bass. My singer and I also engineered late at night, after he'd gone home. We all made 'production decisions,' including those volume balances. There are different ways to divide/share the responsibilities.

'Production' as used in your example is kind of everything about that song except how it goes/what the band sang and played -- what notes and chords, the lyrics. And even there, if the producer has influence on any changes to that, then that's part of the production too. But it's hard to definitively ... uh, define, because this band produces its own records, for the most part, and just has someone engineering, while that band does everything the producer tells them, and then there are millions of bands in between.
posted by troywestfield at 2:25 PM on March 24, 2021 [2 favorites]

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