THE LOST ART OF PRODUCTION
“The production on this is fantastic – it sounds so good!”
“Nah, this is too produced for me, I prefer the old stuff, its more raw!”
“The production is sick, bro!”
Reading comments like these on YouTube or social media always makes me feel torn between different emotional reactions.
A part of me wants to chuckle and brush it off, but another wants to grab people by the shoulders, eyes open wide like a raging maniac, screaming “Do you even know what ‘production’ means?!”
“Production” often times, seems to be a very elusive word when used in describing the pros and cons of a given musical offering; especially in the Metal scene, where most fans pat themselves on the back for having “elite” musical taste and usually at least a little bit of a musical understanding from playing instruments as a hobby.
Even in the industry, nowadays people are often clueless about what it actually is that a producer does (and why they would need one). Go to dance-music or electronica scenes and you´ll find a completely different definition.
Being one of a dwindling crowd of people who´ve sat in the “producer´s chair,” as well as the “engineer´s chair” many times, on a variety of releases, let me try to shed some light on the issue:
First of all, the production of an album does not automatically mean the way it sounds, because the recording, mixing & mastering have a more direct influence on that. Part of the confusion about this topic seems to stem from the fact that the industry has almost (some would say completely) collapsed since the rise of the internet.
Of course, lots of interesting and exciting things are happening in the music industry today. But, however you want to spin it, financially, the industry has completely lost its “mojo” over the last 10-20 years. And because each passing year budgets are constantly shrinking while more and more releases of (often times) questionable quality flood the market, inevitably the amount of highly trained and skilled people who work with the artist on a product, have been reduced to a minimum.
In the 70’s or 80’s, on a well-budgeted album backed by a bigger label there would have been an entire team of specialists working on the project:
– the artist(s)
– the producer
– the recording-engineer
– the mixing-engineer
– the mastering-engineer
– the label´s A&R
– the studio´s staff
Hell, some of the biggest names in audio and production today started as a “tea-boy” in a recording-studio, quietly observing the big boys at close proximity and soaking up everything said and done…
Today however, it is rare that even a mid-level Metal band hires more than one person to help them create a new album.
I, myself, have often times been producer, recording-, mixing, and mastering-engineer on some releases, sometimes out of sheer financial necessity.
Don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoy and thrive in all of these roles. But, four years (or six) hear more than two. And having a team of creative professionals working together to ensure the best possible product? That is something else entirely.
No matter how good you are in your profession, you still have a limited perspective – especially after working on the same set of songs for a long time. Having other people to bounce ideas off of is something that´s often not placed enough emphasis on these days.
And of course, nothing beats having a world-class producer´s input as well as a world-class mixing-engineer and mastering engineer working on your music.
In the old days, the label´s representative (usually the A&R) would set up the budget and suggest the right people for those respective jobs.
The producer would then start working with the band and go over their material; he would provide an outside perspective on their writing, arranging and performance.
Usually, great producers are people whose own musical backgrounds include different instruments and methods of writing and composition, in order for him to provide insights into the material that otherwise wouldn´t have been available to the musicians themselves.
A classic scenario would be that the band either cuts a demo of the new material or performs for the producer in rehearsal.
The producer will then suggest changes in the arrangement or performance of the tune(s) that will benefit the overall product.
A good example would be “Sad But True” by Metallica. If you listen to the band´s original demo, the tune is quite a bit faster. Bob Rock, among other things, suggested to lower the tempo to what you hear on the album – a simple, but genius move, giving the song just the impact and swagger that was missing previously.
An even more legendary example would be Bob Ezrin´s work on Pink Floyd´s The Wall. Much of its everlasting appeal lies in the way Ezrin worked with the band on shaping the arrangement and connected the disparate musical pieces to shape the genius concept album behemoth we all know.
If you listen to the demos for the album, which recently have been released as part of an anniversary edition, they make a great case for the importance of a producer: all the elements and basic ideas are there, but often they fail to connect emotionally, and the limited vocal palette seriously impacts songs like “Another Brick in the Wall” in a negative way. But, then, the way all of the dots are connected and the ideas fleshed out on the finished product, with Michael Kamen´s brilliant orchestration behind it (who, of course, he was brought in by Ezrin) – that´s just another level entirely.
Also, don´t underestimate the value that a producer can provide when emotions and/or egos are running rampant in the studio and relationships between band-members are rapidly falling apart. A good producer is equal parts psychiatrist, drinking-buddy, translator, and military instructor, making sure the record gets done no matter what and that all obstacles are overcome.
Working in a recording studio is a high-pressure situation. If you spend a lot of time working on a record, cut off from the outside word, you need to have somebody with you who´s respected by everybody, but who also understands each band member´s unique struggle and challenge, as he helps navigate the entire band through all challenges of the recording process and makes sure that everybody is on time, in the right frame of mind and that the studio stuff is on their a-game to capture any moments of magic that may occur.
The producer will maybe suggest bringing in different gear or studio musicians to enhance the material with different “colours of sound” that the band itself wouldn´t have been able to provide on their own. Maybe some strings for the ballad?
The producer will know a guy. Maybe the bass-player isn´t as good on a fretless as he is on a fretted bass, but one song still demands that slidey, fluid tone? Our producer knows a guy – and will use his fine-honed skills in psychology and awareness of social subtleties to talk said bass player out of quitting the band for feeling unappreciated and useless. Maybe the singer is a beast on stage, but struggles to bring the same level of intensity in the studio? Our producer knows just what to do and how to get into his head to motivate him and light a fire under his ass.
On a sidenote: Once I had a session where the singer of an indie-rock band was only able to either convey the necessary emotion or hit the notes correctly, but not both at the same time.
After some high-level male bonding, the solution was to go into the studio at nighttime when nobody else was around, armed with a bottle of Jägermeister and several packs of smokes. I operated the controls in near-darkness while the singer was performing in the booth completely naked. Mission accomplished.
After the session has been completed, the producer may help to communicate the band’s vision to the mixing-engineer, who is equally as responsible for the way it will sound, by shaping the sound, and creating the right balance between instrument, making decisions based on what he feels are the most important elements of a song — and maybe enhancing the material with effects and tricks of his own.
Sometimes, the producer may even be the one who will have to defend the direction that the material took under his supervision against angry record-label executives who demand an easier-to-market product with a nice, catchy single… which is something that, without proper budgets, happens less and less now, even in pop music.
So, you see, if we simplify things to an extreme degree, we could say that:
- the band writes and performs the music
- the producer works with the band and staff to produce the best possible outcome
- the mixing-engineer shapes the sound and creates the balance between the recorded tracks
- the mastering-engineer finalizes the tracks and ensure maximum compatibility with playback systems and the demands of the market
- the record label provides funding in exchange for a product to sell
In a nutshell, you could argue that you don´t really “hear” production, you´re hearing instrumentation, performance, mix & master. But the production is responsible for you being able to hear these things in the first place, and for the quality of the performances.
So, the next time you hear somebody rant about the “horrible production” on a recent album, chances are that there is none to begin with; in a lot of cases what people are talking about is the overall sound of the album, which, unfortunately, is often the result of one poor overworked aspiring engineer trying to make the best out of half-baked home-recorded and completely unproduced tracks.
Love it or hate it, but Guns & Roses´ Chinese Democracy is an example of an extremely produced album where dozens of high-level professionals have been working on the same set of songs for years. In this particular case, you could argue that it´s been changed, mangled and re-worked by different people so much and so often that the essence of the songs and ideas is sometimes lost…which a lot people would call “overproduced.” (Psst, it´s still worth picking up for the amazing guitar solos!)
On the other hand, albums by big pop stars like Madonna, Adele, or Michael Jackson are inseparable from their production, because those are cases where tons of people worked hand-in-hand with the artist, making him or her shine in the brightest possible light in a variety of musical situations.
I hope you´re not “too trve” to check out two amazing feats of production in the pop world: Toxic by Britney Spears, where the production work is doing a stunning job to not only keep a simple & catchy tune interesting, but keeps things surprising and fun until the very last second, while also cleverly hiding the fact that Britney isn´t exactly a vocal powerhouse.
Or Robbie Williams´ Tripping, where, in a similar matter, a rather limited vocalist singing a “simple and catchy tune” gets turned into a joyride of musical ideas where genre clichés get turned inside out and Robbie´s strained falsetto is used to work for the song instead of against it. And all without coming of as calculated or, worse, a self-important mess.
Obviously, in Metal, things would be a little different, because it´s about different values – like the sound of a particular group of people playing together, the power, the intensity, the technical skills of the instrumentalists….and the certain subtext of unique to the various sub-genres, like the sad gloominess of doom or the grim intensity of Black Metal.
So a Metal producer must be able to get to the core of what a particular band is doing and why they are doing it. Imagine the first Korn album with a shiny 80’s glam-rock production. Necrophagist with the sludge-y sound of EyeHateGod. Dream Theater with the “necro” sound of Darkthrone…You get the idea.
One of my go-to examples in Metal would be “Obsolete” by Fear Factory, an album that has strong songs and musical ideas, but would not have anywhere near the coherence, impact and quality that it has without the astounding production work of Rhy Fulber, who made sure that every inch of the music on the album is fine-tuned to the concept-story´s futuristic science-fiction content.
Sure, it sounds a little dated in 2017, but it´s still a fine example of how the artist´s unique vision is taken to the next level by a producer with a unique skillset, who makes sure that at every step of the way, the end result represents 110% the direction that the band is going in. Ironically, Rhys Fulber also played, co-orchestrated and co-mixed the album, which brings me back to the situation we find ourselves in today, where oftentimes there is simply no budget for a producer and, more often than not, the engineer will do what little production-work they can – a situation that I´ve found myself in quite often.
Here are some examples of me “multi-tasking”:
The Astronauts Return Now Then Waves: Here I was producer, engineer, session-musician & mentor in equal measure, helping the band to find and realize a unique vision of sound (which we ended up calling “meditation Metal”) from the ground up. When I joined the project, all they had were midi files and the burning ambition to do something grand. I then chose studio facilities, working methods, studio musicians and guest-performers, co-arranged, co-performed. I helped them make difficult decisions like cutting down the material from an 80-minute mountain of music (where each song contained literally hundreds of tracks) to a more manageable 30-minute EP. And finally, I mixed 30 minutes of music for several weeks straight. And I don´t mean to take anything away from the band here, it´s THEIR vision and THEIR songs. Yet, without bringing my particular skillset to this session, the album would´ve never been possible.
NYN Entropy – Of Chaos & Salt, an extreme technical death Metal album which just came out a few day ago. I´m not credited as a producer on this, but in addition to playing guitar solos, mixing and mastering the album, I´ve also had to make various changes to the material, like suggesting re-tracking of guitar & bass parts, taking out a few less-than flattering vocal takes, coming-up with vocoder-harmonies whenever demanded by the artist, pointing out moments where instruments would be fighting for space and attention and providing solutions. In other words, even though I wasn´t present for the writing and recording of the basic material, I provided production-work later on to make sure the end result met certain criteria of professionalism and compatibility to the market. Finally, I helped to find it a label-home on Vmbrella, which I co-founded in 2016.
Requital Trinity: Again, I mixed & mastered this. But more importantly, my producer´s role including guiding the band through an extremely tough time where they needed to make a record with almost a zero budget (we ended up tracking the drums in the band´s rehearsal room and everything else in my home studio), one guitar player MIA and the vocalist quitting during pre-production. So, part of the job was to provide continuity and a steady rhythm to proceedings, giving everybody a safe harbour where we would work on the material and performance without too much time constraints, helping out in arranging the parts, helping out with the performances by providing solutions to physically challenging parts, bringing in effects and sound-strategies that would help make the material more interesting and last but not least, working in-depth on lyrics, performance and vocal patterns with Björn, the drummer – who had stepped up as vocalist and lyricist to complete the recording even though he had not performed death Metal vocals in several years.
And then other times, “producing” would mean providing studio space and making sure everything was running smoothly while the band did their thing. Because, sometimes, being a producer just means getting out of the way and not interfering when the music starts happening.
The awareness to know when to get involved and when not to is as essential as a good musical ear and the ability to work long hours without complaining or losing your temper. Just ask Rick Rubin!
The Black Siren bows our hydra heads in thanks for Tom’s incredible contribution! Be sure to check out his upcoming book, Fear Is The Enemy – Mental Strategies for the Evolving Musician coming out later this year. You will not want to miss it.
If you haven’t already, check out our own interview with the man.