As a studio owner, Dan Lucas often receive e-mails from budding producers who are on the lookout for work. It seems a standard practice these days that the first port of call is to send over a long list of their editing skills, comprehensive knowledge of certain DAW’s, experience with using different mic techniques, and other such tech related speak. Whilst I do understand this (they’re trying to sell themselves after all), it does make me wonder about where the focus seems to be with regard to education about the role of the producer or mixer.
This often solely tech-orientated view of the production world from a majority of those outside of it seems to be a pretty common one, which brings me to the focus of this article and wanting to explore another side to the role of the producer or mixer. Of course, we know that some degree of technical ability is an essential part of audio engineering, mixing and production work. And most of us love a gear geek-out, but what about the people-skills that seem to get overlooked when someone is learning about how to record and produce? In fact, there is often so much focus on gear and other tech talk where audio related careers are involved, that the inexperienced amongst us can easily end up believing that once we know how to operate a console, set some mics up and route everything into a DAW, we are then a qualified producer, and that these are the most relevant skills required for a production based career. This can often lead to a nasty shock when dealing with varying numbers of tired musicians all day and all night!There are many records in circulation that are cleanly recorded, well balanced, EQ’d and panned around so that they sound nice from a sonic standpoint. But what about how songs actually feel? Casting our 500 series racks, DAW’s and converters to one side for a moment (gently of course). Let’s focus more on some of the rewards that can be reaped by creating the right atmosphere, choosing our words wisely, using our ability to put people at ease, gaining trust, and most importantly, focusing on what music really is: It’s pretty much what feelings sound like.
As is often the case, a band shows up to the studio having never met the producer before. They’re nervous; maybe some of them have never even been inside of a recording studio. They’re about to hand over their carefully (or not so carefully) crafted songs and then entrust you to represent said songs in the best possible way. A sympathetic way, and a way that culminates in a record that they can be proud of.The starting point for me in this scenario is to try and put everyone at ease. Helping them feel that they can trust me to take charge and run the session smoothly, and gaining that trust in a way that makes them feel that I’ve got their back, that we’re all headed towards the same goal: making a killer record. Next up, during tracking I’m working at making the recording process one where the band feel that they can be their most creative, and I find this to be an incredibly important skill to possess as a producer. At the end of the day, everyone’s primary focus here is that the songs are showcased in the right way, and the atmosphere the producer creates will be reflected in the way people perform. If a band gives me the right performance, it makes the mixing process a whole lot more straightforward. I’m not even necessarily talking about creating a nice atmosphere here. It all totally depends on what the music requires, and how open minded the musicians are too – sometimes you’re limited as to how far you can push things. There are some extreme cases of producers such as Ross Robinson (Slipknot, Korn, Sepultura, Glassjaw to name a few) encouraging band members to delve into the darkest recesses of their minds, dragging up sometimes traumatic past events, in order to create the desired mental state required to perform their part in the most authentic way. And it works, listen to Slipknot’s first record, it sounds like hell has risen through the earth and carried on growing. The first Glassjaw record is another great example. The whole thing is believable to the listener. And isn’t that our whole aim? That a record feels right to listen to? These guys trusted that Ross was on the same page as them. I’m sure some of them questioned his practices, but he got great results and helped them sell units. Most of the people buying and listening to these records we’re making don’t even know what technical elements would be involved in the recording or mixing process.
When I bought what’s The Story (Morning Glory) as a 14 year old, I didn’t notice how distorted everything was, how hard things had been compressed. All I knew was that when I put it on my headphones loud, I felt like a million bucks strolling down the street and it screamed attitude at me. Owen Morris captured the attitude and swagger of Oasis perfectly with that record, and as a result helped catapult them into the stratosphere. I believed everything about that album. And I am a strong believer that that if it feels good, it is good. Sylvia Massy stands out as another example of a producer who understands the importance of putting the artist in the right mindset to perform their tracks in the best possible way. She’ll make vocalists run around the block and then do a take; she’ll introduce neat little activities into her recording sessions to create a certain vibe. A producer should never be afraid of throwing out the rule book if it means the songs are going to benefit. The consumer doesn’t care but the rules.
From a bands perspective, picking the right producer and not just any great producer (well known or not) can often contribute towards whether their record blows peoples minds, or falls by the wayside and ends up getting forgotten. Working in a way that is sympathetic to the songs, getting your ideas across whilst making the musicians feel that they are respected, and focusing on the message that needs to be showcased is a powerful tool to possess. Combine that with the rest of your skill-set, and you should be on the right track – pun intended!