The Record Producer As Nexus

1. Introduction

In this paper I propose the concept of the record producer as a “nexus” between the creative inspiration of the artist, the technology of the recording studio, and the commercial aspirations of the record company. In much of the published discussion of the producer’s role the term “mediator” is preferred, however, I argue that this term describes a technical process of transfer between media, such as from a performance to a recording as mediated by the microphones, the mixer and the recording medium. Tom Porcello says, “because microphones do not ‘hear’ in the same way as ears, the sound engineer must … mediate between the interpretive and performance habits of the conductor and the musicians on one hand, and the acoustic properties of the microphones and the (psycho)acoustics of the ear on the other” (2005). Fikentscher defines mediated music as “musical sounds being reproduced independent of the conditions of its initial production”, and differentiates this from musical immediacy, or ‘live’ (2000: 15).  Albin Zak III uses the term mediation talking about techniques of manipulation of sound through such practices as multi-band compression—these are engineering techniques that are part of the producer’s armoury, and have a significant effect on the outcome of the production (2001). However, the roles a producer performs are many and I list below the key functions, but the essential role I argue is creative and involves choices – from the choice of microphone and “mediation” techniques to performance evaluation, mix balance and time and resource allocation. This is not simply “mediation” but an act of creative interaction with all the factors affecting the resulting production. The art of record production is practiced through the function of a nexus.

The term ‘nexus’ is used here according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1983) definition: a bond or link; a means of connection; and, as a causal noun, the necessary connection between cause and effect [my emphasis]. The record producer acts as a means of connection between the artist, the technology and the commercial interest. However, the connection is not a wholly transparent one—the personality and skills of the producer will shape and tone the outcome, as a colour transparency affects the light passing through it. Whether by directing the timbres and textural qualities of the recording through engineering processes; by structuring and arranging these qualities through musical direction; or simply by inspiring, enthusing, facilitating, the producer is engaged to direct the process and shapes the outcome by his or her presence. It can be argued that a producer is not necessary in this process, but the act of recording is not a passive fait accompli. Choices are made at many stages in the process: what studio to record in, which engineer, which microphone and where to place it? All of these decisions affect the character of the outcome. Critical to the outcome is the selection of performance. From the backing track to instrumental solos and embellishments, to particular lines of the vocal, each detail requires a process of critical evaluation. Whenever this function of critical arbiter is performed the role of the producer is inherent.

Sometimes it is the engineer or the artists themselves who take on this role. In a sense the record producer can be understood as simply a function, a hat of office, but the role also requires engaging with the commercial interests. As well as linking the musical idea and the recording technology, a producer must address the expectations of the record company—the third factor in this process. The record company underwrites the enterprise and, more significantly, delivers the outcome to market. The reason the processes described above are even taking place is because someone in the record company (usually the A&R person) thinks that the idea—the song performed by that artist—has qualities that can appeal to a wider audience. The producer is also addressing those aspirations, whose expectations impinge on choices made in the creative process. The role is specific, and palpable. By positioning this role as a nexus, this work aims to provide a clarification of the record producer’s function.

There are three fields of interface that encompass that role: the artist, including the song as creative object and its performance; the engineer, as agent of technological mediation in the realisation of the creative object as sonic artifact; and the business, usually the record company, as financial facilitator, encompassing contractual arrangements and the extent to which marketing and promotional concerns impinge on function. Record companies place financial constraints that are a major influence on the choice of studio and other budgetary considerations, such as travel, accommodation and time. There is also a clear and explicit expectation that the producer will present an outcome that will satisfy commercial aspirations, and this constitutes a form of pressure that affects some of the creative decisions a producer makes.

Put at its simplest, the producer’s task is to produce a satisfactory outcome. The definition of a satisfactory outcome varies considerably according to the aims and aspirations of all the involved parties. These aims can be simply to achieve a commercially viable result, or, at the other end of the spectrum, an artistically satisfactory finished article. The ideal outcome will satisfy both aspirations: commercial and critical success. The ways these outcomes are achieved vary widely from producer to producer. For this reason a consideration of the role as nexus is the most universally satisfactory approach.

Perhaps the best-known attempt at explaining the role of producer is found in Richard Burgess’ informative and entertaining book, The Art of Music Production1(2002). Burgess presents four different categories of producer: The All-Singing -All-Dancing-King-of-the-Heap; The Faithful Sidekick; The Collaborator; and Merlin the Magician. Although whimsical, these descriptions go some way towards an understanding of the varied and, at times, wildly different modus operandi of record producers. The limitations of Burgess’ categories are that they both overlap and under-represent: where does the engineer, for example, fit in this scenario? The Collaborator, perhaps, or Faithful Sidekick, as Burgess proposes? That would depend on the particular individual and the relationship. Perhaps his most satisfying definition occurs in the introduction: “I’ve always considered the record producer’s role to be like that of a blank square in Scrabble…the producer needs to become (or be able to supply) whatever is necessary to make a successful record” (2002:v).

Other attempts at definition tend to consist of quotes from various producers explaining their approach. Burgess (2002: 81-82) quotes Bruce Fairbairn2: “I like to be perceived as someone who facilitates the creative process”; and Andy Jackson3, who describes the producer as “acting as a therapist in some way…helping the artist to zero in on what they really want to do, rather than what they imagine they want to do” (ibid: 52). The roles described here—facilitator and therapist—can certainly be required sometimes, though not in all cases. George Martin is quoted by Burgess (ibid: v) saying: “A record producer is responsible for the sound ‘shape’ of what comes out…he’s the designer… he stages the show and presents it to the world. It’s his taste that makes it what it is—good or bad”. This role can best be described as creative director and sound designer. Martin elsewhere (1979: 76) talks of the producer’s “palette of musical colours”, and “painting pictures in sound” (Larry 1999: 60), though his principle skill was in arrangement. Geoff Emerick (in Massey 2000: 84), George Martin’s engineer and later a producer in his own right, uses the visual metaphor too, saying, “I’ve always described the job as painting a picture with sound; I think of microphones as lenses”. Arif Mardin4 also adopts the film metaphor, saying, “For me, a record is almost like a minifilm—you have to evoke imagery” (ibid: 39). The use of visual imagery to describe sound occurs in many accounts by producers, which may seem to be an oxymoron, but I too have found it helpful to form a mental image of the finished work before the production is completed. By this process ideas for the sound character of a particular instrument arise and can inform choices. Visualisation is a well-known method in many areas of creative endeavour and is clearly a common device in record production, supporting the case for record production as an art.

Another theme found in many producers’ accounts is that of an almost mystical or spiritual mediator. Sam Phillips5 believed his “greatest contribution…was to open up an area of freedom within the artist himself, to help him to express what he believed his message to be” (in Guralnick 1989: 330). Jim Dickinson6 speaks of the music’s “soul…that’s what you’re trying to capture” (in Clark: 1992).

From these observations, and my own experience, the various roles a producer undertakes can be listed as follows:

  • Arranger/Interpreter/Visualiser.
  • Engineer.
  • Creative Director/Performance Director.
  • Logistical Facilitator/Project Manager.
  • Psychologist/Counsellor/Priest.
  • Mediator—between the objectives and aspirations of the record company and the artist.

Of course, some or all of these roles may be undertaken in any given production—each production has a unique set of circumstances. While helpful in understanding the individual producers’ subjective understanding of their methodology, the observations quoted above do not satisfy my enquiry, though each of the roles I have listed can be seen to fulfill some aspect of the nexus’ requirements. One role, the Project Manager, is probably the most universal, and the one that defines the difference when, for example, an engineer becomes the producer. To be appointed producer of a recording means all the decisions about process—where to record, what to record and in which order, whether a given performance is right, and when the project is completed—are your responsibility. It may be more relevant to the purpose of role definition to consider the specific roles at various stages of a production.

2. Composition—arrangement—performance—engineering

The stages of most productions can be considered in these four areas: composition, arrangement, performance, and engineering (Zagorski-Thomas 2008 and Moore 2012). The composition—the song—is almost always the beginning of the process and, as I have noted above, the reason most commercial recordings in the world of popular music are taking place at all. As Moore argues, the composition, the arrangement and the performance are also the subjects of musicology per se. Nevertheless, they are also key components in record production, and each affects the others. For example, an arrangement can be considered in terms of the assembly of frequencies: the bass guitar and bass drum occupy the low frequency range, guitars the mid-range, cymbals and string pads the upper mid and high frequency ranges—when a composition is well structured in these terms the engineering process is greatly simplified. The engineer does not have to struggle to achieve clarity and separation, for example, to make the vocal audible when the guitars are flooding the same frequency band. As Zak III (2001: 32) puts it, “in many cases a track’s arrangement develops according to criteria that are specific to recorded sound”, and quotes Mitchell Froom, who believes it is a mistake “to separate sonics from the overall arrangement” (ibid). Trevor Horn (2008) says: “The way you arrange a song and the key that you put it in will have far more effect on the end result than the desk or where you put the microphone”.

The best time to sort out the arrangement is usually before entering the studio, in pre-production, which is why many producers find it very constructive to spend time with the artist and musicians in a rehearsal room. Changes to an arrangement can cause a range of problems—musicians can be very protective and sensitive about their parts. Trying to change a drum pattern or a bass riff in the heat of recording, with the clock running and ‘red light’ terrors looming, is not usually a very productive way to operate—young and inexperienced musicians often panic and play progressively worse. In the more relaxed environment of a rehearsal room, ideas can be suggested, tried out and accepted or rejected without studio pressures. It is also a good time to get to understand the group dynamic, the personalities, and also potential weaknesses. This engagement with the artists offers a further opportunity to understand the aims and creative concepts—the vision—at the core of their musical inspiration.

Performance in the studio is a major factor in a successful production, but the inadequacies of studios as performance spaces are well documented (see Zak III 2001: 105-107 and Zagorski-Thomas 2007: 24). Screening off the drums and amplifiers leaves the musicians reliant on the headphone mix to communicate, both musically and verbally. Experienced studio musicians learn to adapt and function in these conditions, but for a young band lack of familiarity with studio processes is often the cause of disappointment and frustration. Record producers devise many different schemes to overcome an artist’s discomfort. I learned several techniques from engineers who had worked with other producers, for example, building a sort of room out of studio screens and covering the whole structure with blankets so the artist has a private space to perform, unseen by the control room. One producer friend7 told me that he found certain artists liked to decorate the studio with cloth hangings and use low lighting and candles to create an atmosphere of mystery.

3. Evaluation8

The aim in all recordings is the creation of a definitive version of the musical idea. At the core of the process of establishing a definitive rendition is the constant application of evaluation. To choose which particular line, or even word, is the right one to use is the producer’s job, but what directs that choice? Some of these choices are largely functional—a word or phrase may drift in pitch, or sit uncomfortably in the rhythm of the track—but often it is simply that one particular rendition moves you, an emotional response is experienced. There is an assumption made that, if it moves you, it can move other listeners. For the producer, trusting this emotional response is a quintessential function. The confidence to say, “I like this one”, is at the heart of a producer’s role. The same critical function is applied at virtually every stage of the recording process. From the decision that a particular backing track performance has the right feeling and energy, to the approval of a guitar solo, and the sound of the various instruments coming through the monitors, all come back to the producer, who must make that judgement. Of course, many producers will involve the artist in this process, and many artists are notoriously difficult—the more talented artists are usually especially so—and here conflict can arise. Here the producer’s powers of persuasion are tested, the commitment to one’s instinctive judgement, and a sensibility for the most productive outcome, because sometimes it is more productive to defer to the artists own critical functions. This process of interaction can determine the successful completion of the entire project. Ultimately, this function of critical arbiter applies to the whole production.

4. Authority

Determining the authenticity, or appropriateness, of a performance, a sound, and the balance of the instruments raises the question: against what template or cultural understanding, by what authority, are these judgements made? In numerous accounts by producers imprecise explanations are found. Tony Visconti calls it “gut feeling” (Molenda 2007: 2). Butch Vig, speaking about Garbage’s Stupid Girl says, “[W]e thought, ‘This sounds cool’” (La Cerra, quoted in Zak III 2001: 192). Simon Frith’s excellent, and now standard, work, Performing Rites (1996), grapples heroically with this question, challenging the sociological argument that our preferences, our emotional responses, to music are conditioned by class and culture, though there is no doubt some evidence to support this view. Frith makes the case that “[p]op tastes do not just derive from our socially constructed identities; they also help to shape them” (1996: 276). Frith quotes a fan of 80’s rapper Spoonie Gee: “Listening to Spoonie is like hearing my own feelings” (1996: 271), and Evan Eisenberg, in The Recording Angel (1987), quotes his friend Nina (pseudonym) explaining, “When I play a record…it’s as though someone else were expressing my feelings” (1987: 132). The producer, too, is shaped by his or her cultural and social context, and is also a shaping, creative agent. The producer as interpreter, as critical arbiter, is relying on the commonality of his sensibilities, his or her “feelings”, the reliability of which will be tested in the cultural marketplace: if enough listeners agree with these choices the recording becomes a hit.

A group, or an artist usually chooses a producer by reputation, and is generally content to accept his or her authority on that basis. The question of authority in the recording context is thus answered to some extent in the case of a producer with ‘form’, a track record of hits—by the simple fact of proven results. There are typically two routes by which one attains the role of producer: by being an engineer, and by experience as a recording artist. In my case, I had been a recording artist in a group with critical credibility, though minimal commercial success—Gong.9 After leaving the group my close relations with the executives of the label—Virgin Records—led to my being asked, first, to supervise demo recordings, and later, to produce commercially released recordings. Certainly, my long career as a musician—playing in groups from the age of 12—gave me a language and syntax of practice with which to engage the artist. Being able to ‘speak the language’ is a hugely advantageous tool. Thomas Porcello presented a paper at the Art of Record Production Conference (ARP) at Edinburgh University in 2006 called: “So what kind of sound are you after here? Speech-about-sound in the recording studio context”, in which he reported on his year “hanging out” in studios recording the terminology and discourses used by producers, engineers and artists to articulate the kinds of sounds and musical parts desired. Common expressions tended to be of the referential kind: “I want the snare to sound like that record by The Cure.” One band I worked with early on in my production career asked for the snare to sound “fat but snappy”. This language of common “resonances” is considered in fine detail by Albin Zak III (2001: 184-197). For the producer this shared terminology is a significant part of the process of establishing respect, of acquiring authority. Though, in the end, it comes down to the personal relationship a producer develops with the artist—like an evangelist, a producer must make the artist believe that he, or she, has the ability to make that volatile concept, a song, into a fixed (recorded) reality.

The contributing factors in the recording process can be reduced to the following:

  1. The musical inspiration: the song or compositional idea, including the arrangement;
  2. The performers and the performance;
  3. The recording context: the studio environment and the technologies applied    (including microphones, dynamic treatments, equalization, the media or recording format);
  4. The mixdown and finalising processes.

At each stage of the process it is the producer’s engagement with these factors that determines the outcome. Whether that interaction is contributory—arrangement suggestions, choice of microphones, direction of a performance, decisions regarding the relative balance of instruments and voices in the mixdown—or critical, in the sense of negative evaluation of a particular factor, or, (as is usually the case) a combination of both, the producer is the final arbiter. The art of record production is a complex interaction of processes with the producer at the centre, directing, engaging, arranging, collaborating and inspiring—and, ultimately, giving form to an idea. As I have noted above, whether the role of producer is performed by a designated individual, by the engineer, by the artist or, as is often the case, a collaborative engagement of various combinations of these, every recording has production ‘values’ that define the outcome of the process—the producer is always present in the function of an interface, a nexus. Even in the case of the self-producing ‘bedroom’ artist this function is present in all the choices made. Steve Albini is often cited as a self-declared ‘non-producer (for example O’Hare 2007) but his choices of microphones and positioning are significant contributing factors to the outcome of his work, as indeed is his choice to make minimal comment, or ‘interference’ as he would say.

The producer’s role is profoundly musical. At its core the aim is the realisation of music in a form that can communicate to others and in the end it is the music that makes the process meaningful. Brian Eno’s (1979) ubiquitous description of the recording studio as a musical instrument situates the record producer as an artist performing that instrument. As the nexus of all the components that enable the studio to be such an instrument the record producer can be seen to be a true recording artist.

6. Conclusion

The art of record production is to realise a vision expressed by an artist’s articulation in a form that results from the producer’s perception. Life changes constantly, and it is only by reflection that we understand the processes and see the patterns that bring about events. This process of being able to step back and see a pattern in the bigger picture is the essence of research—science. The patterns we see are the constants—the repetitions in the (different) phenomena. Science likes to call these constants “rules”, or hypotheses until proven.

The nexus is about engagement with otherness. The act of engagement is conditioned by the personality—the qualitative identity—of the engaging producer. To enter into the reality system of a group or other person requires a degree of empathy. The capacity for empathy is determined by the nature of each individual and that nature is the consequence of historical, genetic and cultural factors, and each individual human is a unique combination of these factors. This engagement is the beginning of the process.

To hear a song is to experience the affect of that song. However roughly expressed, the song represents an individual’s articulation of their unique perception of an experience, or understanding. Art is the articulation of the artist’s vision—always and inevitably from the artist’s perception of their experience—or empirical observation. The quality, or affect, of that articulation is determined by the craft, or skill, with which the articulation is realised. The art of the record producer is achieved at the nexus of the song and the performance, the engineering and the industry.

About The Author

Mike Howlett

Queensland University of Technology

Notes

1 Previously called The Art of Record Production (1997).

2 Producer of  Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and others.

3 Producer/engineer with Pink Floyd, Dave Gilmour and Bob Geldof.

4 Arif Mardin has produced Aretha Franklin, Barbara Streisand, and The Bee Gees amongst many other very successful artists.

5 Phillips discovered and recorded the first hits of Elvis Presley, though preferred his work with Howling Wolf.

6 A member of the Dixie Flyers, Memphis session musician Dickinson became a producer in the 1970’s, producing hits for Big Star, Willie de Ville and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins amongst others.

7 Steve Power, co-producer and writer, with Guy Chambers, of Robbie Williams.

8 This paragraph and the following are adapted from my paper “Fixing the volatile : studio vocal performance techniques” Howlett, M. (2007). In Journal of the Art of Record Production, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Available at http://www.artofrecordproduction.com/content/view/108/95/

9 A psychedelic progressive rock band formed from a loose collective of musicians by Daevid Allen, founder of Soft Machine, in Paris in 1968. I joined in 1973, just as the band was signed to the nascent Virgin Records. The band continues to record and tour. See http://www.planetgong.co.uk.

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