How to Produce Music


Even in today's digitized environment, creating a classic recording is no mean feat--for which some bands show more patience than others. Enter the producer, whose job remains the same after 50-plus years of recorded music--putting a performer's vision into a format that moves people. Getting there requires an understanding of sound recording techniques, an aesthetic sense of how the material fits into a finished whole, and a little psychology to elicit career-defining performances.

Things You'll Need

  • Digital editing program (such as Nuendo, or Pro Tools)
  • 8-, 16- or 24-track console
  • Headphones
  • Microphones
  • Mixing board
  • Preamplifiers

Pre-plan and Pre-produce

  • Hold a preproduction meeting to learn what kind of recording the band wants to make, where they will do it and how they will accomplish it. Addressing these issues now will ensure a successful project while the band determines if your style is a good fit.

  • Review the material--which is normally heard, at this point, in a demo (demonstration) recording. Demos can run from simple guitar/vocal recordings to fullblown 8-, 16- or even 24-track recordings--from which you can glean arrangement ideas that lift songs to the next level.

  • Attend rehearsals to observe each member's playing styles, how the songs are shaping up and how the band's treatment of its own material compares to the demos. These observations, in turn, will guide your own recording approach.

  • Revisit the budget, which usually decides what sort of recording emerges. Time is the rarest element on the independent ("indie") periodic table, so more first and second takes are used--versus the more drawn-out process that often results from a five- or six-figure major label project, where further retakes and remixes are the rule.

Use Studios as an Instrument

  • Put a premium on efficiency no matter what type of approach prevails--even the lowest rung studio charges $25 an hour and up, so it's in everybody's best interest to work in a no-nonsense fashion. If a song isn't happening after three or four takes, move on to something else.

  • Have the band run through a song or two to adjust sound levels, and hear how specific instruments are faring in the mix--if the guitarist is overpowering the singer, you should politely ask them to turn down a notch.

  • Compile cue sheets for each song to note which instrument is on a particular track, and how you recorded it. Save these notes--along with the ones gleaned from the rehearsals--as another reference during the mixing process.

  • Provide a sounding board for the band, but don't impose your own aesthetic on them at their expense. As a producer, you're expected to get things done--but, at the end of the day, don't forget that you're still working for somebody else.

Save Some Magic for Postproduction

  • Listen to the recordings with several questions in mind--do they make up a seamless whole? Do some songs need extra attention, or better off left "in the can" (unreleased)? Give some consideration to the running order, too--although albums are less prominent in the online era, the best song should still be presented first.

  • Assess each song for its individual technical merits--sound levels should not fluctuate wildly between takes--and if any additional instrumentation or vocals are needed. Other times, it may be necessary to subtract instruments, depending on how intrusive they seem.

  • If you believe that some songs need remixing, explain the rationale to the band. Often, a song won't reach its full potential without some major surgery. For example, listen to the bootleg version of the Clash's "Should I Stay (Or Should I Go," which boasted smuttier lyrics and more prominent Spanish language backing vocals than its final counterpart.

Tips & Warnings

  • Block out a "riff day" or some other special time period for everyone to try out their favorite musical ideas in a low-pressure, low-key setting.
  • Read magazines geared toward the production community, to bolster your knowledge of the recording process.
  • Stay sensitive to the emotional issues. If someone isn't nailing their part, consider doing it yourself before calling in outside musicians, or appeal to the band's competitive spirit ("I'll give you a tenner if you hit the right note!").
  • Avoid gimmicks associated with the current music scene--think how canned and clinical the first drum machines sounded in the '80s, for example, which effectively dated any track that used them extensively.
  • Don't fall prey to notions of "fixing it in the mix"--if a song hasn't been properly recorded, or the performance sounds below par, nothing short of a new take can salvage the song.

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