Email Q&A: What Is a Music Producer?

Email question received:

hi i’m joseph i’m just intersting to know what is a music producer, what are
there jobs and what do they do

My Answer:

Hi Joseph,

Direct answer to your question is that a music producer produces music. I’m not being a smartass when I answer that. A music producer needs to produce music. And actually I think for many up and coming artists that doesn’t really sink in or connect.

A cow produces milk under the right conditions. A spider produces spider webs under the right conditions. A farmer might produce carrots under the right conditions. A music producer produces music.

All of the examples above produce a product; they produce a tangible item. A music producer also must produce a product and a tangible item. The traditional stereotype of a producer is someone ultra cool calling the shots in the studio. In actuality, the music producer is responsible to overcome any obstacle that might keep the music from being produced. Just as a farmer might be responsible to overcome any obstacle that keeps those carrots from being harvested.

I’ll give a concrete example from when I used to run a public studio. This is an example for music producers that run their own studio which is very common today:

  1. Artist comes to the music producer’s studio because they are interested in recording a CD project. First thing is to align yourself clearly with the artist’s goals. Is it a demo or a full release? This will dictate the amount of time and resources for the project. If it’s a demo you might cut corners on live musicians. If it’s a full release then you need to plan a full budget and think forward to mastering and CD duplication. The end of the music producer’s job will be when they hand the final music mixes to the artist. This initial stage was always the most time consuming for me because it’s paramount you are ultra-clear with the artist about what the final product will be, costs and time commitment.
  2. Budget – For me, I would work out budgets based per song that included a set time for vocal recording. I would also “guarantee” musician tracks if I could use my own studio musicians. I know how my studio musicians work and how to communicate with them. If they wanted to bring in their own musicians then I would run the studio clock hourly and the artist would be responsible for tracks. Normally an artist would let me use my musicians which saved a lot of time and money.
  3. Scratch Tracks – A music producer can start a project by sketching out the basics of the artist’s songs. This can be a simple click track, midi keyboard outlining chords if it’s a vocalist, or a sampled groove if it’s a rap artist. Put in just the barebones to outline the song.
  4. Scratch Vocals – Once you have the artist vocals down then you can being to build with midi tracks, samples and live musicians. Normal work flow is to laydown basic rhythmic parts first and later put down the melodic parts so they have something to groove to.
  5. Production Tracks – Now you have the barebones sketch with scratch vocals and you begin to produce the song. This is where the music producer really starts to implement their craft fully. What is the artist’s vision? What direction do the tracks feel they are going? What combination of live musicians and tracks are needed?
  6. Rough Instrumental Tracks – Now the music producer creates rough instrumental mixes for the artist to practice with. These tracks contain the minimum that the music producer feels has to be on each track.
  7. Finished Vocal Tracks – Music producer (or engineer) records multiple passes of the lead vocal and then creates a finished composite vocal. The “finished composite vocal” is the main vocal track that contains the best of each individual take. The end result should be a stellar performance that is emotional and best conveys the song. The engineer/producer may edit out breaths (or keep them in), do pitch correction, timing correction, etc. The end goal is not to have a “perfect” track, but to have the track that best convey’s the artist’s interpretation of the song.
  8. Background vocals – After the main vocal is recorded then the BGV’s (background vocals) can be recorded if needed. This may be performed by the artist, other studio singers or a combination.
  9. Finish tracks – Or what you might call “post production” in an album production setting. Here you get the chance to put in finishing touches and add any tracks that seem needed. The music producer may change sounds of midi tracks, replace samples with new grooves, record new studio musician tracks, even re-arrange complete sections of the song.
  10. Artist approval and Finished Studio Mixes – Now the music producer presents the final product to the artist. It’s always an adrenalin rush for the artist and the music producer. The artist is hoping the product is fantastic and the music producer is hoping the artist is pleased. Usually this is a very exciting time for both. Sometimes the artist wants to re-do a song and go a completely new direction. Often they will have small changes in the mix.
  11. Final Mixes – One thing I learned on doing final mixes before mastering is to always do an additional mix with the lead vocal up 3db or so. Invariably right before mastering an artist would say “I want my vocal louder in this song”. So we would already have that ready. Getting the lead vocal to sit right in the mix so it sounds great on different audio systems can be a difficult thing to do. Especially after hours of mixing it’s easy for ear fatigue to set in and change the perception of the lead vocal in the mix.
  12. Mastering – The music producer provides final mixes for mastering. It’s always suggested that a different person do the mastering. If you have your mix engineer do the mastering then you get the same set of ears twice. By using a different person for mastering you get a new set of ears to hear the music fresh and make final changes without pre-existing prejudice. Mastering is usually fairly expensive. Anywhere from $500 to $3,000 USD for an album. My experience has been around $1500 or more for reputable mastering.

So that’s a run down of a music producer working in their own studio with a solo artist.

The scenario could be as simple as a hip hop music producer working from a room in their house with a solo artist. Or it could be as complex as a music producer working with an orchestra on a sound stage.

I can’t stress this enough: A music producer produces music. They must have an output. They must create product (audio).

Here are some other scenarios I’ve been involved in as a music producer:

  • Scoring strings parts members of the Hong Kong symphony for the ZAIA soundtrack from Cirque Du Soleil. In this case the composer asked me to retain the sound of the original samples but to add small changes to enhance it. In this case I worked with the original scratch recordings and original scores – then made my enhanced score using Sibelius Notation Software for the musicians to read. I was present at the recording session for questions and changes. There was a separate audio engineer and a separate conductor so my job in this case was strictly as arranger.
  • Producing soundtracks for impersonators. Artists that impersonate famous performers often need soundtracks. They would give me the original artist soundtracks and I would recreate these by ear in my studio. The artist would then direct the final mix for changes and edits that matched their specific act. In this case my role was as arranger and engineer. I guess technically it’s “music producer” but I don’t think of doing copy-cat work as really producing music; just cleverly reproducing it.

Well, I think you get the idea. I’ll stop on specific examples because I’ll be writing forever.

My overall point is that the more skills a music producer has – then the wider range of projects they are available for. In my case I have worked very hard to get skills in engineering, mixing, keyboard midi skills, orchestral scoring (sheet music), music software editing and conducting. Each of those skills allow me to do a wider array of projects.

I got into music producing as a result of being a keyboardist. It wasn’t something I planned on. I started as a vocalist but after college made my living playing piano which led to producing music. This is a common course for many keyboard players because we can usually read and chart music as well. So in my career I’ve had to “wear many hats” and do many different things to make a living and secure different jobs.

Another path is to do one thing and do it extremely well. One person might focus just on hip hop tracks while another might focus just on video game music scores (although that’s more of a composer job). These are viable roads to take. Just realize if your eggs are all in one basket then you might find yourself “getting a real job” at some point. Choosing that path is the most difficult part in the process. Or – you can do like me and let the river takes you where it wants to go. 🙂

Currently I work as music director for Cirque Du Soleil’s ZAIA show in Macau, China. In this case I am responsible for playing keyboards and running the live shows with the band. The computer editing for the software run in the show is also my responsibility. I love this because it’s a hybrid job of computer editing, working with live musicians, recording updated show material and live performance.

At home have a scaled down rig (all my studio gear is in storage back in the states) running everything on a MacBook Pro with Pro Tools, Logic, Ableton Live Suite, Kontakt Komplete, Sibelius Notation software and a couple terabytes of audio libraries including East/West products.

My current personal projects are taking classes with Berklee School of Music online (expensive classes but I enjoy them), working on a full length musical which I’m scoring in Sibelius, and also creating individual CD products for sale online.

I recommend Tunecore or CDBaby for selling your downloads online. FYI – you can’t find my products by searching my name online. I use pseudonyms for different product lines. It’s quite possible to get a nice income stream by producing audio products for download that are in demand with the general public. You could actually make a career of this without working with a single artist. (But what fun is that?)

A final note. You asked “what does a music producer do?”. My answer is: “Anything that keeps the music from getting produced” That means a music producer must hire someone else to overcome the obstacle or learn the skills to overcome it themselves.

Hope that helps.


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