Just like how 50 years ago, you could have been “just a singer”, these days you need to be almost supernaturally gifted as a singer, plus you need to be a songwriter, record your vocals, dance while performing, be an aerialist, and overall just be a better singer than the trailblazers before you.
For a music producer, it’s the same. Being a producer in today’s world means more than simply making a beat.
Being a “music producer” means various things to different people, and the duties of a producer have dramatically changed over the past 50 years. We won’t get much into what those differences are in this blog, but rather, we’ll go into what being a producer means right now. This will be generally expected of anyone who decides to put up the “open for business” sign as a music producer. While you can create your own music production business that focuses on your strengths, the more value you can add to the artists you work with, the more likely you are to build a music production business that thrives.
- Recording Engineer – While this can be intimidating if you’ve become comfortable working “in the box” creating beats, setting up your room and a good vocal chain (mic to preamp to computer) is all doable, affordable, and not too techy! As a matter of fact, I’m happy to give you my eBook “Recording Sweet Vocals at Home” for free. This will take you through the basics of shopping for the equipment setting it up and getting signal.
- Editing – The skill of editing, which includes compiling takes, blending takes to mask edit points, time aligning instruments and vocals, tuning vocals, removing noise before, between, after takes, etc. can be really tedious to some but super satisfying to others. If you have tried it and absolutely hate it, there’s a chance that you just need to practice so that you can get faster at it. If you still hate it after you get faster (and better), this is something you can outsource. Since we are focused on adding value to the artists we work with, outsourcing to someone who can do it better may be your best option. If you kill the editing game, that’s how you can add value to your artists.
- Mixing Engineer – Mixing is a skill that can take years to develop (contrary to what many YouTube gurus will tell you). Mainly because it’s not necessarily about the tools you have but more about your ear and how clearly you can hear detail. I am constantly amazed at how my ears can “zoom in” to things if I really concentrate. But if I’m tired (sleepy tired, mentally tired, or “ear-fatigue” tired) I have a difficult time hearing that detail. You also have to know how to use your tools correctly! Mixing can be a fun and creative part of the production process. It can also be a huge part of your production business, though some producers will still outsource the mixing. Again, since we are focusing on adding the greatest value to your artists, if you can hone in on this skill set, you can really become a creative partner with your artist and potentially keep the timeline tighter and even their cost lower.
- Songwriting – It may be tempting to produce any and all songs an artist throws at you. But, as hard as this is to admit, most of us songwriters don’t write our best songs when we are first starting out. Even after we have some good songs in our catalog, an occasional mediocre song will surface. An artist will truly be grateful if you can help them elevate their songs (ok, maybe they won’t be grateful at first, but eventually they will!). Having an instinct for what makes a song really great can make you a valuable partner to your artist. Even without becoming a co-writer, if there’s an awkward line, a boring melody, a monotonous arc, saying so (in a respectful, professional, and helpful way) and then being able to offer suggestions, can elevate the song so that you are both proud upon its release.
- Great Arrangements – If you haven’t already, study your favorite productions. The arrangement consists of what instruments are used, what they do, and when they occur on the timeline of the song. Every single decision you make will have an impact on how the artist’s song will (or won’t) connect with its listeners. Once again, contrary to what many YouTube gurus will tell you (produce hit songs in only 4 hours!), this also is a skill that can take years to refine. I’ve found that really listening to every detail of production as a “listener” can be challenging. The BEST way to learn what a producer did in a song is to reverse engineer it. I wrote up a blog about that a few years back. Give that a read here. The more skilled you are at arranging, the more likely you are to know what a song needs to cut through and connect artist to fan.
- Vocal Coach – The greatest disservice you can do to an artist is to mentally “check out” during their recording session. It’s literally what helped me carve out a space in my own local music scene as a producer. Since I came from the angle of being a singer/songwriter and vocal coach turned vocal producer, artists flocked to me because they knew that I would help them get their best vocal performances in the studio. While you don’t actually need to be a vocal coach, hearing the details in a singer’s performance, such as the diction, the vowel shape, the emotion, the phrasing – all of it is important, as is the skill of how to communicate in a helpful, supportive way to the singer. If you are checked out while they are recording, they will feel it and will surrender to the fact that they are “on their own” for this part. Engaging will help them feel accountable to do their best, and give them a sense of having someone in their corner, coaching them along. Remembering that this is a KEY moment for your artist will establish trust with them and keep them coming back to you.
- Recognizing Trends in Instruments, Effects, Sounds, and Songwriting – While you can certainly choose to produce only a specific style or genre, a thorough knowledge of what defines a genre or style or even an era or decade of music can give you more access to a greater pallet of sounds. For example, if an artist gives you an Amy Whinehouse song as a reference song and they can’t say exactly what they love about it but they want the vibe of their song to be similar, you should be able to recognize that what made her music “special” was the techniques used in recording, the songwriting format, and mixing approach, all designed to give her music a throwback, 60’s, retro vibe. This is one specific example, but when your artist provides reference songs for you, it should be easy to recognize what they want to hear in their music. You should also feel comfortable recreating specific sounds, effects, mixing techniques, etc., so that you can help the artist bring their vision to life. Reverse engineering (as mentioned in #5) is a great way to improve this skill.
- Thorough Knowledge of Instruments – You don’t have to be able to play every instrument that you use in your productions. Thank goodness! I’m a pianist…not a great one if we are talking about technical proficiency. But really comfortable on the instrument. You should be at least “comfortable” on an instrument; preferably a piano or guitar. Having a grasp on the circle of fifths will allow you to program any virtual instrument to play what you want. With today’s technology, virtual instruments are quite incredible at sounding like real instruments, because real samples (ie, recordings) of the actual instrument are used. However, you DO need to know what those instruments do and how to nuance the virtual instruments to sound more real using the settings and triggers. This can all take time to learn but will ensure your productions sound really legit. If there’s an instrument you find you are being asked to create virtually often, invest in a really good virtual instrument, then spend time learning how to nuance that instrument before moving on to the next one.
- Understanding the Music Business: what do I do now? – Contracts, songwriting, marketing, copyright, publishing, splits, sync, etc. There is SO MUCH for an independent artist to know and do. The more you know about the infrastructure of the music business, the more value you can potentially add to your artists, therefore, deepening that relationship with them. If you feel confident in your ability to create great music, add another layer of service to your artists by providing a Releasing Music Checklist or something similar. It’s another way to build trust between you and the artist and to add value to their journey as an independent artist.
It can be overwhelming to think about all you need to be good at as a Modern Music Producer! Just remember, growth comes slow and steady if you stay consistent. Take one area at a time and focus on improving your skills in that area before tackling the next one. Build your music production business to be one that keeps artists coming back to you over and over again; the one that the artists tell everyone about because of the positive experience it is to work with you. Be that producer!