Blog/October 12, 2016
The roles of producer and engineer have blurred so much in recent years that the line between them now barely exists.
What was once a clearly defined demarcation between two people that often possessed quite different skills is now, in the vast majority of situations, a single role.
Whether you lament this evolutionary merger or not, there’s no denying it – the landscape of modern record production has changed irrevocably.
So when I woke up the other morning to the sad news that famed Beatle producer Sir George Martin had died, I fell silent. I wasn’t shocked – he was 91 after all and had lived a long and extraordinary life. But like so many that morning, the news of his passing drew me inward as I contemplated a life well lived.
George Martin’s legacy has embedded itself into the DNA of virtually every musician, producer, engineer and music lover on the planet, and his passing marks the end of an era.
Arguably the most famous and recognisable record producer of all time, to this day George Martin embodies the iconic image of what the role of producer is perceived to be. He seemed sophisticated, confident, wise, experienced and professional. His slightly aloof demeanour, his suits and neat appearance gave him the look of a friendly authority figure, which stood him in stark contrast against the outlandish getups of his artists, the Beatles.
But he was also known to be very ‘hands off’ when it came to the recording process. The engineering side of things was not his bag, nor did anyone expect that of him. He was, by all accounts, fairly averse to the idea of getting his hands dirty in that way. That was left to ‘his engineers’.
But nowadays this demarcation seems quaint in the extreme. In a modern context, the very idea that a producer might not deign to move a mic, or work the studio to develop sonic textures and flavours seems ludicrous.
What this means for up and coming engineers and producers is that the studio workload is more intense than ever before.
Though there is still scope, and in some rare cases money, for music to be produced with the help of two people – call them a producer and engineer if you like – in most cases one person now performs every task required of a record’s production. This might include jobs like song-writing (or co-writing), recording, arranging, editing, mixing, financing, performing, making tea and in some cases even mastering.
Nowadays, if you want to climb the carpeted, beer stained totem pole to audio industry nirvana, the skills and effort required are not insubstantial. Not only are you required to possess all the abilities listed above at a minimum, you’re also now expected to own (or at least carry with you) a recording studio of some sort for the musicians to perform in (or into).
In other words, modern day studio professionals are typically producers, engineers, studio owners and musicians all rolled into one. Economic reality has been the main driver of this (thanks mostly to the collapse in investment by record companies). And on any given workday, these studio pros will have to perform various tasks in and around any or all of these roles.
It’s no mean feat at times, particularly when there’s a big band in the studio requiring a complex recording setup. In these sorts of high-pressure situations there might be issues or questions relating to tasks as diverse as miking options, technical faults with gear, multiple headphone setups, song arrangement disagreements, decisions about the best takes, where the toilet paper is kept, how to turn the coffee machine on, why there’s a buzz in the bass amp, how to access the studio’s wireless internet, why you don’t have any Neumanns, why you don’t have any tape machines, why you have so much outboard gear, why there’s no outboard gear, why the lights can’t be dimmed… the list of questions is almost endless.
The point here is that, while none of these tasks are particularly hard in isolation, what makes the role of producer/engineer/studio owner complex and therefore potentially stressful, is that when all of these tasks are coming at you at once, it can be difficult to know which ones to prioritise.
I’ve seen the best engineers in the business make a total train wreck of recording sessions because they weren’t capable of working under this kind of sustained pressure. Too many questions about how the last take ‘felt’ or why we need a click track eventually sent them over the edge.
I’ve seen producers walk out of a control room in disgust because they couldn’t understand why ProTools refused their key commands or the console’s automation was stubbornly resisting their futile efforts and making them look foolish.
The key to success in the modern day role of producer/engineer/studio owner is to be cool in the face of just about any drama, and competent across a wide range of technical, musical and emotional tasks. When you’re overloaded with requests by band members, swimming in a sea of recording chains and headphone sends, expected to have one eye on every aspect of every channel of the recording process whilst simultaneously having a relaxed and easygoing conversation with the drummer about why you need to put water in the espresso machine (not just air), you need to be able to remain calm and know your stuff.
Like a good console, you need headroom to cope with the pounding you receive. And one of the best coping mechanisms is a solid knowledge base. Confidence in your own abilities is crucial to your ability to cope under pressure. But knowledge only gets you so far.
You can be the best ProTools operator in the business, but if you grow irritable and terse the moment you’re distracted from your work, people will quickly grow anxious around you. In a studio that’s a recipe for disaster. You can pull great sounding mixes, but if you’re rude to people, tell racist jokes or act inappropriately they’ll run a mile. If you lie to people about your skills and then under pressure reveal them to be lacking, you’ll look like the amateur that perhaps you are.
The point I’m trying to make here is that the best producer/engineer/studio owners (I’ve gotta find a better word for them!) working today not only know a lot of stuff about all things technical, they’re often multi-instrumentalists, great listeners, good conversationalists and songwriters, and have a friendly vibe about them that makes them easy to interact with.
Gone are the days where an engineer could get away with being a rude, monosyllabic oaf. Gone also are the days where producers like George Martin could swan about in the studio without lifting a finger. Everyone needs to be across everything they can possibly get to grips with these days, and where there’s a blind spot in your capacity, that’s where more work needs to be done.
Oh, and there’s just one more thing. After you’ve invested in that small mountain of gear, gotten extra piano lessons, leant yet another DAW, updated your studio’s décor and taken up meditation, you’ll need to cut your prices too. If you think you’re going to make your fortune in the audio industry, it might also pay to see a psychiatrist. They’ll set you straight.
But, one thing’s for sure, making records is inspiring and rewarding in ways most other jobs never are. So if you think it’s time to get out of the game and finally get a real job, just check out the classifieds… it’s scary what jobs some people sign up for.
Enjoy your work, and count yourself lucky. Happy recording!