This article was originally written for my column in Fuse magazine.
So what is production? What does a record producer actually do? Can a record really be "over produced"? I am not sure that I have ever heard an over produced record, and if I have, it most likely did not fit the criteria of what is commonly called an over produced record. The fact that the term "over production" has worked its way into the vernacular of modern musicians springs from a common misunderstanding, or at least a lack of consensus about the art and craft of producing records.
It truth, there is no such thing as over-production, only appropriate and inappropriate production. To understand this, there must be consensus on the definition of the three issues at hand. What is production? What is appropriate production? What is inappropriate production?
If you were to ask ten people to define production or the role of a record producer, you would probably get ten different answers, but I inclusively define production as the series of decisions made that define or steer the process of making a record. A producer is the one who is responsible for making those decisions or seeing that those decisions are made
A producer's involvement on a record will vary widely from producer to producer. At one extreme you will find the producer who never even sets foot in the control room; and the other extreme where the producer will oversee even the smallest detail of the recording and will write every note played by the musicians. As an artist or A&R person, if you are looking for a producer, it pays to do some research to find out where a particular producer sits on the scale. My personal approach to record production is radically different from that of other producers whom I respect immensely. Just as I may be the perfect producer for some albums, I may be wrong for others. Often what a producer does not contribute to an album is equally as important as what he or she does contribute.
Many people mistake things like drum sounds for production, or associate production with the adding of effects. While these things are certainly part of the big picture, we will see later why this is a misconception.
There is always at least one producer on any recording project. If production is the series of decisions made in a recording, those decisions will always get made. Production begins well before the musicians walk into the studio. If a studio has been chosen or if the songs have begun to get refined for recording, then the production process has already begun. Record production is a combination of the artistic and the logistical details involved in making a record.
While not the most exciting part, the logistics of making a record are crucial to the process and the success of a recording.
What studios will be used? Picking out the right studios or recording situation is a critical part of the process. Not every studio is right for every recording. Production encompasses finding a studio that fits the projects financial and technical requirements as well as the right location and perhaps, most importantly, a studio that has the right "vibe" for the artists and crew to be comfortable in and do great work. The requirements for every project are different and quite often the most expensive or impressive studios are not the best studios for a particular record, even if budget is not an issue.
Who are the right people to work on the project? The importance of picking out the right people for a project cannot be understated. After all, great records are made by great people, not by great studios. Production involves finding the best people for the project. There are many crucial people that help the artist on a record in addition to the producer: The engineers, mixers, arrangers, session musicians, assistant engineers, mastering engineers and even chefs and masseuses on some bigger budget projects. There are some situations where the producer is some or all of these things, but most times this is not the case. A great producer will be able to pull together the right team of people to make a great record.
Production, of course, also encompasses the artistic and aesthetic decisions made in recording. This begins before the "record" button is pressed and should begin well before the musicians enter the studio. One of the most important parts of a recording is pre-production. This takes place before the recording begins and involves working on the problems and making improvements at the source: the music. Production ends with mastering, which is the last creative stage of the recording process where all of the final adjustments are made before manufacturing. Every step between pre-production and mastering will affect the outcome of the recording. It is not always obvious how each step affects the final product, but the producer's job will be to steer through all of those steps and decisions along the way.
A common misconception is that production is something that is "added" to a recording, like an effect, but production is the all encompassing process.
Accepting this definition of production, we can then understand appropriate and inappropriate production. I offer this as a simple definition: Appropriate production is bringing to the project what it needs, clearing away what it doesn't, and not touching the rest. Inappropriate production is anything that contradicts those guidelines.
The term "over production" as it is commonly used, describes a record that is perceived as having an over abundant use of processing (reverbs, delays, etc.) or has performances that appear to be fine tuned to death, or the dreaded "too much keyboard." This definition assumes that production is the adding of effects processors, fine tuning the life out of the music, or of course, the dreaded "adding keyboards." But consider this: there are many producers out there who have very set ways of doing things that do not fit the above definition of over production. They shun keyboards, abstain from using effects whenever possible and like to get the raw energy of a performance on tape, warts and all, for the final master. Some producers will not even comment on the performances or the songs. There are times when this approach is fantastic and serves the music better than any other approach could. But what about the times when this approach actually does not serve the music, the tastes of the fans or the musicians themselves?
If a producer insists on using a bare bones approach in every situation regardless of the needs of the music or the wishes of its audience, has this record been "over produced"? I would certainly say that if the term over production exists, it certainly applies here. Has the producer who refuses to use reverb on the lead vocal, over produced any more than the producer who insists on tons of it, if it was not right for the album? What would have happened if the Beatles did not work with George Martin on Sargent Pepper, but rather a producer who insisted on recording the band live and bare bones with no interesting processing? What would have happened if Mutt Lange had insisted on taking the same approach to AC/DC's "Back in Black" that he would later use with Def Lepard? The more you understand about production, the more it is clear that good or appropriate production is about best serving the music, the artist and its audience. What you don't add and what you take away are as much a part of production as what you add.
Ultimately record production is about finding ways to best serve the music. The steps of production involve everything from the mundane logistics to the bliss of artistic discovery. The process of production is the decisions we make in our attempt to convey the music and the artist's vision to the audience. The responsibility of production is knowing that the albums we make will be the soundtrack to people's lives and the choices we make will affect the lives and dreams of those who contribute to the music.
If production was something that we could quantify, could a producer ever do his or her job too well? Could one ever make too many correct decisions, or serve the needs of the music, the artists and the audience too well? Not in my world.
In future articles we will look in more detail at some of the aspects of making records, what it is that production brings to a record, and far more importantly what an artist or musician brings to production. Until then, MAKE GREAT MUSIC!!
-- Ronan Chris Murphy works internationally as a recording producer and mixer. His credits include: Chucho Valdes y groupo Irakere, Josh White, Terry Bozzio, and several albums by King Crimson. For more info, check out www.venetowest.com Please do not duplicate this material without requesting permission (which is easily obtained)
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