Current Newsstand Edition: March 14 - March 27, 2005
There are probably as many styles of record production as there are producers. In this era, with the track and the song often being synonymous terms, it is difficult to gauge where the song begins and the production ends. So who exactly is the producer? Is it the songwriter, the "track guy," or maybe the engineer who manipulates the sound? Is it the artist whose vision permeates the project, or the credit-card wielding schmoozer who takes the A&R guys to lunch while an arranger helms the session? For this article, MC spoke with a cross section of music biz principals for a lively take on the subject.
BACK IN THE DAY
Historically, the producer has been the ultimate authority figure in pop music. He's responsible for selecting material, interfacing with the label, choosing studios and musicians and crafting the sound around the artist. Berry Gordy Jr., Leonard Chess and Jerry Wexler founded their own labels. Legendary songwriters Leiber & Stoller not only wrote the songs, but also produced them and ran their own record company. Phil Spector, with his monolithic Wall of Sound, became a star in his own right.
Fast forward through a couple of decades: the rise of ProTools technology has changed the order drastically. Now the DNA of a production can be implanted at the song's inception and remain in the final mix. This is the era of the writer/producer and specialized teams. Today, the Neptunes, the Matrix, the Underdogs, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis and newcomers PoppaGenius! channel the hooks, the groove and the vibe to personalize songs and sounds for artists. It's a trend that has taken the definition of "producer" into entirely new realms.
"If you're the songwriter, you are pretty much the producer. It's now called 'The Track' and 'The Track' is the song."
songwriter/producer Mark Spiro
"One thing about a producer that's universal is they take responsibility for the final product, or by definition, they should," says John Philip Shenale. With across-the-board credits as an arranger, sound designer and composer, production was a logical career move for Shenale, who operates amid an astonishing collection of vintage keyboards at his Studio City, CA, enclave, The Nutranch. He recently finished producing Crow Jane Alley, the latest project from Willy Deville; Tori Amos aficionados will recognize Shenale's name from his numerous arranging credits with the diva. His varied background gives him a wide-screen view of the recording process.
"Being a musician, I used to be in the middle of the session and wonder, 'Where's the producer?' But when you start producing you realize that there are producers who shouldn't be in the room they trust their arranger. Don Gehman was like that. He was actively involved, but he'd say to me, 'You arrange.' He'd make some modifications, but it was basically my arrangement and we'd go with that. On the other hand, being an arranger, it would be hard for me to back off. I'm not that interested in doing an 'executive production' thing. Why should I when I can be involved [hands-on]? That's the whole point of doing it in the first place."
Producer Richard Wolf is similarly hands-on. "If I'm collaborating, people will bring in beats and different elements that are already there. They could have been created in another room here in the studio or at home. As far as the artist especially if it's a band I'm there in the studio with them. If the artist is a rapper or a singer, I'm not necessarily there for every kick. I've got other guys programmers, DJs. But I'm there for the musical elements: keyboards, strings, horns, guitars, and the artist."
According to veteran songwriter/producer Phil Swann, 90 percent of producing is casting. "Hire the right people, keep the train on its tracks and have clear ideas. With Helen Slater's record that I recently produced, Crossword, I wanted her to sing and play, have the vocals in your lap with no effects and use a specific mic. I also knew I had to hire great people who would breathe with her, and then sit back and shut up."
Swann, who has contributed songs to platinum country artists including Lee Ann Womack, offers insight into the corporate enclaves of Music City. "In Nashville, the bigger the producer and the newer the artist, a lot of times the engineer will be doing the producing. If it's one of the 'big five' artists. the producer will be a lot more attentive, especially with vocals. But if it's a new artist, the producer is just checking in."
As a producer who values the contributions of musicians and engineers, Swann makes this point: "There are a few engineers who ask for points and get them, but it's unusual. It's the engineers who are making many of these records. I'm talking about the producer's sound compression on cymbals, drums sounds, things that make the texture of the record. It's the engineers who do that."
But Swann acknowledges that this is a part of the engineer's artillery, and why they get hired. "I can see both arguments. Session players add signature figures and tones to songs. If you're going to start rewarding engineers, why shouldn't musicians get points, too? So it does open up a can of worms."
"There are talented songwriters and many who can come up with great concepts musically and lyrically, but only a handful of people who are real producers who can finish records and be able to take the juiciest parts of a song and make it into a great record."
Harvey Mason Jr. of the Underdogs
"Engineering has nothing to do with production," states Michéle Vice-Maslin. "And just because someone wrote a track, this doesn't make them a producer. At times, production comes first, before the song. If you're writing a ballad or a jazz song, it's about the song, and the production comes after. You don't produce it first." Maslin, who also produces, co-wrote "Get Over Yourself" for Eden's Crush, recent hits in the U.K., Denmark, Spain, Scandinavia, Belgium and Holland plus themes and songs for stateside television shows including "Til I Find You" for the Lions Gate/Lifetime show Missing (Performed by hit urban recording artist Kina) and the new theme song "Bein' Who We Are" for the world-wide, best-selling toy phenomenon, Bratz Dolls, with Space Angels Live in Concert. "I have a great partner right now and we do everything together, comp every vocal, every snare drum hit. But because he's the guy and the engineer, the perception is that he's the producer. But we could hire an engineer and we'd still be producing together."
Vice-Maslin notes that production is not only about creative issues, but more pointedly how the money will be allocated, and most of all, coaxing the best performance out of the artist. "Sure, it's about making the track and programming drums, but it's really about the performance. So much of the artistry of the singer gets lost in the bass drum. In the old days you hired [musicians] every day, there was no MIDI. The musicians showed up and everyone did what they did and the producer said, 'No, I don't like that line.' The producer would even sing the part to them. That's what being a producer is, knowing point and counterpoint and knowing the emotion that's set in the guitar part."
Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas known as the Underdogs (Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Pink, Tyrese, Michael Jackson, Toni Braxton, and Whitney Houston) acknowledge that songwriting and production are related but separate endeavors. Mason says, "There are talented songwriters and many who can come up with great concepts musically and lyrically. But only a handful of people are real producers who can finish records and are able to take the juiciest parts of a great song and make it into a great record.
Mason sees "a clear-cut line; a lot of guys can write a song, program a beat, come into the studio and put a vocal line on, but that's totally different from trying to make a quality record."
And of course this is due to the technology of ProTools. "A lot of people have ideas for songs; they put them down and it winds up sticking," Mason adds. "A lot of guys say, 'I'm a songwriter/producer.' We just feel strongly about making the music the best that it can be and it's not about sticking your idea on something."
Phil Swann extends this thought. "The person who creates the track isn't a producer, he's a songwriter. There are many publishing companies that sign guys who don't play a note of music or write a lyric. I was talking to a major publisher because they were interested in having me work with one of their writers. I picked up a CD, got in the car and was listening as I was driving away from the meeting. Silly me I was expecting to hear a songwriter's songs. All I got was 15 drum loops with a guitar figure or a bass riff over it, but no song structure. I called the publisher and said, 'What's going on?' He said, 'We sign programmers as part of the writing team.' So my job was to bring melody, harmony and structure."
A recent MC Song Biz profile referenced an increasingly common practice where two songwriters will create words and lyrics, then bring in a producer or "track guy" to create a master-quality production. For his efforts, he's awarded 20 percent of the song. Songwriter/producer Mark Spiro, commenting on an often-seamless bond between song and production in pop music, mused, "If you're the songwriter, you are pretty much the producer. It's now called 'the track,' and 'the track' is the song."
"It isn't enough to just be a songwriter; you have to have production chops now."
songwriter/producer Phil Swann
Michéle Vice-Maslin notes that production must mirror the emotion of the song. "I have worked with co-writers/producers and we've produced a major artist, but when the other producer/writer did some of the programming, they paid no attention to the lyrics and what the song was about, and the instrumentation had nothing to do with the song. I had them re-do the entire track with me sitting there. I'm not saying I'm so fabulous, but this person and it has happened more than once had no idea what the song was about. Maybe it was a sad song but there was all of this poppy stuff."
John Philip Shenale also believes the connection to the artist is key. "It's great for producers to hang with the artists for a month or two before the recording starts. You have to find out who this person is. ... The artist may only bring lyrics, but they bring the story of their life. The producer is sucking all of the life juice out of the artist to get their stamp on the track. From that standpoint, it's not a manipulation of notes, but of reality."
In an interview with MC, Lauren Christy from songwriting/producing trio the Matrix made a similar point. "We make a connection with the artist. We understand where they're coming from and what they're going through. We have a bond. That's a part of production, too, making someone comfortable in the environment."
THE ABC's OF R&B
Composer/producer Richard Wolf was awarded a recent Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition & Direction for the animated WB series Static Shock. His Studio City company, The Producers Lab, is a multi-room studio facility that develops artists and writers, and licenses music for film and television. The company's recorded music division, Tone Poet Records, is initiating a simultaneous CD release and download launch with I-Tunes for female rapper, MC Lyte.
Wolf notes that the role of the producer in R&B and hip-hop is different from other genres. "There's a whole different attitude of respect that urban artists have toward the producer. In rock music, the limelight has always been on the band itself singers and players. Since the band members write their own songs, the producer is less important. The rock experience is changing and being influenced by what's happening in urban music as far as the role of the producer being more integral, but there's still a qualitative difference between the genres."
Much of this has to do with the way that records are made. "There's no band, so the producer is the band. Whereas in a rock situation or in other cases with a live R&B band, you have all the input of these musicians and their insights and attitudes as far as what the tracks and instruments should sound like. It's the whole way records are made. Urban records are made from the ground up the beats, the rhythm track and the track, and then you could put a lot of different kinds of vocalists on it. Whereas in rock music, it's built around the singer, and once he's on there you have to adjust. In rap the vocalist will ride the track and you could interchange the vocals with tracks."
He cites the posthumous releases of Tupac as an example. "The chemistry between the track and the vocal is not as inescapable as it is in live music. You don't need it in urban music. It operates on a different vibe. That's why remixes work so well. It's the rhythm that has to match, not the harmonic and melodic elements as in other types of music."
ARTIST AS PRODUCER
Although some artists want to produce their own projects, the opposite is also true as Michéle Vice-Maslin explains. "I'm writing with some major artists and they don't want to be involved in the production. They're bored in the studio, they don't want to be there when you comp their vocal. But if the artist brings something to the table [as a producer] and this is what they do, it's great."
Vice-Maslin, however, adds this word of caution: "But it's especially risky if the artist writes and produces every track. Then, if the record is a flop it's a scary proposition. If you're a new artist, be careful; on the next record, the label won't let you do anything."
Richard Wolf weighs in, "There is a rock band I worked with who wanted co-production credit and I thought they didn't deserve it." He adds that bands are more difficult to co-produce with, usually. "They're a unit already an organism. ... They've been on tour together, they've rehearsed in garages and then the producer comes in and tries to get them on record. There's a different degree of intimacy than when you're working with one or two singers or even a singing group. It's easier to penetrate the group when they are singers rather than a band."
An inventive group that Wolf worked with in the Nineties, Bel Biv Devoe, earned their co-production credit. "They really had an over-arching vision of how they were changing music," acknowledges Wolf. "They deserved credit."
John Philip Shenale believes that, in most cases, the artist's stamp is already deeply imbedded in the project. "The artist is always the co-producer, because he brings so much to the table, theoretically. When an artist like Beck or John Mayer comes in with songs and ideas, it's basically there. But when does it extend over the line that he actually asks for credit for co-producing? I think that's tacky. 'Enough already.' We know you're the artist and it's your record.'"
Shenale says it's actually advantageous for an artist or band to have a strong production partner when the dynamics of a label are figured into the equation. "He may ask the artist, 'What do you feel in your heart we should do?' But the producer is the final organizing principal. If you don't have that you can get stalemates, get the label pissed off at you. The producer and the artist have to know where their domains are. The artist may have something he's really proficient at, and the producer has his own domain. Sometimes there are relationships where [the producer is] an implementer."
Surprisingly it may not always be in the artist's best economic interests to be their own producer. Onerous label deals already penalize artists who write their own songs with the notorious "3/4 rate." Similar deals could be drafted into contracts that negatively impact artists who choose to be their own producers. An artist may actually make less money. Artists are therefore advised to consult with an attorney before asking for a co-producer credit.
In addition to the title of "producer," many projects also list the credit "executive producer." Especially in the pop field, where a number of producers may be submitting individual tracks to one CD. It's the role of the executive producer to maintain quality and consistency so the overall presentation is seamless. David Foster, one of the best-known producers in pop, oversees a roster of projects from this perspective. Says Shenale, "What's great about David Foster is he may directly produce three or four projects a year, and then he'll executive produce an additional four. He still maintains the responsibility and is the interface between the producers he's the master producer."
Shenale observes additional advantages to having the participation of an executive producer. "It could be because there are so many instrumentalists and so much arranging to be done and so many orchestral dates. My friend Philipe Rault will recommend studios and coordinate he's an executive logistician. When I did the first Willy Deville record, Backstreets of Desire, I was the producer, but he was the executive producer and interfaced with the [French] label because he was in Europe. He booked the studios, so in a way he was almost like a production coordinator and an A&R guy rolled into one."
Phil Swann says, "I've been teaching songwriting and I used to teach, 'The demo really isn't important, they can hear past it. Write a great song.' That's not the case anymore. Everyone does have a ProTools rig, Macintoshs are coming with the program Garage Band. The standard is raised. It isn't enough to just be a songwriter, you have to have production chops now."
But having production chops and being a producer are separate issues and Swann is correct everyone from the musicians to the engineer to the artist to the A&R guys who sign, greenlight and oversee projects exhibit production chops. But the ability to polish a rough hit, channel the imperious will of a tempestuous artist, be economically savvy and emotionally astute, this is the domain of the true producer. And as John Philip Shenale verifies, the producer is responsible for everything: the budget, the players, the sound, the arrangements and the results. "When the heat goes on, the producer is responsible for the final say. His ass will be kicked."
Contacts For This Article
John Philip Shenale
The Producer's Lab
Worlds End Management
©2005 Music Connection Inc.