Quincy Jones just refuses to grow old. On his 87th birthday on March 14, the ace American music producer tweeted,
“It’s weird to turn 87 and feeling like I’m 35. Who knew what no alcohol and treating your body well could do?”
He didn’t talk of his total involvement in music, but that was a given.
Among music producers, Jones often comes first to mind, having worked on Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad, besides albums by Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, George Benson, and many jazz legends. A slightly older generation would immediately name George Martin, who was associated with The Beatles. They were two of the biggest names on their side of the business, which has had many other geniuses too.
A music producer, also called a record producer, is a crucial person involved in the production of a song or an album. To use an analogy, he is to a recording what a director is to a film, or what an event organizer is to a live music performance. A great producer is a reason why a record sounds so special.
Yet, despite his enormous role, the producer gets limited mass recognition. Barring the few celebrity names, many are known only by the musician fraternity, recording engineers, a specific artiste’s fans and a section of listeners who understand how the business operates.
Take the example of Keith Olsen, who passed away on March 9. Many would recognise the name, but not know much more than the fact that he was someone important. But mention that he produced albums by Santana, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, Grateful Dead, Ozzy Osbourne, Scorpions, Foreigner, Whitesnake, the Animals, and Pat Benatar, and the natural reaction would be, “Wow”. In other words, everybody loves the main artistes, but very few know who put their work together.
What does a music producer do?
What exactly is the role played by a music producer? In a nutshell, he is the backbone of a sound recording. He may have a smaller role in the idealization of songs and the songwriting process, but from the time the basic work begins in the studio till the time the product is released commercially, he is the boss.
Naturally, a producer needs a varied set of competencies, once he’s hired by the record label in consultation with the main artiste. To begin with, he needs to understand the strengths of the artiste, and the ability to translate them into the best end product. He needs to know how different instruments are used, the role of each musician or back-up singer, and how they sound best, given the subject and structure of the song. The music producer needs detailed practical knowledge on the intricacies of recording, mixing and mastering, and how to bring about the best sound quality. He needs coaching, interpersonal and coordination skills, so he can advise everyone involved and help them be on a common platform.
Most important, he is a bridge between the artist and listener, someone who fully knows that even a small complaint about audio quality would lead to rejection. For this, he needs to understand both the artist’s mind and the pulse of listeners, besides various audio and video formats, developments in technology and market dynamics.
In-depth knowledge of his genres of specialization is needed too. Jerry Wexler was a master of rhythm n’ blues, whereas Berry Gordy was the man behind the Motown sound. Nile Rodgers was a master across genres, having produced for acts as diverse as David Bowie, Madonna, Sister Sledge and Duran Duran, among others.
The challenges the roles brings to the table
Like any other aspect of the music business, production has its set of challenges. A majority would come under two broad categories – professional and technological.
Many producers find themselves dealing with the personal preferences of the record label and artiste. While all of them obviously strive to achieve the best result, their approaches may be vastly different, resulting in conflict. A good producer thus needs to adapt well and maintain a balanced path. In many cases, it requires ego management.
Next comes the issue of time management. The producer is given a deadline for manufacture before the album’s release. In the era of physical products, he would draw a time table for song idea creation, the sequence of tracks, hiring musicians and engineers, the recording process, mixing, mastering, and packaging. Even in the era of streaming, the broad parameters remain the same. More often than not, each person involved in a musical project has his own schedule, and the challenge is to get everyone together not only to meet timelines but also to deliver their best.
Adapting to technology and genres
On the technological front, many old-time producers were stunned by rapid developments that took place about two decades ago with the Internet taking over. Over the years, from vinyl records to cassettes to compact discs to online platforms, each process has had its own specialties. With digital technology, the role of the producer has changed, and people make music on laptops using Fruity Loops, Reason or Logic, and not on actual instruments. In fact, the old guard describes these people as beatmakers and not producers.
Another observation is that some producers work with different artists simultaneously, and are thus unable to focus on one project at a time. Some of them are also genre specialists – while that’s good if they stick to certain styles. A great hip-hop producer may not be comfortable with a rock or dance album.
There have also been many cases where musicians produced their own music, without relying on an external producer. For instance, Pink Floyd self-produced The Dark Side Of The Moon and Wish You Were Here. However, in The Wall, they were assisted by producer Bob Ezrin. Deep Purple produced Machine Head itself. More recently, progressive metal band Tool did the same with their latest album Fear Inoculum.
So far, we have described the role of a producer and the challenges he faces. In the next and concluding part of this series, we shall talk of the contribution of the greatest producers, and what set them apart. This should give an idea about who played a role in the careers of some of the greatest stars.