What does a music producer do in the recording process? In short, they guide and assist an artist or group in bringing a musical project (e.g. a song or album) to completion, but there’s way, way more to it than that.
Often seen as a ‘behind-the-scenes’ role in the public eye, the music producer’s role is anything but that when it comes to the recording process.
In fact, it’s the music producer’s job to take the reins and oversee most aspects of the project, as you’ll see.
Before we get into the roles and responsibilities of a music producer, let’s get clear on what the process is that they oversee.
What is music production?
I’ll admit, the term ‘music production’ is pretty vague compared to other straightforward terms like ‘recording’ or ‘mixing’.
If you tell someone you ‘recorded a band’ or ‘mixed a song’, people are generally going to know what you mean – even most non-musical people.
But tell someone you ‘produced an album’, and you can never be sure of what they take that to mean. Some know exactly what you’re talking about, others might have some idea but miss the mark (e.g. “oh, so you played on that album?”), while many have no clue whatsoever.
Music production is how the music is developed from an idea to a finished recording.
Still too vague? OK, let’s put it this way.
- composing is creating original music
- arranging is about re-interpreting music (song structure, instrumentation etc)
- performance is vocals or playing the instruments
- engineering is about capturing the best quality recording possible
They all work independently. They don’t even need to collaborate as each is a singular task in the process.
For example, the engineer isn’t paid to care about how the song is composed or who performs on it, his responsibility lies in capturing the best recordings through microphone choice and placement (amongst other things).
Music production is the process of pulling these independent roles together, and how they interact towards the final result.
So you could say that composing, arranging, performing etc could be considered elements of music production.
Regardless of whether it was recorded in the world’s most expensive studio or on a crappy old cassette deck in the middle of the room (trve kvlt), literally all recorded music has been through some type of production process.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules to how music is produced (could you imagine how boring music would be if there was?!) there is a general pattern to the order of the process.
1. Demos and initial ideas
Once the artist has decided which music producer they want to work with, they will then usually send the producer song demos. The artist and producer will also discuss any ideas or concepts for the recording.
Taking into account what’s been discussed with the artist, the music producer will then assess the demos, asking themselves questions like:
- What has potential? Can you see that piece of music developing into something that will achieve the artist’s goals?
- Do you actually like their music? Is this a project that excites you?
- Do you have your own ideas that you think might compliment the music?
Once they’ve spent some time absorbing the demo and formulating some suggestions of their own, the music producer will go back to the artist and provide feedback. They’ll discuss their findings and explain the vision they have for the project.
If the artist likes these ideas, or better still, is inspired by them and wants to proceed, the producer can then start planning the project properly.
If they don’t, then the music producer needs to decide whether it’s worth their time pursuing the project. Even if they like the music and feel that they can turn it into something amazing, if the connection with the artist isn’t there, it’s going to negatively affect the music in the long run.
If a good rapport has developed between the artist and producer, and both are excited about the project, the producer will have started to develop a vision for the project.
It’s time to make some decisions based on this vision. Some things to consider will include:
Which songs and parts to record?
- What will be kept from the demos? What will change? Are there any particularly weak or strong parts of the demos to make note of?
Which instruments will be used?
- Does the demo inspire an idea for (for example) a pedal steel guitar part?
- Is the project going to be a collaboration with an orchestra?
- Is the track better off entirely electronic?
Who will play the instruments?
- Do you need to consider hiring musicians?
- Can you and/or the artist handle it yourselves?
What will the recording process be?
- Will it be in a commercial studio that adheres to a strict time limit?
- Will it be in your own studio with a more relaxed schedule?
- Will you be recording a band or working alone with the artist?
Once the producer has decided what to record and how to record it according to schedule, it’s time to capture the music.
The music producer’s primary job is to obtain the best possible performance from the artist. This, in itself, is part of the creative process. They need to provide feedback and coach the artist. Get them into ‘the zone’.
For the technical side of the process (e.g recording, operating the equipment. microphone placement) the producer will either do it themself, or hire a dedicated engineer. This is largely dependent on the scale of the project.
Now that everything has been recorded, it’s time to look at things like:
What works and what doesn’t
Just because a part was recorded, doesn’t mean it has to be used. E.g. If that synth solo sounds too cheesy, maybe a guitar solo would work better. Whatever works to fulfil the vision is most important.
Can the song structure be improved? Does the first verse need to be that long? Would that bridge actually make a better chorus?
The beauty of the creative process is that new ideas or ‘happy accidents’ will likely arise during the process, which may involve more recording or programming.
It’s important to be open to these events in music production, as they have been behind many inspired moments in music over the years.
Never close yourself off to new ideas!
Once the writing, recording, arranging and editing is complete, it’s time to mix the music.
This is another step that is either handled by the producer, or mixed by someone specifically hired for the task.
Mixing is the process of creating a ‘sound stage’. By this, I mean adjusting things like:
Some instruments will have more prominence in a mix, depending on the style of the music.
- A singer/songwriter will generally want their voice as the primary focus
- A metal band will want huge, aggressive guitars
- A dub reggae track will want bottom-heavy bass
- An EDM track will want crisp, hard-hitting drums.
To achieve this, it’s often more about turning other instruments down rather than the focus instrument up. In the end, it’s all about balance.
EQ (or Equalisation) means filtering out certain frequencies that clash with other instruments, creating ‘muddyness’ and lacking clarity.
A common example of this is the kick drum and bass, which both occupy a similar area on the sound spectrum.
Where each instrument sits in the stereo image (ie. left to right).
Fundamentals like the bass, lead vocals, kick and snare drums are likely to be dead center. Other embellishments can be panned further left or right to create space.
Where panning decides where an instrument appears left-to-right in the mix, reverb and delay can help something sound closer or further away.
Compression can add presence, punch or sustain to an instrument. Most often used on vocals, drums and bass, but can be used on any instrument if appropriate.
The goal is to give each instrument its own space in the mix, and let those that need particular focus shine.
With the mixing completed, there is one last step before the project is complete: Mastering.
Mastering is the process of taking that mix and processing it as a whole (rather than individual components of it).
This can include:
- Further compression or EQ
- Stereo-width widening
- Noise reduction
- Fade-ins or fade-outs
In the case of an e.p. or album, mastering ensures all songs are at a consistent level as well as the length of silence between tracks.
One the project has been mastered, it’s ready for public consumption and the project is complete.
Equipment used for music production
These days, people are producing phenomenal recordings from their bedrooms that you’d swear came from a commercial studio, and it’s all thanks to how affordable and accessible the equipment is right now.
Some of the basics of most music production studios include:
- A computer
- A DAW (Digital Audio Workstation)
- An audio interface
- Studio monitors
- A MIDI controller
It’s possible even to start with a computer with some free software and grow from there.
Take a look at my guide on setting up a home recording studio to learn more about music production equipment.
The music producer’s responsibilities
Be a visionary
The music producer needs to develop a vision for the project. How it will sound, the style, the target audience etc. They need to step back, envision an overall concept for the end result and map out how to get there.
You’d think this would fall on the artist themselves, right?
In some rare cases, it does. But most of the time, the artist is just too close to the music to have an objective view.
The artist knows what the artist wants. The music producer knows what the listener wants.
To this end, when developing their vision for the project, the music producer needs to ask questions like:
- What kind of recording are we looking for?
- What is the finished recording supposed to sound like?
- How do we want the audience to feel when they hear the music?
Call the shots
As a music producer, taking the lead and making decisions is crucial on so many levels.
Without leadership, the entire project risks disappearing down the rabbit hole of tinkering, tweaking and revising.
It can result in blowing out the budget, missing deadlines, potentially even ruining relationships and, worse still, the reputation of the producer.
A music producer is being hired for their experience and knowledge; it is up to them – not the artist – to decide on the recording process, song selection, musicians etc.
Music is communication, so a music producer needs to be an excellent communicator. If they aren’t, it’s going to be an uphill battle.
Communication is a two-way street, and there is an art to both listening and talking when dealing with artists.
While it is up to the producer to take the lead on the project, that doesn’t mean ignoring what the artist wants. The music producer is hired to help the artist to reach a particular goal.
All of the producer’s decision-making is based on how to reach that goal, not what the goal is. This is where well-developed listening skills come into play.
As I mentioned when outlining the music production process, the producer listens to the artist’s demos, and takes note of what they think works and what doesn’t.
- Is there something missing? Do you seem to notice this every time you listen to the song?
- Could that second verse use some vocal harmonies?
- Is the song lacking a hook?
- Does it need a pre-chorus to help the chorus hit harder?
On the other hand:
- Is there just too much going on?
- Would it be beneficial to remove some elements altogether?
Then there’s things like the key of the song:
- Do you notice the vocalist straining to hit certain notes?
- Can you see them being able to hit those notes when they’re out there touring the album?
- Would changing the key to accommodate the vocalist impact the other instruments?
In 9 out of 10 cases, the artist will have at least some idea of what they want the project to sound like. This is most often achieved by referencing other songs or albums.
These reference songs or albums can uncover a goldmine of insight beyond just how they sound.
Listening to these recordings and discussing what the artist likes about them can help the producer get an idea of the scope of the project in terms of:
For example, a short, sharp punk rock album isn’t going to take anywhere near as much time or resources as a sprawling, experimental progressive concept album.
When it comes to capturing the performance, it goes without saying: the music producer wants the best take they can get out of the artist.
The most obvious thing they’re going to be on the lookout for is mistakes, but this isn’t as black-and-white a concept as it may seem.
Some ‘mistakes’ can actually enhance the music.
- A voice crack can bring vulnerability and humanity to a vocal delivery, whether it’s a hushed whisper or an impassioned scream.
- An accidental off note played in a riff can bring an entirely unexpected context to it…that you realise actually works for the song.
They generally want to get a good number of takes to work with, but the idea here is quality not quantity. Ultimately, a music producer is always on the lookout for that ‘goosebumps’ moment that lets them know that was the take.
Steering the project towards its goal means providing the artist with constructive feedback. That feedback is not always going to be gladly received, so the way it is delivered is crucial to keeping things on track.
The way the producer speaks to the artist requires a whole skill set of its own. In fact, it is closer to psychology than anything to do with music.
No matter what the artist’s personality is like, a huge part of it is ego management. Some things to keep in mind include:
Don’t dictate, suggest
Feedback is best received when delivered as a suggestion rather than an ‘order’.
Continually saying things like “You came in late, do it again” and “you missed it. Try again” does nothing but wear down the artist’s ego, which in turn will deliver worse and worse takes.
Instead, saying something like “I’m thinking we can tighten up the timing and really make it kick. Want to give it another try?” is much more effective.
A lot of it is down to the language used. Come from a personal perspective (i.e. “I think…”, “I feel…”, “I believe…”) comes across like an idea or suggestion is being put forward, and that the artist can choose to get on board with.
Saying things like “You aren’t…”, “You didn’t…” is like pointing a giant finger at them, telling them they are wrong.
Use examples over words
The artists’ reference songs or albums help the producer get a clearer picture of what they want, right?
The music producer can do the same for the artist when trying to describe how they want a part played or want something to sound like.
It’s going to be a lot easier for them to hear an example than the producer saying “No, it’s more like DUN-DA-DA-DUN”.
This one’s kind of obvious, but in the heat of the moment can be an easy trap to fall into. No matter how difficult the artist is being, the music producer needs to resist the temptation to clap back at them.
No matter how justified the producer feels in doing so, that 5 seconds of feeling better is going to slow the whole project, if not derail it entirely.
Bruised egos, bad vibes – it all gets in the way of getting the project done, and done well.
It’s important for a music producer to encourage the artist.
If the artist has just pulled off a particularly great performance, the producer needs to show that excitement. Clap! Yell! Fist pump! Whatever it is, build them up.
It energises the artist and other musicians, and can positively impact their performances.
Set and Setting
There is another element to being a good music producer that, although intangible, is important to the success of the recording process.
We touched on this earlier when talking about encouragement, and that is the mood, “vibe” or atmosphere of the sessions. The “energy” in the room.
This is much more than lighting a few candles and dimming the lights.
As I’m sure you know, writing, recording and producing a piece of music is a journey; a creative process. It’s not like turning up to a mind-numbing office job to sit in a cubicle all day.
There’s an atmosphere to the creative process, shared by everyone involved, that dictates the energy of the completed product. If there is no “vibe” during the creative process, it will absolutely translate to the end product.
So it is up to the music producer to “spark that fire”, so to speak. It’s their job to instigate that energy so that the participants feed off it, and put that into their performances.
It’s about balance
The most common way to go about this is to create a playful, fun atmosphere. The artist needs to feel comfortable and some degree of a sense of freedom – not like they are turning up to work.
However, the producer needs to keep an eye on this ‘freedom’ and not let it get so out of hand that it’s actually counterproductive.
It’s a delicate balance that comes with experience, and for newer producers working outside of their own studio for the first time, it’s quite easy to lose control of the situation.
Strike while the iron’s hot
Keep an eye out for opportunities to take advantage when the energy is right and the artists are feeding off it.
This is a great time to capture a few sneaky takes without the artist knowing it. For example, the music producer can tell them it’s a warm up, or that you’re just setting levels, just don’t let them know that you’re recording.
It’s surprising the results you can get when the artist is feeling good and doesn’t realise they are being recorded.
Being a music producer also means being an effective project manager. It’s not the most fun part of the job, but it is part of the job – especially on larger scale endeavors.
Overseeing the project
The music producer has the vision, now it’s time to work out how to realize it. It’s time to take a ‘bird’s-eye-view’ of the project and identify all the components needed to make it happen.
Set a budget
No matter what the scale of the project is, a budget needs to be set – even if it’s just the music producer and an artist. It is a business, after all.
The producer will talk to the artist (and/or their management) take into account all foreseeable costs, such as:
- the producer’s fee
- Studio hire
- staff (engineer etc)
…and so on.
Once the budget comes together, it needs to be submitted to whoever is going to finance the project.
When that’s agreed upon, the producer needs to confirm they actually have the funds to pay for the sessions before proceeding any further!
A safeguard here might be something like setting payment as “half up front, half on completion”, or work out a set of milestones where work doesn’t continue until they pay for each one completed.
Work out a schedule
The music producer needs to determine the schedule for the entire project. Set dates for recording as well as post-production.
It’s a good idea to leave some wiggle room in case the project runs overtime (it’s rare that it runs exactly according to schedule), but put a limit on it; it can’t drag on forever.
Coordinate the logistics
Once a budget and schedule are outlined, it’s up to the producer to book:
- the studio
- session musicians
- any additional staff
- any additional equipment
The schedule may need a little adjustment here, but in the end it ensures that everyone involved is on the same page.
It sounds like a lot to handle, and can be on larger projects, but experience makes it easier. It’s important for the music producer not to bite off more than they can chew.
Ensure deadlines are met
It’s the music producer’s job to guarantee successful completion of the project according to the budget and schedule. Ensure that all deadlines are met and that the results are produced on time and on budget.
Achieving this successfully is what builds a music producer’s reputation as a professional and gets them more work in future.
There’s even some degree of marketing when it comes to being a music producer. No, I don’t mean printing up the T-shirts and designing the album covers.
The music producer needs to keep the target audience in mind, and produce results that are competitive in that particular market.
It’s their job to help the artist say what they want to say, both musically and emotionally, while reaching as broad an audience as possible.
Roles a music producer can fill
Back in the day, the recording process included teams of staff to handle individual roles and try to work as a cohesive unit. Everyone had their task which they performed under the watchful eye of the producer.
These days, however, the music producer can handle many of these tasks themselves. With the way technology has developed, the roles are less clear-cut than what they once were.
The following roles can be considered individual elements of music production, and may fall under the music producer’s responsibility for any given project. However, none of these roles – on their own – are the music producer.
These roles are focused on the creation of the piece of music. Forget about the studio polish and post-production, this is the music in its raw form.
The composer writes original music. When writing music, they decide:
- what is played
- when it’s played
- where in the song it’s played
- how it’s played
The artist won’t always have finished songs. Often they’ll present incomplete ideas that show potential, so it’s the composer’s (or in our case, producer’s) job to “fill in the blanks” so to speak.
For example, the artist might have a decent verse and chorus, but no bridge or intro. This is where the composer would step in and write those parts.
The arranger’s job is mainly twofold.
The song arrangement
In other words, the structure of the song. The standard pop song format doesn’t necessarily work for every recorded piece of music. An arranger can help find the right balance.
- The first verse should be twice as long.
- The solo is too long or short.
- The chorus should kick in sooner.
…and so on.
The production arrangement
In particular, the instrumentation. A classic example of this is when a band collaborates with an orchestra. The arranger is the one who organises the parts for each member of the orchestra to play.
This one’s pretty straightforward; actually playing instruments or performing vocals on the recording.
Obviously, musicality is key here….unless it’s an experimental noise recording where brushing your teeth is considered an instrument.
The engineer carries out the technical operations; i.e. the one at the mixing desk tweaking settings, pushing faders, turning knobs etc.
The engineer also operates the DAW, chooses the appropriate microphone for the task and places the microphone correctly (miking up guitar cabinets comes to mind)
This is the one that many people confuse with a music producer – I know I did when I started out – but here’s the difference:
The engineer is not concerned with how the music is written or structured, only how it is recorded.
By this, I’m referring to the little studio tricks and effects that bring a song to life after it has been written and recorded.
Not crucial to the song itself, more like ‘icing on the cake’. Helps to give the track that little bit extra.
- ‘Crackle’ to simulate dust and scratches from vinyl records. Most commonly used in hip hop.
- Heavily EQ’d or filtered vocals to mimic the sound of an old radio/TV or a megaphone.
- Delay or Echo to emphasize a particular word or phrase.
After the music has been recorded, the mixer balances all of the vocals and instruments so that they sit nicely according to the style of the music.
Once the music is written, recorded and mixed, this is the finalization process that prepares it for release.
So what does a music producer do? They wear many hats, that’s what
So as you can see, there is a lot more to being a music producer than sitting at a mixing desk and pushing around a few faders.
It’s one of the most varied roles in music. It is demanding, but also exhilarating when it works out well.