Calling Oneself a Record Producer Doesn't Make It So

John Roderick is the singer and songwriter responsible for Seattle's the Long Winters. His column appears on Reverb every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter @JohnRoderick.
It's always difficult to describe exactly what a record producer does. Everyone agrees they're crucial to record-making, but no one, including most "producers" themselves, can quite agree on the job description. Like rabbis arguing the Torah or generals fighting an insurgency, any two producers will describe their job differently. Some producers try only to capture exactly the sound of a band, nothing more. Others try to shape and mold young bands like lumps of food-bank cheese.

Looking for someone to help you with a recording can be confusing and expensive. Producers charge for services that are hard to describe, and bad producers charge just as much as good ones. The world is now rife with people claiming to be record producers, or claiming that their recording work qualifies as "production," when really record production is an actual job with a very extensive list of qualifications. Despite the gradual inflation of the term into near-meaninglessness, producers are crucial to making records. The producer does something important, but what?

The technical side of recording is known as "engineering" for a reason: The physics of using microphones to capture sound is bedevilingly difficult. In the old days, recording engineers wore white lab coats and horn-rimmed glasses and treated their profession like some seriously nerdy business, learning their trade through lengthy apprenticeships and trade schools. Studios were so expensive to build and recording so expensive to do that the recording world was mostly a guarded kingdom.

Producers were a different breed, often breathing the rarefied air of rockstars, their jobs fairly easy to imagine but difficult to do. Producing seemed nebulous, artistic, often invisible. Since the palette of colors available in a sound recording is almost limitless, the job of choosing those colors and setting them down had the quality of magic. Records like Dark Side of the Moon or Rumours are cinematic to the point that they feel constructed rather than performed, literally full of bells and whistles.

When recording equipment got cheaper, punk rock bred a new generation of scrappy recordists who were engineers and producers all in one, willing to work fast and cheap in the spirit of the times. A lot of them were even shy at first about using the word "producer," thinking it too highfalutin. The wave of producer/engineers that followed believed that because Jack Endino made Nirvana's Bleach for $500, the doors to the magic kingdom had been bashed down. Modern recording gear was cheaper and easier to use than ever. Studios were cropping up in basements everywhere. Calling yourself a "producer" was as easy as calling yourself a great lover--who was going to argue?

I've worked with a few of these self-anointed "producers" over the years, in recording sessions so bungled, so negative, so unproductive, that they were as demoralizing as being screamed at by a boot-camp sergeant holding a hair dryer. The proliferation of budget producer/engineers didn't produce a new wave of raw and awesome recordings, it produced a new wave of raw and terrible recordings. One listen to the average post-grunge record tells the whole story.

Now every musician I talk to who records themselves at home refers to themselves as a "producer." In one sense they are, absolutely. They are making magical tinkly chimes, adding motorcycle revs and thunderclaps, and layering dozens of harmonies in ways that used to be the exclusive province of producers, recording themselves with a technical acuity impossible even 10 years ago. But being a good engineer, a good musician, or a clever artist are not the same as being a good producer. Radiohead's OK Computer was a return to cinematic record-making yet at the same time felt homemade, inspiring a whole new era of project recordists to think that just adding more sound effects turned their boring songs into masterpieces.

A producer doesn't just throw keyboard sounds at a recording; a producer is a listener who can talk to musicians, who can tell what he's hearing and be able to say it back to the people making the sound. The producer doesn't just know how to get sounds; he knows what sounds to get. He isn't just trying to capture a good take; he knows which few words to say at the right moment to inspire a much better take. He doesn't just know when to say "I think you can do better"; he knows when to say "That's the one."

The producer's job is hard to describe because a good producer does something different with every artist to make the best album they can, and each album in progress is a unique and singular work. It takes experience, technical know-how, and talent to know not only when the drummer is lagging and the bass is out of tune, but when the guitarist isn't pushing hard enough, when the passion needs a boost, when the melody needs a lift, and when the flawed take is actually the keeper. In many ways this creative listening is a separate skill set, a talent, a gift. A talented producer can be almost invisible for hours or days, setting things in motion and then getting out of the way until they are suddenly needed to say one right thing. This sometimes doesn't look like work, but whole records are made or broken this way. What do Fleet Foxes, Built to Spill, Band of Horses, and the Shins have in common? They all had great-sounding records produced by Phil Ek.

I've worked with a lot of producers and was a petulant artist with many of them. After long hours of brainstorming, experimenting, hard work, and happy accidents, I started to see my work on my own albums as worthy of a "production" credit. The amorphous idea of "producer" seemed like a shorthand for genius/artist, and I wanted to be acknowledged for that too. I didn't have the calm to recognize all the work they were doing, all the preparation and wisdom that went into the small suggestions they made.

Now I'm beginning to produce albums for other people as a production team with my bandmate, Eric--work we both truly enjoy. It's gratifying to put all the things we've learned in years of playing and recording to work in the service of someone else's music. He handles the technical stuff and I appear to be sleeping, producing, dreaming of the right moment to add that sound of thunder and far-off rain.

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