So, What Is A Music Producer...?
by Scott Rowe
Scott Rowe is a multi-instrumentalist and producer based in Brighton.Starting out as a session musician, Scott has played drums for Kelvin Jones, Gabriella Cilmi and HEATH. Now, he’s developing his skills as a music producer, working with new and up-and-coming artists on developing their music as well as exploring his own creative endeavours.
Most people could identify iconic musicians that have graced us with their songwriting over the past sixty years, but if I mention the names Eric Valentine, Andrew Scheps, or Shawn Everett, you’d probably have no clue who I’m talking about. Eric Valentine produced Smash Mouth’s All Star, Third Eye Blind’s Semi-Charmed Life and Queens of the Stone Age’s No One Knows. Andrew Scheps worked on Hozier’s Take Me to Church, Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life, and Red Hot Chili Peppers’s Dani California. I could write extensive lists of famous songs spanning multiple genres, each shaped by a single person.
Historically speaking, the music producer is the person who supervised the entire recording process. They’d facilitate the creative process along with the audio engineers - the ones responsible for capturing and recording the instruments and voice - helping the artist actualise their vision. The producer would also be responsible for budgets, hiring studios and engineers, as well as scheduling the entire process from start to finish. The artist might be the songwriter, but the producer is responsible for making it all happen.
So, who are some of the most important producers from the past sixty years? Listed below are what I consider to be important stamps in time for music production, as well as my own inspirations. Many songs lay unassuming on old hits compilations, marking technological as well as stylistic game-changers in the world of Music Production.
Berry Gordy is undeniably a household name. If you have been sleeping under a rock (or are Gen-Z) and don’t know this name, I assure you that his work will be most familiar. This man is responsible for Motown, allegedly borrowing $800 from his father to start the record company. Motown operated out of Detroit and was most popular in the ’60s and ’70s.
Notable Works: I Want You Back by the Jackson 5, You Can’t Hurry Love by the Supremes, and Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson. Berry Gordy also takes writing and co-writing credits for 200 songs, give or take.
If you’re more rock-oriented then it’s impossible to ignore Roy Thomas Baker. It’s easy to sum this man up with one song; Bohemian Rhapsody. The technical prowess of creating a production like this in 1975 is quite remarkable. We’re talking about a pre-digital era in music production - you couldn’t just move a piece of audio or stretch and manipulate it like you can on a computer today. You have to understand that there was nothing like this song back in the day - truly a fusion of art-rock, opera, and pop. Masterful vocal choreography makes every turn even more incredible. It’s been documented that the a cappella intro took an entire week to record, comprising 160 vocal layers. Bear in mind, only 24-tracks were available on the tape machines of the time! Many of those vocals would have been consolidated or summed to only a handful of tracks, leaving room for the rest of the instrumentation to be recorded, cut, and arranged.
Mutt Lange is another icon of rock music production of the 1970s and the 1980s, known for big anthem productions and defining an era. Lange began his journey in music as a session musician in the ’70s but started his production career working with the Boomtown Rats and Graham Parker. Though associated with the classic rock genre, Lange brought his dense and somewhat complex arrangement style to the pop world when he began working with Shania Twain in the early 1990s, later working with Lady Gaga on the Born This Way album.
Notable Works: Highway to Hell by AC/DC, Rock of Ages by Def Leppard.
Producers have been integral in connecting and developing artists - Jimmy Lovine is the reason Stevie Nicks has a solo career, and Tom Petty co-produced Bella Donna with Jimmy on her debut solo album in 1981. He also convinced Bruce Springsteen to give his song Because the Night to Pattie Smith - this track didn’t make the final cut for his own debut album Born to Run. For much more information on this, I’d highly recommend The Defiant Ones on Netflix.
Notable Works: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, Because the Night by Patti Smith, and Bat Out of Hell by Meat Loaf.
One of my personal heroes is Steve Lillywhite. Steve’s works are interesting and notable for defining Siouxsie and The Banshee’s post-punk style, in particular, the drum sound - I’d recommend the album The Scream. His works are some of the most eclectic, on a personal level - the work he did with the Dave Matthews Band (DMB) really caught my attention the most. The interweaving melodic arrangements around vocals, violins, and saxophones completely changed my perspective on musical arrangement itself, appreciating the randomness of multiple recorded performances.
Like any instrumentalist, one's taste in producers is very subjective and personal. Steve’s work with the DMB is the reason why I frequently use a technique called double-tracking. Double tracking is essentially the recording of the same part twice (or more), be that a vocal, a guitar, a horn-type instrument, or maybe even drums (though less common). This technique reinforces a recorded performance, it is a style of overdubbing. Famous examples can be heard when listening to John Lennon’s vocals on many of his recordings with the Beatles. The same can be heard in the majority of Nirvana’s Nevermind, where Kurt’s voice and guitars are almost exclusively double-tracked.
Another favourite producer of mine is Butch Vig, the mastermind behind Nirvana’s Nevermind. I have listened to this album for a good 22 years and still love it. In several interviews, he tells the story of Kurt’s frustration with the track Something in the Way. I highly recommend a watch of this video. Butch is also a fantastic drummer and musician, as well as co-founder of the band Garbage. His production credits include Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters, and many many more.
Music production has changed greatly - no longer is a large studio such as Abbey Road required, now a kid with a laptop can create incredible music with the bare minimum of tools. Each decade that passes, we are left with nuggets of wisdom and innovation. In a way, each era can be defined by a particular development in music technology in the form of a song or album. To me, there are two very important releases that have defined how music is produced now:
The first is Ricky Martin’s La Vida Loca released in 1998. This song was groundbreaking in terms of the way that music producers and songwriters would make records going forward. It was the first song to be recorded completely in the digital domain; specifically into a Pro Tools rig. Pro Tools was the first DAW (Digital Audio Workstation - software for recording for the uninitiated). This meant that no analogue tape machines were used to make this record - truly a milestone in music production. Up until this point, it had been hybrid, blending old and new technologies. The song also blends real instrumentation and software instrumentation, for example, the synthesised horn parts were backed up by a real musician playing the trombone and flugelhorn. The same can be said for most of the percussion too, using plugins (software within the software) to enhance, mangle, and manipulate the audio. The percussionist on the track, Rafael Solano, didn’t have a huge percussion set up with him on the day of recording, so they pitched a standard-sized cymbal down three octaves to give the illusion of a gong cymbal.
You might be surprised to know that Daniel Bedingfield’s Gotta Get Thru This, released in 2001, was the first Bedroom Produced pop hit and thus the term Bedroom Producer was coined. This track created the framework for what was to come in the next 20 years. Skrillex, Flume, and Steve Lacy came up from producing records in their bedrooms.
The most notable and possibly the most successful is of course Billie Eilish, working with her brother Finneas on her debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? In a small bedroom in LA. Both have stated that there is nothing like making a record in the comfort of your own home.
As technology evolves, music studios can exist in our laptop and desktop computers - these are portable recording studios capable of capturing pristine audio. This of course says all we need to know about the evolution of bedroom production. Now, anybody can record anything, anywhere! This democratisation of technology eliminates the requirement for costly, high-end studios - Independent artists are their own producers, taking accountability for their own art.
These days, a producer has more involvement in the songwriting, the sound design (choosing the right sounds for the production or creating them from scratch), the recording and engineering processes (capturing the vocal), and mixing and mastering a track to be ready for distribution. Producers also need to be emotionally available to the artist, understand their needs, and be able to read their emotions. Are they happy with their sound, are they comfortable? Is this a suitable working environment for them? What this essentially means is the modern-day producer is as much of an artist as the artist and songwriter is - a confidant, if you like.
So, what is a Music Producer? A Music Producer is a kind of sonic mouthpiece between artist and audience. We aim to help artists get the most out of their songs, their personal hang-ups, their stories - as well as their vulnerabilities. We try to do right by the artist, allowing a safe landing from any potential criticism that they might endure on their journey through the music business.