Jon Cohen Music

Producer Arranger Composer


So, What exactly is it you do? Part 1

I’ve come to realise that record producers are a little like actuaries, or Lord Mayors, or (the whimsically titled) Ministers without Portfolio.
We know these jobs exist, but often have only a vague inkling of what they actually involve.

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been asked to clarify what exactly a record producer does. Over the years, obscure relatives at family reunions have asked if it’s “some kind of DJ?...”
Others have assumed my job is to go out and find talent (some sort of impresario?), and even those who understand that my role is more to do with making the actual records, have assumed that the job is purely technical (The guy who twiddles the knobs in the studio on the day of recording).

I thought it might be useful to clarify this subject, and perhaps remove some of the mystery around it.
As mentioned in the Dec 15 blog post, a record producer is a little like a film director. The producer is hired by whoever is financing the project (usually a record company) to be responsible for the entire process of creating a record (either a single, or album or sometimes a few tracks on an album).

Below, and continuing in the next blog post, I’ll outline what the process typically involves:

1) Planning and Budgeting
This is simply agreeing on the timetable for getting the job done, as well as what it will cost (eg. what size orchestra shall we use? or how many days in the studio will we need?)

2) Pre-production
This is getting everything ready for the recording. In many cases this will mean actually writing or arranging the music.
Producers broadly fall into two types: Those who are musicians, and those who come from an audio engineering background. Being of the former persuasion myself, I like to get my hands dirty. I’ll often spend days in the studio on my own, sitting at the piano, or with guitar in hand, figuring out how a piece should be structured. Sometimes I’ll mock up the entire orchestra using sounds on a computer so that everyone involved can hear what the real thing will sound like. This is analogous to an architectural model. The client may say, please move the door from that wall to this one. The record company may say, please make it more epic in the final chorus, or could we have french horns in this bit?
The pre production phase also involves recording any musical parts that will act as accompaniment to the main recording. Once everything is approved and ready, we move to the next stage:

3) Recording
This is where the rubber meets the road. The artist (whether a singer, violinist or an entire orchestra) comes into the studio, and the producer’s job is to bring out and capture the best performance they can give.
This is a delicate and subtle process and requires sensitivity. Essentially, the task involves listening very critically to each take, and trying to then feed back how it could be improved, in a way that doesn’t undermine confidence or morale.

Some producers get this bit wrong. I’ve seen it before and it’s not pretty.

Producing is not about wrapping fragile egos in cotton wool. It’s about understanding that when people stand in front of a microphone and do their best (knowing that every note is being scrutinised by someone who’s job it is to find faults), clumsily worded criticism can totally destroy the performer’s confidence, making a magical take even less likely.
The skill is to subtly guide an artist towards a better performance by highlighting what’s good about what they’re doing, whilst making suggestions on how it could be even better.
If this sounds condescending or patronising in any way, then so be it. Trust me, we’re all human, and we all need a little love. It works.

Next time in part 2, we’ll look at what happens after the recording is done, how the record gets finished, and answer the one question that every single person who walks into a studio for the first time asks.