So, You Want to be a Producer?

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on in April 1999, contributed by then Contributing Editor Bob Lichty. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Producer? Or, is that an Engineer?

The conversation is almost always the same.

Them: “Hey Bob, this is Wayne from The Next Big Thing Band and we want you to produce our album.”

Me: “Okay, sounds cool. So, when do you want to get together for a pre-production meeting?”

Them: “What’s that?”

Me: “Well, that’s when we go over the songs, the arrangements, direction for sound, those types of things.”

Them: “Oh, don’t worry, we’ve got that all taken care of.”

Me: “Well, then, what exactly is it you want me to do?”

Them: “You know, record us.”

Me: “Oh, so you want me to engineer your album.”

Them: “Yeah, that’s what I said right?”

I’m not sure when the words “producer” and “engineer” became so interchangeable. I have to guess it was some time in the 1980s when guys like Hugh Padgham and Daniel Lanois came along, producing and engineering albums (and doing both incredibly well). But the truth is, these are disciplines that are, in many ways, entirely different.

The Roles

I have always said an engineer’s role is to get the best possible signal to tape. This definition seems to work pretty well across the board, as it works for tracking engineers, mixing engineers, and mastering engineers. It also throws the word “possible” in there, which allows for the fact that engineers are not always given the best of circumstances. (“Okay, we want to do something different, so we’re going to put the whole band on a platform in the New York Subway System during peak hours to see what happens.”)

The producer’s role is akin to that of, say, “The Grand Poobah.” The producer’s role is to assure that the client is getting the best project possible. This includes making sure the right engineers are used, the right musicians, the right facilities, heck, even that the best food is chosen for lunches. In short, the producer looks after the whole project, start to finish, with the client.

The Tools

The tools of the recording engineer vary according to his or her discipline. For instance, a tracking engineer needs a set of favorite mics that can be used for a variety of applications. A mix engineer will generally have a favorite pair of monitors. A mastering engineer will have some favorite equalizers and limiters. However, there is one set of tools all engineers must possess, the ears. I have been able to teach friends how to get signal through a board and onto tape, but I can’t teach that friend what makes a kick drum sound right for that song, let alone why it may need to sound different for other songs. I suppose the other key thing that all engineers must possess is patience. Sometimes it’s hard to fathom why someone may want twenty versions of a tune on tape, or ninety-one mixes (as Bruce Swedien had to do with Billie Jean), but the engineer has to play along and keep getting the best signal to tape.

The producer ultimately needs two things, a great set of ears, and an even better Rolodex. A producer’s ears need to hear different things than an engineer’s. Rather than hearing if the guitar tone is sounding just right, the producer has to hear if the part being played is right, as well as if it is the right tone, as well as how it fits the overall vision of the song, and if this particular tone has been used too much on the album already (whew!). There are producers out there who enjoy tackling the whole project themselves; arrangements, recording, mixing, playing, whatever they can do. I have worked like this, and I genuinely enjoy it. However, I am also willing to admit there are people out there better than me at certain things. This is where that Rolodex comes in. I have a good list of engineers I trust, musicians I know will work well on any style with any client, arrangers that can handle strings, horns, rhythm sections, vocals, or a fife and drum band for that matter. After all, when I become a producer, I am put in charge of making that project the best it can be.

The Education

There are approximately twenty seven billion recording schools out there (this may be a slight exaggeration). All of them have merit, as long as they offer one thing, hands-on experience. There is no better way to learn to be an engineer than to lock yourself in a studio for hours at a time trying anything you can think of. While there are great books on the subject, and I’ve read many of them, you just can’t beat sitting in front of a console trying out the various functions and seeing what they do. The books and schools will teach you the general rules; the practice will teach you how to break them. The other education comes at your local CD store. Start listening to projects that you think sound great. Listen with headphones, listen in your car, listen in any environment you can. Just listen. Why does it sound like that? How did they get that sound? Then, try to get that sound. It’s the best education there is.

The producer’s education depends on how involved in the project you want to be. When I’m doing arrangements, I find my background in music theory and composition comes in handy. But when I’m doing “Rolodex” productions, I find that my CD education and a lot of psychology help. Keeping personalities and egos at bay is tough, which is why being able to get along with many people and to handle crisis situations is pretty vital. As far as the CDs go, it’s almost the same as the engineer’s. Listen. See why that song was produced that way. Why did they use strings? Why drum machines? Why bagpipes? See if you can figure out what made the producer do something a certain way. Then, go try and do it. There’s a great saying that’s been around a while: “A good producer borrows, a great producer steals.” As much as we hate to admit it, it happens a lot. We hear something cool, and then try to do it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the best way to learn is to try it.

What Now?

So, in the age of home studios on every corner, what’s happening with the roles of producer and engineer? In some ways, they are more blurred than ever, with budding songwriters working up their own tunes and recording them onto their hard drive and distributing them over the web. But in many cases, I see either a great producer, or a great engineer. Let’s go back to that songwriter. I’ve been asked more than once to mix a project that someone did at home. Their ideas for the songs are usually incredible. Since the artist is working at home on his or her own time, they have been given freedom to explore. Unfortunately, many do not yet possess the ears to get what they really want on tape. So they end up with a great idea with some inherently bad sounds. The flip side of this is the person who owns a lot of cool gear at home and really knows how to engineer, but doesn’t possess the ability to help a band get a bit more creative with a tune. End result, a project that sounds great that lacks any creativity or spark.

So, it would seem that the producer and engineer do really still go hand in hand. There are many out there that can do both very well. But I feel that it is important for all of us to recognize our strengths, and emphasize those. We can certainly find others to help fill in the gaps of our weaknesses. After all, a Rolodex isn’t all that expensive.

Is it?