“Even within the business the level of understanding of what they [record producers] do and exactly how they do it is quite hazy” states Richard James Burgess in The Art of Music Production.
So What Is The Role Of A Record Producer?
The roles of a record producer can’t simply be listed and defined. They’re indefinitely changing, between bands and between genres. Producers use artists in different ways, and artists use producers in different ways too. There are certain variables that shape what kind of producer an artist might need for their project.
So what are these variables? What is the role of a record producer? And are they vital to the creation of a record?
A producer can simply be an overseer or effectively be the final member of the band, and anything in between. They’re generally regarded as the person who plays the job of the primary engineer for the project (records, mixes and masters the audio) and may also assist to a degree in guiding the creative process.
Essentially, they take a live song to a commercially viable product. Some producers manage to guide the process without even stepping foot in the recording studio and may make use of an assistant engineer. However, in some cases, the producer will do everything.
“Fifth Member of The Band”
The most difficult kind of producer to define however is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Martin Hannett, co-founder of Factory Records and producer of Joy Division, was one of these ‘difficult-to-define’ producers.
Warsaw was a punk band from Manchester, UK. Their raw, punk sound and natural talent turned heads, but it wasn’t until they became Joy Division and started working with Hannett that they became truly legendary. Hannett didn’t just make them more popular – he completely changed their sound, and is a prime example of how pivotal a producer can be.
Have a listen to their track Interzone from their self-titled album (as Warsaw). It was produced by Joy Division themselves.
Then take the exact same song, played by the same musicians, re-produced by Martin Hannett for release on Joy Division’s first commercial album – Unknown Pleasures.
The differences between the two versions are astounding.
A Producer’s Touch
Hannett’s version bears much higher production values, despite only being recorded one year later. The mix has a darker timbre throughout, with the original crispiness of the guitars subdued in favour of a heavily compressed, chunky rhythm section with a more prominent bass guitar.
The drums are tighter and cleaner, with an almost ‘dance-rock’ feel. They’re performed with pristine timing and uniform dynamics – perhaps due to Hannett’s obsessive attention to detail. To the unknowing, they could have been played on a drum machine.
The vocals are now a two parter, with Peter Hook being bumped up to a co-lead vocal position and the two of them are drenched in a cavernous reverb. The result could be described as a different genre from how they started out, cementing Joy Division’s place as post-punk pioneers.
Hannett was not interested in the original Warsaw sound – it was messy, and ill defined – as punk was. So what did the producer do? He changed their sound; not by doing all the work, but by becoming the catalyst to their creativity, and bringing out ideas that would perhaps not be unearthed without the help of a producer.
Looking at Hannett’s other productions, such as 11 O’Clock Tick Tock (U2, 1980), his signature production techniques such as a prominent, reverberated snare drum are apparent. It shows that even across different bands, a producer’s signature style can be heard.
The producer’s job also depends heavily on the genre of music being produced. Within the dance-pop and teen-pop genres, for example, the producer will likely follow a more ‘All-Singing-All-Dancing’ style of production.
Take Rebecca Black’s Friday for example (stick with me), it’s her name on the cover, but it’s Patrice Wilson’s writing and production in its entirety. I’ll spare us all from linking that one…
This is an extreme example of where the record’s sound is one hundred percent reliant on the producer, and the ‘artist’ is the image, rather than the musician.
A Producer is Like a Film Director
Referring back to the defining of a record producer, one term that fits is ‘auteur’. André Bazin’s ‘auteur theory’ describes the director of a film as the ‘author’, with their own creative vision and input being reflected. This auteur theory can be applied to record producers.
Think of the band as a group of actors and the producer as their director. As pointed out by Moses Avalon, “The producer is like the film’s director … He or she tells the actor how to play the scene…”. It’s effectively down to the director as to how they are spoken even if an actor is speaking their own lines.
The target market is rarely made aware of who produced a record, especially within rock music, but they should be. Film directors and producers are named more often within film advertising; the words ‘From the director of…’ appear frequently.
Another Kind of Artist
A handful of record producers such as George Martin, Phil Spector and Dr. Dre became household, celebrity names; but the majority of them don’t come close to the image of an artist.
Does this mean that an artist always has more of an impact on the record? It depends. What can be concluded is that a producer can be an auteur, to the same level as the artist in some cases. Depending on the genre and the artist, a producer’s role can range from messenger, to overseer, to creative catalyst, to an artist themselves. It is clear that the producer is vital in the creation of a record.