The Production Team: De-mystified
I've had a fun time asking non-music people some questions. "What do you think a record producer is?" "What do they DO?" "What is a sound engineer's job?" "You talk about the magic being in the mastering...what is mastering, anyway?"
Here's how I see it. Let's go back forty years to break down all the roles of music production, because they all kind of blend together these days.
I can record a song on my phone today and share it with the world on YouTube in five minutes.
Not so long ago, in order to play into a recording device and listen back to that performance on loud speakers, you had to hire a recording studio, a producer, and an engineer. The recording studio would provide a team of technicians, a chief and assistant engineer, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of recording consoles and tape machines and instruments and outboard gear and, of course, great sounding rooms isolated from the noise of the outside world. The artist and producer would have come together in some way and decided to collaborate on a project...either a label put them together, they connected at a party, the artist cold called to producer, you get the idea. Now let's break down each position on the production team.
The Tech. The studio tech fixes what's broken. He's salary, has a crew of apprentices, and can fix any microphone, console channel, tape machine, etc... All of the assistant engineers are diligent about noting problems that they encounter, and make sure the tech is aware of what needs fixing. A great tech staff keeps everything reliable and sounding great...you can have the utmost of confidence in your gear.
The Producer. This person is ultimately responsible for the outcome of the record. They are the director of the film. If it sucks, it is (usually) their fault. This job varies the most...sometimes you have to be very hands on, and sometimes you just have to stay the fuck out of the way. They CAN work with the artist in pre-production...tweak lyrics, song form, and chord progressions when necessary. They get all the songs ready to be recorded. They CAN hire the band of musicians they want to play. They CAN write out rhythm charts for all the players. They put the team together...the better they are at this, the less they have to do and say during the sessions. They book the studio, coordinate schedules, make sure everyone is paid. They spend hours listening and thinking about what approach will best serve the song, throughout every stage of the entire process. They either execute the artist's vision, or provide a vision if needed. They set the vibe of the recording session and keep it fun and productive. They know enough about the technical side of recording to communicate the sound they want to the engineer, and they also know at least enough about music to read the charts and communicate with all the session players. They steer the ship with no one seeing their hands on the wheel. THEY GET THE BEST PERFORMANCES POSSIBLE FROM ALL OF THEIR MUSICIANS. They are half psychologist on the recording sessions. They approve the final mixes. They choose and approve the mastering engineer. They deliver the final product to the artist.
It's a really big job that comes with a lot of responsibility, and part of it is figuring out what role you need to play, because each project is unique and requires a tailored approach. And if you miss the mark, you've wasted tens of thousands of someone else's dollars. Producers often have a "sound" that develops over time. This is a very elusive, creative and ever-evolving craft.
The Tracking Engineer. This person's job is mainly to put the right microphones in the right spot to get the producer and artist's desired sound. It can get complicated with large live recording setups...involving make shift recording booths made out of blankets to stringing up tents in the room...how much bleed is acceptable? Recording, listening, tweaking placement, etc...whatever it takes. You have to accommodate the producer's desired approach with your skill. Aesthetically, the tracking engineer is crucial to shaping the initial tone and sound of what he receives from the properly placed microphones by choosing the microphone preamplifier (tube or solid state? transformered or transformerless? they all sound different.), and making the decision of whether or not to apply EQ and dynamic management (compression). This is a very creative art form of its own and one never stops learning. The engineer is also responsible for track management, cue mixes (musician's headphones), operating the console, tape machine operation (protools these days), AND GETTING GREAT SOUNDS. The song should sound pretty much be able to stand up on its own two feet right off the tape machine (or computer) with the faders at unity. This makes the next step (mixing) much easier. Old recordings are recorded like this...new ones not so much. The team of house engineers at a studio have an internship and assistant program, which trains young apprentices to be the next generation of engineers.
The Mixing Engineer. A talented engineer (often a veteran tracking engineer) that is an expert at balancing, tone shaping, dynamic management, ambience and effects, creative soundcraft. The mixer takes all of the ingredients in front of him, and turns in his best version of the dish. Over time, the mixer develops a style, and just like the producer and tracking engineer never stops growing and learning.
The Mastering Engineer. Mastering seems to have the most hype around it. So many people I talk to think the magic is in the mastering, when I think the mixer has way more impact on the song. The truth is you can lose the baby at any step of the process. Mastering is the final stage of tweaking. The mastering engineer inherits the final approved mixes, makes sure they gel as a family with any last chance EQ or dynamic management, decides the timing and spacing between songs, and decides the final level of the mastered album. They can add the encoded information that tracks how many plays a song gets on the radio and displays the text information on car stereos, etc. Mastering is famous for starting "the loudness war." Also an art form of its own and can have a powerful artistic impact on the music.
Some people just engineer. Some people just mix. Some people produce and engineer. Some people produce, engineer, mix, and master their projects. (I love mixing tracks that I didn't record. Makes mixing a totally different thing. I love taking projects from inception to completion. I love engineering for other great producers. Keeps the job(s) ever interesting.)
That's my view on the classic model.
These daze with EDM, DAW, and sample libraries all the roles are jumbled together...and the music sucks, too.