One of the most exhilarating parts of recording a record is collaborating with players, producer(s), and engineers who ‘get’ our music. When we find a match with good chemistry, our songs take on new life with more focus, more energy, and the ability to more fully connect with our listeners.
A producer is a musician who oversees the recording project. On small records, this person may co-write many of the songs, program the tracks, hire and schedule the players, book the studio, work with the songwriter to decide which songs and how those songs will be arranged, work with the vocalist to get the best takes, and sometimes even mix the record when all the tracks are laid down. On a large project a producer may take over any of these roles often with the exception of serving as the mix engineer, or may only handle the financial plan for the project.
The job of a producer is to bring out the best in the artist – a role that sometimes involves sweat and tears. He/she helps to translate our vision as songwriters and artists to the rest of the world. Even great writers can have a solid vision but fall short in expressing that vision in a way that is accessible to listeners. As an objective ear, a producer can help us to share that vision with a broader audience when our ears have numbed, having lived with a song for so long.
A producer should be the guy with the experience – someone you trust to know the ropes. A typical producer may produce 10 records a year, while as artists or writers, we might produce one record a year or every two years. He/she is also the guy with connections. In order to make the high quality imprint of the music we’re trying to create, he/she knows the right musicians and engineers.
Producers can be affiliated with a particular studio he/she works out of often, or independently employed and contracted by publishers and record labels to work with particular artists. Sometimes producers start out as songwriters, getting a foot in the door through innovative writing and production of demos and the projects of development artists.
Finding that match that makes our songs better than we songwriters can make them on our own can be difficult. To talk more about how to identify producers we might like to work with and convincing those producers they might like to work with us, I’ve spoken to producer/engineer Jan Teddy. His production house, SonicArt Productions, has produced and engineered tracks for independents and major label releases. These artists range from Big Band to country to jazz, pop, hip-hop, R&B, and rock, have charted nationally and internationally, have been nominated for Grammys and appeared on such broadcasts as “America’s Favorite Band.” To learn more about Jan Teddy and SonicArt Productions and the services his production house offers, visit www.sonicartproductions.com.
Q: What are some ways songwriters/artists should research and identify a producer for their next project?
A: That depends on genre. If it’s hip-hop or R&B, you can research on myspace and find people that make beats. Find projects online that you like the sound of and then contact those people. For rock, pop, and singer-songwriter genres, find music online that you like – and in these markets that music doesn’t have to be in your genre – and then take note of who the producer is. Globally, it’s worth mentioning that Grammys and awards don’t necessarily matter in this industry anymore. There are a lot of people with little talent who have great awards, and a lot of incredible musicians and producers who really capture amazing music and art who have little recognition. Awards can be a matter of who you know rather than a reflection of musical talent or quality.
Q: What do you look for in a songwriter/artist who comes to you needing a producer?
A: Something unique, and at the very least, the commitment to finding something unique within themselves. People like Paramour, Linkin Park, Sarah Bureilles – there was something unique about each of these artists when compared to the cross-section of their own genre. It’s okay if the artist doesn’t know what that element is, but he/she is going to have to take the time and money to invest in finding out what that is within him/herself. As a producer, I want to know the artist believes he/she is worth it – I don’t want to be part of a losing game. After all, I’m going to invest my own time, effort, and potentially money in this artist myself, so it’s important the artist feels as strongly about those investments as i do.
Q: What are some things a songwriter/artist can do to appeal to a producer he/she wants to work with?
A: Have a significant quantity of songs to choose from, lyric sheets, charts, and work tapes. The side effect of having a lot of songs to choose from is that I can avoid the ‘this is my baby’ syndrome and really hone in on the strongest songs, and also work on those if necessary with the artist. It’s hard for artists to be objective about their own songs, but it’s imperative the artist is open enough to listen to the producer as a reflection of the public ear, too.
Q: What kinds of questions should a songwriter/artist ask a producer in a first meeting?
A: After playing a few work tapes, ask what artists or vibe seem to carry on the vision of these songs. You just need to talk. Ask the producer to play you something that he/she feels would be a good reflection of the vibe you’re going for. Or, you might propose the deal of working for half-price on the first song you do together. Many experienced producers will specifically request a two or three song synergy in order to figure out if they are a good match. You don’t need to commit to a whole record right away. A good producer should be interested in knowing some things about you personally, or at the very least, where the songs came from. Keep communicating. Losing a thousand dollars to find out whether this producer can take you to the next level is worth it, where losing 10 grand on a full record to find out whether the synergy was right or not makes it hard to trust the producer throughout the process.
Q: Are there any red flags a songwriter/artist might notice in determining if a producer is not right for him/her before agreeing to work together?
A: Most red flags don’t appear until after that first 3-song demo working together. If the producer is highly opinionated and has a lot of strong ideas, that can be an amazing thing. But if those ideas counter your own personal vision, and it turns out that he is the perfect producer for another approach, it’s time to cut your losses. At the same time, you can also assess whether it was your vision that was limited, and that this producer brought you to the next level. The type of music this producer has arranged in the past is not as relevant as the quality of the music the producer has arranged. If the producer can’t translate your vision into music, run. For instance, if the producer isn’t able to adequately translate into musical terms your emotional intentions to the musicians participating in the project, the project can go south quickly. Amongst great producers there are great players, but great producers can simply be excellent musicians without top-notch chops on any particular instrument.
Q: What kinds of details does a typical contract include between a producer and the artist/songwriter?
A: Duration of the project (be flexible – art doesn’t always flow as you want it to, however there are reasonable limitations to extensions), scale per song or per hour, budget – drawn up by the producer and okayed by the artist (the producer is then solely responsible for spending within that budget), when payments should be made to producer and musicians and studio, etc. Producers should protect themselves from artists who need a ton of revisions. In that case, the artist treats the producer like a puppet. Remember that a producer isn’t just a puppet that you can pull 50 revisions out of as you please. A producer is someone whom you trust, and if you are convinced you need 50 revisions to get the sound you’re looking for, perhaps you should consider self-producing instead. In that case, artists are generally not looking to be grown by another valuable musical visionary, but simply looking for an engineer – someone with the technical know-how to record whatever it is the writer/artist has in mind. Just remember, even highly capable artists like Sting use producers on their records, whether for feedback, new ideas, or simple all-around personal and musical support. If a producer has his own equipment, remember that you’re not only paying for experience and another musical vision, but for a fairly large investment of time acquiring the skills to produce and mix, and often tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars of musical equipment.
Q: Do you ever work long-distance with a songwriter/artist, producing or engineering tracks and utilizing the mobility afforded us by the internet?
A: Absolutely. An artist from Norway heard some of my tracks and requested that I work with him on his next record. We exchanged ideas over email, he sent me examples of music he likes, and over a period of time I kept him updated on the recording process as he requested. After I sent him the final mixes, he sent me his wishes for adjustment, and we finished the project from there. It was a pleasant experience for both of us, using our strengths and working in synergy sending tracks back and forth and communicating online.
Thank you Jan for your expertise. I have one final question. Would it be alright for a songwriter/artist to contact you at SonicArt Productions, and if so, how should he/she do that?
A: Go to www.sonicartproductions.com. The best way to get a hold of me is by email. These days you’ll find me producing a few records a year while more of my time is spent mixing records for other producers. If I’m not able to help, I’ll certainly try my best to help the artist or songwriter find what he/she needs.