Not many people are familiar with the role of a producer. They listen to produced albums but are not aware of the crucial role the producer plays in the process of making a truly professional, effective record. Producers do a lot of different things and not all producers do the same things. Basically, the key role of a producer is to provide the integrity of the project, which means they are responsible for focusing the creative vision of the project, for acting as an intermediary between the artistic and technical worlds, and for overseeing the logistics of the project.
Focusing the Artistic Vision
Producers are the people who decide how best to artistically and creatively represent the artist in a release. Using popular music as one example, there might be four different kinds of artist-producer relationships: the "personality", the "singer-songwriter", the "multi-instrumentalist", and the "lyricist". Sometimes producers are songwriters and, in these cases, the producer will select songs either from their own repertoire or, if more appropriate, from the repertoire of other writers. This used to be the norm in the music industry. Elvis (a "personality") wasn’t a songwriter – his producers were.
These days it’s more and more common for the artist to be a songwriter. Singer-songwriter type artists generally will provide the producer with little more than the song and its soul around which producers will craft a new, fully realized arrangement. A good example of this sort of thing would be a songwriter who writes songs as solo compositions on the guitar. A producer would then craft and guide the song into a complete arrangement, maximizing the feel and artistic intent of the original composition. To that end, the producer would hire musicians who would be adept at performing the style and character of the music.
Perhaps the most important affect that producers make on the career of an artist takes place when artists have not yet thoroughly developed a mature ‘sound’ and have not yet found a core audience. Producers provide the critical ear, experience, and objectivity that many artists lack on their own and can turn a good song or album into a great one. The degree of producer involvement, and to what ends the production eventually becomes, is often dictated by the client’s budget.
An Intermediary Between the Artistic and Technical Worlds
In addition to being adept at the musical aspects of songcraft, producers also need to be knowledgeable about the technical aspects of capturing and generating the recordings that represent the song. Whereas engineers are generally technical types – they know the gear and are directly responsible for capturing and manipulating the sound of a recording -- a producer is responsible for understanding the creative needs of the artist and the song, and how to technically achieve the desired result. The producer needs to be able to hear the needs of the material and understand what needs to be done to achieve the result. In some studios, the producer is also the engineer. Such an arrangement may have the best of both worlds, especially if budgets are tight. Either way it is imperative that the client visits the studio, meets with the producer/engineer, and feels comfortable with the people and courses of action and estimated budgets. Then once the recording commences the artist can focus on performing and the producer/engineer can focus on creating the arrangements, running the equipment, and keeping everything sounding as it should.
Recording sessions and records don’t just happen. Producers are traditionally responsible for making sure that everything that needs to happen for the project is accomplished. Generally during the negotiation process a producer will come up with an estimated cost for producing the project, which includes an itemized budget for studio time and paying session players.
Using the film industry as a comparison, music producers take on the equivalent roles of both the film’s producers and directors. They are the project managers and point-men for everything that happens in creating the recording.