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What Is a Music Producer?

Kevin Ott
music producer watching a band playing

The music industry is often bewildering. This is especially true when you peruse album credits, trying to figure out who's who. Today's pop culture is filled with recording artists who do a little producing and producers who do a little recording artistry. While things get hopelessly blurred at times, there is a basic role that a music producer must always play.

What Do Music Producers Do?

A music producer prepares and supervises an artist's time in the recording studio and oversees the technology, business, and creative elements required to deliver a finished, polished album to the public.

When you subdivide a music producer's job description into three primary categories, you come up with a long list of duties that a successful music producer must perform well and on-time (if the album has a deadline enforced by a record label, for example).

1. Technology

Music producers must have a mastery of every technological component of a recording studio, especially the digital and computer software elements. Often the producer works his or her way up to that level of experience.

She might begin as a recording engineer working long hours at the mixing board, computer, and in the studio setting up microphones, cables, and other gadgets. Alternatively, she might not be a technical expert who knows every little advanced feature of ProTools, Logic, and Cubase like the back of her hand, but she delegates those duties to a trusted recording engineer. In either case, she must still have a keen sense of how the technology works and what it is capable of doing.

2. Business

The business side of a producer's job can often be the most frustrating if the producer only takes pleasure in the creative process, but it's essential. If you're an aspiring producer, that means you'll need to have savvy financial skills and know how to track spending and budgets as closely as an accountant.

Every band, unless it's a superstar who has a bottomless vault of money, is on a budget. It's the producer's job to make sure they don't spend too much time in the studio (which is costly as most studios are rented out on an hourly basis) or on other resources that might make them go over budget.

The other side of business is the commercial and marketing roles. If a music producer is working with an artist on a major label, for example, the label might have brand-related demands such as requiring the artist to have a consistent vibe or a specific style and identity to their music. It will then be the producer's job to deliver that musical brand.

3. Excellent Musical 'Know-How' and Artistry

Above all, music producers must have a fiery passion for music that has driven them to learn as much as they can about the art form. This is why great music producers are often walking music trivia machines.

  • This "walking encyclopedia of knowledge" trait especially applies to a producer's knowledge of different musical styles and genres. The most successful producers understand multiple genres with incredible detail, and they have often committed to memory some of the most obscure details from musical styles. They not only know about these styles, but they know how to replicate features of those styles as needed in the recording studio.
  • For example, if a band's drummer is trying to imitate a particular vintage Motown snare sound from an old Bill Withers album, the producer will likely know (or be capable of figuring out) how to capture that sound through a combination of recording technique and musicianship.
  • Or if an artist explains she is trying to create a certain mood but doesn't know which chord progression will capture that mood during a particular section of her song, the producer might remember track three of Pink Floyd's second album, and see right away that the second half of that Pink Floyd song has a certain chord progression that will fit what the artist needs.

The Lesser-Known Roles of a Music Producer

But there's more. While those three categories above cover the basics, producers usually have a knack for other lesser known tasks such as the following:

  • Performer/Musician: Many producers also play the role of studio musician, who play on the album without officially being in the band. One of the most legendary producers of all time, Sylvia Massey, is a skilled singer and drummer who uses that knowledge extremely well. Another example: Grammy-winning rock/Americana producer T Bone Burnett is a virtuosic guitarist who often plays on the albums he produces.
  • Counselor and (Amateur) Psychologist: Recording artists often experience great psychological turmoil in the recording studio when the pressure is on to create and perform. For this reason, good music producers develop skills in motivating and coaching people.
  • Drill Sergeant: On the other side of the equation, sometimes producers also have to be extremely tough with their artists to get them to stick to deadlines, budgets, and creative restraints. It's not uncommon to meet a producer with a director-style Type A personality who has no fear whatsoever of conflict.

Harder Than It Might Look

There's a reason why there's only a handful of superstar, multi-million dollar music producers in the world. It's much harder than it looks. It takes a tremendous amount of hard work, well-rounded skills, and the right combination of personality traits to do everything a producer has to do to succeed in the music industry.

What Is a Music Producer?