Should you hire a producer or do it yourself?
By Eric Ferguson
So you want to make your own record? Can you do it yourself? How much will it cost? How long will it take? Do you need a producer?
Investigate the perils
For many of us, our interest in recording runs parallel with a dream to make and distribute our own music. It is not just microphones and electronics that excite us; it is music and our unstoppable urge to share it. Recording a full-length project is a difficult, expensive, and time-consuming affair. Attempting a project like this alone is especially challenging, as you need to maintain artistic objectivity while simultaneously balancing the roles of artist, engineer, and producer. An investigation into the perils of self-production is imperative in avoiding the common mistakes that frequently waste creativity, time and money.
At an initial meeting with a band or artist who consider recording their first album, I always ask the same loaded question: “What do you really want to do?” At that point I usually hear about grandiose dreams of double-length concept albums and sure-thing rock stardom. In retort, I often suggest recording a three-song demo or five-song EP.
Full-length or sampler?
Project length is the most important factor to consider when planning the recording of your masterpiece. Full-length albums, although the standard in the music business for much of the last century, are exponentially more difficult and expensive to record than a short collection of an artist’s best songs. A band or solo artist should consider the real cost of an album: months of extra time, stress on interpersonal relationships, and money spent in advance on those less-than-stellar songs that inevitably populate the end of most CDs.
Analyse your potential listeners when you debate the merits of a full-length project. Do you already have a fan base that you know will buy the record and appreciate the extra songs? Do you intend to impress label A&R or publishers even though they rarely take the time to listen to an entire project? I usually suggest that the non-established artists wait on doing full-length records until they have guaranteed sales or outside financial backing. Streamlined projects, with fewer and better songs, can be recorded for less cost and pain and can be used far sooner for publicity and sales. Additionally, in today’s world of single-song downloads and overtaxed short attention spans, a reasonably priced several-song musical product may be more effective in drumming up a buzz and creating fans for your music.
The ability to record a professional project at home without financial backing is a relatively recent and exciting development. Although painful to the industry itself, the rapid change to project studio and home recording has given a greater number of musicians the ability to capture and distribute their own music. But it comes at a cost—some proven industry traditions are often overlooked in the isolation of the home studio. One obvious loss is that self-funded home-recorded projects rarely involve a producer, let alone a separate engineer. This leads the home-recording artist to the difficult task of balancing engineering, production, and artist duties. This “hat changing” is constant, and musical quality inadvertently suffers.
I recommend that artists use an outside producer or engineer whenever possible. Although readers of this magazine are familiar with the roles of the engineer and artist, the job of the producer can be enigmatic. This is because producers have traditionally filled many different shoes in the record-making process. On the musical side, producers usually partner with the artist in decision-making. In this way the producer offers objective and professional opinions about diverse issues such song selection, arrangement, instrumentation, performance quality, and take selection.
On the technical front, producers are responsible for making sonic decisions, directing the engineer, and insuring the engineering is professional and appropriate. In the managerial realm, producers often coordinate sessions, hire musicians, and ensure that deadlines and budgets are met. In the role of psychologist, producers sometimes must coax the artist into transcendental musical performances or mediate between egotistical band members. Ultimately it is the producer’s job to deliver a complete product at professional and competitive standards.
To unknown artists and bands planning a self-recorded album, the importance of big-shot producers in a big-budget record can seem remote and unrelated. Without financial support, most bands and artists will undoubtedly ask themselves the same questions: Do I (or we) really need a producer? How could we (or I) afford one anyway? What are the dangers if my band or I decide to self-produce?
No, you do not need a separate producer. Yes, you can rely on your own instinct and still finish your masterpiece. But the bottom line remains: The recording of a professional-sounding project, one that is competitive and sticks out among the wide world of other albums and demos, usually requires an outside expert’s assistance.
Good help is hard to find
The search for the right producer can be as lengthy as the recording process itself. For new artists at the zero-budget level, options are slim, and you may only have access to local individuals who produce part time. Since these “producers” frequently double as recording engineers or professional musicians, they can bring other useful tools to the recording process. In fact, it is quite common for these multi-talented “producers” to own their own studios. Upon searching for a producer, you will probably discover that most “producers” are musician/engineers that can record you at their own studios and contribute musical performances to boot.
Locating producers at the local level is done the same way you meet new musicians. Check out classified ads, talk to the people at music stores, and network at concerts. You may also want to contact local recording studios, as many are owned by producers or offer staff production services.
Once you have located a potential producer, submit a demo of your music and request their discography and demo reel. If both you and the producer respect each others’ work, meet and discuss budget and goals.
Deciding upon a producer requires a difficult leap of faith. More important than the sound and success of the producer’s past projects is the way he or she communicates. The producer should be respectful, honest, and share your musical vision for the potential project. Hang out with the producer and remember that, if involved in a lengthy recording project, you will undoubtedly spend difficult time together. Does the producer treat you like the artist, or does he act like he’s the artist? Does the producer plan to change your music drastically or does he just want to capture what you normally present? To be safe, plan to first record one song together to audition the producer’s method. Every producer has a unique way of working and you want to be sure that it complements your music and style.
In most cases, if a producer likes your music enough to want to work with you, they will be willing to work “on spec.” Spec work is common in the record industry; although most producers will require an up-front fee, under a “speculation” contract the producer exchanges his or her services for a percentage of possible future profits generated by the artist’s music. The details and complexity of these “Production Agreements” can vary wildly, and can often be quite similar to the recording contracts offered by major record labels. Samples of spec agreements can be found in many recording industry text books, including This Business Of Music, by M. William Krasilovsky and Sidney Shemel, and Sound Advice, The Musician’s Guide To The Record Industry, by Wayne Wadhams.
Creative control is another form of payment necessary to give a producer working on spec. Although control is the most sensitive of all issues in the record making process, artists should expect to be somewhat flexible when it concerns the opinions of a producer essentially working for free. Creative control, and deciding who has the final say in any matter, should be discussed in advance of any work done. Creative control should be considered a commodity, and the non-established artist should understand that some control will have to be relinquished in exchange for outside production help.
To the unknown artist working at home in a cocoon, the thought of finding, impressing, and compensating an outside producer probably seems more difficult than recording the project themselves. Please remember that any outside assistance, even if not from a “producer,” can help you maintain objectivity while balancing the roles of artist, engineer, and producer. Fundamentally, an artist needs to be free to create, and there are times when only an outsider’s assistance can make this possible. Selectively using friends, bandmates, other musicians, and professional engineers can help you, the artist, focus on performance and other musical decisions.
If you work entirely alone, there are several techniques available to maintain balance and objectivity. First, start by setting honest and realistic goals for the project. Are you planning to make a commercial record, a demo, or are you recording for yourself, family, and friends only? If your intention is to produce a commercial work, acquire and constantly listen to professionally produced records in the same genre. This reference will repeatedly educate you to the required sound quality and musical norms of the style. Remember, these pro albums are your competition!
Second, plan your project as completely as possible. Determine length, style, audience, budget, and if possible, the songs you are going to record. This pre-production can later be quite useful when you will undoubtedly fall into moments without focus. Reminding yourself of your audience or planned album length might someday save you from recording a completely useless and extraneous song.
During the recording process, there are several other tricks perfect for aiding the artist bouncing between production, engineering and creative roles. When producing myself, I usually split a recording session into several mini-sessions. For example, when recording an overdub, I first play “artist” and vibe with the song to learn and practice the part I want to add. Second, as the “engineer,” I spend whatever time necessary to dial in the appropriate sound. Next, as the artist again, I focus completely on the performance and ignore any production and engineering esthetics. Finally, I put on the “producer’s” hat and evaluate what I have recorded. I will usually have to repeat this process several times until the “producer” is completely satisfied. For me, the trick to this process is taking significant breaks between “changing hats.” An hour or more not focusing on the overdub returns my objectivity and minimizes wasted work.
Using a digital audio workstation can also help the self-producer. While being the “artist,” I usually record and save countless tracks and takes of an overdub. This saves critical listening and decision-making until the editing process, a time in which the “producer” takes over. While some pundits will lecture you about the merits of honest, unedited, or non-pitch-corrected performances, remember that you want to impress people with your music, and that in-tune and in-time performances are the norm on the professional records most people listen to.
For both professionals and the self-producer, using a separate and outside engineer for the final mix has many advantages. First and foremost, some engineers specialize in mixing and can bring great expertise to your project. These “mixers” are well versed in creating competitive mixes and have learned a plethora of tricks from countless projects. Second, an outside mixer brings an entirely new view to a project. New life, new opinions, and new creativity can transform a stale project into something exciting. Finally, new blood may also alert the artist to mistakes made, and help fix failure-prone flaws. Locating and selecting a local mixer can be done the same way local producers are found. To contact a professional engineer whose name you have seen on a record credit, search the Internet for managerial information or look in an industry reference like The Recording Industry Sourcebook.
Despite the frustrations that self-recording and production can generate, it is a fabulously rewarding method of artistic expression. Outside help, though not necessary to a home recording, should be investigated if a commercial-quality product is desired. No matter what method you pursue, try to stay objective while balancing the roles of producer, engineer, and artist. Good luck!
Eric Ferguson is based in Los Angeles, where he gets to participate in a wide variety of projects when he’s not working on his upcoming CD. Check out his website at www.bluecupmusic.com.