The Neptunes are back in the studio with rapper Pusha T, and my music-geek heart is beating out of my chest.
The Grammys named the Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) Producers of the Decade for the Oughts for their string of mega-hits. Artistic peaks from that epic run were 2002's Lord Willin' and 2006's Hell Hath No Fury from Clipse (Pusha and his brother No Malice). They may not have topped the charts, but the rap duo mind-melded with Williams and Hugo on these LPs. They are still jaw-droppingly good – equal parts drug-rap grime, pop experimentation and audacious lyrical flexing.
Relistening to those records has me thinking about the special alchemy between some artists and producers. Record junkies know to follow the careers of their favorite producers as much as individual bands. But what the hell does a music producer actually do?
The answer varies from producer to producer, session to session. Some are svengalis that puppetmaster every aspect of a track, like Max Martin (Brittany Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry). Martin, who has defined pop radio since the late '90s, described his production style to the LA Times, saying, “I want to be part of every note, every single moment going on in the studio. ... I'm a perfectionist. The producer should decide what kind of music is being made, what it's going to sound like – all of it, the why, when and how.”
Other producers thrive on collaboration. Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith Kayne West, countless film scores) is a multi-instrumentalist genius in his own right, who certainly could take over any recording session. Yet, watch him in the above clip describe how he prefers to shift his role to fit a given job.
A good producer is the master of the art and science of recording. They understand what a studio can do technically and the emotional impact of each sonic choice. They're also the first listener for an artist, an essential set of extra ears as a song is born.
Some producers like Rick Rubin and Dr. Dre are stars themselves. But many have toiled in the shadows. Pioneering ’60s producer Tom Wilson doesn’t get nearly enough play for made extraordinary contributions to records by Bob Dylan, Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, and the Animals. Andy Warhol barely attended sessions for the Velvet Underground’s seminal self-titled debut. John Cale entirely credits Wilson for running the sessions, telling one biographer: “The band never again had as good a producer as Tom Wilson.” Simon and Garfunkel’s first record flopped, and they had broken up. Wilson completely reworked “The Sound of Science” without them. When it became a hit, the duo reunited and became huge.
That’s not so different from how modern pop songs are created. Producers like Martin are increasingly the actual songwriters, constructing digital beats and hooks that a name-brand artist is added to at the very end. Digital recording has made it so almost anyone can be a producer, but it’s always been a strange mixture of different skills.
If you go back to the dawn of record labels in the early 20th century, you can trace the rise of producers coming out of three different jobs. There were engineers overseeing the relatively primitive microphone and equipment set-ups, many of whom came from live radio. There were band conductors, leading and arranging the ensembles of all shapes and sizes. And there were Artists and Repertoire (A&R) reps discovering talent and shepherding their careers.
The recording business exploded, and studios grew more sophisticated. Labels needed a leader to pull together songwriters, singers, musicians and engineers. Remember that artists who played material they wrote themselves in the pre-Dylan era were the exception, not the rule. The suits generally wanted a third party to oversee the whole shebang.
Enter the record producer. They were as much the creative visionary and factory foreman as their director counterparts at Hollywood studios. And like filmmakers, some producers took on mythical status. They became famous for being able to conjure hits and pull genius out of performers. Recording became more than simply capturing a live performance, but an art form all on its own. The rise of singer-songwriters gave artists more control, but producers continued to hold on to much power, especially with young, inexperienced groups.
The power dynamic continues to go back and forth. I find it fun flipping through my record collection and categorizing the producer’s impact on each recording. Here are the unscientific archetypes I came up with for different kinds of producers...
Examples: Quincey Jones, Phill Spector, Lee Scratch Perry, Mutt Lange, GZA, Linda Perry, Max Martin, Timbaland
Role: Unifying force that orchestrates all aspects of production
To me, this wildly divergent group is united by always being in the driver's seat of their recordings. Stereotypically, they're a cigar-chomping megalomanic playing mind games. Think of Spector holding the Ramones at gunpoint and forced them to do endless takes while recording End of the Century. At the more compassionate end of the spectrum, an Architect producer takes control to help artists discover their best selves, mold ensembles into more than the sum of their parts, and uncover magic no one else knew was there.
Examples: Sam Phillips, Alan Lomax, George Martin, Steve Albini
Role: Focuses on capturing music how the artist intends to it be heard
Sometimes the most significant way a producer makes their mark is by keeping their fingerprints off a recording. I know I'm stretching by calling archivist Lomax a “producer.” But his field recording approach set a template for “authenticity.” Along with Phillips, Lomax set off multiple music revolutions by finding the American South's early folk, blues and rock talent and sharing them with the world. George Martin used his cutting-edge know-how and grown-up musicality in service of furthering Lennon and McCartney's brilliant (sometimes insane) ideas. Albini rejects the title of “producer,” preferring to be billed instead as “Engineer.” Working with everybody from Nirvana to Plant & Page to Joanna Newsome, his whole ethos is about executing against the artist's vision, not his tastes.
Examples: Jerry Wexler, Rick Rubin, Berry Gordie, Don Was
Role: Coaches and encourages artists while giving them freedom
There are certainly music moguls who demand an Executive Producer credit for signing checks. But there is something to be said for big-picture thinkers who guide artists through inspiration, wisdom and taste. As the kids say, they are there to “vibe.” Rubin was a very hands-on architect during his Def Jam days, but I suspect it's been a minute since he mic'd a bass cabinet. I don't know that he even comes into sessions every day. Who cares if he knows how to get the best out of both Slayer and Johnny Cash?
Examples: Nigel Godrich, Prince Paul, Dave Friedemann, Brian Eno, Jon Brion, Jack Antonoff
Role: In the trenches with the artist, co-creating the songs and sounds
Some musical collaborations go so deep it becomes impossible to separate the artist from the producer. It’s like having another band member operating the recording console. If Radiohead made an album without Godrich, would it still be Radiohead at this point? The industry’s biggest stars like Taylor Swift, Lorde and St. Vincent seek out golden boy Antonoff because he is down to collab as equals. The danger here is the lines blur so much that Bob Rock thinks he’s your full-time bass player.
Examples: Prince, Brian Wilson, Q-Tip, Grimes, Kayne, Trent Reznor, James Murphy, Annie Clark
Role: Being the true auteurs of their own recording
The story of the last 60 years of Western popular music is about the studio as instrument. These musicians have mastered it. I want to underline that self-producing is stepping up to fulfill all the above duties for their recording sessions. DIY is different from “do not need.” These are unique talents that can see the whole picture and deliver what plays in their heads.
As much as mega-producers rule the charts, we’re also living in an era where technology has made self-producing easier than ever. We may not be able to play everything like Prince could or hear undiscovered worlds as Wilson could. But the MacBook I’m typing on right now is about 100 times more sophisticated of a studio than Sun Records. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I suspect easy job titles will gradually fade. Young musicians seem more willing to pull from everywhere and defy old paths than ever.
Producing might not look the same forever, but I can’t imagine we’ll ever not need it. Being able to truly listen and help new music find its form is an incredible craft.
Interested in digging deeper into the lore of producers and understanding what they actually do during a recording? May I suggest three sources that I love as a fan...
The 33 and 1/3rd Book series
150+ short books by incredible music writers. Each explores the story of a single album. Some are academic histories, some personal fan letters, but they give you a fascinating peek behind the scenes at how artists and producers made your favorite records. (It's hard to beat Loveless, Paul's Boutique or Zaireeka for pure studio madness)
Tape-Op: The Creative Music Recording Magazine:
Producer Larry Crane's 25-year labor of love is an essential resource for anybody who cares about the art of music production. Crane and his collaborators do long-form interviews about passion and technique with record-makers from all walks of music about passion and studio technique. It's very inside baseball, but cruising their archives is illuminating, even for folks with a loose hold on recording tech like me.
Show Us Your Junk YouTube series:
Earthquaker Devices makes crazy great guitar pedals. They also produce these crazy great mini-documentaries where they tour the studios of real-working producers. There's plenty of gear porn but also unique insights and stories. I am always up to listen to any passionate craftsperson talk about the tools of their trade, no matter how little I know about it. (Try the Steve Albini or Sylvia Massy episodes to start)
Scott is a writer who loves tacos, rock ’n’ roll and comedy. He lives on the north side of Chicago with his wife, kids and dog. Follow him @metropotamia