For most indie musicians the idea of hiring a producer might seem high-falutin’, or at least expensive. But the truth is hiring someone to produce your demo or album might be smarter, more practical and cheaper than your think. A good producer makes songs, sounds and arrangements better, and can identify an artist’s or band’s strengths and weakness, then develop a strategy for embracing the former and triumphing over the latter. Smart producers also understand how to make an album strategically, selecting and crafting songs and arrangements to best reach a demographic, ideally without artistic compromise.
Wassaic Way , the new CD by Americana wife-and-husband team Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, is a good example. Over the course of five albums they’ve slowly evolved from a traditional folk duo to more ambitious inclinations aimed at taking them to a larger audience. Their previous album, 2011’s Bright Examples, featured full-band arrangements that strained toward breaking from the traditional folk and folk-pop constraints, and featured Gary Louris and Mark Olsen of the Jayhawks as backing vocalists. But with the addition of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Patrick Sansone as co-producers, Wassaic Way takes Guthrie and Irion’s music to the level they were seeking. Tweedy and Sansone expand on the duo’s already smart, playful lyrics with hook-accenting guitar licks and filigrees, including hand claps and other classic pop signifiers, that clearly lift things beyond the folk world. They also carefully framed the duo’s voices with their own often-exploratory guitars, broadening both the textures and the sheer rock appeal of the core sound of Iron and Guthrie, who is the daughter of Arlo Guthrie and the granddaughter of American folk cornerstone Woody Guthrie. As a result the album is already garnering more attention and airplay than any of their previous releases, led by the psychedelic-pop single “Chairman Meow.”
Of course, hiring a celebrity producer like Tweedy is beyond the reach of most bands, but there are plenty of good producers in the early stages of their careers that are willing to work cheap to build their resumes. They can usually be found in a local music scene or in the credits of other indie artists’ and bands’ releases, and if they’re savvy and looking for work they’ll have a homepage or Facebook page where they can be contacted.
There are three major components to the producer’s role. The first and arguably most important is “preproduction.” The term is most often used to describe the process of selecting and improving songs that will be recorded. And for that, a good producer should have deft arranging and orchestration skills, as well as a strong knowledge of song structure and lyric intelligence. But preproduction is also the stage where a producer may assist with finding a studio and, if necessary, an engineer that fits a project’s budget, as well as help with the selection of players who’ll appear on the sessions, much like a film director chooses his cast. Smart preproduction also requires marketing savvy. Identifying the audience that’s likely to buy an artist or band’s music plays an important role in picking and arranging the songs that are the best match for that audience. Ideally the producer can discover the strengths and weaknesses of the musicians during this stage, and plan on taking appropriate action to get the best studio performance based on those.
The “production” stage involves the actual recording of the album. Here, the producer takes on the role of director, guru, muse, psychologist, cheerleader, negotiator and whatever else may be required to get the job done and mange the people who are doing it. Not all producers are engineers, even in the low-budget world, but many are. And for guitar driven bands it’s good to hire a producer who is six-string savvy and will know how to help you get the best and correct sounds out of guitar, amp and effects combinations. Hiring a producer or studio with a great guitar and amp collection is certainly a plus.
One of the requirements of a good producer is to have a vision of what the album will be like when it is finished before the tape — analog or digital — starts running, and to make sure the artist is on the same page. Ideally, a producer should make an album that is true to the artist’s creative core, even if this requires helping the artist discover exactly what that core is during preproduction. The producer should also be flexible. Sometimes going off script in the studio, leaving room for inspiration, can lead to capturing essential performances. That’s how Radiohead’s breakthrough single “Creep” got on tape. The band was playing the song, which they considered a throwaway, for friends in the studio before a session, and producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade had the good sense to hit the “record” button.
After the album is recorded, there’s “mixing.” That’s where an educated set of ears with knowledge of outboard gear really comes in handy. Bands and artists who mix themselves tend to sabotage hooks and other interesting events in songs by mixing certain parts too loudly, or failing to delete elements that have been recorded in the interest of helping the best parts of songs. They also tend to bury the vocals if they’re rock bands and place them too high in the mix if they are singer-songwriters. Most studio newbies also tend to underutilize the spectrum of sound. For stereo, envision the vocals and instruments arrayed across a 180-degree field. For Dolby, the world is your playground. If you’re not experienced at mixing, it’s best to sit back, watch, listen and make occasional suggestions while the producer and/or engineer brings the recording to life in this essential stage.
The final stage of album making is “mastering,” where various EQ and compression parameters are applied to the finished mix. This requires yet another specialized set of ears. Chances are your producer can suggest a good, efficient mastering engineer based on experience. It’s good to have the producer at the mastering session to ensure that the project comes back as it was envisioned. Poor mastering can take the life out of an excellent recording and mix. On the other hand, it’s best to leave the kibitzing to the qualified. One Nashville mastering studio, which does superb work, has evolved a strategy for foiling meddlers. It changes $600 for mastering an indie album if nobody involved in the recording attends the sessions. If a band member, producer, engineer, manager or other party want to be present, there’s a $200 up-charge.
Some producers will go the extra mile and help an artist or band with various aspects of an album’s post-production life, like market planning or shopping for labels or distributors, but that’s well above the requirements of the job title.
Photo: Joanna Chattman