Music producers, engineers, etc. Job description?

I’ve been reading a lot of biographies of bands lately and it occurred to me I have no idea what a producer does during the recording of an album. I know some are considered legends and some are shit. I know that bands either love or hate them regardless of the record’s success. But what the hell do they do?

Write new lyrics? Give direction? (I always figured what you got on an album was what the band meant the song to sound like.) Anything else I’m forgetting to mention? And what does the engineer do? I’m guessing he sets the levels of all the frequencies, etc. But what else does he do?

Any info on this would be helpful.


It’s hard to say these days because the lines between producer, engineer, and songwriter have blurred quite a bit in the past decade with the advent of cheap digital music production tools. A guy writing music in his bedroom on his laptop is just as much a producer as Rick Rubin in a state of the art studio. But, here’s my take on it since I’ve worn all 3 hats at one time or another.

I would say a producer is someone who runs the recording sessions and keeps them moving smoothly as well as gives input regarding musical direction, radio-friendliness, etc. Does the band need a session musician for a string part? The producer schedules it. Is a song structure just not working? The producer says “move this chorus here” or “take out that last verse”. Is the singer having trouble getting a take just right? The producer calls for a break and dials up the hookers and blow to loosen him up. :smiley:

The engineer is more the technical guy. He knows exaclty what mic, amp, compressor, etc. to use to get the sounds that the producer and artist want. He’s running the board, patching cables, and keeping gear in tiptop shape.

In genres like Pop, Hip Hop and R&B - a producer will frequently get songwriting and engineering credits because they’re usually responsilble for a large part of the musical bed that talent is singing or rapping over. Most electronica is like this as well, where in fact one person could do the whole shebang by his or herself.

Record producers operate a lot like movie directors, in the sense of creating the overall project. What they do can range from just twiddling the dials, to writing songs, setting an artistic direction, creating a “sound”, and being an editor/sounding board. And in some cases, they even put together the act as one of the pieces of the final creation - as with many “boy bands”.

Also, when you speak of “what the band meant the song to sound like” you are ignoring the many vocalist who operate without a set band. In the old days, part of the value of a producer like Phil Spector or the assorted guys at Motown was that they worked with a set of studio musicians who provided a certain sound that a series of singers worked with. Which is still the case today with many pop singers, and also in Nashville.

Finally, a lot of bands start out working with a producer but begin to work more independently once they have a better understanding of how to create in a recording studio.

The producer is like the director of the movie – he’s the one responsible for the final product. He’ll suggest what needs to be done to get the “right” sound, if any additional musicians or instruments are needed. He may write backing instruments. This is all in collaboration with the band, but usually a band will trust their producer enough to consider his suggestions seriously.

An engineer handles the recording equipment, setting up gear and running the sound board. Think of him as something like the film editor. He will follow the general outline given by the producer, but also make his own adjustments in order to achieve it.
N.B.: the film equivalents are very rough; a director has more control over a film than a producer does over an album.

I would suggest reading Geoff Emerick’s book Here, There and Everywhere. He talks about the roles various people play in the recording process.

I haven’t read it, but George Martin’s All You Need Is Ears is also supposed to be good.

When Todd Rundgren is producing a band, he gets copies of all the material the band has written for the project and listens to it, provides extensive notes to the band about song structure and lyrics and chooses a playlist. For instance, with XTC’s Skylarking, he came up with the concept for the album being a summer’s day. In his case, he’s also the primary engineer, so there is a lot of overlap. And, like others have mentioned, the producer provides the artistic direction for the project. With Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, he played guitar, did most of the background vocals, orchestral arrangements, whatever.

Recording engineers usually concentrate on capturing the sound of the various instruments on tape - setting up microphones.