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Do You Need A Producer?
By Jerry Flattum - 04/19/2008 - 09:09 AM EDT

Couple of months back, I decided to use Bob Katz for mastering.  After a few email exchanges and wrestling with his amazing book, Mastering Audio, I told Bob I wanted to achieve the same high quality recording with my studio as that which I've been hearing on a slew of top commercial CDs (Celine Dion, as one example). 

Bob Katz recommended using a producer.  Just exactly what does a producer do?  Do I need one?  Mick Polich, another Muse's Muse Columnist, has some answers.

You can buy Bob Katz's book on his site or Amazon.

I really didn't expect a full blown answer, since I knew such a question is highly complex.  But since having my new studio (Pro Tools LE-based featuring a ton of virtual instruments) and new ears thanx to the ear-training chapter in Bob's book, I've been hearing wide differences in how recordings are recorded.  But can I really compete with Celine Dion?  Whether you like her or not, Celine, and artists of that caliber, use an assortment of the best producers and engineers, with trax recorded by top session players as opposed to using samples, and recorded in the finest studios in the world. 

Bob suggested I try a producer.  It took me two days to digest that suggestion.  He recommended Robert Wawoe and Ed Krout, two producer/engineers he has apparently worked with in the past, with the added note that rates were reasonable.

Helping to solve this dilemma, I reached out to Mick Polich, whose "Blue Collar Rockin'" column on the Muse's Muse has become a steady diet, not to mention that I believe we've become friends.  Mick's response was excellent.  Here's a reprint of our email exchange.  For anyone currently recording, I believe this is a major issue and strongly welcome comments via email or preferably in the Muse's Muse Message Forums

Not included in the exchange, I basically asked Mick about the role of a producer and that I was undecided on the need for one or not. 

You'll need to read this ass-backwards, as it is in chronological order, starting with Mick's first response at the bottom of this page, followed by the remaining email swaps.  Or, just garnish from it what you wish.  Each response is separated by a dotted line to help maintain clarity.

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----- Original Message -----
From: Mick Polich
To: Jerry Flattum
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 2:52 PM
Subject: Re: echoes in eternity


Jerry,
Thank you so much - it means as much to me to help you, and receive some good graces. I know when you're trying to get over a hill, it just helps to have some support. As much as we can be friends thru the e-mails and Muse's Muse, I will take that!
I'll remember the quote now -that's a good one.
Keep me posted -I'll look for the article on line at the site.
You keep a goin', my friend!
Mick

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----- Original Message -----
From: Jerry Flattum
To: Mick Polich
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 3:46 PM
Subject: Re: echoes in eternity


do you realize the meaningfulness of your response?  yeah, i think you do.  but i'm acknowledging it.  i need THAT kind of support more than a dozen producers...i take that back.  i'll take the dozen producers, ha!  but really, so MUCH of this is about belief in yourself.  it's about confidence. 
 
i could write a book on confidence, or the lack thereof, and how confidence has affected my life, good and bad.  some people are VERY fortunate to have support, even from day one.  two good examples:  michael jackson and britney spears.  hate 'em or love 'em, that's not the point.  the point is that their success is very much in large part because of the support of their parents.  tiger woods is another one.  his mother AND father were out on that golfcourse with him at age 5--and they never quit on him.  with parents like that, we'd all be champions. 
 
so whadda you do when you DON'T have that support?  you get strong.  you learn to rely on yourself.  and then, as best you can, you try to build your own support network.  you try to find friends, like the friend i believe i've found in you.  i mean, you're not just giving advice, you're being a friend. 
 
i think that's amazing.  that's what they call "serendipity."  kind of a silly word, but man, when something unexpectedly wonderful happens, well, that's serendipity.  wasn't that kenny rogers first group?  the serendipity singers?  i forget. 
 
so your words are quite powerful ones.  good for you. 
 
have you seen that quote i use in my signature at the end of my emails?  "What we do now, echoes in eternity."  that's from the gladiator, my favorite movie and favorite score by the way.  so when you're strong, and you inspire strength in others, that's something that echoes in eternity.
 
jerry

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----- Original Message -----
From: Mick Polich
To: Jerry Flattum
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 2:32 PM
Subject: Re: Brilliant response - posting on musesmuse - more on the role of producer


Jerry,
I kind of figure you would be good to go on your own -just by reading your columns and past e-mails, you have the strengths to go for this yourself. I hear ya on the time and money part, but good god, I mean, we know enough to pick apart and rearrange what we're 'producing' ourselves - you have the xperience there, pal!
You know, I was thinking about the fears of an artist (and fear comes from the unknown,really) this morning after my e-mail back to you - I mean, the people that are putting themselves in the hands of the label, producer, engineer, other musicians, PR people - all to get their songs out there. It can be scary if you're banking on a bunch of people.
Yeah, you're gonna be fine, Jerry - just trust the ' force ';you'll be o.k.!
Mick

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----- Original Message -----
From: Jerry Flattum
To: Mick Polich
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 3:22 PM
Subject: Re: Brilliant response - posting on musesmuse - more on the role of producer


i did not expect your response.  it was brilliant. 

you essentially answered the question i had about needing a producer.  not completely, as there is some more stuff to bat around here, no question about it.  but, what you did get me to see is how independent i am, that much of what i am looking for in a producer is stuff i'm already doing myself.  i'm making the choices.  are those choices the right ones?  ah, there's a fine line.  one does not know until it's proven in the marketplace.  if i'm successful, then i made the right choices. 
 
i know my strengths.  i know my limitations.  and alot of this issue has to do with budget.  give me an extra few grand and i'll bring in a producer just for feedback!  there's definately such a thing as trying to do to much by yourself, no matter how talented or skilled you are.  sometimes you need to delagate certain chores and responsibilities.  time is a factor.  money is a factor. 
 
i can just imagine the intense fights many major artists have had with their producers and labels over which song to release first off a CD.  and it isn't so much as which song is best, as it is which song is the label willing to push?  even if you think a song is going to be your biggest hit, if the label doesn't think so, they won't push it.  blah, blah, blah.  things like that.
 
i don't have the luxury of someone knowing me AND my music well enough to make those kinds of decisions.  honestly, i don't have anyone telling me this or that song has hit potential, or that it would do well placed in such and such movie, or that an overseas licensing deal is the best route to go. 
 
in the beginning, it's hit or miss.  you either stick or you don't.  once you make it, once you've proven you can be successful, then everybody jumps on board to help you make the next set of decisions. 
 
i can't pay someone to care.  i don't want to fool myself into thinking that i hand over a few grand to a relatively unproven producer/engineer, hoping he/she will believe in me?  i don't think so. 
 
it's a relationship thing.  when i call this producer/engineer, i need to have it in my mind that it will take time to build a relationship.  i can start by "hiring" him to do a specific task, something i can't do, or need help doing.  at some point he says, "you know, i really like your stuff and i really like you, so, i want to do more for you than what you're currently paying me to do."  then you've got something to go on.  now you've got someone who actually thinks you've got the goods to command respectable sales (live or cd, whatever). 
 
there ya go.  am i right on? 
jerry

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----- Original Message -----
From: Mick Polich
To: Jerry Flattum
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 11:05 AM
Subject: Re: Daniel Lanois and the role of a producer


Jerry,
That's o.k., bust the chops anytime!

Well, my take on the whole'producer' thing is this -unbelievably, there are some musicians out there that are completely ignorant about any sort of music theory, or how to set up an amp for good sound, or how to arrange parts in a song, or, if you would like to take it further, how to run a mixing console, or record a track.

So, a producer, from my view, can take care of all those chores, or some of those chores. For me, I can do all of that, within what I know regarding my equipment, my chops, what I can do with what I have for music arranging,etc., so I really don't need a producer, even though I'm teaching myself this crazy VS2480 unit (which is starting to make sense as I record and remix some old board tapes of a buddies old country rock band from Iowa for practice).

Say I want to write and record a song that sounds like an 80's hair metal band. Well, o.k., probably need somebody who can sing that style, so I have hire in for that -then, I could probably handle the bass and guitar parts, so no prob there, maybe get a good drummer, so another hire. Can I do the job with my own equipment? Yeah, I think so, at this point. Can I make it sound like a White Lion or Racer X track from that period - big amp sounds, gated drum tracks,etc. Yeah, I could get close. So, at this point, I'm pretty much my own producer/writer/arranger/musician with a few studio rats involved.

Now, after I record, can I EQ, add effects, and mixdown everything for a master disc? Well, the VS2480 does a hell of a job with that -if I want to go any further, I'd have to get outside my confines, pay some money to have some place master the dang thing for me.

So, the questions are:
1. How much can I do on my own with my abilities musically?
2. What can my recording gear do, and will it satisfy the project?
3.Do I need someone to come on board to mix, arrange, and help me play my music, or to tell me,"No, that song sucks!" which is another producer job if the musicians let them do it-pick the songs, or help the band write the songs, or be the buffer, or the critic, and say when something doesn't cut it.

When producers put there stamp on recordings, they all have signature sounds.
 
Daniel Lanois is famous for these ambient guitar sounds, delayed and reverbed (see the Edge from U2), and very natural drum tones. Bob Rock who's been Metallica's producer for years, is a big rock sounding stamper -huge sounding drums, tight, metal like guitar sounds. George Martin was the guy who wrote the orchestra parts for alot of the later Beatle stuff, and encouraged those guys to experiment with 'found' sounds, like bringing in tapes of birds, noises, or using studio effects in an unusual way.

Producers can range in abilities and what they bring to the table. Years ago, I did a 45 record at a buddies' studio back in Des Moines. Rick (my friend) recorded and ran the board, but I did the song arrangements and played guitar. I had about 20 people involved writing and playing horn charts, or playing the other instruments and singing. So, in essence, Rick and I produced because we told all the musicians what to do and what we wanted, recorded, engineered, and mastered the whole thing before I sent the tapes to the pressing company for the records. I learned alot, as I did when I started recording bands with my 4 track gear back in 1985.

So, Jerry, what can you do on your own so you can get those tunes done in your studio, and then get them mastered, and out to a record company, agent, producer,etc.?

Can you be objective and say,"Hmmm, that song isn't going to cut it" or "Maybe I can arrange the chorus of that song differently". I mean, are you looking to hand out a finished product to a label or agent along with putting the stuff on your website, or is it strictly putting the stuff on your website to distribute that way?

Let's say I wanted to write my own version of a Prince tune -well, I would start dissecting a Prince that I want 'borrow' from, stylewise, say, "Little Red Corvette". O.k., I can't sing like Prince, so I gotta hire someone, BUT I have to write a melody -cool, I can do that, basic notation so they can get an idea, and hopefully, I can translate what I want from a vocal standpoint. Guitar, bass parts, check, I can play 'em.

Now, do I put up a drum loop,or play live drums against a loop for timing? Well, I'll do a drum loop. Keyboards - hmm, maybe hire out for that. Now, once I write the tune and record it, can I process the sounds to make it emulate that 'Prince sound" from the 1980's - gated drums, rubbery bass, fuzzed out guitar tones,etc.? If I can't do it-don't know how, or don't have the equipment, then I gotta hire out, Again, the producer can get in the ground floor of all this, or NOT ( me, I'm enough of a control freak and curious enough that I would try most of these chores out on my own first, then get someone in qualified if I can't make it happen...).

Sorry to take it down to basic details, Jerry, but I'm just trying to convey my thoughts and hopefully get you thinking about this stuff in the direction that's going to work for you. Also, if you bring a producer, can the guy adapt to working with your gear (if he/she is that kind of producer, and if needed - some guys I guess, bring in their own engineers, or just record at places that they feel comfortable with)?

I think also, just from a relationship standpoint, you probably want someone who's going to get you results, especially the ones that you want, and who isn't going to always agree with you for the sake of the project, but is going to get what they think are the best songs, mixes, etc. But you want someone on your side that believes in you, right, but is going to be straight up when needed.

I've done this stuff (producing, recording, arranging) on a local level alot, but never shooting for something bigger, so I hope this all makes some sense to you. I'm glad you shared this with me -I'm here to help, even if by e-mail.
 
I'll probabl;y get some more ideas, but this is a start.
Mick

-------------------------------------------------------------

----- Original Message -----
From: Jerry Flattum
To: Mick Polich
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 11:10 AM
Subject: Re: Daniel Lanois and the role of a producer


mick:
 
i'm gonna bust your chops on this one, but with reason.  i have not yet called the producer/engineer contacts given to me by bob katz.  when i do, i need to know what to say!
 
first, what do you mean by "stamp" on things?  are you referring to the chores they do, like play, arrange, etc.?
 
then you use the equally nebulous term "put their mark," which is probably just another way of saying "stamp."
 
i'm forwarding my email exchange with one of the producer's so far, which includes all my email exchanges with bob katz. 
 
now, here's a catch.  bob katz referred these guys on the basis of my needing a producer.  but he did not say WHY i needed a producer per se.  the suggestion was a response to an email i sent to him telling him i have these new ears now, and can hear the difference between excellent and poorly recorded commercial cds, and that i want to achieve the best possible quality recordings myself.
 
and then, when robert wawoe, one of the contacts, wrote back in response to an email i sent to him, he indicated he was unsure of just what it was i needed him for. 
 
and THAT is my big question.  what DO i need him for?  it doesn't seem like he's as much of a producer as he is an engineer.  for instance, if i was talking to daniel lanois, or a david foster, i'd be totally excited because, well, whatever it is these guys do, you KNOW guys like lanois and foster (and martin) are powerfully influential is ALL aspects of the process.
 
but i'm down here, you see?  and so is this guy robert wawoe.  he has no major credits.  i trust the contact because it's coming from bob katz. 
 
so what DO i need this guy for, mick? 
 
this is really a weird situation.  and i don't want to screw it up by saying something stupid. 
 
here's another little catch that worries me.  let's say, by the grace of god, someone put me in contact with david foster or george martin.  i use those two names because i at least know what powerhouses they are.  see, with daniel lanois, i'm not sure all of what he's done on all those incredibly famous albums.  anyway, if someone handed me over to david foster, chances are i would not be paying him any bucks up front.  why?  because he's so rich, he doesn't need payment up front.  he'd be taking me under his "umbrella," so to speak.  ultimately, he'd no doubt be taking a cut of all the royalties.  and i'd be totally cool with that.
 
or, he'd be paid a fee from the label that signed me, with the understanding that he probably gets a huge up front fee and then shares part of the royalties. 
 
but at the very start, nothing would immediately come out of my pocket because i'm being handled by very big people.
 
but down here, down at the bottom, i WILL be paying this guy robert wawoe, or whoever, out of my pocket.  and THAT bothers me.
 
if wawoe, or whoever, were to say to me, "i'll help produce your CD and in doing so, i'll be entitled to a percentage of royalties."  i'd say, yeah, you got it buddy. 
 
why is that so important?  because he's taking a risk on the basis that he believes in me.  that kind of support is the kind of support i need. 
 
but if i just pay him some kind of up front fee, then what the hell is that?  he doesn't care one way or another, really, what happens to me, as long as he gets his hourly rate (not him personally--i'm referring to anyone i'd pay an unfront fee to). 
 
anyway, your input is most valued.
 
jerry
 
-------------------------------------------------------------

----- Original Message -----
From: Mick Polich
To: Jerry Flattum
Sent: Wednesday, April 16, 2008 6:55 AM
Subject: Re: Daniel Lanois


Jerry.
Well, to my ears, different producers have different stamps on things, and some do it all -play, arrange the music, engineer, mix, sequence. I think I respect those guys alot because if the artist wants to, he/she/them can end up with a collection of songs witha slightly different twist. People like Daniel, George Martin with the Beatles (whom I've always really considered the fifth Beatle -if you get a chance, read his bio,"All You Need Is Ears"), and Bob Erzin really put their marks on albums.
Yeah, definitely a money thing up there on top of the list -it's like Rick Rubin is so hot right now, he could write his own ticket to get into with alot of folks (he just finished Neil Diamonds new CD, and is still working with Metallica on theirs). To me, it's a fascinating position, if worked correctly!
Mick

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----- Original Message -----
From: Jerry Flattum
To: Mick Polich
Sent: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:55 PM
Subject: Re: Daniel Lanois


honestly, i really don't know what a producer does.  engineer and producer get interchanged alot.  lanois produced--whatever that means--some of my favorite albums.
 
to me a producer, just from the sound of the word, puts everything together, more or less.  finds the studio, hires an engineer, maybe plays, maybe engineers, maybe arranges, picks songs, maybe writes, hires session players and backup singers.  i don't know if they put entire packages together then sell it to labels or if labels hire them to put packages together.  maybe both. 
 
it's the money thing too.  knowing what a producer does at the top, like with a major artist already established, is entirely different than what happens down at the bottom, i.e., working with an unsigned artist. 
 
-------------------------------------------------------------
 
----- Original Message -----
From: Mick Polich
To: Jerry Flattum
Sent: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 2:24 PM
Subject: Daniel Lanois


Jerry,
Just sent you an attachment to Daniel Lanois' site for his new CD/DVD that came out over last month(CD) and today(DVD). The DVD is fanscinating -he covers his songs, his approach to art, engineering, and producing (and ya know, he has had some pretty heavy hitters and albums with the Neville Brothers, Peter Gabriel, U2, Emmy Lou Harris, and Bob Dylan. Cool stuff-might be inspiration from a production standpoint.
Mick

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