HomeBlogscaptaindownbeat's blogDylan Bell: So, You're a Producer. What Exactly Do You Do, Anyway?

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Big news around here: I have been asked to produce the next album by the legendary a cappella group, The Nylons! Not only that, they've asked me to be the "everything guy": I'll be involved in choosing songs, writing the arrangements, recording, editing and mixing. Since this project will take up the next six months of my life, I figure this is a good time to start an "A Cappella Producer's Blog", sharing whatever I learn as I go through this exciting process from start to finish. I guess I may as well start at the beginning:

What exactly does a Producer do, anyway?

(These guys have worked with well-known, Grammy-winning Producers in their 30-plus-year career, so I figure I'd better know the answer to this one!)

Everyone knows what the artist or the engineer does in a recording project: ask what a producer does and everyone will give you a different answer… or none at all. The Producer's role is a slippery, hard-to-define one and varies wildly according to the artists and the project. With the Nylons, I've been asked to fill a number of roles. In my last major project with the Swingle Singers, my role was considerably different: the group came to me with their songs chosen, their arrangements done and rehearsed, and even their shortlist of mixing engineers chosen. So, in trying to answer this question, I figured I'd look at the the things these projects have in common.

So, here's a basic distillation of what I feel the Producer's job is.

1. to be the one with their eye on the Big Picture
2. to bring their sound… and help the group find theirs
3. to guide the recording process
4. to provide an "insider/outsider" perspective
5. to bring a skill-set most suited for the job

Let's break this open and see what we get...

1. to be the one with their eye on the Big Picture

This is the big one, and in a sense everything that follows is a reflection of this. A project works best when everyone is free to do what they do best: the arrangers write their heads off, the artists sing their hearts out, and the Music Director makes sure it is all executed brilliantly. The Producer then ties all these elements together, always with a goal towards what the end product will sound like. The Producer is the one who deals with the "vision" for the album… or more accurately, the Producer takes the artists' vision, clarifies it, and makes it a reality.

The Producer can always see the both the forest and the trees. While the Producer needs to have attention to detail, they keep a birds-eye view on the project from start to finish. This lets everyone else hone in on their particular roles, while the Producer offers suggestions here and there to make a contiguous whole out of all the parts.

2. to bring their sound… and help the group find theirs

Many producers are defined by their "sound": when an artist is looking for a particular flavour to define their next album, they often start by finding a producer that has the sound that they're looking for. With most producers, their sense of their sound develops as a natural extension of their skills and experience.

Some producers superimpose their sound over the artists' music… but I like to take a different approach. I figure my job as the Producer is to enable the artist to sound like themselves… with my own sonic personality as a secondary, enabling aspect. All the best groups, acap or not, have a sound that no-one else can truly replicate… because instead of trying to sound like someone else, they just sound like themselves. In the case of the Nylons, they have a fantastic, signature sound. My job then is to work with this wonderful sonic personality, and take it in a particular direction via the songs we choose, the arrangements I write, and our recording process.

3. to guide the recording process

This means quite a few things. The Producer knows what needs to be done, in what order, and in how much time… and therefore, at what cost. If you use a producer, bring him/her in at the early planning stages and include them in budget talks: usually an album can be done at just about any budget level, and a good producer knows best where to spend and where to save.

Once in the booth, the Producer runs the show (often with the MD riding shotgun). She's responsible for getting the best out of every singer. She gets to know the voices and personalities of each singer, and knows whether or not it's worth going for that extra take or worth moving on to the next verse (or bar… or note…). The Producer also sets the tone of the recording sessions. An MD is often ruthless in their quest for perfection: the Producer, with an eye on the Big Picture, keeps the mood cool and happy. Believe me… good (and bad) vibes make it "to tape", and if you have a good time recording, your listeners will hear it.

In post-production, the Producer oversees the mixing process. They may do it themselves: if not, they manage the mixing engineers, lending an ear and balancing the needs of the artists, arrangers, and MD.

4. to provide an "insider/outsider" perspective to the project

Even when everyone is on the same team, you still need a referee. At any given point in the process, someone will get stuck on one particular detail -- a bit of voice-leading in the chart, an interpretation/phrasing issue, a choice of reverb in the mix -- and simply won't let go. For them, that is the Most Important Thing In The World at that moment, and of the thousands of micro-decisions that make up the recording process,  they feel like the project will make-or-break on that one decision. What comes across as insane pigheadedness to everyone else is usually just a sign of that person's passion for the project, manifest in one little detail. The Producer may or may not have artistic control over a project… but at the end of the day, someone needs to make the call, and it's usually the Producer.

Being able to externalize aspects of the decision-making process is one of the healthiest things a group can do. Like it or not, group politics will enter into the process, and in the intense environment of the studio, tensions and frictions can run high even with the friendliest of groups. People may bring previous baggage to a project, they may have agendas to impose (usually benign, but present nonetheless) and people will keep score of whose decisions "made it" and whose didn't, which can have lasting effects on a group.

The Producer has to remain above all this. They arrive to a project with no baggage, and don't have to live with the group forever after decisions are made. So, they can afford to remain neutral, and/or to make decisions for the good of the project, not for the good of themselves. For the artists, since final decisions are externalized or at least ratified by an outsider, there is often much less resentment amongst band members if a decision ends up in one person's favour. With a neutral party making the final call, they will (usually) trust that it's the right decision and accept it.

That all said, a Producer should come to a project with a mandate from the group. There will always be stronger and weaker members, and somewhere along the line the group has made figured out how to balance group-unity and happiness with making the best music possible. The band should give an indication of how this balance works, and the Producer can then make decisions accordingly. That way, the stronger members don't dominate the record any more than the group will collectively allow, and the Producer can find ways of creatively including the weaker members in a way that doesn't "bring down" the record.

5. to bring a skill-set most suited for the job

Many producers, regardless of their wide area of expertise, are brought on board as a specialist in a style or method of making music: there are hip-hop producers, rock producers and classical producers, each with a very different sense of process. In my case, though I produce other kinds of music as well, my "specialty" is a cappella, and in my last two projects, I was brought on board specifically because the artists needed an "a cappella guy". It really is a different beast from any other sort of recording, and if you're looking for a producer for your acap album, regardless of who you get, make sure they "get" a cappella recording. I've seen many cases where first-class groups have hired first-class producers… but they weren't acap producers. It wasn't a good match, and both producer and artist ended up with a confusing and frustrating experience. All in all, I'd rather have a lesser-known acap producer over a brand-name non-acap producer any day.

Well, know that I know what I'm supposed to do, it's time for me to get to it! Stay tuned for the next blog…

-Dylan

About the author:
In a word…multifaceted. Juno-nominated, multiple-CARA-winning Dylan Bell is a performer, composer/arranger, music director and producer/engineer. As an a cappella singer, arranger and producer, Dylan has worked with many of the world's renowned vocal groups including Cadence, the Swingle Singers and the Nylons, as well as his own groups Retrocity and the FreePlay Duo. He’s played stages across the world from his native Toronto, Canada to Stockholm, Sweden, to Calcutta, India, and his compositions and vocal arrangements are performed everywhere from Arnprior to Zurich. Dylan also has a secret life as a freelance multi-instrumentalist, touring internationally as a pianist, bassist, and guitarist. Visit Dylan at www.dylanbell.ca