One thing that I notice being conspicuously absent from the great wealth of information available in schools that I visit (as well as the online resources that deal with the craft of making and producing music), is anyone discussing the overriding philosophical aspects of what we are trying to do when we set out to work with an artist to help them record an album or track. I feel that this leaves a big hole in an aspiring producer’s set of skills when he or she sets out to start doing this job. It is critically important to approach the job of producing an artist with the right intent, or one can not only make big mistakes; one can really do damage to an artist who has invested their trust, time and resources in the producer’s judgement and skill. Here are some basic points that I feel are useful to consider when endeavoring to do good work as a record producer.
1. Remember what your job and purpose are
One of the best, and most challenging things about being a record producer is that the job is different every time that you do it. Depending on what the strong and weak areas are of the artist that you are working with, they may need you to co-write with them, arrange their songs, play one or a number of instruments on the tracks, define what their musical direction will be, or all of the above at the same time. They may also only want and need for you to be an editor, sounding board or devil’s advocate. The other possibility is that your function may change as the project develops. You are there to help the artist make the best album that they are capable of making, not necessarily for the artist to fit into your idea of who they should be.
2. Maintain curiosity in the face of all obstacles
Curiosity is the prime ingredient for successful collaboration on any creative endeavor. When I first meet an artist who I am thinking of working with, the very first quality that I look for in them - other than their talent being interesting and compelling, is a sense of curiosity. If I sense that they feel that they have all of the answers, I will often ask them why they aren’t just making the album themselves, or what they are hoping for me to bring to the project. By the same token, the best way to find magic is to be curious and playfully adventurous in the studio. Curiosity is also the best solution to being at an aesthetic impasse with an artist. Given a confirmed difference of opinion regarding any kind of creative issue, the simple phrase “what if” can be a path towards a better solution, while “we should” can just deepen an impasse or create a power struggle, which does nobody any good.
3. Nobody gets any points for being simply correct or precise
The fact that something is “in time” or that a mix is “well balanced” means nothing to anybody else who is not an engineer, producer and musician. Even to many people who have those labels (including me), it means nothing to hear a homogenous and perfectly blended track. What matters to me in regard to sonic considerations or the proportions of a mix are what they make you feel. Many times the most exciting things about a track are the things that poke out in a way that is somewhat unusual or out of proportion.
4. Always be conscious of the overview
Remember that the primary reason that people have, since the very early days of our species, created music, is to make themselves and others feel something strongly. As Franz Kafka so aptly put it, “Art is the axe for the frozen sea within us.” If a track or song doesn’t make you feel something, either there is something very wrong or missing in the song or track, or that it is just a piece of music that doesn’t speak to your sensibility.
5. Manifest and maintain your sense of respect and admiration toward other talented people who do what you do
The most important learning tool is to find great teachers. This can mean a lot of things; it can mean seeking out people that you admire and who’s work you love and interning for them, or it can mean just studying the work of people who are extraordinarily talented in what you do, or who are gifted in a genre or medium that you are not facile or proficient in. The ego is the biggest hindrance to growth. Many producers who come from a DJ background will be resistant to appreciating the craft of someone from more of a musician background, and vice versa. People who work in one area of a genre will resist appreciating records from another area. The real masters go outside of their comfort zones and are, or become omnivores. Go beyond the boxes! The most exciting things lie in the cracks between other things.
Larry Klein is a 4-time Grammy-winning (and 8-time Grammy-nominated) record producer, songwriter and musician. He was nominated for Producer of the Year at the 2019 Grammy Awards and has produced a wide variety of artists including Herbie Hancock, Thomas Dybdahl, Joni Mitchell, Melody Gardot, Renee Fleming, Norah Jones, Kandace Springs, Ana Moura, Rodney Crowell, John Lee Hooker, Alison Krauss, Billy Childs, Lang Lang, Madeleine Peyroux, Tracy Chapman and many more. As a musician Klein has played with artists like Wayne Shorter, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Warren Zevon, Freddie Hubbard, Carmen McRae, Don Henley, Aaron Neville, Lindsey Buckingham, Bryan Adams and many others. Larry Klein is also the current artistic director for The Beyond Music Project.
For more information visit www.larrykleinmusic.com