5 Things I've Learned About Producing Records

I’VE BEEN RECORDING MUSIC SINCE 1972, AND I’VE BEEN MAKING HIT RECORDS since 1978 with bands like U2, the Dave Matthews Band, and countless others.
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I’VE BEEN RECORDING MUSIC SINCE 1972, AND I’VE BEEN MAKING HIT RECORDS since 1978 with bands like U2, the Dave Matthews Band, and countless others.
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By Steve Lillywhite as told to Jon Regen

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I’VE BEEN RECORDING MUSIC SINCE 1972, AND I’VE BEEN MAKING HIT RECORDS since 1978 with bands like U2, the Dave Matthews Band, and countless others. There are many ways to make hit records, but the most important things I’ve learned aren’t technical details such as mic placement or how much compression and EQ to use. I know all about those things, but they don’t help you make a great record. What helps you make a great record is having a philosophy on life, rather than on a specific method of producing music. It’s what’s remained constant throughout my career.

1. Never Complain in Front of the Artist

If anything goes wrong while producing a project—technical or otherwise—never complain about it in front of the artist(s). If they see you concerned about something, they’ll stop worrying about their performance and start worrying about you worrying! So wait until the artist has left the room, then have a quiet word with whoever can sort out the issue.

2. Keep an Open Door Policy

I learned from U2 and the Rolling Stones to welcome select guests into the studio during the recording process. Playing the music you’re working on for visitors lets you hear the music through their ears. If something in the back of your mind is concerning you about the music, this will help bring it to the forefront. Don’t work in a vacuum—it’s not fair to the artist.

3. Pretend You’re Recording Analog

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I came up during the days of tape, when you had a finite amount of tracks. That forced you to commit to things such as how long a chorus should be, for example. Today’s endless track counts don’t equal endless creativity While recording U2’s The Joshua Tree, Daniel Lanois told me, “If you can’t do it on a 24-track machine, there’s something wrong with what you’re doing.”

4. Solve Problems Before They Happen

Your job as a producer is to make sure that the initial “wow factor” from the start remains throughout the process. For instance, if you know that your singer isn’t particularly inspired at the end of a long session, find out when he or she is at their best and record the vocals at that time. Don’t wait until the end of the process to fix issues that have been apparent from the start.

5. No Food in the Control Room!

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The control room is your temple—it should sound good, and it should smell good. All of your senses should be inspired there. Th at can’t happen if artists and engineers are leaving half-finished food in the garbage bin. Instead, try to have everyone eat together outside the studio. You’ll foster a strong family feeling while simultaneously leaving the control room unscathed.

***Complete Steve Lillywhite discography.