Do Producers Still Matter?

In the era of Ableton, do producers still matter?

An email roundtable with Toronto indie musicians and producers about the decline of the classical record producer.

- Mar 10, 2015

There was a time when the work of a producer was integral — and not only in capturing a song, but writing the thing, too. Near any classic recording you've laid your paws on credits some specialist; big shiny names like Phil Spector and Brian Eno come to mind. They are "the helpful collaborator, the arranger, the songwriter, the tasteful sound expert," writes Ben Cook of Fucked Up and Young Guv, himself an influential producer in Canadian music. Today, when there are more producers than ever before, fewer and fewer songs receive that sort of treatment.

Back in 2014, when Toronto songwriter Michael Rault had Cook, Max Turnbull (Slim Twig), and Anthony Nemet (of Actual Water) produce his cassingle Nothing Means Nothing, Chart Attack Editor-in-Chief Richard Trapunski initiated an email roundtable with the four musician-producers about their disappearing art. Do producers, in the classical sense, still matter?

Today, Rault dropped a video for "Nothing Means Nothing" and Young Guv released his debut full-length, Ripe 4 Luv, so we decided to dust off the chain. It's a chunk of raw insight from four musicians who value songwriting, arrangement, and tone, maybe, a little more than most.

Why do you think the producer's role is being undervalued in modern music, and how do you think it's affected the music landscape?

Ben Cook: I think, over time, everyone has just become their own "producer." Everyone with a laptop who figures out how to enable the recording function and throw on a few plug-ins thinks they are some sort of genius. The "producer" in the classic sense (not to be confused with the "Prod. By PersonWithLapTop&Ableton" producer) — aka the helpful collaborator, the arranger, the songwriter, the tasteful sound expert — has been completely lost. I'm not trying to be some old fart talking like modern music-making is awful, but I know as a collective we've all discussed how important this role can be. With the Rault project you have an amazing song writer with an amazing ear who was open to involving the energy of other people to make things more fun, and just bring the songs to life in a way they may have not had he recorded in his bedroom. There's also the organizational importance of a producer which I think is really key, and makes a great addition. Booking studio time, helping the project go forward, scheduling things, which anyone involved in music knows can be frustrating.

Young Guv - Crushing Sensation

I love a lot of bedroom recordings done in solitude, we've all done it, but I know the music I have made with the ear of a trusted outsider trumps all music I have done by myself. I believe more so than ever people need to hear, "hey, this song or sound ISN'T working, maybe we could try this...." I'm never making a record without a "producer" ever again.

How do you react to that attitude, both in terms of your own music and as a producer for others? We can use the Michael Rault record for specifics, since you all worked on it.

I'm interested in working with bands or artists who understand the value of this role in the classic sense. The final product is going to be better every single time. Of course, there are exceptions to this where perhaps someone is just so strange or anti-social that they CANT work with anyone around. I respect that too. I don't remember exactly how the MR record came about really. I've known of Michael for quite some time and have always wanted to get down with him. I think it finally started once Max and Meghan played a gig with him. I remember being there and Meg yelled from the crowd "Who are you?", and Michael introduced himself into the mic — a couple weeks later we were all out for beers talking music, production and the challenges of wading through this shit show of an industry. Anthony was in the beginning stages of helping Max with his new record for DFA, and was midway through helping me finish mine. We all thought it would make sense to get into a project with Michael as we were all on the same page with things — and we were fans.

I believe more so than ever people need to hear, "hey, this song or sound ISN'T working, maybe we could try this...." I'm never making a record without a "producer" ever again.

Michael Rault: It's actually funny, because these two songs off of the single we worked on together ("Nothing Means Nothing" / "Still Not Sad"), were initially done in my bedroom with my live guitar player, Matt Aldred, recording me. So, I got yet another crash course in the differences, pros and cons, of recording at home vs. in a studio with producers and engineers.  Both the bedroom version and the "produced" version had very similar arrangements, and I played all the instruments on both, and the songs themselves weren't changed at all, so the differences between the two processes are subtle in a way.

First of all, I must say, that having Ben, Anthony and Max around was incredibly good for the vibe, and morale of the recording session. I think the first day we all met up at midnight or something at Dream House Studios, and I tracked drums for something like four or five hours straight. When you're working alone in your home studio, it is really easy to start second-guessing yourself and your songs, and you can get yourself into a really unpleasant headspace. With these guys around, they were all really excited by what I was playing, and they had a fresh take on things, because the songs were newer to them, and what I was playing on the drums was new and interesting for them, and that kept me upbeat and positive (mostly) throughout the process. It makes it a lot easier to put in 6-8 hours at a crack on the studio when it feels like a good hang, rather than locking yourself into solitary confinement for a night and grinding it out.

Also, Dave Plowman was working with us, engineering the album, and letting us use the immense collection of gear that they have at Dream House, so the overall quality of the sound was improved a lot. That's something it took me a while to get used to, because I tend to lean more towards lo-fi sounds in my personal preference, but the improvement in sound quality by having a professional and talented sound engineer on the session is something that is very hard to achieve on your own in your bedroom — if not impossible.

All that being said, I am still a huge fan of home-recorded, self-produced recordings. I feel like the intimacy of being alone, making music on your own gear is very hard to capture in a studio, and the immediacy of having your own hands on the buttons and knobs makes it quicker and easier to get closer to the idea and sound you have in your head.  I think that is why it is a good idea for any artist to work on producing themselves in their bedrooms, and to learn as much as they can about using the studio. Once you understand your own home studio, then it will be easier to go into a situation with a producer and an engineer, and steer the sound towards what you want, but in a more fun, higher quality environment. If that is what you want/need.

I feel that to many people operating outside of the electronic/rap music world, the word "producer" signifies... something out of reach, and maybe, unnecessary — part of the fat that was trimmed off when the internet made taking control over your own career easier.

Also, all the guys each brought in different sound suggestions, and different ideas for the processing of the track, which definitely helped to bring the production to another level. It seemed like every time the engineer and myself had hit a wall, someone would come in and suggest that we throw a different effect on one of the guitars or the vocals or something, and suddenly the whole process would be running smoothly again.

Do you think people aren't open to working with a producer in the classical sense because they're protective of their songs and don't want anything changed? Or is it just because the technology is easier now to do it yourself?

Anthony Nemet: Firstly, I don't think that most people are opposed to working with a producer. I think that the reality is that most people are simply not aware of what a producer can offer, and It also seems that there are not many young producers operating in what we have been calling the "classical sense" out there right now. I feel that to many people operating outside of the electronic/rap music world, the word "producer" signifies something that is very "business," or "old school"... something out of reach, and maybe, unnecessary — part of the fat that was trimmed off when the internet made taking control over your own career easier.

The term "producer" (especially when talking about music) can really mean anything. It could refer to the person putting up the money for the project, the person in charge of connecting dots and creating context, the person sitting at a computer or mixing board and actually twiddling knobs and placing microphones...the list goes on.

Some of the greatest producers in music have been people who run record labels, engineers, A&R reps, drug dealers, and managers. To me, a real producer is someone who possesses the ability to truly understand both what the artist is trying to accomplish, and what they are capable of, and helps create a context that allows the artist to make the best art that they can create and see a project through to it's desired end.

Few great records in history have been the product of a single person's work. I think that the artists comfortable enough in their own skin to allow people to join them on their creative endeavours are the ones that are most likely to succeed at creating work that they truly feel great about and can stand behind.

Can you guys break down what you each brought to this Michael Rault single? It doesn't often happen that a track has three producers, right?

AN: Actually, there were five producers responsible for these tracks, and we were all equally responsible for how things turned out. Ben, Max, Michael, Dave Plowman the engineer, and myself.

Electric Light Orchestra - Wishing (1979)

Though we all had hands-on involvement, Ben and Michael were more the ones with the connections and resources in this case. We were all friendly with Michael, and had all secretly wanted to work with each other. And after Ben and Michael sat down to talk about music, Ben, having the resources to put out music, decided it would be a good time for us all to work together.

Max and I were more involved with aesthetic decisions this time around. I like to rip off music and "vibes." Max also has a very in-depth knowledge of a lot of very cool sounding old electronic music. Before we made any plans, we sat together in a room listening to Michael's demos and then I threw on "Wishing" by ELO and "Too High" by Stevie Wonder as a suggestion of what route we could take with the songs sonically. These were both songs that are very "human" feeling but also used specific electronic sounds to paint this very playful sonic playground in your head when you listen to them.

Dave, being the engineering wizard, was able to take all of these ideas and sonic blueprints and provided us with the tools and expertise to turn these ideas into actual sound.

As I sort of said above, the role of producer could mean anything, and often changes from project to project.

Stevie Wonder - Too High

I think that is very important to have loved a lot of different types of music from many eras, and to have database of sonic references in your head because when working on music with other people, it is often hard to use words to describe sound, and for music nerds like ourselves, it's much more effective to say something like "MAKE THE VOCALS SOUND LIKE ELO" or "CLOAK IT IN FUNNY FLANGER LIKE TODD RUNDGREN," than it is to say, "Make it shimmer."

Slim Twig: Ok, pardon me if I am a little redundant in part with my response.

As Anthony says, a producer can be many things. It's one of those generic designations like 'artist' which can hold many different meanings....

Basically I like the idea of collaboration in today's musical climate. We have so many young musicians spreading themselves so thin, wearing any hat they can get their hands on: musician, writer ,producer, engineer, graphic designer, label head.... Now divide that by the amount of bands most musicians are in these days (3-5 it seems like). It all adds up to more music than we collectively know what to do with or make meaning of, often, of a compromised quality.

Through my own adventures in sound recording, I have become less hard-headed about doing it all myself than when I was first coming up. I've learned those tasks that I am good at or enjoy doing, and the rest I delegate to people who are better at those initiatives than myself. The tunes are better as a result of this selective collaborating, and I think this gets to the heart of why producers still matter.

Slim Twig "Maintain The Charade" (Official Video)

When an artist can share the burden of seeing any particular project through to completion they are then able to focus more acutely on those elements where they excel, dropping those where they are merely competent in the process. The excess slack can be picked up by collaborators... It should be the job of the producer to situate artists in this exact position. Recognize what they are capable and good at, and delegate the rest. Many modern musicians overextend themselves time and time again, and the music may suffer.

The problem is that in today's musical climate there is no money in making recordings of quality. Much can seem to be achieved by computers and a single set of hands. A producer is likely the first expense seen as superfluous when working with the kind of budgets (lol) that most musicians have access to. There is a reason why not very many rock singles have string or horn arrangements today, whereas in the '60s and '70s, this was entirely common place — it is the same reason why producers now seem to only exist within the explicitly commercial pop idiom. PEOPLE CAN'T AFFORD THIS SHIT ANYMORE... Our ideas are limited to what can be achieved within the pro-tools box, because there isn't a paying audience to support the full capacity of what bands/ artists might produce with an audience interested in supporting an economy of well-'produced' music.

Until people see true value in recorded music as an evolving, consumable enterprise and come to terms with the fact that an economy that acknowledges these things won't sprout out of thin air, the only producers we may come across will be old white guys who got their start when there still was an industry for this sort of work or DJ/beatmakers whose conception of what a 'producer' is, is something slightly different than the classical sense of the term.

There is a reason why not very many rock singles have string or horn arrangements today, whereas in the '60s and '70s, this was entirely common place — it is the same reason why producers now seem to only exist within the explicitly commercial pop idiom. PEOPLE CAN'T AFFORD THIS SHIT ANYMORE.

On a more positive note, I think the Rault single is a good example of a modern compromise. It represents the idea of a handful of talented music folk banding together to do something for the sake of the end product with no regard to seeing any $$ out of the thing. It is an acknowledgement that often times a collaboration is a better solution to an artistic riddle than an entirely solo venture. If more independently minded music people band together, combining their various talents we'll see richer work as the outcome. Since everyone is now an 'artist,' Engineer-artists should be hooking with session-grade-player-artists, in turn collaborating with songwriter-artists to build complete works. I think the Rault single is a good example of this model, even if I can't entirely describe exactly what "____-artist" I was in this particular process. The hope should be that the idea of this fusion of particular talents should be enough to piece together what a traditional producer might have connected one to back when this was an actual paid and considered position.

A bit rambly, but hopefully I've conveyed something of my thoughts on production in the modern sense.

Slim Twig - "All This Wanting" (Official Video)

I'll have an album of new material coming out on DFA in the spring of this year.

The forthcoming ST LP was sort of a hybrid approach... I produced it myself with the assistance of Tony for the recording aspect, and of our friend and engineer Steve Chaley for the mixing segment. This seemed like a good compromise to keep the sort of singular vision that I'm after intact, but opening it up to some intimate collaboration in the hopes of widening that vision slightly.

- With files from Richard Trapunski

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