© istockphoto.com / Rich Legg
Producers have generally been responsible for overseeing the recording session, looking after matters such as arrangement and artistic direction as well as coaxing performances from musicians. Producers are also required to manage timescales and provide a bridge between the direction of the artist and the needs of the record company.
Doyle (2004: 163) points out that the term ‘producer’ itself did not come into common usage until the late 1950s. Prior to this individuals undertaking such roles were referred to under a variety of terms such as ‘arranger’, ‘supervisor’, ‘engineer’ and ‘artist and repertoire (A&R) man’. Nevertheless, the authoritative figure who directs the recording process had existed since the advent of the phonographic industry. Eisenberg (2005: 95) points to early figures in the recording of classical music such as Walter Legge who was renowned for pushing his artists into ‘perfect’ performances. Legge came to the conclusion that:
"records must be a collaboration between artists and what are now called 'producers'. I wanted better results than are normally possible in public performance".
This pursuit of excellence or perfection was mirrored in popular music producers such as John Hammond who was primarily concerned with "capturing moments of rare beauty" from his artists such as Count Basie, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and "stimulating these exceptional performances and making them permanent objects". (Eisenberg, 2005: 102) Some of these producers had a remarkable eye for talent. Hammond, for example, ‘spotted’ both Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan, two of the major figures of US popular music.
Developments in studio technology, such as the introduction of magnetic tape in the 1950s and later, or the advent of multitracking, had a fundamental effect on the role of the producer. It was no longer primarily about guiding and capturing a performance. The ease with which individual tracks could be manipulated (through reverb, equalisation, layering, splicing, etc) meant that producers had to make "myriad decisions... before, during and after a recording session - decisions that would have a significant impact on the finished recording" (Jones, 2003: 196). Jones also notes that as the job became more technical, more producers - and many noted ones - started to come from a studio engineering background rather than from the A&R personnel who had previously dominated the role.
The rise of such technologies also meant that producers had a much more hands-on, creative role than before. Kealy (1992) calls this a "collaborative art mode" which became dominant in rock recordings from the 1960s onwards. Here the producer is involved in three main aspects of the recording process: documentation; collaboration; and composition (Carter 2005). The producer is also there to oversee the overall sonic feel or artistic direction of a recording. In a first-hand account of being a successful record producer Burgess (1997: 51-88) notes various ways in which the producer is an integral part of the creative process. Firstly, the producer may directly change structural or instrumental elements within the composition by guiding the arrangement. Secondly, the producer has a key role in negotiating between musicians, directly taking control of creative decisions by defining the scope of a particular project or directing the artist’s attention towards specific examples. Thirdly, the producer provides a bridge between acts and music industry professionals by constantly negotiating between the creative visions of both parties.
In the contemporary recording industry there are various ways into becoming a producer. Some star producers cut their teeth in local recording studios, learning their trade on the job and gradually establishing their name. Gil Norton for instance started his career at Liverpool’s Amazon studios going on to find huge success with bands such as the Pixies, Throwing Muses, the Foo Fighters, James and Counting Crows. Others have come through a more structured educational route. For instance, Mike Crossey a graduate of the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts (LIPA) has gone on to produce and mix bands such as the Arctic Monkeys, Foals, the Zutons and the Dead 60s.