The Producer's Role
Just as a songwriter needs to learn to think like a songwriter, there are thought processes and perspectives that are unique to a producer's job. A producer should be able to envision several kinds of production for a given song, hear various instrument parts and harmony arrangements in her head, and have a good idea how everything will work together in the studio. As a producer, it's your job to know how different tempos, time signatures, grooves, effects, recording techniques, and many other elements will affect the impact of a song on listeners. A producer has to be equal parts arranger, musician, recording engineer, songwriter, and A&R rep.
A large percentage of successful producers are also hit songwriters and respected musicians. Many songwriters become producers so that they can more fully realize their artistic visions without having to rely on a producer to get it right. Glen Ballard, Mutt Lange, Jimmy Jam, and Terry Lewis are all multi-talented writer/producer/ musicians.
That may sound like a lot to learn and, in truth, it is. Remember, though, that a producer doesn't have to actually do all these things. A producer just has to be able to imagine the way a song should sound and communicate those ideas to the performers. A guitarist thinks about the guitar part. A singer thinks about the melody and the lyric. A drummer thinks about — well, nobody is really sure what drummers think about — but producers have to think about all these things and how they work together to help a song reach its artistic and/or commercial potential. The producer has to see the big picture and steer a recording project toward the intended goals of the recording artist and the record company, hopefully with a result that radio station program directors and listeners will all enjoy.
Train your brain to hear production possibilities. You can start by listening to your favorite songs from a production standpoint. Pay attention to how everything fits together, from the drums, bass, and other rhythm instruments to the backup vocals, lead instruments, and lead vocals. Listen to the effects and the way parts get louder and softer. Pick a specific part and follow it through the song. Where does it come in and out? How is it mixed? What does it add to the song? Was anything special used to reinforce the chorus, hook, or bridge?
Shortly, you'll begin hearing songs in a different way. You'll hear how production and arrangements work to strengthen a song. When you have this down, move on to songs in different genres to see what's unique about production for those styles. Now, move on to current hits and the production styles that are hot right now.
Finally, start imagining these elements in your own songs. Learn to hear a full production in your head by building it a track at a time. Keep at it until you can imagine different grooves, styles, and combinations of instruments on any song you hear. That's what a producer's brain is supposed to do. Adding production ideas to the writing process can give another dimension to your writing and help you take things up a level.
When is a producer needed?
Any time you record, one or more people are making production decisions. There is always a producer. If nobody else is doing it, then you are the producer. If you are unaware of this, your production will suffer and it's the producer's fault.