Working With Producers

After years of experience as a professional musician, I came to the conclusion that there is only one basic professional situation concerning the relationship between musicians (drummers, in our case) and producers.

This might seem too simple, but it is presented this way just top keep things under the correct perspective. The relationship involves two people: A professional – one that needs work for a living – employed (or used) by another professional – who also needs to make his own honest buck. In other words: Two human beings working professionally with music.

Since that is stated we can proceed, putting aside any rancid criticism made towards the figure of the producer.

I find he is to be viewed as a colleague. I’ve heard artists that work on their own deprive producers of any usefulness or importance. One, has been bold enough to ask, in an article about his last solo effort, what would a producer be or what would it be that he’d have to do. This guy just happened to be his own producer, and over emphasized the fact by disdaining all others. Nonsense.

Producers have been in the recording industry since very long ago, and no one can ignore the importance of the role they play in contemporary music after the advent of Sir George Martin (producer for The Beatles), at least.

Yes, they sometimes work for big companies. So what? Once employed, you’ll be working for them corporations too. Yes, they sometimes level things real low, but it’s up to you to go there and make it sound dignified, at least. Yes, they’re sometimes arrogant and tactless, but it’s up to you to have a cool stance and keep your flow running. And yes, they sometimes don’t know the difference between two notes within a seventh interval, but many drummers also do not.

I guess all the negative aspects producers might carry should be a real concern only for the people who hire them, not by those they hire. Amateur kind of producers usually do not get very far in the business anyway, and such encounters we may have along the way may be cast aside as casual accidents as we follow the everyday path.

The guys that really get to make it big time as producers are mostly musicians who “have an ear for production”, that is, creative individuals who can devise the overall context of a given piece with precision and know how to handle things (people and gear) in the studio to make the picture come to light as it was thought out (or think it out during the process). Guys like Quincy Jones or Burt Bacharach or Daniel Lanois, just to name a few. In general, they are patient and even loving people, but that is not to be counted on, as a rule (old Quincy… well, forget it, that was in his private life…).

Anyway, rule number one goes: do what the man says, even if just to show him, with recorded proof, that what he says is no good. The reason is simple enough: he is the boss.

As far as the works are concerned, there are basically two types of producers, each divided in rough categories: Type one: Guys that do not have a precise idea of what is going to come out in the end of the process and: Type two: Guys who do know exactly what they want prior to the first recorded second of the first recorded instrument on the first recording date. The categories are quite simple, based on the producer’s smartness.

The fact that there are “guys that do not know what they want” in the start of the process is not to be viewed with prejudice. They get hired just because of that, sometimes, since they can function as catalysts inside a studio, positive forces that hire the correct group of musicians for each job and follow them through an open process of creation to achieve good results. Of course there are those guys that only work with the very same people all the time who are just the front man of a clique of “hired hands” (or maybe they work because they work, if you get my meaning).

The “guys that know exactly what they want” are mostly artists who work for themselves (or others) as producers or people that function as a mere liason between artist and musicians. Those who are artists may even want to have absolute control over the whole operation of making his product (sometimes as far as album arts and video-clip scripts go, as George Michael does). It is quite understandable, since an artist’s work can be screwed up in one (or more) of the many steps of a process that starts in composition and ends up in a printed CD (recordings, mixing and mastering, just to keep on the technical side of it).

Whatever the category is, though, the great producers will always have minds open enough to let any input flow freely inside the studio, and have the capability to absorb and filter all that to turn it into the best possible solution: good music. The key to success is having in mind that it is a group effort, after all, so all those involved should be working together to achieve fulfillment within a musical context, not just to earn a buck.

To work with those artists who know quite well what they want before they go into the studio to record (Sting, for example, is known to be like that – no I’ve not worked with him, unfortunately) may be a challenging source of enlightenment. That is a chance because they do not ordinarily think as a drummer would, and may present quite interesting parts. Or they can be also drummers with a different perspective, as is the case with Prince. (It can be a drag, too, sometimes, but that’s just a fact of life.) But mostly it’s up to artists, producers and musicians to do that – together, I repeat.

So one should not ever be afraid to ask if any doubt occurs (provided it’s not the very same doubt for the fourth time, which can lead to clear fire disaster).

I tried to number a few simple guidelines, although each is an individual case and the use of fine perception is a must.

If you feel you made a mistake, don’t stop playing if the producer does not stop the basic track, unless you clearly screwed it big time. (I’d recommend not making unsolicited stops, anyway). One thing is for sure: If you’re near the end or on the ending, do not, ever, stop on your own, especially because things can be “mended” in our digital tech age. For one, as Steve Gadd says on his “Up Close” video, mistakes can sometimes become part of the tune – although that’s more true in instrumental pieces, it can happen in a pop song.

Otherwise, if you feel the whole date is a mistake (as some Rickie Lee Jones’ dates proved to be for Jeff Porcaro, Carlos Vega and Danny Fongheiser, at least, as they related on interviews) just try to trudge along and give the best you can, even if you know it’s clearly heading for disaster. (The trouble they had happened for another common reason: The artist dominates the producer, and is adamant about what he does not want although he cannot communicate what exactly does he want – or, worst, just does not know what he wants and does not want to make that show through.)

A professional attitude is usually highly appreciated, and real pros try to put up their best efforts. Whenever you feel it’s all wrong, just try to relax and make the best of it, always having in mind that a good producer tends to come in good terms with the material available for music making.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to do just the simplest of parts, the old chick-a-chick-a-boom-chick. Just go there and do it. Remember that the producer usually has (or should have) a pretty good idea of how all instruments should sound, and drums are part of the basic track, after which any number of instruments may be piled upon. He sometimes may be considerate to state that to you, but sometimes not.

You’ll also sometimes be asked to perform any number of different rhythmic and textural solutions just to acknowledge that the final solution was the first presented one. Hold the producer no grudge. It’s his within his own right to try out as many solutions as he can possibly think of in order to dismiss them all and make you an instrument to evaluate and eliminate. You are hired to play, in the first place, so just do it. You even may come out with a few good ideas right from his garbage can.

Always be on alert, attentive to what is being said and done in the studio, because you might be called on to participate with suggestions or opinions regarding other aspects other than drums of the work being done. Do not ever wander around before you are dismissed and do not go anywhere without a warning.

Above all, do not pry on the producer’s work unless he asks your opinion, or you hired him, or you two already have a relationship well established enough not to make you look like a phony (to other musicians) or a plain pain in the neck (to all those involved). And do not complain, please. In short: The consequences of “having an attitude” might be disastrous on your pocket.

The studio is an ambiance that requires quiet concentration, so do not talk while the tape is running, just open up your ears and listen. Of course you should not act like an automated being or like a being deprived of soul, but it’s good politics to just use your power of observation, common sense and good manners to keep it all under the correct perspective.

But remember: Things are never the same inside a studio, day in, day out. The work involves individuals and all they come with, good and bad. A positive attitude is a good one, but don’t over emphasize how nice and funny you are (especially if you’re not funny). Instead of the “nice-joker-guy ways” a positive attitude can be better shown with a tactful and cooperative mood. You’ll know you done right when the phone starts to ring more often.