The Requirements of Producing

The following excerpt comes from my book Zen and the Art of Producing.

The Requirements of Producing

Producing requires equal parts obsessive attention to detail and reckless abandon. It requires the ability to communicate vision without getting in the way of the message. It requires strong leadership and an innate ability to follow. It requires an enormous ego in conjunction with absolute humility. It requires strength of conviction coupled with a willingness to compromise. It requires both forethought and the ability to improvise; calculation and kismet; aggressiveness and passivity; strength and sensitivity; refinement and brashness; creativity and organization; masculinity and femininity; power and frailty; passion and … well, more passion.

That may sound rather dramatic, but look at what you’re getting yourself into. Music manipulates emotions. That’s the very definition of drama. And while you should do all you can to limit the drama to the product itself, some personal spillover to the process is expected.

The goal is to keep all the emotion in the music, but as anyone who has produced more than one record knows, that’s an unattainable goal. While we can’t eradicate the toll of misplaced emotions, we can certainly diminish it—that starts with you. I mean, if you’re passionate about music, you’re going to allow your emotions to take over, particularly early on in your career. But given the nature of the job, it is incumbent upon you to reduce both the frequency and severity of blow-ups, and this can’t be achieved if you’re part of the problem. Your artists will get emotional. You will get emotional. If you can direct those emotions into the music and avoid exacerbating them with your own baggage, you’ll have a far greater chance of success. You’ll have a better time too.

Music is music is music. It doesn’t matter whether you’re producing a country album or a hard-rock album: the goal is to communicate with the audience in a manner they understand. From a producer’s perspective, the difference between these two genres is merely presentation. Therein lies the crux of our job description.

The producer is responsible for the ultimate presentation of the music. Can you imagine suggesting to a hard rocker that you want to replace the distorted guitars with a clean pedal steel? Or attempting to sell the concept of “screaming the lyrics” to a country crooner? This is not to suggest that the cross-pollination of genres is a bad thing. It’s not. In isolated instances, somewhat counterintuitive suggestions (like the screaming crooner) might be pure genius. Genre tapestries, as I like to call them, can be exceptionally effective in creating fresh music. Still, your artist has chosen an overall genre, which not only appeals to her, but also fits in well with her message and audience. Working against your artist’s general strengths is a great way to make music that appeals to no one. Not that you’d get the chance to actually complete the work. You’d be fired during preproduction, and rightly so.

Strict adherence to genre can be just as foolish as abandoning convention entirely. I assure you, any record that stands out begins with a standout artist. That said, even a standout artist can come off as downright generic, given the wrong producer. If you merely make a safe, generic, derivative record, indistinguishable from other records of the genre and prevailing fashion, you will only serve to reduce the impact of the record. This is an absolute recipe for failure. At the very least, it’s a recipe for mediocrity—and in my book, mediocrity is failure. If your artist is special, this must be made obvious to anyone and everyone. Special artists come along infrequently. You certainly don’t want to be the person who presented that special artist in the most mediocre way possible.

Conversely, if you make a record that has no basis in precedent whatsoever, you might as well build a wall between the artist and the consumer. I say “consumer,” because your artist won’t have very many “fans” (that is to say, people who are fanatical). A record that is so far outside the mainstream as to be almost unworldly is difficult to connect with.

Given the two extremes, a successful producer will balance originality with convention. The exact ratios between the two are, at best, ambiguous, and wholly reliant on the times. But unless your artist plans on using a new musical scale with more than 12 notes, I’m thinking the ratio will lean heavily toward convention. Our creativity exists within a slightly malleable set of variables, musical rules being one of them.

The Musical Rules

I’ll warn you now, if you know nothing about music, you’re not likely to understand a whole lot in this next section. Read it anyway, and don’t get discouraged.

As much as some of you will scoff at the suggestion, music has rules. I’ll even give you one. A flat 9 is not an available tension in a major 7 chord. If you don’t know music theory, that rule means nothing to you. Depending on what genres you work in throughout your career, it’s possible that situation may never even come up, partly because the combination sounds so bad (which is the reason for the rule), and partly because that rule mostly has to do with jazz. The real kind—not today’s adult contemporary version that often features a player who wouldn’t be allowed to carry Charlie Parker’s saxophone case. It’s also possible that someone will play a flat 9 on a major 7 chord, and you’ll pick out and eradicate the rub without ever learning the rule. Like I said, it’s a rule for a reason.

Here’s another rule: don’t cross the harmony voicing with the melody voicing. I’m going to discuss basic voice leading later in the book, but essentially, if the harmony starts above the melody, it should stay above the melody line at all times. I can assure you that this is a very good rule. You will confuse the listener if you allow the melodic and harmonic musical lines to cross. You never want to make the listener think about the music. Crossing lines will most assuredly make them think, if nothing else, that they should hit the Skip button.

Now, do you need to know that rule in order to produce? No. In all likelihood, if you have a good ear for music (and let’s hope that you do, given your aspirations), you would notice the problem without knowing the rule. This means you would define the rule for yourself, and the next time it happened, you would recognize it instantly. In fact, it’s such an obvious rule that I’ve only ever seen one person try to break it. That’s because musical rules are typically based on common sense. They weren’t born out of academia.

The maddening part about music—or the beautiful part, depending on how you look at life in general—is that all rules should be broken. Notice I didn’t say all rules can be broken. That’s a given, and irrelevant, due to free will. No, musical rules should be broken, because there will be situations in which any given rule is invalid and wrong. For example, it’s a musical rule to avoid parallel fifths in voice leading. This is a good rule in Western music, since moving in parallel fifths sounds Chinese to our ear. But what if you want the part to sound Chinese? Perhaps that’s the point of the musical section—to sound Chinese. In that case the rule becomes invalid and should be broken.

As much as the Western 12-note scale currently dominates music, it doesn’t define how different cultures hear music. An “A” note at 440 Hz is the same note as an 880 Hz “A.” They’re both “A,” just an octave apart. As much as an “octave” is a human definition, it’s also a physical law, much like gravity. An octave is an octave. No matter what culture you’re from, it’s all the notes between the root and octave that define the scale from a cultural perspective. The quarter-tone scale from 18th-century Arabic music, for instance, divides the octave into 24 notes, which is twice as many notes as what most cultures currently use.

Some scales completely avoid certain notes. The pentatonic scale, a staple of traditional Chinese music, and oddly enough, Western rock music, has only five notes within the octave. Then there’s the blues scale, where the third of the scale is bent down so it falls directly in between the minor third and the major third. We call this the “blue note.” Since the third defines the major and the minor, which in turn determines whether we hear “happy” or “sad,” respectively, the blue note provides some ambiguity as to the nature of the key.

This might all seem like Chinese to you. If that’s the case, worry not. It doesn’t preclude you from producing. It does, however, at least for the time being, limit what you can produce. Don’t let that discourage you. I promise that’s not the only place you’re deficient (feel better now?). Every producer has deficiencies, and your position as a producer will largely be defined by your perceived weaknesses. The good news is that your position is constantly changing, particularly if you’re motivated.

Since you’ve reached the end of this introduction, I’m thinking you’re motivated. Let’s get to it.

You can purchase Zen and the Art of Producing, along with all my other books at Amazon. 

Chapter 16 of Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent – Coming Soon!
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