Producer and engineer Al O’Connell will be helping London’s local musicians record their music for free throughout 2015 as part of the Converse Rubber Tracks programme. Kicking off in Haringey in January, the scheme will take up residency on a rotating basis in one London Borough at a time, and will head to Ealing, Southwark and Tower Hamlets over next year. To apply for a day’s free recording in Snap Studios head to Converse.co.uk/rubber-tracks. But then again, in the age of laptop recording and the like, what do producers actually do? The man who works with Paul Epworth, Mark Ronson and more explains in a guest column for Q.
Growing up in Dublin, my friends and I were obsessed by music from an early age. I progressed to working in second-hand record shops where I devoured record after record and listened to practically everything we stocked. This was in the early stages of the Internet, when customers would come in and actually sing the track they wanted, and it would be my job to identify it and find it for them. I then became a tea boy in Eastcote studios where I met Paul Epworth and I progressed within a short time to in-house engineer. Since then I have worked in both producer and engineer roles in my time in recording studios.
You know how in the UK we have one word for snow, whereas the Eskimos have 50 words for the different types? You can draw a similar comparison with the term ‘producer’ in the music industry – one word for a job that probably has about 50 different roles! Musical guide, arranger, interferer, marriage counsellor, beat-maker, sound designer, project manager, ideas person... and the rest.
Essentially, a producer is the person that gets the job done by hook or crook. Similar to a project manager you could say. This applies to all aspects of the music. Artistic direction, artist performance, artistic relations, budgets, keeping the record company up to speed with the project. Gaining the trust of the artist is essential as you endeavour to guide them through their thoughts and musical ideas. On the flip side, like with many jobs, sometimes one of the best skills is being able to know when not to interfere.
Your role is also to take an objective look at things. Bands and artists have generally lived with, mulled over, obsessed with the songs they have written, so much so that it is difficult for them relate to what is good, what is great and what is more ‘stuff’. “I can’t see the wood for the trees” is a phrase that you hear in recording studios many times. A producer’s job therefore is to have a non-biased view that only serves the song and no one or anything else.
An engineer’s job is a little bit more clean-cut to describe. In simple terms, they are the interface between the equipment and the producer / artist. Using a car analogy, the engineer is driving but the producer is telling them where to go and by what route. Engineers take care of the mixing desk, headphones, cables, operating the computer, so the producer is free to pontificate and gesticulate. A producer or artist can have a sonic idea in their head and with the help of the engineer, they can make it a reality.
So how does an album actually get made? There are five main stages to a recording: preproduction, recording, editing, mixing and mastering.
Preproduction is where the artist and producer come together before the recording session begins to bash through ideas together. They may try out new arrangement ideas.
Then you start the actual recording. Some people record live as a band whilst others prefer to record instruments individually, piece by piece.
All the elements that have been recorded then need to be edited and put together. Sometimes some elements need to be put in time and a general order created. Overdub recording (additional recording of some elements after the live takes) can also happen at this stage as the songs really start to take their form.
When mixing, you generally wish to be 100% finished with recording so you can make the sonic elements of the track mould together. It’s like trying to build a jigsaw and have all the different frequencies fit together. The goal is to merge the track’s guitar, bass, vocals, synths, etc., into one cohesive track – the mix.
Mastering is the final polish where you concentrate on the final stereo mix track rather than the many layers of the track that are worked on in the mixing stage. Mastering also makes the many songs of an album flow together in both volume and texture.
Producing can an incredible job, and for me it is the ultimate ex-record shop employee position. I can apply the knowledge and musical education I got in the record shop, listening to everything from Gong to Melt Banana, Westlife to Brian Eno, to my day-to-day role and the music I work with today. Actually, apart from the obvious technical studio experience I have gained over the years, I believe working in the vinyl shops gave me the best education of all. Al O’Connell
For more head to Converse.co.uk.