Becoming a Music Producer: Part 1 – What Does It Mean?

Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau discusses some definitions and misconceptions about the career of the music producer, and sets you on your way to understanding the many paths a producer can take in today’s market. Also check out the rest of our “Becoming a Music Producer” series, part 2 ”Network, Gain Experience and Find Work!” and part 3 ”Developing a Career and Making Money”.

quincy-jones-grammys-awards-1990Acclaimed record producer, arranger and composer Quincy Jones at the 1990 Grammy Awards.

The term “producer” has evolved greatly from the early days of recorded music. Back then, the producer was more of a project manager, gathering various specialists together (engineer, mixer, arranger, composer, musicians) and directing them through the process of making a single or an album. That’s not to say the producer was strictly hands-off. A producer could also be the composer, arranger, or even mixer. What a producer did not do however, was play all the instruments, run to the console to push record, then, after mixing and mastering the album, work on a promotion plan.

Today, it’s become the norm for a producer to be a jack-of-all-trades who writes, arranges, tracks, mixes, masters, and does web design while twittering the entire process. There are clear reasons for this shift: affordable technology has made it possible to create a high-quality product at home, and the demise of the recording industry has shrunk artist support to the point where inexpensive productions are necessary. We all have the opportunity to make whatever we want, and doing it ourselves is often the only option.

jackson_jonesQuincy Jones and Michael Jackson. Jones produced some of Jackson’s greatest albums including Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad.

WHAT DOES A PRODUCER DO?

Let’s start off with some definitions. (Bear in mind that any time I refer to the “artist,” I mean a band, solo act, singer, rapper, DJ, etc.)

Some potential roles of a producer are:

  • Engineer – Sitting behind the console, or in front of the computer, recording and mixing tracks
  • Composer – Writing music for the artist
  • Arranger – Collaborating with (or working for) an artist to make a recorded version of their composition
  • Remixer – Taking multitrack stems from a recording and making a new version
  • Musician – Performing instrumental or vocal parts for the tracks being produced
  • Mentor – Passively following the direction of an artist and making suggestions
  • Project Manager – Making sure stuff gets done: hiring, organizing, and shepherding the vision through to a finished product
  • Therapist (my personal favorite) – Understanding an artist’s vision and talents, and leading them down a path to success

There are many possible roles, and many different roads that all lead to the same place: to create a body of music which is satisfying to the artist and the producer. Whether you are writing, mixing, placing microphones, hanging out all night at a club with MCs, or automating the multi-band subharmonic parallel compression for the kazoo solo, you are producing.

We hope that the public will also love what we create, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Often, the “killer albums” we make end up going nowhere, while our successes come totally by surprise. To be commercially successful, some argue that it’s best to make music in the realm of what is currently popular. Artists may ask you to “make a track that sounds like the newest Skrillex or Chris Brown track.” Try not to get caught up in all this, because:

  1. You will always be one step behind what is actually happening
  2. You need to be proud and believe in whatever you are producing
  3. When you follow your instincts, you will develop your own signature sound (one of the nicest compliments I ever received was “Wow, that really sounds like an MNO track”)
  4. Artists will search you out once you have developed your own sound. I sometimes get gigs based on a track I made ten years ago. Remember, every track you produce is a calling card for the next gig.

Skrillex-GrammyElectronic music producer Skrillex at the 2011 Grammy Awards

The reality is that, as a producer, you need to be in it for the long haul. Your style may change over time, but the core of who you are should be present in every track you make. Find your voice. I know it sounds cliché, but one of the greatest joys of producing music is to see your voice develop, strengthen, and become more distinct over time.

How do you develop the Skills To Be A Producer?

The most important quality of a successful producer is love of music. The curiosity and passion to listen, explore, and experiment with all aspects of music will give you the skills you need, and seriously, if you don’t love music, don’t be a producer. There are much easier ways to make a living.

Learn to play an instrument (or seven). Take some lessons and put in the hours–even a little knowledge of an instrument will go a long way in the studio. Musical instruments are the original building blocks; the more comfortable with them you are, the more depth your productions will have. Virtuosity is not the goal. Strum a simple chord progression on the guitar, play simple melodies and chords on the piano, and start hitting some drums. Try thumping along on a bass (I learned how to play bass last year and it improved my programming skills immensely). Get a feel for what each of these instruments does, and the groove and flavor they add. These four instruments have been the building blocks of popular music for the last 60 years. Understanding their workings, and you will be able to better communicate with those around you.

“A skill that separates a mediocre producer from an exceptional one is actual musicianship. A producer’s ability to contribute meaningfully to a recording session is directly related to his or her understanding of the craft.” – Evan Williams 

Daft-Punk-by-NabilCelebrated electronic music duo Daft Punk “from sampling disco records to creating disco records” | Photo by Nabil Elderkin with Warren Fu or Wax Poetics.

Listen to as much music as possible. Listening should not be a passive activity; it is your job to have a large palette of sounds and ideas to draw from when making music. When you’re in the studio, listen to the voice in your head that says “try adding a cello like in that Haydn Symphony,” or “add some of that freaky buzzing drum stuff that you heard on that Gnawan ceremonial music.” The results will not always be what you want, but you’ll be moving the process forward, and finding your way towards the perfect sound.

  • Don’t write anything or anyone off. Every genre of music has some validity to it and is worth a listen. If nothing else, figure out why you don’t like it, and what you want to avoid in your own productions.
  • Listen not just to melodies and harmonies, but to the structure of songs. Do they have a verse/chorus/verse approach, or do they seem to go on and on? Often, music that seems to go on aimlessly has some structural element that you are not noticing.
  • Listen to the mix. What sticks out? What makes a song memorable? Dissect the instrumentation, and see what the different elements do to the production.

Become educated with recording software and the recording process.  I recommend you learn one or two programs thoroughly, rather than dabble in multiple platforms. Make the computer your creative musical instrument of choice. I start my projects in Ableton Live because I find it quick to get down ideas, but prefer the mixing workflow in Digital Performer. Fortunately, most plug-ins will work in any host. So, whether I’m in Live, DP, or Pro Tools, I still use the same compressors and reverbs. There is no right or wrong DAW–at this point they all sound great. Just figure out which one most effectively transforms what’s in your head to something the world can hear. Another area, often sorely overlooked, is understanding basic studio techniques. Learn about signal flow, gain staging, microphone placement, and preamps. It’s a lot easier to make a great mix when the original tracks sounds good. Go to school, read every audio magazine, ask questions of every person who seems to know what’s going on. Learn, Learn, Learn!

Get in the game. It is not required that you have all these skills functioning at a high level before you go off and start producing tracks. In fact, producing music will help you see the holes in your knowledge, and will inspire (or force) you to learn more. I came into producing through my experience as a studio musician. I know producers who started out DJing, composing, playing in bands, or writing songs, while others were computer nerds with little musical background. What they all had in common was a desire to make great music.

It takes a long time to get your skills down. There is no guarantee that you’ll produce big hits, but persistence will give you the chance to be heard. Keep trying, keep learning, and keep making music!


Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.


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  • 9/19/2013

[...] Becoming a Music Producer: Part 1 What Does It Mean .Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau discusses some definitions and misconceptions about the career of the music producer, and sets you on your way to understanding the many paths a producer can take in today's market. [...]

  • Becoming a Music Producer: Part 3 – Developing a Career and Making Money « Dubspot Blog
  • 9/19/2013

[...] the third installment of his series on ‘Becoming a Music Producer‘, Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau tackles the big question of how to make money and have [...]