It is always difficult to describe the role of a record producer and define what will be his contribution to the creation of an album without considering the context in which he works.
The producer of a classical music album, for example, will have duties which are very different from those of a hip hop music producer.
Record production has changed dramatically over the years.
Before the advent of computers, the producer was the link between the technical and the artistic aspects of record creation, temporarily becoming an additional member of the band.
His job mostly consisted in elevating the existing songs to the highest possible level, by means of his immense musical knowledge, orchestration skills, deep knowledge of the marketing strategies and good taste.
His responsibilities were: to choose which songs to include in the album, to select tonalities and metronomic tempos, to choose recording studios and sound engineers, to pick suitable instruments and musicians as if they were colours in a palette, to arrange sections of strings or wind instruments, to approve the mixes and to assist musicians and singers in order to have them perform at their very best. George Martin and Quincy Jones embody this kind of artistic producer perfectly.
With the evolution of technology, recording studios have become musical instruments per se, and this has paved the way for a new generation of producers like Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. They have revolutionized the production process by participating as performers and shaping the timbre of the instruments. As a result, the albums made during this period represent a hybrid between the style of the producers and that of the artists for whom they worked.
More recently, with the advent of music software, producers have become factotums: they write lyrics, compose, arrange, program synthesizers, sample sounds, record, mix and so on. The newest technologies allow them to do their work from their home studio, and often compensate for any gaps in their theoretical musical background (Hans Zimmer, for example, can hardly read the notes of a score, but still he can interpret the Cubase ``piano roll`` to perfection). This has allowed a large number of people with a limited knowledge of music theory, but characterised by creativity and original taste, to play the part of the producer, increasing the confusion around the actual role of this figure. In addition, many become producers after working for a few years as sound engineers who are also appreciated for their style (eg. Chris Lord Alge, Tchad Blake, George Massenburg).
Ultimately, there are two elements which are common to all kinds of artistic producer, from George Martin to Skrillex: their taste and the ability to have a clear vision of the finished work, in other words, to maintain objectivity throughout the entire production process. Over the years, regardless of their level of preparation, producers have always been popular and employed by artists and record labels because of their original taste. Given their deep understanding of the dynamics that develop between music, lyrics, musical instruments and recording studio techniques, producers are able to divert their attention from a single piece of the puzzle, and focus it on the bigger picture that is still forming.
In May 2013, Dago Red have chosen me as a producer for their latest album ``Cicada``.
We scheduled our first meeting in order to determine the artistic direction they wanted their album to take; I analysed their existing songs with them, to extract the messages to be shared and to identify the emotions that would represent them. After establishing my objectives, all my subsequent work would be instrumental to their achievement.
I performed many tasks for Dago Red: I helped them refine the lyrics, I worked on the structure of the songs, I selected tonalities and metronomic tempos, suggested the harmonic solutions that I deemed more effective thought and composed melodic lines. Not all the songs needed major work: on one of them in particular, my most effective contribution was the addition of two pauses, strategically placed in order to create a more dramatic effect. I often worked on the arrangement and programmed MIDI tracks. I took care of sound design, sampled sounds, played keyboards, percussions and ethnic instruments. I wrote a score for the band and prepared scores for the guest musicians. Whenever they needed an additional voice, I sang. During the tracking phase, I chose the musical instruments which were better suited for the parts to be recorded, tuned the drums, suggested which picks and sticks to use and assisted everyone, instrumentalists and singers, in order to help them perform at their very best. Often, an expressive execution is more effective than a technically perfect one, and a producer must also be a good psychologist in order to ensure that distractions and inhibitions do not get in the way of the artists’ performances. Finally, I took care of the recording, mixing, editing and mastering of the album.
It is hard to say what my contribution as a record producer will be. Depending on the musical project I can either perform many functions or very few. The music and artists take priority over everything and I will never tell anyone what they should write in their own songs. All I will do is use tricks and strategies to make sure that the song can effectively communicate something. Most of all, what you never hear from me is: ``Don’t you have a catchier song?” If the song can strike the heart of the listener, it already possesses all the attractiveness it needs to sell more.
MY APPROACH TO RECORD PRODUCTION IS BASED ON CONTRAST
A song is born from an idea and the need to share it: it is a message addressed to those who will listen to it. My most important task is to make sure that the message is delivered effectively. Listening to music and words does not mean being struck by them, but if they can shake the listener's subconscious through an emotion, the song becomes a medium capable of communicating at a deeper level.
My greatest weapon is contrast.
Music cannot generate emotions, only feelings: tension and release (stability and instability). The lyrics can generate tension and release too, along with groove, dynamics, sounds and different arrangement solutions. The succession of tension and release generates a movement similar to breathing – which in turn breathes life into the music. By giving motion to strategic passages of a song (so as to emphasize certain lines of the lyrics, for example), it is possible to induce the listener to make mental associations - either consciously or not - with his own experience. This is how feelings turn into emotions. Contrast, in a nutshell, is the beating heart of music.