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Creativity in the Control Room

by Björgvin Benediktsson

Where the magic happens

From an idea to the finished product, a song or an album goes through many stages. A little ditty in the songwriters head, a rocking riff on the Les Paul or a quiet chord progression on the piano transforms exponentially as more thought and work is put into it.

All of this isn’t done by only the songwriter. There are a lot of people behind the scenes, helping with the process, from A&R scouts to mixers, to engineers, to producers. But how much of the band is left on that CD after it’s been filtered through all those people? How much does a producer change the creative vision the band had?

Do the engineers and producers help or hinder creativity?

There are three primary roles in the recording studio. The artist, the producer and the engineer. All of them play a pivotal role in the production of an album. Sometimes these roles mix together and sometimes they clash. Other times one person performs the role of all three. Let’s take a look at what goes on in each of these roles:

The Producer

The record producer is the person who, on paper, is the one responsible for fleshing out and making a masterpiece out of the creativeness of the band at hand. He’s the savant that knows how music works, how people react to it and how it should sound. He’s the one responsible for squeezing out the musician’s best performance, for generating new ideas, and for making the artist as comfortable as possible while in the studio. Some producers are known for their signature sound, or their knowledge about a certain genre. Sometimes you just have that new band that needs a Ross Robinson type producer to make them sound amazing.

Examples of famous producers.

  • George Martin
  • Timbaland
  • Rick Rubin

The Engineer.

The tech guy. The guy that knows how to capture that sound you are looking for. He knows how to make the guitars sound like dinosaurs and the drums like locomotives. He knows where to place microphones and to connect all the cables.

micdesk1 The engineer knows how to make the guitars sound like dinosaurs and the drums like locomotives

He knows what’s technically right and wrong.
He’s the producer’s right hand, helping him achieve the creative vision he’s seeing for the band.

Examples of famous engineers/producers

  • Alan Parsons
  • Geoff Emerick

Sometimes, these two jobs are the same person. Producers who are tech savvy enough to know exactly how to capture the sound of the band can fill both roles. Often they are engineers who worked their way up to producer status and end up doing both jobs. I only differentiate these two professions to show you the difference between their job descriptions. But more often than not, they move seamlessly between the two.

The artist

The talent. The new spark of creativity and vision the world has never seen. The musicians girls will cry for and guys will dress like. The poor artists that have slaved away on their music for years before becoming successful enough to be noticed by the big guns. Sometimes, artists double as producers, like Prince. And other times, they are collaborators with producers, joined at the hip in making new and exciting music. These people are the heart of the music industry. The pulse that keeps it all together. Because if it weren’t for all these artist making this music, not only would there be no music industry, I wouldn’t have anything to do.

Some people would think that an artist is perfectly capable of producing, recording and publishing his own stuff, without supervision. And in this day and age some people certainly do, but many producers agree that artists often stand too close to their own songs and do not see the big picture and what they could accomplish with it.

Which brings us to the question: how much creative control should the producer have?

The role of the producer

Since the producer is usually the most knowledgeable person in the studio, hired for his ability to know what works in a specific genre and such, should he be in control?

An underground band finding themselves in a major recording studio because somebody thought they should be recorded and sold will often flip out. The average underground band doesn’t know much about professional recording environments. I remember the shock and awe I experienced when I first saw all the gear the average recording studio has.

Is the artist always right even though he doesn’t know how to work all the studio equipment?

micdesk1 Behind the scenes, engineers and producers are responsible for capturing the best possible performance from the artist

In my opinion, the producer should be there to take care, guide and help the artist in expressing what is already there in the first place. Namely, their own creativity and vision. Maybe the producer has different ideas and more experience in knowing what works and what doesn’t; but ultimately, it’s the artist that should approve of everything. If I were to record my songs with an experienced producer I would listen to what he had to say. Because if somebody is hired to make you sound a certain way or to help you catch that spark, that is to be greeted with open arms.

Don’t shun advice
Appreciate advice and helpings offered by the producer. Only then listen and critically think for yourself if it makes sense or not. The value of advice is that it is a second viewpoint that will help you step outside of your limited viewpoint to see how you can improve.

The producer should be there for you, first and foremost.
They should not boss you around and change your sound, they should show you possibilities and pathways to bring your music to its full potential.

But sometimes things just don’t work out like that. Major labels have always been associated with creative control and in those cases, the producer tends to have more of direct role in
controlling the creativity of the artist.

Underground creativity vs major label control

There is a subtle difference between being able to record whatever you want on your own time and money and being on the major labels’ money-watch.

In today’s music scene, underground bands have almost unlimited freedom to their own creativity. Because today, you can just plug into your home-studio, record your unfiltered creativity and upload it onto a social music network like Myspace or SoundCloud. There, everybody can listen and love your music, and you embrace your own creative right. But when this creativity gets noticed by the major label, in some people’s opinion things start to go wrong.

An average underground band finding themselves on a major label doesn’t have the same freedom in the studio as other better known artists. On a major label you will have a lot of pressure towards success by any means necessary and sometimes these bands are merely clay for the major label to mold and sell as they see fit.

Steve Albini, a modern rock star producer if you will, has been quoted as saying:

“It always offended me when I was in the studio and the engineer or the assumed producer for the session would start bossing the band around. That always seemed like a horrible insult to me. The band was paying money for the privilege of being in a recording studio, and normally when you pay for something, you get to say how it’s done” (link)

In his opinion, the producers and engineers shouldn’t be allowed to make what they will of the band in the studio. The band is there for a reason, and their own creative spark is usually what brought them there. So the producers shouldn’t be allowed to manipulate and destroy their creative spark with an “holier than thou” kind of attitude. They should be there for the bands’ purpose only, making sure what was there in the first place, stays there in the end.

Creative control differs between a major label and an indie one.

In the world of indie there is less pressure on profit, often because there is also less money. Major labels pay huge advances to bands to go into the recording studio with the best producers to publish the new best hit.

Indie labels don’t have the money to match that. They put less pressure on on the band, ironically putting less pressure on their creativity and often resulting in much better music. So you can argue that because the major labels are paying for it, the band is just there to be bossed around and treated as pieces of clay.

The major label wants to see that money back any way they think will be best, but lets not forget that although the record label is putting up big bucks to pay for the bands studio time, it’s only an advance of the bands record sales. So who ultimately pays for the studio time? The band.

Maybe the horror stories aren’t all true. But if you are ultimately paying for an album with your name on it, wouldn’t you want to have, you know, something to say about the production of it? Only one story of a band being screwed over and being left with an album that they don’t like is enough for me to loathe this way of management. The artist should always have the last say in the matter, however big the producer may be.

What do you readers think? What is the role of the producer in your eyes? How much truth is in major label creative crushing? Let me know.

12 Responses to “Creativity in the Control Room”

  1. Jorge Perelló says:

    good article man, you’re totally right… I think the entire crew of people involved in the production process should ultimately seek the better choice for an album in particular, regardless of sales or anything… if a band is true and the songs are catchy, people will relate to them anyway, maybe it’s the label’s job to find bands more ad hoc with what they want, rather than to manipulate other bands out of their will to succeed.

  2. Cornwallis Lisson says:

    I must say that i really love the way you guys put this article together and that it is very enlightening.i would like to say a special thanks to all those who made this article possible.i give you guys ten out of ten for a very grate job.Thank you

  3. Björgvin says:

    Thanks Cornwallis, I appreciate it. It took some effort to write but in the end, I think it’s pretty strong.

  4. Moli says:

    Let’s say your a major company. The first thing you do when you wake up : monitor the sells, counting the cost, calculating the margin. It’s not a bad or good thing, it’s how every companies work.
    The only difference is the raw material you use. Artists are not as stable and reliable as iron for a car maker.
    I think every artists must be aware of that. There are three ways to react :
    – refusing to be a mass consumption product, and stop to record in major studio
    – accepting the game and let the producer to run the rules
    – being aware of the companies goal, and fighting with the producer to get the album you want.

    In my opinion, a good producer needs talent to know what sounds better and take the best of the band, but above all, he has to be a good psychologist. Fighting with the band isn’t the good way.

  5. Moli says:

    Good article 😉

  6. 10 Resources for Audio Production and Engineering Students | IPR Blog says:

    […] which often extends beyond the confines on electronic music, such as recent posts detailing “Creativity in the Control Room” or “Acoustics Part 1: An Introduction to Resonance” – quality articles […]

  7. SAMUEL UDOH. says:

    Its quite interesting to know there is a tech man in any recording. most people seems not to know their role in song/album recordings. Sammyx

  8. Gabe Alari says:

    agreed. i’ve read the horror stories and i must say im completely on your side. well written article 🙂

  9. Torri Foxe says:

    I love this product! Will there be anything else in the line coming out soon?

  10. Miq says:

    Great article! I think that if big labels would choose which artists to sign more carefully (check if they understand music, not just play the cliche stuff) instead of just looking at how much money they can make off of them, (mainstream) music would be alot more unique, pure, and emotionally deep. BUT, since it is the music “business” and it does have to do with money…..It´s almost inevitable that the producer over-steps his mark…because if you have talentless money-makers like ke$ha, lady gaga, Amy winehouse, etc(subjective, i know), depending on THEIR RAW TALENT will result in very low sale numbers. Thus, the need for the producer to put his talent behind the pretty face (or ugly face in the case of Winehouse) of the artist. I know i never want to be a producer under a label. If i have to have a normal office job and produce music in my basement for the rest of my life….I prefer that than to give cheap talent a good name and salary.

  11. Penni Umfleet says:

    Awesome blog, I’m going to tell all my friends about this! Wow, thanks again.

  12. free makeup says:

    Gaga is definitely absurd in my personal opinion

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