Something I get asked about a lot is the difference between a producer and an engineer.
While those two roles can of course be played by the same person, the fundamental job of each is actually quite different.
A record producer is responsible for shepherding a project from beginning to end. He or she will usually start by talking with the artist and/or its label about expectations for the recordings to be undertaken. Are we talking about a single, a group of singles, an EP, or a full-length album? Are we talking about nicely-done demos or finished masters (tracks that can compete musically and sonically with your standard, major-label commercial recording)? It’s in these initial meetings that budgets are discussed as well, to make sure the budget for the project is sufficient to meet the expectations of the person, people, or company paying the bill.
From there, the producer introduces him or herself to the artist or band and they begin a musical collaboration together. Many producers like to start in the writing and/or rehearsal room, although some would rather just go straight into recording sessions (a topic for another time). Usually, there is some measure of pre-production involved in the making of a master-level recording, where songs are selected, refined, arrangements are tweaked, and parts are analyzed and fine-tuned.
At that point, the producer takes the band into the studio.
Some producers work out of various recording studios around their local area or the world. Others, like me, have their own studios where they do the majority of their work (although I have and do travel to artists and work out of other rooms when that is requested of me). Two things stand out about producers who have studios. One is that the rooms, microphones, analog equipment, instrument backline, and listening environment have all been hand-selected by that producer with his or her particular genres and workflow in mind. Two is that, without a third-party studio owner needing to take their own share of profit from the sessions, that producer is more likely to be able to pass on substantial cost savings to their clients.
During the recording sessions, the producer must at all times keep an eye (or ear) on the musicality of the end result. I coach artists extensively when the situation calls for it, with my goal the achievement of the best possible performances from each band member in the recording session.
Meanwhile, the recording engineer (if it’s a separate person) is free to focus on mic placement, preamp selection, and the proper dialing-in of outboard equipment to ensure that the session runs smoothly and the best possible sounds and captures are achieved.
It is also the engineer’s job to mix the record, applying the proper panning, equalization, compression, reverbs, delays, effects, level balance, and volume automation to give the track a well-balanced shine…BIG when it needs to be BIG, stark when it needs to be stark, all bearing in mind the intended purposes of the genre and the song.
The producer is usually involved in mixes, as well, but typically more as a guiding force that helps define tonal objectives and provide notes throughout each stage of a mix.
In terms of background, producers are usually born in one of three ways: A musician/writer/performer who transitions into helping other artists and musicians refine their sound into great records, an engineer whose studio work on the technical side transitions into playing the role of producer, or – sometimes, a non-musician, non-engineer who simply “speaks music” in a compelling way (sometimes a record executive or promotions person who gets more involved in the creative process over time). I, personally, came into record production via the first route (musician/writer/performer who transitioned into production)
Engineers are usually either technically-gifted people who start as live sound or maintenance engineers and make their way into the recording and mixing fields or musicians who develop a love for recording and learn the technical side as a function of their musicality. Our engineer, John Shelton, also came to be an engineer via a career as a recording and performing artist.
Ultimately, both producer and engineer play a crucial role in the development of any serious recording project. Some people prefer (or have no choice but) to play both roles. At Edgewater, we very purposefully separate the role of producer and engineer between me and John. Although he sometimes has great performance suggestions and I at times contribute to a mic placement or compression ratio decision, generally speaking he and I are most comfortable working with me producing and him engineering. It’s what we feel allows us to best serve our clients’ needs.