The Insider's Guide to Hiring a Music Producer
For so many good reasons, you've decided to hire a music producer. Now you're starting your search for candidates. It's exciting. A bit like a first date. You're not hiring a plumber; you're trying to find your partner in art. Someone you'll have to trust with your "babies". Magic can come of the right producer-artist relationship and working with the right producer can make a song bloom. In this guide I'll offer a 4-point checklist for identifying the right producer for you.
1. Production Samples – What to listen for
The first thing you should do is listen to audio samples and trust your ears. Considering a producer's creative involvement in the process, samples should be their pride and joy. Here are a few things you should listen for:
Do the songs sound like a finished product to you? Depending on the budget, experience and source material (talent) they were working with, it may be unrealistic to expect every song will sound like a top-10 radio single. But if the arrangement, mix, vocal and instrumental performance are on par with what you want to achieve, that’s a good sign. Find out if they mixed the songs they are playing you. Since mixing is an important part of getting professional sound, the ‘sound’ quality is in part due to the mixing engineer’s skill. They might be the mixing engineer themselves. If that’s the case, you can expect to get broadly similar results with your mix, depending on the quality of input material, and assuming it’s a similar genre. So pay extra attention to the quality of the mix. If they weren’t the mix engineer on the song you heard, you want to find out who was the mixer on these songs, and whether they would be working on your song as well. This may depend on their go-to mixer’s price vis-a-vis your budget. It’s always best to do critical listening in an environment you know well - your room, your speakers or headphones.
Is the production style one that is broadly aligned with your stylistic taste? Keep in mind what you are hearing may not necessarily need to fit your style exactly. In fact some of the best artist/producer symbiotic collaborations came from producers taking artists in a new direction. A smart artist will come with an open mind and often be willing to work with an amazing producer, even (or especially) if that producer can take you on a journey you wouldn’t have been on otherwise. Having said that, if the producer samples are all hyper-compressed, four-to-the-floor side-chained pumping, white-noise laced mega-pop, and you are pretty sure you want your recording to sound like Ryan Adams or Norah Jones, they might not be right choice. If the producer is a mix engineer and takes pride primarily in knowing how to get killer live drum sounds but you do EDM, then this should give you pause.
Did the song feel natural?
There are different ways to produce the same song. Listen for whether the production felt forced on the song, or did it bring out the best in the song. The producer’s role is to serve the song and make it shine, not use the song as a vehicle to flash their production chops or experiment for their own sake, at the expense of the song or artist.
2. Producer Types
There are different types of producers who all call themselves producers. No one is better than the other, they are just different, so it’s important to find out what kind of producer you’re talking to.
Are they ‘A to Z’ track-makers? They can take your song or song idea and turn it into a great sounding track you can record your vocals to. This category of producers are fantastic if you’re a songwriter and when working remotely.
This type of producer is typically good at arrangements - deciding which instrument will play on which song and what part each instrument will play. They are instrumentalists or multi instrumentalists that may end up being your ‘band’ on the recording. In some cases they know how to oversee and coordinate a project and locate the right talent at the best price and just ‘make it happen’, not unlike a musical Project Manager or Wedding Planner. I’m not giving this last example to poke fun – you can’t imagine how important it is to have someone on the project who possesses these skills.
Is the producer’s strength in being a beatmaker? This is pretty common in the Hip Hop and Hop Hop/Pop world. Are they a ‘studio coach’ type? Some producers have lots of experience brining out the best in the musicians by guiding them during recordings.
Are they primarily a mixing engineer who knows how to get a certain sound? Mixing is a really important part of the production process. Some producers are hands on mixers, while others sit next to mixers and direct them. Both types can be great, but you want to know what’s the strength they bring to the table.
All of the above are important trades that you will need when making a professional recording and every producer is different. Find out what your producer brings to the table. Some of the good producers excel at all of these.
3. What’s included in the price of production?
Producers bring much value to a project and get paid for their services. First and foremost consider whether they are the producer you want to work with. Only then consider fee. After you discuss what their fee is, you should dig deeper to find out what is included in this fee.
Is pre-production included? That is, will they spend time helping you choose the songs to produce if you have too many, or finding the right key for your voice?
What’s their deliverable? This is an important expectation to align. Will they get you to a master, or will you still need to hire a mixing and mastering engineer? Do they know a good mixing and mastering engineer and how much do they charge? Will they mix your vocals in if you are recording them after they produce the track? Do you need them to? Do they play any instruments? Do you want them to? (Are they good)? If you will need to hire a studio, is that included in their rate?
4. Personal and Musical Connection
If the producer asks to hear your songs, this is a good sign. If the way they discuss the process resonates with you, this is yet another good sign. One way to gauge a producer’s customer service sensibility is from reviews of previous artists they’ve worked with. Someone else has already walked in your shoes. Was their experience good? Great? Trust makes the process so much more rewarding. Working with someone you connect with on a musical and personal level makes for a better outcome.
Good luck with your production. And if you found this article useful, please share it!