I recently shared a blog post about getting organized as a creative professional. In this post, I’ll go more in-depth about how I organize projects as a music producer. Half, if not more, of the job is just making sure everything’s prepped and ready to run smoothly. A producer’s expertise is often in forecasting problems that might arise—gaps in communication, flaky collaborators, changes in creative direction—and making a plan airtight enough to support productive improvisation.
Determining a scope of work
It’s tempting to just start working and see where things go, but most projects are easier when both the music producer and artist understand the scope of work. In the case of entire EPs and albums, this means deciding which songs to use, often sifting through years of ideas that span an artist’s career. Although artists usually have an idea of what they want to include, sometimes they ask a producer for advice. With one client, I made categories of definites and maybes, or other characteristics like instrumentation and themes. It took days, and a lot of making cases for specific songs that we didn’t agree on. One client brought an entire binder of songs, and as I got to know them, I started to recognize a theme around music therapy that we then built the collection around.
Planning a schedule
Once you know which songs you’re including, you should be able to make a complete list of the instruments you’ll use. Of course, sometimes an idea strikes in the middle of recording, but we want to minimize the time scrambling to make sudden ideas happen. Once we have a list, I can help choose players for a project from the network I’ve built through years in the industry. Planning ahead helps us not only in booking musicians in high demand, but fitting their rates in our budget and making sure they can play all their clips in the same session. (This saves money if the artists have session minimums to avoid traveling for low-paying projects.)
If we’re not recording in my home studio, we have to find one that fits the budget, as well as needs for isolation, ambient or dry space, types of equipment available and space for multiple musicians to record together. As with the musicians, I do know a good number of studios in the area, but I still do research often to confirm minor details at those studios, or to get familiar with new ones. Of course, it helps to stick to reliable options, but there always might be something better out there, and I’m always open to finding it.
Setting up the recording session
Before going into the studio I make sure I know who’s coming, which booths they’ll be in and what equipment they’ll need. (Hopefully those people practiced, and are ready to play with no surprises.) I make a spreadsheet with that information and send it along to the studio manager, who asks the assistants to get the space ready to go when we get there. They set up preamps, compressors, speakers and any other hardware I request. I even send a headphone mix, and directions for what each musician will hear. Although I research all the equipment we use beforehand, if I’m trying it for the first time, I always make sure we have a backup with which I’m more familiar. Most people don’t have the budget for trial and error, and even big labels don’t block off studio time like they used to unless you’re really a superstar.
Before we go, I want to be sure the recording itself is organized, so I map out each track in its entirety. Each rehearsal letter in the musicians’ charts corresponds to a marker in the software, which are labelled to emphasize which section they represent. Everything down to the tempo, tempo changes and key are determined already, and the artist receives a MIDI mockup of the arrangement so they can practice at home or even just hear it. Since MIDI is easier to manipulate than audio, it’s like a pencil sketch so an artist can make final decisions before putting down the paint.
Editing and mixing
This is where my duties as a music producer and engineer start getting a little more obvious. Before I start mixing, every track has to be in its final form. Just to be sure we have enough material, we need to bring home multiple takes of each track and either select the better one, or piece together a new one made up from all the best moments. When I start mixing, my screen is always set up the same: drums are on the left, followed by percussion, bass, chord instruments, background vocals and lead vocal. After all the tracks comes the master fader, and finally auxiliary tracks with effects. Just like I have my preferred studio equipment, I also have default effects that I always use, and ways of combining them to produce results quickly.
From there, it’s just a matter of making sure everything sounds right together: does everything hit at the right moment? Does anything need to be tuned? Is there anything I should add to fill out recorded sound?
The last thing to do is make sure the song plays at standard levels comparable to the other tracks on the album, and other music by other artists. We also want to be sure it sounds equally good wherever you might play it. I always make my own master, even if we’ll then send it to someone else for finishing touches. To further cut down on the mastering workload, I try to mix at similar levels. Once the song is mastered, it won’t change anymore (unless it gets popular enough to be remastered to new standards 30 years later).
Since I have all the info on who did what across the project, it’s also my job to make the credits. I have to keep track carefully and find a clean, clear way to present it. Some people get confused about producers (the person who organizes the project), engineers (the person who records the project) and composers (the people–often inviting great ambiguity–who write the music). It’s important to know the roles everyone is playing, and there’s often confusing overlap. However, you can’t assume that one role always coincides with another. On more complicated projects, you even have to differentiate between recording, mixing and mastering engineers. In 2019, it’s increasingly popular for people to learn to do everything themselves.
Hopefully you get everything done by your deadline. But falling behind happens all the time; if you have to stay up all night, you stay up all night. That’s why I put the most important things first on my to-do list. If I really can’t catch up, I might have to ask others on the projects if they can accommodate an extension (and they often can). Clients tend to set deadlines a little earlier than they actually need them. That’s smart because even with amazing planning, you can’t control everything. Once you do finish, you should keep a record of how you sent the final project, and who received it. This way, nothing will be lost or forgotten. I love WeTransfer for big files.
Bigger projects aren’t necessarily harder or higher-level. You just have to make sure you’re making realistic goals to help you finish. When one of my interns told me he wanted to make an album, we started planning a year in advance. We set self-imposed deadlines–there was no client, but I did help him stay accountable–and he learned to manage his time well. We only had to cut a few minor details out in the end. That’s good for the first time producing an album. No project is too big to break up into manageable pieces. If a creative goal feels too complicated to achieve, remember that you can always ask for help from someone who knows what it takes, or even look it up and find blog posts and checklists like this one.
Sound like me? This blog post was written by Brianna Caleri (Barry’s assistant) after an informational interview on the subject and years of absorbing Barry’s ideas and tone.