It’s a question I’ve been asked several times recently.
More specifically, it involves a debate between two possible approaches:
OPTION 1) Concentrating your budget on a smaller body of work (e.g. a single, or at best an EP) with a more established producer who has good credentials and equipment
OPTION 2) Working with a producer who is still early on in their career and makes up for whatever they lack in experience (and top class equipment) with boundless enthusiasm and dedication to your project
Given the saturated nature of the indie music scene, there is a case to be made for ensuring the quality of your recordings stands out – it could be a big factor in setting you apart from the rest of the new music coming out in your genre.
However, the best way to approach finding the right music producer is Option 2, focusing on the huge potential value in finding someone who is as invested in your project as you are.
Choosing a producer without an impressive client list of decades of experience does not necessarily mean a compromise on quality.
Let me explain. There are a huge range of factors that determine how suitable a given producer is for you, including:
– How much time they can make for you
– How excited and emotionally invested they are in your project
– What sort of music is inspiring them at the moment
– Whether they have other commitments, big projects with deadlines that might draw them away from your work
– The quality of their equipment
– The location of their studio
– Whether they have access to great session musicians playing the instruments that suit your songs
What people forget is that, while producing great quality tracks with a polished sound can be a great marker of your intent, showing the outside world that you’re serious about your career in music, the recording quality is a relatively unimportant determining factor in how good (and successful) your songs are!
What will really grab people are factors like: how distinctive your vocals and instruments sound; how well constructed your melodies are; how original your songwriting style is; and so on. It doesn’t matter how expensive the microphone is and how well mastered the finished track is – if what your recording is one-dimensional, rushed, unoriginal, your success will either be short-lived or never get off the ground in the first place.
Also, if you’re spending your entire budget on recording/mixing time (and limited recording time at that), you’re missing other great investment opportunities that can be far more important and often overlooked – things like hiring great instruments or good session players, or extra training to improve the way you write lyrics or memorable melodies.
One of the biggest mistakes artists can make (I’ve been there!) is to assume that the one thing that needs no work or investment are the songs themselves. Your producer can be a huge part of this journey, but only if you have the time to build a solid creative relationship with them.
None of this is to say that you wouldn’t have this perfect creative relationship with a really established producer who charges you big rates for their time but is able to give your songs that killer edge they need. You might even be lucky enough to find a producer willing to give you reduced rates because they love your music enough.
But the main point I am trying to make is that the songwriting-producer relationship has more impact on the quality of your songs than the quality of the mics and which artists they have worked with.
With that in mind, read on to discover my step-by-step guide for finding your dream producer…
8 factors in finding the right music producer
We’re all agreed on the importance of finding a great producer – but how do you do it? What are the things you need to look out for, to work out if someone is the right fit for you?
If you’re sending out demos to various producers online, or meeting potential collaborators at networking events (both of these are great ways to meet them!), here are 8 factors you can use to determine whether you’re the right fit:
Factor #1 – general vibe/chemistry
This is the single most important thing in finding the right producer.
Think about it – you might be spending eight hours a day (locked) in a room with this person. You’re entrusting them with your precious songs; you’re going to have lots of conversations with them about the direction your music should take.
It is essential that you get on well with each other.
It’s a little bit like a job interview – the employer is often less focused on whether you can DO the job (you have your CV and work experience for that), but instead they care about whether they can stand working with you for long stretches of time. (This is the fabled “elevator test” – what would happen if one of their major clients was stuck in a lift with you for forty five minutes…)
Do they seem patient and empathetic? Will you be able to have a productive argument with them without things turning sour? Do you generally feel relaxed talking to them, even at the beginning?
It doesn’t matter how established a producer is, or how good their equipment is – if the chemistry between you isn’t right then it could really hamper the quality of what you make together!
Factor #2 – how much interest do they take in your music?
There is nothing worse than working with a producer who doesn’t actually care about your songs. They might be the nicest, most easy-going person in the world, but if they aren’t really interested in how your music career develops after the studio then they aren’t going to work that extra bit to make your recordings crackle.
This is why I often think you get better value from a less-experience / more-enthusiasm producer at the same stage as you – you get better value for your money because they understand that YOUR SUCCESS IS THEIR SUCCESS.
If they’re already working with lots of other artists and you’re just another project on their to-do list, this is not a good thing as they’ll make less time for you.
If, on the other hand, they badger you for ideas, or ask to hear more songs, and are generally enthusiastic and contribute lots of suggestions early-on, this is GREAT!
Factor #3 – what music do they like? Not TOO similar (but not too different…)
Do NOT fall into the trap of trying to find a producer that only specialises in your precise genre. If they bring different influences to the table this can pull your sound into a much more original direction than if you like exactly the same music.
This is especially important if you are a solo artist as you don’t already have the luxury of bandmates bringing different influences into the mix. If you are a John Mayer superfan with a producer who only records that style of music then your music will sound like John Mayer and GUESS WHAT? Someone’s already done that.
However, you still want a producer that speaks the same language as you. For example, if you’re an indie folk artist, recording with a metal producer will probably (though not definitely) result in a disjointed creative relationship.
Extra tip: I really like creating a collaborative playlist for me and my producer so we can share what artists are inspiring each of us at the moment and expand our horizons.
Factor #4 – what is their equipment and space like?
Unless you are specifically seeking out a homemade, ‘lo-fi’ sort of sound, you at least want your producer’s studio to be well treated (sound absorbing material on the walls) and for them to own decent mics.
Don’t be overly picky with this – if you’re still starting out in your musical career you can’t afford the luxury of £20k mics and fancy pre-amps etc.
But you don’t want to record with equipment that is less decent than what you could afford yourself – and low quality equipment might reflect badly on how much care the producer puts into their work.
Factor #5 – cost
Right, we come to a blindingly obvious point. The cost is a huge factor in whether you can work with a given producer.
If you have a recording budget [and you should – more on that here], you need to make sure their day rate is affordable and you’re not going to cram too much into too few studio days.
This also goes both ways – if they are too cheap, alarm bells should start ringing (although if you’ve heard some of their other work and are happy with the quality, this might not be a problem!)
Sometimes a producer might even be willing to work for FREE. This can be a sign that they’re really invested in your music (see Factor #2 above) – BUT there are two things to watch out for and bear in mind here:
1) Not paying someone and not having a contract means there’s no guarantee that you’ll get your finished tracks at the end of it. If you want to be sure of finishing a project, it can sometimes be better just to pay for it and have a proper agreement with an end date etc [more on that here].
2) You should also watch out for hidden costs or percentage fees – don’t accidentally give away a high percentage of your track. If this is what you want, fine, but as long as you are sure – they are your precious songs after all!
Factor #6 – where are they based?
For convenience, you might want only to work with a producer based in the same city as you. This is completely fair enough but it’s not necessarily a problem if they’re based somewhere else.
Travelling somewhere different to record, especially if you’re doing all your recording in one big block of time, can really help take you out of your normal everyday life and into a more immersive creative environment.
For example my band, August and After, record in Paris and we like to think that the romantic vibe of the city (or the hyper-emotional vibe, depending on your perspective!) seeps into the music.
Also, avoiding the bigger cities like London or LA could mean cheaper studio day rates and you might save MORE money on the recording than you spend extra on travel and accommodation!
So the location is relevant, especially if you have a special affinity for a certain place, but if your perfect producer is based somewhere else you shouldn’t rule them out just because of this!
Factor #7 – are they well connected / good access to other partners?
You need to be SUPER careful about this – producers will often over-emphasise (or make up completely!) links to record labels and A&R people as a way to hook you. While a producer might well genuinely be well connected and happy to pitch your music to their contacts, this should never be a deciding factor in working with them.
One thing to note though if you’re looking for support acts – if the producer is currently working with a bigger artist in a similar genre to you, there might be an opening for an introduction and maybe a support slot if they’re going on tour… these are the little things you need to think about, ways to be more ‘entrepreneurial’ and look for opportunities. So worth bearing in mind!
Similarly, if they know lots of great session players, you might get discounts on really good quality musicians for your recordings – again, great value for money.
You should keep all these factors front of mind when you reach out to and meet potential producers – what you put in, you should get out again!
As always, thanks for reading and please LEAVE A COMMENT about your own experiences and opinions!