Have you ever heard the phrase, “Designed by a blind architect”? This phrase is often used by people who live in older houses that have had several additions over the course of time. Usually, the houses have several different exterior finishes (brick, vinyl, stucco), several different floor heights, different window styles all over the place, odd rooflines, a rabbit’s-warren of small rooms connected by doorways etc. They’re generally pretty big, but they lack any sense of “big picture planning”.
Often, a self-produced project comes across as an earnest attempt at a legitimate record, but just not quite making it. Like Aunt Betty’s famous lime-jello salad, the self-produced record is often greeted with a forced smile, averted eyes and a strained “That’s… nice!”. Genuine enthusiasm or true enjoyment are emotions rarely seen as you take your minty-fresh new project from its jewel case, pass around the liner notes and force the family to listen to 50 minutes of your latest recording endeavor.
Why do self-produced projects so frequently end up sounding so obviously self-produced? Simple: they lack the dispassionate oversight of an experienced producer. Let me explain what I mean.
An artist’s entire psyche is based on emotion. That’s what makes songwriters write, singers sing, musicians play, painters paint etc. Consumers of art look to artists so that they can vicariously experience a taste of the emotion that the artist felt when executing the work. However, artists are frequently unable to judge exactly how much of a good thing is appropriate and how much is too much. It’s like Aunt Betty’s famous pink bathroom – she got so carried away when decorating that EVERYTHING (towels, bathtub, sink, tiles, shower curtain, toilet paper etc) is pink! Oh Aunt Betty… if only you had a producer…[shakes head]
A producer helps the artist to establish the fundamentals of their project, in the same way that an designer helps a family define the fundamentals of their house. Without either, the project / building would likely be hopelessly haphazard, or at least fall short of what it could have been. To continue the analogy, the designer has the additional benefit of not living in the house when it’s completed, which allows her to be dispassionate about the decisions she makes – decisions that ultimately need to be in the best interest of the house design, not the inhabitant’s immediate wishes.
When you hire an experienced producer, you gain several benefits that may not be apparent at first. One, you gain the benefit of his prior experience – prior experience making similar records, dissimilar records, choosing musicians and other staff, gauging the progress of the recording, etc. Two, you get to offload a bunch of chores that you might not truly be good at, if you were to be completely honest with yourself (chart writing, for example, or budgeting, hiring / firing, scheduling and sticking to a schedule… the list goes on, but most artists are not great at any of these things). Thirdly, and most importantly, you gain an adversary. Yup, I said GAIN an adversary.
The best kinds of producers aren’t the “Yes Man” types. Nor are they the authoritarian Nazis – “my way or the highway, kid”. They’re certainly not the “This is my record and you’re just the voice” types either. No, the best kind of producer is the one that gently challenges the artist to justify his / her decisions at every turn, to ensure that the final product has an overall artistic coherence. It is the producer who helps the artist filter through their overt emotional attachment to their music and arrive at something that has a unified and consistent sound, with enough variety to be interesting, yet not schizophrenic.
Sure, a producer can and must encourage the artist. But s/he must always be careful to not become the tacit affirmer, unthinkingly permitting the artist to overindulge in their own unbridled love of background vocals, guitars, auxiliary percussion or reverb. (Think of Templeton the Rat, from Charlotte’s Web – remember how he looked after eating everything in sight at the County Fair? Too… many… guitars…ugh…) Indeed, the producer’s job is to observe the interaction of all the elements in a song, to corral them should they get out of hand, and to keep a gentle but constant hand on the tiller of the entire project to ensure that it steers purposefully towards its intended target.
It may seem like an odd way to spend money, especially when most artists feel that the last thing they need to do is pay someone to make decisions about THEIR project. But the fact is, if you don’t pay someone to make these decisions, you’ll be the one making them, and chances are good that you’re too close to the emotion of what you want in project (“it’s my first record, don’t want to screw it up, I’ve always wanted to have bagpipes on a song, maybe I’ll just do another track of vocals here, I can’t do this song unless I get a bagpipe player, should I have taken more time on that track, I NEED A BAGPIPE PLAYER” etc) to make good, objective calls.
It’s why psychologists don’t self-assess. That’s why you need a producer!