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The Record Producer's Art with Ric Gordon

Ric Gordon is an artist and record producer, the founder of indie label Russian Winter Records and publisher of the Floorshime Zipper Boots music blog. Over a career spanning more than four decades, he has produced albums, EPs and singles for two dozen artists, has released nine albums of his own music under various monikers, and has overseen the release of more than 50 albums, EPs and singles. Through his work with Floorshime Zipper Boots, he has helped expose over 1500 emerging artists from all over the world to new music aficionados in 83 countries.

This is a continuing column about the art of record production. New features will be at the top, so scroll down to see what you missed.

3. Dealing With Artist Egos:
We are all artists in this business and everyone has a healthy ego. Part of a producer's job is the management of artist egos, so the best possible record gets made. This is not just hand holding, or worse yet, trying to control every aspect of the recording process. What ego management takes, is a clear vision for the project and making sure the artist knows that your responsibility as the producer is to ensure that the best possible recording is made, not to sit there and blindly do whatever the artist wants. There are tough decisions ahead in any production scenario. 

Differences in opinion about arrangements, performances, song structure, sound, tone, etc. Ultimately, you and the artist must agree on a path forward. It is important, right at the beginning of the project, that you establish a sense of rapport and trust with the artist. That the artist understands the producer's role and respects that you are there to make the best record possible, and that you are both working to the same goal. Be knowledgeable, be authoritative (not authoritarian), have your best creative ideas flowing and at all times, make sure you are an active and integral part of what is going on in the studio. 

Finally, the last ego a producer needs to manage is the record label's. It is important that as a producer, one delivers a record that can be understood by the label in a corporate sense. The label must be able to understand how the record fits into their marketing, promotion and sales structure. The label needs to clearly understand, the record's genre(s), market scale, best distribution channels and the best channels to radio and the music press. The record must fit somewhere in the label's corporate box, or it may end up a piece of spaghetti, thrown against the wall to see if it sticks.

2. Which Mic To Use, Artistic vs Technical:

Before any tracking starts, it's important to consider whether things fall as an artistic consideration or as a more technical one. Of course, when it comes to the sound of one's recording, it can be argued (rightfully so) that everything is an artistic consideration. That then is really the point. Just because there is a standard accepted technical way of doing things, that doesn't mean it is necessarily the correct thing to do artistically.

Mic selection is one such point. It's easy to just say use condensers for everything, that an SM57 or Sennheiser 906 are guitar amp or percussion mics or that an SM58 is a good mic for vocals on stage but not in the studio. Mic selection should go beyond technical considerations and be used as part of the sonic color of the vocal or instrumental track. Choosing an SM57 or SM58 to record a vocal gives that part a different artistic identity than just using a condenser. The consideration needs to be about what the vocal part is conveying, its place in the song, the mood being set. One may need to record different vocal parts with different mics. Even just the lead vocal through a song may need different mics for different parts of the song. It's about the sonic texture needed to best convey the artistic emotion to the listener. Sometimes the vocal might need to be highly 'colored' and a Green Bullet, which is a harmonica mic, or a Copperphone, which has a sound close to an AM radio, is the answer.

The same consideration needs to be given to a guitar part, the sound of the snare drum or any other instrument or vocal part being recorded. Make the choice of mic an artistic decision. Do not leave this very important aspect of your record's sound to the recording engineer to determine or to any purely technical consideration about what any given mic was originally 'made' for. Be creative. Think about the part being recorded in terms of what the lyric is saying, what the musician is playing, the emotional direction of that part and the track as a whole. It's about what is trying to be conveyed artistically and choosing the mic based on those considerations.

1. Record Production, Where To Start:

Being a record producer is very different from being a recording artist or a recording engineer. For inexperienced artists starting a DIY project or going into a commercial recording studio on their own, the concept of a record producer becomes the first challenge. Many artists new in their recording experiences, are content to let the studio engineer be their producer. This is almost always a mistake. Engineering is mainly a technical function, where record production is mainly a creative one. There is, of course, some overlap between the two. Being a good recording engineer, does not necessarily qualify one to be a record producer. Similarly, many new artists, especially on DIY projects, choose to produce themselves. While this can sometimes be a good decision, much of the time it leads to a record that lacks creative edge, adventurousness, and a unifying and compelling sonic vibe that spans all the tracks.

In many ways, a record producer can be thought of as an analogous role to a movie director. The record producer is responsible for having a vision of what a finished album, EP or track will sound like. The producer must understand how to challenge the artist to push past their perceptions and boundaries to reach their creative peak. The producer must be able to provide help, creative input and many times leadership, on instrumentation, arrangements, individual parts, orchestration, song structure, how to achieve sounds, where to use effects, tracking, mixing, mastering, sequencing and every other aspect of the process that takes an artist's original idea and delivers that as a finished recorded product.

In this continuing column, we will explore the art of record production, including concepts, techniques, and practical step by step instruction, to help the reader learn how to make the best records possible. It is not my intent to follow a linear path through the process of record production. Rather this is going to be a column that presents topics as they come to me, with no intent of being a 'text book' kind of guide. I will post something at irregular intervals, given the realities of running a record label, producing records and being an artist myself. So, check back periodically and I hope you find this column interesting and helpful.