How to become a Professional Producer / Engineer

Here is a reply of mine to a person who asked “how do you become a professional producer?”.

First of all, realize that there is a difference between a “producer” and an “engineer”.

The producer is pretty much the creative director. He usually doesn’t operate the equipment or anything like that. He’s the one who helps guide the artists and tries to get the best performance possible from them. He may also make suggestions about song arrangements and overall sound, and will try to convey to the engineer the type of sound he wants. Producers don’t necessarily need any formal background in audio engineering, although many of them are very capable audio engineers as well. They also don’t necessarily have to have any musical training either, but they certainly need to have a good ear for music and be able to communicate with all the musicians, and so those with a good understanding of music and music theory tend to do a little bit better in general.

On the other hand, the engineer is usually just the technical guy who sets up and operates all the recording equipment, and is responsible for getting the best possible sound to tape. His job is to focus on things like proper signal level to make sure nothing is distorting or being recorded at too low of levels, make sure the gear is operating correctly, and to try to get the type of sound that the producer and artists want. He is the technical guy, although a musical background is also very helpful.

Now days, the line between producer and engineer has blurred quite a bit, and you’ll often find one person doing both roles at the same time (I do this quite often). It can be tough to try to do both, to listen for the technical aspects as well as to concentrate on the performance and try to coach the artists, but many people do both jobs at the same time. Also, in many styles of music these days (especially rap/hip-hop, and electronic music) the “producer” is the person who also comes up with the music and/or beats. Even with your standard pop/rock bands, many producers will still contribute to the music on the albums and may play several parts themselves.

So…. after that long introduction, lets get to your question!

The short answer is that there is no set path to becoming a producer or an engineer. However, one common path into the career goes something like this:
— You go to a school and take audio engineering and music production courses.
— You finish school with some kind of bogus degree that really doesn’t mean much to anyone.
— You beg and plead with all the major studios in your area to get an “internship”
— You get lucky and land an internship and work your ass off for quite a while cleaning bathrooms, making coffee, being a gofer, and assisting the real engineers, all without getting paid anything at all.
— If you show a LOT of ambition and talent, and are able to round up some clients of your own to bring into the studio (so that the studio makes some money off of you), then you might be lucky enough to be able to hang around for a while after the normal internship term is over (most big studios rotate their interns on a regular basis to make room for new interns fresh out of the music schools)
— If you are able to bring in enough clients and the studio really likes you, maybe they will consider you an “employee” or an independent that they will work with on a regular basis. Keep in mind that you will only get paid a measely hourly wage ONLY for time that you actually bill to clients. You won’t get any other benefits in most cases. So, unless you can bring in a lot of clients on a regular basis, you still aren’t going to earn enough to make a living.

That seems to be the most common path into the business. Very few people who go down that path ever get to the point where they can actually earn a living from it (no matter what the music schools try to tell you). This is particularly true in the music recording business.

You have a better chance of making a living if you become very adept at digital editing on the popular DAW systems (Pro Tools, Sonic Solutions, etc.) and try to land a job at a studio that does mostly production work for corporate clients. Corporate clients (TV, Radio, Film, Multimedia) will pay much more per hour than most music clients will, and there is usually plenty of corporate type of work, so those types of studios tend to do much better and can actually afford to hire skilled digital audio editors on occassion (if they expand, or one of their other editors breaks out on his own). If you want to actually make a living working in someone else’s studio, then getting into one of these types of studios has a much better chance of doing it for you.

Another way to do it, especially in the music business, is to just do it on your own! Find some bands and artists in your area to produce. Offer them your services for free when you start out to build up your demo reel and a bit of a reputation (you’d be working for free at a major studio as an intern anyway, so you might as well start for free in this pathway as well). If you don’t have the gear to do it on your own, then just have the band cover the studio time at a bigger studio, but still give them your services for free. Getting started on your own takes a lot of hustling. It’s more sales than it is engineering/producing. You’ve got to build up a good client list, and do a really great job for them so that they will come back to you in the future as paying clients, and so that they will also spread the word around about you. Word of mouth is very important in this business! Don’t let anybody go away unhappy because BAD word of mouth carries much more power and spreads faster than good word of mouth!

You will also want to try to build up relationships with record labels, and agents and managers as well. If these people like your work, they may send more work your way. If you have a great ear for finding and producing talent, then these people will be interested in hearing your latest productions and so you will be in the position to “shop” bands/artists to these people and earn some sort of commission or royalty if they get signed to a big deal. You may want to see a lawyer and have him draw up a standard production deal contract that you can use for these artists that you work with. Typically it’s better to just get paid up front and not bother with contracts, but when you are starting out and doing a lot of work for free, a contract might pay off if one of those bands happens to get some sort of deal. But, be aware that if you sign a contract with them, it might actually hurt their chances of getting a deal with a bigger company since many bigger companies don’t want to hassle with the extra expense and time needed to buy out your contract with the artists.

So…. there are a few ideas for you. The best thing to do is to just get out there and do it! Get a real job to support yourself, and then in your free time start producing and recording as many bands and artists as you can until you become good enough and have a good enough demo reel to start getting some paying clients. Even when you start getting paying clients, it will probably still be quite a while before you are able to actually make a living from it and quit your day job!

Even though I may be a little biased against some of the recording schools that charge a LOT of money and make big promises of a lucrative career in the recording business, I don’t want to come across as being against schools!  If you are at that age where you are just wrapping up high school and are considering going to college or a recording school, I certainly recommend that you at least continue on with some form of schooling to get the basics background technical knowlege you will need.  In today’s very tough market, especially in the field of music and recording, my personal opinion is that you should attend a regular four year college and get some sort of real degree that you can use, such as in Electrical and/or Computer Engineering, and then take some recording classes on the side as a second major or whatever.  The Electrical/Computer Engineering background is an excellent choice and will certainly give you a solid background for being a recording engineer, and then the extra recording classes you take on the side will show you how your engineering studies apply to the world of acoustics and recording, and you’ll get some hands on experience with recording techniques.

Here is my reply to another post in which I detailed a bit more of my own personal experience, focussed a bit more on learning how to be a good engineer:

I’ve been working as a full time professional engineer and producer for the last 8 years or so, and have been doing it part-time recreationally since 1986. Even before that I was always screwing around with connecting all the various stereo equipment around the house and making mix tapes and such. I’ve also been involved on the music side as a player since a very early age, and come from a very musical family. I also happen to be quite technically inclined and studied electrical & computer engineering in college.

I’m still constantly learning and improving on my craft, although I consider myself to be pretty good at what I do already (and all my clients think so as well). It’s NOT something that you can learn in a short amount of time, and there is a certain degree of natural ability that is involved as well. Some people pick it up much more quickly than others.

You definitely have to learn to listen to things in a different way, and be able to visualize how everything will fit together in the final mix in a way that is appropriate for each song.

As far as sculpting the sound goes, most of that comes directly from the source, NOT after it’s on tape or in the computer! You have to capture the right sound to begin with, which involves having a great sounding instrument, with a great player, in a great sounding room (or perhaps a dead booth), with the right type of microphone and pre-amp to properly capture the sound. If you can’t get the sound right at the source, then no amount of tweaking or “fixing it in the mix” is really going to get you the sound you are looking for. I never use reference CDs while I’m tracking, although they can certainly be handy when you are mixing or when you are working in a new control room that you are not familiar with (then you use CDs that you know very well to get used to the way that control room and monitoring system sounds). Lots and lots of practice and experimentation will help you eventually be able to get the sounds the way you want them direct from the source, so that they only require minor tweaking or enhancement during the mixing stage.

You need to be honest with yourself as well. If you are doing recording at home with a SB Live soundcard and an SM57 microphone, you really aren’t going to be able to come close to the sounds that the pros are getting on major label CD releases. (I don’t know what type of setup you have, I was just using that gear as a typical home studio example).

There are a LOT of books out there on recording and producing. Visit a site like Amazon.Com and search for recording books and read customer reviews. Or you can try something like musicbooksplus.com or mixbooks.com for more books specifically about music and recording.  I have put together a list of my favorite books in thebookstore section of my site.

The best school is the school of experience. I never went to a formal audio engineering or recording school, yet from my own self-taught experience and my demo reel, I was still able to land a staff position at one of the biggest studio facilities in the Seattle area… and then I learned a LOT more! Try to find a major studio in your area that hires interns and do whatever it takes to land an intern position there if you can, and then follow around the staff engineers and observe what they do and ask a lot of questions. Then practice late at night in their studios when nothing else is going on. Before you do that, though, study up as much as you can and at least try to master your own equipment first so that you have a solid foundation to build on. Maybe check out the book “Modern Recording Techniques” for a good overview on the whole recording process and various equipment and microphones.

OK… here’s my little story for you:

I already mentioned screwing around when I was young and making mix tapes with a little radio shack DJ mixer and all the various stereo equipment in the house that I could get my hands on. Half-way through college I came into a little extra money and bought some synths and started playing in a college rock band. I then bought a 4-track cassette recorder, a drum machine, and some effects processors, and started doing demo recordings in my apartment with one of my college band buddies. I picked up on it very quickly and learned how to get the best possible sound out of very limited gear. My engineering studies in college certainly helped me with the technical side, especially with optimizing signal levels and quality. After college I owed the Navy five years of my life, and travelled around across the U.S. during my Nuclear Engineering training for the Navy. Wherever I ended up, I would set up my little apartment studio and then find local singer/songwriters to produce demos with. This was my training. I would keeping adding new gear whenever I mastered the gear I already had and had money for more. I read every recording related magazine I could get my hands on and tried out all the techniques I picked up from them, and became pretty damn good with just a 4-track and a sequencer (even got a song on the radio in Florida that was recorded with this limited gear). I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living, and I put everything I made from the Navy into new equipment and teaching myself this art.

I wound up in Seattle when I got out of the Navy, just at the time that the Seattle Grunge scene was the big thing going on, so I decided to stay around here and try to find a way to get into the recording business professionally. After about a year of screwing around on my own and living basically off of unemployment, I found a government program for ex-military people that would pay an employer half of my salary while they trained me for a new career that was not related to what I did in the military. I jumped on that program and found out that “recording engineer” was a qualified job for the program. So, I then started hitting up major recording studios in the area to see if any of them were interested. One of the biggest music recording studios really liked me and liked the demo recordings I had done in my own studio, and so they decided to take a chance on me! It was a great deal because I actually got paid a salary for the first year while I was still sort of in training (even though I picked it up very quickly and was doing sessions for them within a couple of months). This is rare because you usually have to intern at a studio for free for a long time, and rarely ever get hired to staff… and, even while on staff, you usually only get paid an hourly fee based on number of hours you bill to clients! So, it was great to get hired right away and be put on a salary when I didn’t have any clients to start with!!

I worked at the big studio for almost three years while building up my own business on the side (which covered an area that the big studio didn’t have covered). When my own business got big enough to support me, I went independent and never looked back! I still use the big studio and other big studios in the area for projects that I can’t do in my project studio, but I’m pretty self-sufficient.

The experience of working with all the high end gear and especially the wide range of expensive microphones, and the big rooms, was invaluable experience, and really helps me to do a much better job even in my smaller project studio.

Hands on experience in a big recording studio in real working situations will help you out more than anything. Schools can teach you the basics and get you some hands on experience as well, but they are usually quite expensive for recording programs.

I hope some of this has been helpful!


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