How to produce a song

A guest post by Sian Rowlands

How many music producers can you name off the top of your head? I got stuck after Sir George Martin and Labrinth. Producers are the unsung heroes of the music industry, shadowy figures closeted in dark studios allowing the vocalist to shine. But what do producers actually do?

When singer, Susie Goulding, and I decided to write a song we knew we wanted Jim to produce it for us. Writing the song is a story for another time, but once we had the lyrics, basic melody and structure we were ready for production. Jim asked us both to provide three songs we liked so he could get an idea for our vision of the song. Susie came up with three songs that demonstrated the vocalist’s range, skills and dynamics while my songs were all about instrumentation, structure and lyrics. These gave Jim a framework of reference and a better understanding of the feel we both wanted to achieve.

The producer’s job is to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of a huge range of instruments (who knew there were so many drums?) and play most of them; the musical knowledge of a room full of Beethovens; the skill to interpret suggestions like, ‘a bit more twangy at that bit’ and have enough technical expertise to power a medium-sized Hadron Collider from the bottom of the garden.

Once the instrumentation and feel had been decided and recorded I was ready for a lie down in a dark room for the next three years. The producer’s next task, however, is to develop and record the vocals. Knowing Jim’s ear for the perfect vocal we knew Susie was in for some hard work in the recording booth, but I wasn’t expecting him to pass me a pair of headphones and tell me to come up with some backing vocals. And then some upper and lower harmonies to go with my own vocals. Oh and could I rewrite the bridge please? And sing that bit again an octave lower? As Susie and I both discovered, if Jim tells you you can do it, then somehow you find you can. This is the producer’s gift: cultivating a gem from the uncut diamond (or in my case a lump of coal).

It’s been a fascinating process and a complex one. There were tears (although mostly of laughter), tricky decisions, soul-searching and a large dollop of hard work but our song is all the better for it. We wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Now for song number two. What are you doing for the next two years, Jim?