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So, what the hell does a music producer do?

Three industry practitioners take us through the complex, and often underrated, art of producing film and non-film music

Metal band Bhayanak Maut’s music is produced by Anupam Roy. Courtesy bhayanakmaut@facebook
Metal band Bhayanak Maut’s music is produced by Anupam Roy. Courtesy bhayanakmaut@facebook

Urban legend has it that when he was working with the American punk rock band the Ramones, Phil Spector, the iconic music producer with a fondness for guns, kept making them play the same thing until Dee Dee, the bassist, snapped. Dee Dee decided he was going home, which is when Spector pulled out his (loaded) gun. His words, “You’re not going anywhere." And this is one of the gentler tales about Spector (he’s currently in jail for murder). Marky, the drummer, says it’s untrue, but that’s really beside the point.

The role of the producer in music has always been an enigma—producer George Martin, among several others, has been called a “fifth Beatle" figure; Nigel Godrich is an irreplaceable part of Radiohead’s set-up; then there’s modern pop music, where producers often end up getting a far higher share of royalties than the performers. So what exactly do producers do?

Playing mentor

The producer functions as a sort of mentor and consultant to the artist. Anupam Roy, a Mumbai-based live sound engineer and producer who has worked in varying capacities with Bollywood composer Pritam and A.R. Rahman, and with bands like Indian Ocean, Bhayanak Maut, Joint Family, Fossils and Skyharbor, explains: “The producer is a third party who is a bridge between the recording process and the creative, songwriting process. It’s like having an external band member who’s somebody you trust, who won’t f**k you over."

This is usually how it works in a band set-up, where producers can enter at different stages of the process. They could mix the tracks themselves, make suggestions or direct the musicians to mixing engineers who will do justice to the sound. They can help out with arrangements, themes and direction if required, or simply work towards getting the sound that the artists want and coax a better performance out of them.

Roy prefers to enter at an early stage and be present at rehearsals, so he can chat with the musicians, see what they are trying to do with the album and understand its thematic content. This can make a world of difference. For instance, with Bhayanak Maut, vocalist Vinay Venkatesh sits with Roy to explain the story behind each song, which he can then perhaps incorporate as sonic themes in the album. “Sometimes—if required—I’ll sit with the song, arrange it, programme the drums, and record bass parts too if the bass player of some band is too busy doing coke in the bathroom," says Roy.

Rabbi Shergill.Photo: Hindustan Times

Stitching it all together

There are a number of different stages to recording music. After the writing and pre-production comes the tracking—work on tones and mic’ing techniques in the studio, arrangements, and recording parts. It really depends on the artist’s preference.

Next is the mixing, done either by the producer or by an additional mixing engineer. Roy calls this the key and complex bit. “It involves taking all your raw audio and polishing it and stitching it all together, giving every instrument its space, highlighting what sounds good and adding certain sonic tricks to the songs," says Roy.

Thereafter comes the mastering bit. This will be the final mix from which copies will be made, and includes processes such as flattening out the audio and removing anything that is unpalatable (such as off-key notes). What this means is that the final sound should be suited to a commercial listening environment and have the best possible representation across listening devices—from the mobile phone to a high-end audiophile set-up.

Arsh Sharma’s Studio Fuzz is a space for production, composing and sound design. Photo: Raghav Pasricha

Captain of the Boat

K.J. Singh, a Mumbai-based producer/engineer who is a household name in both independent and commercial music in India, has his own take on a producer’s role in the music industry. “At the end of the day, we are facilitators who take the boat forward, but we can’t own it," he says. “We have to be many things, a bouncing board, a shoulder to cry on, and an emotional support for the artists."

Singh studied sound engineering in Canada and has 30 years of experience in the industry. He has worked on important albums such as Indian Ocean’s Kandisa, as well as with emerging indie musicians, and on films and installations. He believes each space needs a slightly different approach. Singh often collaborates with singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill and they’ve developed a comfortable working relationship. Thus, he says, his approach while working with Rabbi would naturally be very different from how he works with a raw, young artist.

Different kinds of work also bring in different perspectives on music. For instance, a recent project had Singh taking on the role of audio and music content producer for a museum in Punjab. The work involved developing over 2 hours of walk-through content, material in three languages, songs, and much more.

K.J. Singh’s studio in Oshiwara, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Music and Movies

Singh explains how the profile of the producer tends to vary with projects. For instance, Bollywood films traditionally assign a “music director" to compose the songs, but they are rarely the person scoring the background music.

The acknowledgement and acceptance of the music producer’s role is fairly new in Indian films. For the longest time, they would be credited as “arrangers", as their work entailed arranging the music (selecting the mix of instruments and performers in the score, for instance). They would decide the direction of the sound, selecting the right kind of support—say, a string orchestra or a brass band—working within a budget and a deadline and helping realize the film’s vision.

Over the past decade or so, this role has expanded, and music producers are now composing as well. Ram Sampath, who has composed for films such as Delhi Belly and Talaash, in addition to numerous appearances on MTV Coke Studio, is a leading example—lending further credibility to an often-underrated craft.

Delhi-based Arsh Sharma, who runs Studio Fuzz and works as an indie artist as well as a film composer, says: “You’re working in collaboration with a director; there’s his vision to think of. So we write down stems, figure out the feel of the music. As a mixing engineer, songwriter, scorer, you have to see it in the context of the film."

A foot in both worlds

The technical process is linked closely to the creative one, to a point where the lines are often blurred. In electronic music particularly, the writing and production are pretty much concurrent and the boundary between musician and producer disappears. But many producers are also musicians—both Singh and Roy fall in this bracket. There are enough musicians out there who will learn the production ropes to complement the songwriting process.

Sharma has a foot in both worlds. He plays the guitar and sings for New Delhi-based bands The Circus and Fuzz Culture. Sharma runs Studio Fuzz, which he opened in 2011 along with Nikhil Malik and FuzzCulture bandmate Srijan Mahajan. They primarily do commercial composing, sound design, mixing and mastering. This involves ad jingles and TV spots, as well as scoring music for films. A recent project they worked on was indie film M Cream, which released last year.

“I want to be a songwriter and someone who can sonically deliver what I’m hearing in my head," says Sharma. A functional set-up where he can record while writing has helped him develop greater skills on his instrument. “It makes me a better musician because I’m hearing myself."

Everybody is a producer

There used to be a certain exclusivity attached to music production, given the technical wizardry needed to work the high-end equipment that would give the desired quality of music. But the shift from analogue to digital technology has opened doors for self-taught producers. It has empowered musicians and enabled them to forego the sometimes prohibitive costs of renting out a studio. Since the early 2000s particularly, self-produced musicians and self-taught producers have emerged both internationally and in India.

Roy, for instance, learnt production, mixing and mastering through a patient process of trial-and-error, while devouring online tutorials and hounding engineers at local studios for guidance. “Software piracy, computers advancing at the rate they did in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Internet speed—all these factors came together," he says.

Pirated versions of software such as Nuendo, Cubase or ProTools, while buggy and unstable, were a gateway for many. The availability of these digital audio workstations (DAWs) opened doors. In fact, Roy recalls that at one point he had $20,000 (around Rs12.88 lakh) worth of pirated software. He bought the official versions once he started making money.

Singh, who began working in the industry in 1987, saw the shift to digital technology and embraced the change. “Everything in the music business, from the way we compose, produce, arrange, record and listen to music, has changed," he says. “I realized that I needed to adapt and that if I didn’t get on this bandwagon, I was going to be left behind."

Today, the space offers endless opportunities for both purists and mavericks, which can only mean good things for the listener. But as Roy says: “The end-listener doesn’t give a damn about what vintage mic or preamp you’re using. At the end of the day, it’s the painting that matters, not your brushstrokes or techniques."

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