When you listen to a hit song on the radio, you probably don‘t think about the crew behind the sound of that song, rather you see it as the result of musical talent brought together in a three-minute masterpiece; the band get all the credits.
However, behind most records, singles, EP‘s or songs there’s a crew of people adding key components to the music to make that specific sound come true, many times so much that they’re generally considered to be an honorary member of the band; they are responsible for the way songs sound in more ways than you might think. We’re talking about recording engineers, producers, studio managers and many other roles that are fundamental in the process of realizing the visions of the musicians/artists.
Messed!Up met up with Olman V. Wiebe who works as a producer, mixer and mastering engineer at the Hertzwerk Studio in Hamburg and chat about the production process in the studio, practicing band psychology and being able to enjoy music just as a listener off work.
Studio work: The production process and its step
Just to start with; is it important to play an instrument as a producer or doesn’t it matter at all?
It is definitely helpful. People that work on the creative side of a production usually play at least one instrument. As for me, I’m a drummer. I came from being a musician to the technical side.
Considering that you help bands with songwriting or arranging music it is advantageous to play an instrument. It’s more likely that audio engineers don’t play an instrument, but then again, they’re better with technical skills. It is the job of a producer to have the harmonic structure in mind, so having a background as a musician is important.
Do you work across genres or did you decide to work with just a few?
I do many genres. It has always been my standard to be musically free. I do have a focus though: guitar music.
I see myself as an alternative [music] producer and I work the old fashioned way, that is I work with musicians, I want that they play their stuff on their own.
For my personal creative development it is crucial that I can work in different genres properly. If I kept on working in one type of music only, I would come to the point when it wouldn’t challenge me anymore. To me it’s vital to have musicians with varying styles to get new inspirations.
You are a producer, right? But although people tend to think they know what that is, what is it exactly a producer is doing?
I am a producer and engineer, and I combine being creative with music and being creative on the technical side of studio productions.
But there’s a lot of different types of jobs in the studio, right? Explain for instance the difference between a producer and an audio engineer.
The work of a producer is rather complex because there’s a wide range of things to do. In general you can say that as a producer you take care of the entire workflow of a production. It starts with helping bands finish off their songwriting process, whether it is arrangements or really writing the songs together.
It‘s my job to care for that everything is recorded properly, or let’s say you put things in the right way. I‘m the one who coordinates the production flow, I’m always present and I keep an eye on that everything happens the way it‘s planned. It‘s at one’s discretion, you do as much as you think is necessary.
The work has changed in the last years. Ten to twenty years ago it was all more specialized and the job consisted more of being an outside coordinator. Today producers are in charge of severeal aspects of productions, for instance audio recording both on the creative and technical side of productions. Only working as an audio engineer means that you take care of the technical side of what is supposed to creatively happen. Today, producer and audio engineer are very often the same person.
If you work with a big production it does make sense to have an assistant because it’s simply too much for one person. It starts with setting up instruments in the studio, for instance mic the drums up and decide for preamps. You always need to have in mind “Does it sound correctly and is it played properly?“. There’s a lot to consider, so it’s easier to work together with people where everyone has their specific job.
Is mastering a separate job or is it done by one person?
It’s a separate work step, but it can be done by the same person.
A production consists of a few steps. First it’s the preproduction which means songwriting and collecting the songs you have. The next step is recording. When it’s finished you have the mixing and after that comes mastering. Apart from preproduction every step happen in the studio.
When you work on a production for a very long time, such as recording and mixing, it usually makes sense that someone else is doing the mastering. It is common that different people work on a production.
I’m curious about which of these the three worksteps has the biggest influence on the sound of a record? On Nirvana’s “Nevermind“ album Kurt Cobain wanted to have Andy Wallace as mixing engineer, because he worked with Slayer previously. Or let’s take Geoff Emerick. He was audio engineer with The Beatles and he realised every crazy wish Lennon or McCartney had in the studio even if it sounded impossible at the beginning. Is there one step that’s more important for the sound in the end?
That kind of depends. Sometimes you record with huge effort meaning that mixing is just about levelling. Sometimes the mixing is already so good that mastering is also only about levelling.
But it happens that producers say “For the mixing we need to restructure everything again.“ In that case the mixing has the biggest influence in a production. You can do the mastering by simply making it louder, the easiest form of mastering. But it’s also possible that you split the whole file in pieces, run it through different equalisers and compressors, levelling the file and in the end it sounds completely different but everyone agrees that it works even better.
Each step has the potential to change a production in another direction, so it’s not possible to say which one has the biggest influence. Circumstances tip the scale in a production.
Working with people: The psychology of the production process
The creative environment of a recording studio is where inspiration needs to take place in order for a performance to reach its full potential. But it’s one thing to know how to press record and using the equipment, getting the best out the musician/artist is a whole other ball game though. Quincy Jones once said “You need to be a psychologist in the studio so you know when to tell the artist to take a break or to keep pushing through.”
During the stages of record making, the psychological aspect of working with an artist/band is key to success. This can be challenging at times, as various circumstances require different approaches. It’s the things you say, the things you don’t say, as well as when and when not to say them. It is also about creating environments that can be calm or stressful, while also paying attention to what you do and what you don’t do.
There’s also a famous anecdote from the production of “Nevermind“. Butch Vig, the producer, told the band they should play the chorus of Smells Like Teen Spirit at the beginning of the song. That’s how the renowned intro was created. I guess you have to be sensitive when you work with artists and bands. You need to put them in a direction, but you also need to take care of being not too restrictive.
Yes, that’s also part of the job description. You mature with every production and gain lots of experience. Sometimes it’s really hard to decide to say whether “We leave everything as is“ or “We need to restructure everything to make it work out“. I‘ve encountered both extremes.
I had bands that came to me and I thought “We keep that, it’s great. Let’s do it this way and it will work perfectly.“ And there were bands where I’ve been like “Cool harmonies, but it doesn’t sound right. Try a different drum beat“. Sometimes it happens that you rewrite entire songs in the studio. Both extremes are common.
Apart from technical skills and knowledge of harmonies, “soft skills“ like knowing how people work out seem to be crucial.
If I would have known how important the psychological part of the work is I would’ve prepared myself better from the start. This aspect of the job, how you treat people and being able to criticize musicians, is as important as the technical aspects, it’s 50/50 if not even 60/40. You always have to figure out at where the musicians are in the process. When do you have to push them and when does it makes sense to have a break? You cannot get any further in the situation. You can only achieve that kind of knowledge by doing it over and over again.
It is crucial, also for the structure of the timetable. How do people work? Is everyone really able to work ten hours straight or does someone in the group need a break after three hours in order to be able to work concentrated after a two-hours break? It’s different with every new band, so it’s important to ask yourself these questions each time to get a feeling for what pace a band work best in.
I guess it’s also part of the job to be critical at times, for instance when the drum beat is not precise.
Absolutely. The truth hurts sometimes, but it doesn’t make sense to beat around the bush. It’s better to say “Let’s sit down. What we’re doing at the moment is pointless because it’s not enough“. But it’s also important to say “We’re doing a really cool job here“.
At some point you realise that there is no alternative than truth during a production. Everyone involved has certain expectations and is responsible together; everybody has to fulfil their part whether it is a producer or a musician.
What was your biggest success so far? Are you proud of some specific productions?
All of them! Nothing stands out. Every production is a new beginning and you always want to improve yourself each time.
As soon as a production is finished you get a snapshot of everything around it. Everyone does his or her best and what comes out of it is the result of all circumstances. When a production is finished you will get inspiration for the next one.
It’s never ending process, there is slowing down because you always want to use your new inspirations and experiences to the next project. There are productions that require a lot from you from a creative point and you have to put huge effort into those, but there are also those that are done quickly because everyone is working great together and you just go “Let’s kick it, we’re seeing this through!“. But still, you are always proud of every new production that’s done.
Have you ever denied a job and if you did, why?
Yes, I did. If I come to the conclusion that I’m not the right man for the production I will say that. That’s also a part of your responsibility. When my gut feeling tells me I cannot meet people’s approach for whatever reasons, it does make sense to say that. It’s very important to me.
Let’s assume I’d take the job and I’d push it through; it wouldn’t be a nice job for me because I’d always had in mind “I’m not working in the right direction.“ It would be a bad choice for the band also. To make a production work properly it has to work out for all.
A music listener: I still enjoy music when I listen to it
Working as a producer also means working with music around the clock. When much of the time and energy is spent zoomed in on developing sounds, it can be tiring to come home and really want to just listen to music again as a “normal“ fan of music. To put music on as background noise off work at home, cooking, lounging, or even driving to or from work, may be too much. Is it possible for a producer to enjoy music just as a listener when you’re not at work?
You already talked about personal development. Looking back, are there any productions you would say “Today I would have done that completely different“ or “What did I really do on that one?“.
Both. I guess everyone working with creative projects knows the feeling when you finished a project and your minds goes “Maybe we should have changed a little here or there“. But that’s also something that you have to learn: decide when it’s enough.
Every musician probably can tell you about “that one record“, because they missed the point. If you get stuck in “We can improve that, we can also work on this“ you’ll never reach the end, and sometimes that just interrupts a creative process. So it also has a lot to do with saying “That’s cool, no further changes!“.
Considering your background as a producer, does it happen when you listen to a record that you think “What an amazing band but the album is awfully produced“.
There are records you hear and think “Pretty cool, but I don’t get this or that aspect.“ It does happen. Every producer has his own approach and if someone has an unusual approach it may work for that person, but someone else may think “I would have done it completely different“.
The question is if it‘s right or wrong. Everyone has his or her own perception. It’s quite common that if a producer listens to a record he will think “I like it, but I had done it otherwise. This and that aspect is exceptional or weird“.
Are you still able to listen to music and be unbiased or do you analyse straightaway?
Both. Let’s go back to the three parts of the production: recording, mixing and mastering.
In each step you listen entirely different. I did a lot of mastering jobs and I was working as an engineer only, and had nothing to do with recording and mixing. I got the files, mastered them, finished them and sent it back to the band. It happened quite often that bands got back to me “Everything is fine, thank you. Do you like the record?“ My response was “I need to listen to it without working on it““
When you work on an album from the technical side only, sometimes you disconnect from the creative part. When I’m at home and listen to a record, the most important thing to me is that the music appeals to me, including the production.
To answer your question; it depends on if I listen to music or work on music. That doesn’t go for concerts though. I do care a lot about how everything is presented and I’ve become more critical over the years. But still, I can listen to a record and party hard to it, but phasing out is difficult. I still enjoy music when I listen to it as just a listener.