How To Be A … Record Producer

Dennis Weinreich. Photo c/o High-Treason.net
Dennis Weinreich. Photo c/o High-Treason.net

You meet legends like Dennis Weinreich once in a lifetime. You don’t often end up in a band with them – but I was lucky enough to.

Once a month or so we’d meet up in his studio in Camden to smoke fags, drink beer and jam our favourite covers with Peter, Rafal and Andy. I was the singer, and maybe not the perfect choice for our Stones/Waits set list but it was a lot of fun. We never did venture out of that studio and play for anyone but each other – but that’s sometimes the best way, isn’t it?

Originally from Los Angeles, Dennis arrived in London in 1971 to work on the animated series The Jackson 5. He worked at Scorpio Sound from 1974 to 1984 as music engineer, producer and remixer with an eclectic range of artists such as Queen, Supertramp, Talk Talk and Wham.

So, you want to be a record producer – where do you start?  Dennis has the answers.

What’s the difference then, between an engineer and a producer?
This is a good question. The labels were much clearer up to a few years ago. Back in the day, the producers job was to make sure the record was in tune, in time and on budget. The engineer was there to record whatever the producer made everyone play. Soon sessions musician based records morphed into records by gigging bands that really had their own music vision and a public that wanted that vision. This prompted the emergence of the engineer/producer who was in charge of the control room and acted as an editor and sage for what the band were doing. Soon the level of technology was such that the band could be replaced with complex electronics. The engineer/producer had all the tools available to make the records and did. But where as many engineer producers were concerned with soundscape and how the record felt, traditional producers strengths were related to content. (Big generalisation, but the real answer to your question) It was not long before the technology demanded less from the operator and persons with far less skilled training than traditional engineers could actually achieve high quality results. So a kid in a bedroom with Logic could do everything to a standard that could be released. The labels Producer and Engineer were hangovers from a time when records were made differently. But in simple terms the engineer has his priority with the sonic element of the record and the producer the content. But the lines are quite blurred.

Are they the only good jobs in the studio, then?
This assumes that there are studios with jobs. There are more studios now than there ever were. But they are often small rooms run by a single person who does everything. The big facilities are dying away at an alarming rate and to maintain their future, they rely on as many freelance staff as possible. Even my old advice that the way into studios was through the technical department has been scuppered because there are no technical departments in most studios. Producers never work for the studios. They were employed by the record company and were in fact the client of the studio.

Back in the day, to become an engineer you had to start by making tea, right? Now how does it work?
Go to university. Take a degree in Music Technology. Graduate with a 2.1, at least. Go see as much live music as you can. Get a band to trust you to record them, who have some funding. Go to a studio as a client and make the record. Don’t be an asshole. Do a good job and respect the studio. Beg for a job making tea so you can learn your craft. Make the best fucking cup of tea in the world 5 minutes before they ask, every time. You are now an invaluable part of the team. Go collect your grammy.

But hang on, these days, anyone can be a music producer, with a laptop, some free software and an internet connection, right?
And anyone with brushes and a canvas is Picasso, right?

I’ve got no background in music but I desperately want to be a producer/engineer – can I still do it?
If you have vision and an understanding content yes. In my experience 70% of the people that aspire to get into the music business do so because they think it a great way to get laid. They often have no vision and little to bring to the table. Yet sometime they succeed. It is the equivalent of a 4 year old saying he wants to be a fireman. No clue, but wants to be ringing the bell. If you don’t understand what you are hearing other than you like it, perhaps its not the right career move. But if you do understand it, steam in.

Mum thinks music technology is a waste of my time and money. What can I tell her to help my case for doing a degree in it?
There are real paying jobs in film, tv theatre, live performance and many other areas that use the skills base taught for music technology.

Can you explain why JAMES was founded?
When educational institutions started to offer training to become an engineer, studio managers needed a way to determine if the courses were teaching the skills that they needed entry level staff to have. As a studio manager I would get more than 100 CV’s come the end of the school year. There needed to be a filtering process since there is no way you can address properly 100 cv’s for the one tape op job you have. So the APRS and MPG established an accreditation scheme to look at a course and make the simple pronouncement that: The course delivers what it says it will, that what it delivers is current and of value to a facility and that a student coming from that course will be ‘oven ready’ to work in a facility. This allowed the studio manager put those students from JAMES (Joint Audio Media Educational Support) accredited courses on the top of the pile. It worked so well that we now accredit a wide range of courses covering many areas of creative technology.

Why is it important to have industry standards in such a creative field?Sometimes it isn’t. In fact you don’t for the creative side of Creative Technology. But you really do for the technology side. Also if you have a strong base to work from, you can avoid the mistakes that come from trial and error. Its nice to know what the challenges are for a trumpet player before you try to get him to play something that is impossible because you don’t know any better. Also its good to know what time signatures are, how they work and how they feel. This is the understanding part. People like to dance. But doing a hip hop record in ¾ may be fun to play on the guitar, but no one will dance to it. Make a record in 4/4 and more will dance to it. Have the bass drum play 4 to the bar and uncoordinated old guys that cant dance all of a sudden can and disco was born.

You worked at Pinewood after years in the studio. Did you prefer music for music sake or music for soundtracks and film?
Im so done with film….

What’s the biggest film production you’ve worked on?
Hard to say. At Pinewood we made huge pictures but I was not creatively driving any of them. I was managing the creatives. But in that capacity Slumdog Millionare won Oscars for my team.

Best record you’ve worked on?
Dreamer by Supertramp ( or anything from the Crime of the Century Album). War Baby by Tom Robinson, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen (A night at the Opera Album) , all the Jeff Beck albums.

Your Favourite Record?
Today? The new Alabama shakes CD

Your most inspiring artist?
Arif Marden. He was a producer and composer and I loved everything he did. Abandoned Luncheonette may be the perfect record.

A couple of your Online Bookmarks?
The Daily Show full episodes. London Gig Guide,

Headline Glastonbury or win a Grammy?
Grammy

Last thing you searched for on Google?
How to Spell Bohemian

For more information, visit James – an awesome resource for people looking to get into Audio.