Last updated on May 18th, 2023
As we move forward with our “10 People Musicians Need On Their Side” series, I’m going to be talking to various individuals within the industry, including trusted confidants and friends whom I ardently admire and appreciate. After all, it’s Muze’s primary goal to bring people in all walks of the music world together, so it stands to reason that we should feature some hard working personalities and all that they have to share with those trying to build a community.
The system of priority can vary, but finding a good producer is at the very top of my own list. With the massive proliferation of home studios, there are plenty of talented engineers to choose from, but there’s a good chance that you’ll form a bond with one – maybe even two or three – in particular whom you trust above all the others.
I’ve lived in Nashville for six years, and I can honestly say that I got lucky early on with finding a good producer. I met Pete Jacobs about a month after I moved here, and to this day, he remains the only person I have ever or will ever go to when it comes time to record a song. That’s not to say that I’m closed off to new experiences, but the synergy and common ground Pete and I have established over the years is invaluable. Today, he’s one of my best friends and without a doubt my most trusted companion in the music realm.
Here’s a little background on Pete Jacobs: Pete founded his own recording studio, Black Dog Recording, about seven years back. He attended Berklee School of Music in Boston, has been mentored by major names in the industry, has toured with Jefferson Starship, and can play more instruments than I can count. He can also mix and master a track like he’s baking a cake. It’s remarkable. Otherwise, Pete is a licensed pilot who flies people privately around the world. Really, this guy really is a jack of all trades.
Likewise, my good friend Mike Riley who is an exceptional musician/songwriter works with Pete on a regular basis as well. Mike co-writes here in Nashville more than most people I’ve ever met, and he makes a handsome living as a paid musician, traveling across the country for people who pay top dollar to hear him perform at various events. Mike is an unrelenting go-getter who is as talented as he is humble.
I mention these two because I’ll be drawing a lot from what they had to share with me about being in the studio and what they’ve learned about the producer/musician relationship that is at the core of building an excellent track.
What Makes A Good Producer?
I thought it might be effective to take on two different perspectives: that of the client and that of the producer himself/herself. When I asked Pete Jacobs this question, he told me:
“A good producer, at the end of the day, can tell what a song is going to sound like early on. Maybe not exactly what it’s going to sound like… but foresight is important. Also, getting to know the artist you’re working with and transcending certain differences is crucial. You have to get to the point where you can comfortably be totally honest with one another. A good producer is like a good cowriter… sort of like a Lennon and McCartney relationship.”
Similarly, Mike Riley said:
“I feel like a good producer is someone who shares the same passion for your project as you do and adds input, but still allows for your vision to be the driving force behind it all.”
Ergo, synergy is the name of the game here, folks. Ultimately, you have to find yourself on common ground with your producer. It’s important to be able to express what you want and still take advice from someone who makes a living out of recording/augmenting songs brought to them by various musicians with a laundry list of different sounds.
A Deeper Look At The Musician’s Role
Some of this may seem a little nuanced, but there’s valuable perspectives and information under the microscope of specificity. Case in point…
“There’s a lot that makes a musician a good one to work with. As I said before, you have to be able to find common ground with them, and if they’re too stubborn to take advice, they become stagnant. The same is true for the producer though. It’s okay if you disagree at times! In fact, I think a lot of good can arise from disagreements.
You could both be at odds with one another about a specific detail, and if there’s no compromise to be found, you start exploring other options and often stumble upon a sound or adage you never expected to find. Maybe it’s a 12 string guitar, maybe it’s a little bit of reverb. Disagreement is where the beauty lies. I stand by that.”
And here’s Mike’s take:
“As the musician, I try to take on the role of an outside listener and respect the input of the producer. It’s an important part of being a musical professional. I have to understand that the song is now a partnership, because it’s not just your name attached to it anymore. It’s their name on that product as well. Unless you understand that, it’s going to be very difficult to make that song a product that’s good enough to sell.”
Once again, we’re doubling down on synergy and the leveling of one’s pride. I know firsthand as a musician in the studio how crucial a producer’s input is. My own projection of a song has oftentimes been totally wrong or blatantly inferior to what it ultimately became. If Pete says, “Hey, have you thought of cutting this verse out?” or “Why don’t we try some slide guitar right here?” I know that I have nothing to lose by entertaining the possibility that it could work wonders.
A Deeper Look At The Producer’s Role
For this section, I’m going to focus primarily on Pete’s take, because the burden of pitching his services and providing the promise of a quality experience is essentially his and his alone. When I asked him what he does to maintain his status as a good producer, he said:
“Don’t try to exploit the artist. That’s rule number one. Never exploit the artist. Recording is an expensive process, so you need to understand that not everyone can shell out a handful of cash at the drop of a hat. Be flexible with prices and payment plans. It establishes trust between you and the musician and it’s good for your reputation. Ergo, you stand to expand your clientele.
Also, don’t be afraid to give someone or something a chance that you’re not sure about, because it could become workable and effective in a way you didn’t know, because signing on to record something you’re not used to is really just an opportunity to grow. As Bob Ross once said, ‘Nothing beats happy little accidents.’ Maintain a clean environment as well. Provide snacks, drinks, and other accommodations. Also, remember to stay prepared. A musician really appreciates it if they arrive and the mics are already set up, or if you have a certain instrument or musical toy that they do not. Basically, give everyone 100%. Nobody gets 80%. That’s the foundation of it all.”
By and large, there are consistent themes to be plucked from the statements above. Swallow your pride. Trust the process. Stay organized. Stay humble. Be considerate of the other person’s goals as well as your own. There are a million different little platitudes that I could boil this information down into, but the most important thing to remember is that a song isn’t always going to – or supposed to, for that matter – going to turn out exactly how you want it.
Throughout my time in the studio at different junctures, I’ve watched my songs sort of take on a life of their own. They grow in ways I could have never expected as they start to come to fruition in a studio setting, and much of that came from the collective effort between myself and a producer whom I was willing to trust fully. All the same, if there is an obvious absence of all or most of those things listed above, it’s okay to seek somebody else out. People in the music industry are more or less like doctors – you should always be willing to get a second opinion.
Finding the right producer doesn’t always happen off the bat, and that’s okay. Not everything is supposed to be a “eureka!” moment. If that were the case, a career in music wouldn’t be what it is widely understood to be: one of the hardest and most chaotic prospects in existence. Lucky for you, you don’t have to brave it alone. With the right producer in your corner, you’re well on your way to achieving a pristine sound that suits your music in every way, which includes the way you want and the way it’s naturally supposed to be.
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