Dear Producers of all shapes, sizes, and degrees of experience,
Below is the first of hopefully many producer interviews. I created this (potential) series in hopes that it will shed light on certain key questions that many of us have. What is the producers role? How has production changed in the digital age? How does one save, or just as importantly MAKE money as a producer?
It is my hope that these interviews will give you a look into the style and thought process of these producers while allowing you to reflect on your own. Your feedback is greatly appreciated – what kinds of questions would you like to hear answered? What genres would you like to hear discussed?
Leave some feedback or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
INTERVIEW WITH PRODUCER ZACH BERKMAN:
Zach Berkman is a singer, songwriter, producer, engineer, and friend who I met while studying at NYU’s Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music. I conducted my first interview with him since I am familiar with his body of work and have witnessed, first hand, his growth as an artist and a businessman. He co-wrote the song “A Drop in the Ocean” with singer/songwriter and TuneCore user Ron Pope, which was recently featured on MTV’s Total Request Live.
1. When did you decide you wanted to be a producer?
I guess to some degree I decided in high school that I wanted to be a music producer. My involvement with music was through being a singer/songwriter, which I still am, and I did the math. There are thousands of people out there who play acoustic guitar and sing and want to do it for a living, and I could only think of 15 acoustic musicians who were big enough to be on tv at the time. I knew that I wanted to be on the creative side of music making and that just being able to write songs and sing didn’t put me on the opposite side of “the glass.” So I was lucky enough to study at NYU in the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music. It became apparent pretty quickly that the kind of input you can have as a producer was the kind of input I was excited to have.
2. Which artists have you worked with? How do you decide who to work with?
I’ve worked with Ron Pope, The District, Mike Clifford, The Gents, Fixer, Wye Oak, John Caspi,
and others. A lot of times, I find the bands through a mutual friend
or by knowing someone in the band. I find the best thing to do is to
work with people whose music you enjoy and believe in.
3. What do you think about doing before starting a project? How do you decide when a project is "done"?
The first thing to think about before starting a project is the
content. Which songs do you want to record? Why those songs? Are
those songs the best they can be already? In some cases, you need to
take a look at song structure or even get into melodic and harmonic
issues before you ever record a thing. This work can be the most
important. Even if your recording sounds great, if the song could have
been better, you’ve just built a beautiful house over a shoddy
foundation. You’re always aiming to start with the best content you
can and then create from there. You also need to think about what work
is feasible to get done for a project. In terms of time and budget,
it’s important to decide just how much content you want to produce and
have a game plan for its production.
In some cases, projects get finished because you near a deadline
and you’ve got to turn in the material, but that’s not the ideal. The
biggest issue is knowing whether or not the tracking is done. Do we
have enough parts? Do we need another instrument here or there? When
you get to a point where everyone is happy with the tracking, that’s a
great step along the way. As far as mixing goes, I try to mix until I
think that we’ve got a good thing going, and then I’ll get notes from
the artist and make some changes. Usually after a little
correspondence the mix comes to a point that suits the artist and that
I’m happy with.
4. How would you define your "production style"?
I think that my production style differs from project to
project. There are some artists who just need an engineer. They want
someone to come in and run Protools, make sure that the mic levels are
right, and that everything sounds good. Other artists need some input
on arrangement or songwriting and that gets a little more hands on.
The goal is always to enable an artist to be as comfortable as possible
so that he or she can create music they’ll be happy with. Some people
want more involvement and want to know exactly what you think about
every guitar tone or keyboard sound that you use. They’re excited with
your involvement when cutting the vocals. Other artists would like a
little more control than that and just need a little idea here or there.
5. How do you save money for productions on a budget?
The best way for artists and producers to save money on projects
is to do thorough preproduction. Knowing exactly what’s going to
happen when you get to the studio is remarkably important. Until you
have a game plan, I don’t see a reason to get into the studio.
Creating a plan that maximizes the productivity of your time in the
studio is a great way for bands to save money. Obviously, there’s
always room for making creative changes in the studio, for
experimentation, and for creative output, but an organized session
allows that creative output to come without stress. In addition, I do
almost all of my mixing from home, which means that the artists aren’t
renting out studio space and paying me at the same time for mixing.
Having a setup that allows me to mix from home is an investment that’s
paying for itself. Then there’s good old-fashioned hustling; finding
someone you know who’s willing to give you some after-hour time for
cheaper than the day rate at a studio, saving time and money in the
studio by vocals and other one-mic instruments somewhere else. A little
work can make it worth your while.
6. Describe a production experience that taught you a valuable lesson:
I was doing a remix for a band, and they had a definite idea of
what they wanted to sound like. They were very happy with what they
had tracked, and I was going to take a shot at the mix. I cleaned it
up quite a bit and ended up taking out a lot of noise they wanted in.
I ended up with a pretty clear picture of what was going on in the
song, but they wanted this cool and noisy cloud. This all could have
been prevented with a little more communication. Also, what’s most
important is that the artist’s vision is reached. You’re making their
record, and it’s not the other way around.
7. How do you make money as a producer?
I’ve been lucky enough to do some songwriting with my artists,
so that money is helpful. I usually work out a rate based on the
project, whether it’s an hourly rate or a fixed fee for the whole
thing. I also hold a job working freelance for XM Productions/Effanel
Music. I assist for them and learn a lot on a daily basis.
8. What advice would you give to someone just getting started?
First of all, do a lot of listening. The best way to hone your
skills is to listen to your work against the work of people you admire.
Do some projects for little or no money if you need to and just
experiment with whatever gear you own. I would also recommend
interning at a studio. It’s simple enough advice, but hopefully you’ll
get to learn from someone who really does good work. You’ll learn what
you like about their process and what you don’t like. It becomes a
great start to your own palette of production tricks as well.
9. Lastly, whom have been your greatest influences as a producer?
I really admire the way that Glen Ballard and Ethan Johns work.
Ballard is a producer who can really take a project from start to
finish. He works with artists from the creation of the content and
through the recordings. I like to think that coming from a songwriting
background and having training in engineering allows me to do that, and
on some projects, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved from start to
finish. Johns is another one of those producers who seems to work
alongside the artist particularly well, and he plays on a lot of the
records he produces. Being able to come into the project with both a
musical and a production perspective is an advantage when working with