[Editor’s Note: This article was written by Sirma Munyar. For a look at professional roles in the industry, check out this piece.]
With the swift advancement of technology, rise of digital platforms and music distribution services like TuneCore supporting independent artists around the world, it’s easier than it’s ever been to make your music accessible to the masses.
Nowadays it’s becoming more and more common to come across artists who not only produce, but also mix and master their own material.
On the other hand, there are still many artists who write and perform, but don’t produce their music. Singer-songwriters who don’t enjoy working on the technical side of the creative process generally depend on sound engineers and producers to get that part of the job done.
Because of the case-by-case circumstances in today’s independent music industry, the lines between each creative role can get a little blurry.
For instance, a lot of artists expect producers to not just produce their tracks, but also mix and master them. Some music producers provide those services, but clear communication from the start is key to avoiding misunderstandings and unnecessary tension down the line.
Simply put, the artist is the performer and face of the project.
This title might entail roles such as lead vocalist, instrumentalist or rapper.
Terms like “duo”, “trio” and “band” also fall under this category.
The songwriter is responsible for composing the melody, lyrics and original chord progressions of the composition.
Not every artist is a natural songwriter, which is the main reason why collaborative songwriting sessions exist.
In most cases, the vocal producer’s job will begin at the recording studio.
Ideally, the vocal producer will coach the artist before the recording session, guide them through their performance during, and discuss background vocal layer ideas with them as well.
After the recording session, the vocal producer comps, edits, tunes and mixes the vocals. If there is another mixing engineer involved with the project, the vocal producer will provide the stems for the vocals and vocal effects for the mixing engineer.
The music producer, or the record producer, is the person who produces the track.
The number one role of the music producer is to build the instrumental arrangement and take care of sound design related duties, if need be.
Some music producers are great sound engineers, and a lot of them are skilled enough to produce vocals well, too. But not all.
Every music producer has their strengths and weaknesses, and since this role tends to be more broad than others, there’s more room for error in correspondence.
For one thing, you want to make sure that you hear the producer’s previous work, ask them exactly what they did on each track you’re listening to, in order to accurately assess whether they’re the right fit for your project or not.
Secondly, the producer is not responsible to provide services that come out of the woodwork later on. If they made it clear to you from the start that they would not be tuning your vocals for the rate you’re paying them for the instrumental production, then there’s no point in pushing them to do so unless you’re willing to pay for that service separately.
Even in today’s tech-oriented music industry, this role is relevant and it always will be for as long as real instruments exist.
Say you have a song you play on your guitar and sing, but you want some strings added and have the budget to hire a string quartet, too. Yet you’re not equipped with the knowledge to arrange or orchestrate your song for strings. That’s where the arranger comes in.
The arranger can take a song with a few chords and melody, and arrange it to be played by several different instruments.
A small band, big band or even a chamber orchestra – you name it. They’ll put their own spin on your work and provide the sheet music for each instrumentalist, too.
If you record your own vocals at home, you are the recording engineer of your project- or at least one of them.
At professional recording studios, however, recording engineers will not solely pay attention to the audio signal level to assess whether it’s peaking within the optimal range or not.
One of the advantages of recording at professional studios with highly skilled engineers is that the recorded material will end up sounding great from the start, even before the project gets mixed.
The recording engineer will pay attention to the tone and color of each voice and instrument to enhance and highlight the quality of them from the get-go. This role is essential especially in projects where there are a lot of real instruments involved.
A music producer’s main job is to build the track from the ground up, while a mixing engineer’s responsibility involves paying attention to the overall frequency spectrum, stereo imaging, volume levels and dynamics after the bulk of the creative process has been completed.
The mixing engineer will collect the stems from the producer, import them into a session in their DAW to clean up and improve the overall mix.
Some mixing engineers offer mastering services.
Most artists know of mastering as the stage where their music gets loud enough for digital platforms. While that is not entirely wrong, mastering can be, and (in especially high profile projects) is, much more than that.
When the mixing engineer is done tweaking the individual instrument and vocal channels, they will deliver the final mix to the mastering engineer at a much lower volume level than music listeners are used to.
But that’s because mastering engineers can use that headroom to control the dynamics, boost certain frequency bands while relieving others, as opposed to simply making the mix louder for commercial release.
Some mastering engineers can also use saturators like real tape machines to add a warm quality to the overall sound.
Working with an experienced mastering engineer will make a big difference especially if you’re considering making your record available via multiple mediums, like vinyl, cassette, CD etc.
The music director’s job is to work with you, the artist, to translate your songs into a live set.
In especially pop settings where every moment is supposed to be pre-planned and choreographed, a music director is absolutely essential.
The music director will put together the setlist with you, plan and even compose transitions between songs if need be, study the stems of your recordings to assess which parts can be played live by which instrumentalists as well as get in touch with the band members to handle the communication before and during the rehearsals.
This particular profession also deserves a special mention here, because many artists struggle to grasp the differences between a band member and a session musician for hire.
If you’re in a band, then you make decisions as a team, whether those decisions are creative, logistical or financial.
If you’re a solo artist who hires session musicians to record on your project or play a live show, you can only expect them to provide their services for a short period of time.
You have to be crystal clear about what you’re expecting the session musician to do. Be specific about the number of songs they need to learn, the locations and timeline of their involvement with the project as well as the rate and reimbursement deal.
A session musician may be passionate about your music and believe in you as an artist, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to treat your project as their own passion project. Not paying a session musician a predetermined fee for their work is a slippery slope.