There are a lot of misconceptions about the word “production” – especially since it’s a term that often gets thrown around for a lot of different things (live, the fact that anyone making EDM or hip-hop has been dubbed a “producer” for some reason). So let's set the record straight.
What is a Song?
First we need to talk about what a SONG is. At its core, a song is a collection of lyrics, melody, and message. Dress up a song however you want (or do it completely acapella) and it’s still that SONG.
So What is Production?
As a discipline, production is everything we do to bring out the best of the song so that people want to listen again.
That’s not to say that the production is the star of the show. Far from it. A good production will cause people to *get* the core of the song and more readily form an emotional connection to it. A good production is measured with the number of goosebumps the listener gets.
Someone once told me something that stuck with me: getting someone to listen to your song is the easy part. Getting someone to listen AGAIN is the hard part — and that's why production is important. A song and it's message will connect with the head and heart, but PRODUCTION is about getting it to connect with the listener's BODY and soul.
Production isn’t Just Engineering
People seem to conflate production and engineering. It’s true that engineering is a key part of production, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle. You could have the most pristine recording of all time that doesn’t give goosebumps.
Production is also concerned with arrangement, structure, tone, performance, etc. Production is about how to put all these things together in a goosebump-giving way. In fact, engineering might be the lowest priority of all production-related activities. A song’s arrangement, performance, and overall sonic mood are vastly more important than it being pristinely recorded.
All decisions of the production process should be in service to the core song’s message and emotion.
How Does One Master Production?
Fantastic question. I don’t think many people have truly mastered production. I certainly haven’t gotten anywhere close. Anyone who claims to have is full of crap (although there ARE people who are undeniably brilliant at production).
There’s a lot nobody understands about music – and that’s what makes it so great. I can give you an overview of what makes a song or production great, but you also have to train your intuition to start being able to understand the stuff that’s less explainable.
It’s similar to how you can summarize how a car works with “there’s an explosion that pushes a piston down a cylinder, and that force starts turning various gears and shafts until it reaches the wheels” – but to fully understand WHY it works would require a complete understanding of quantum physics!
We can talk about tips and principles that I’ve found to work, but it’s also something you have to spend a lifetime pursuing. You have to be endlessly curious about why listening to a song makes you feel a certain way. Do this to build up your instincts, then trust them.