What does a producer do? Even the nominees for the producer of the year Grammy admit that their duties changes from day to day. But the one constant, no matter whom the talent and regardless of music industry’s wins or woes, is the producer’s desire to draw the best possible sound out of an artist. Variety talked to four of this year’s contenders — T Bone Burnett, Larry Klein, Greg Kurstin and Brendan O’Brien — about making records in today’s fractured landscape. (The fifth nominee, Ethan Johns, didn’t participate.) wSome producers see themselves as a musical collaborator, a mediator, and even the act’s psychiatrist. How do you define the role? Tip Sheet
What: Grammy Awards
When: Sunday, 5 p.m. PT at venue; on CBS 8 p.m. ET live, 8 p.m. PT delayed
Where: L.A.’s Staples Center
Burnett: The producer of a record is like the director of a movie. The producer’s job is to get the best performance possible out of the artist. He does that primarily by paying attention, listening hard. The goal is to put the person in the best light, or the right light. All of this is storytelling. The producer helps tell the story. He is the translator and the first proxy for the audience.
Klein: To my mind, the guiding purpose is to help someone make the best record they are capable of at a given point in their life. Some artists want and need an “auteur,” others need someone to bounce their ideas off of, and others need someone to help them write the songs, create the direction, or both, for an album.
Kurstin: Sometimes I’m a music collaborator. Sometimes I’m giving an outside perspective to a band’s arrangement or performance. Sometimes I decide where we’re going to get food delivered from.
O’Brien: For some artists, I’m invited to be an ad hoc temporary member of the band and a musical collaborator, and sometimes I’m just trying to make sure it all goes down right. Sometimes you’re a little bit of a cheerleader, a little bit of a psychologist. Literally, sometimes, it’s just getting everybody to show up on time.
Even though sales are down, are we at a good point in pop music in terms of innovation and talent?
Burnett: I suspect that we are going to see an explosion of new music and new ways of looking at and listening to music in the not-too-distant future. There is certainly an unprecedented access to resources. There are vast unexplored vistas ahead of us.
Klein: As the Talmud says, “There is good wine in every generation.” There are a lot of greatly talented people making records. However, I do think that the accelerated nature of the world today has created a climate within which it is difficult for a developing songwriter or artist to spend the time figuring out what they want to say, and how to say it, which is required for something great or innovative to happen. A lot of artists at an early stage are more worried about spending enough time on MySpace and Twitter than actually honing their ability to say something in a new way, or making a great record.
Kurstin: Tracks are coming from everywhere now not just from “pop” producers. I feel like it’s moving forward every time one of those weird, interesting songs sneaks its way on the radio.
What has been the best change in recording methods or technology in the first decade of the new century? The worst?
Burnett: The worst change has been that all standards for the quality of sound reproduction have been abandoned. The lack of quality, or rather the terrible quality of recorded music is making people deaf — it is lowering the quality of our lives in significant ways. I believe that digital technology is a detour — that analog is the future. In the meantime, we have to do everything we can to protect and future-proof the library of recorded music that has been produced in the last century. We will soon be past the era of MP3 and into an era of high resolution. It is insane that movies and television are released in higher resolution than music.
Klein: The refinement of digital recording has been good, with all of the incredible soft synths and plug-ins that have been developed. There are some great tools there to use for writing. One can get at complex hybrid effects instantly, and that can really change the character of a song. Probably the worst development is the overuse of digital tuning and time correction. It’s taken the blood out of a large percentage of the records.
Kurstin: I like all of the technological advances with computers and music programs because I’m a nerd. It’s a lot easier do things to your track now that would (have) taken hours in the past. Anyone can do these tricks, so the songs have to be extra good to stand out.
O’Brien: As far as technologically, we can do things on a laptop that you had to have a million-dollar studio to do 20 years ago. But a lot of people don’t know how to use the equipment or take the time to learn the actual craft of arranging songs and producing records. It enables you to put out (material) that isn’t very good much more easily than it used to be.
As major labels go through financial woes, do you find there is still room for originality and individuality, or is it recordmaking via committee?
Klein: I’m very fortunate to have worked in situations where the labels have given the artist and (me) a great deal of freedom. Generally speaking, recording budgets are down, and that sometimes can be a good thing or a bad thing. In some situations it forces one to simplify and refine your ideas to an acute degree, and in some it can prevent you from doing things as well as you could with more time.
O’Brien: I try to make records where as few people are involved outside the artist as possible. Everyone’s important, but when it comes to making a record, you can’t be worried about that stuff when you have a singer in front of a microphone. There is more fear out there and there are people making decisions based on what’s going to happen in the next six months, rather than develop an artist over the next three or four years.
What are your favorite recordings of the year, other than your own?
Klein: “Together Through Life,” Bob Dylan; “Electric Dirt,” Levon Helm.
Kurstin: “Embryonic,” Flaming Lips: “XX,” XX; “It’s Blitz,” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; “Jewellery,” Micachu and the Shapes; “Fever Ray,” Fever Ray.
O’Brien: “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” Phoenix; “Horehound,” the Dead Weather.