Although singers often get all the credit, it’s the producer that does all the heavy lifting. Creating a great album or single takes hard work, and the guys behind the boards have to play a lot of roles to make it happen.
A singer or a songwriter doesn’t have to work that hard. Some would no doubt disagree – especially in the throes of writer’s block or in the push to get an album finished, but once the perfect take is captured in studio, the main bulk of their work for that particular song is done.
Not so for the producer. Sure, they’re responsible for creating and shaping the music, but the job of a professional producer is so much more. They have to be psychologist, voice coach, svengali and cheerleader. They need to know not only what the track sounds like now, but how it will ultimately sound and more often than not, they’ll have a hand in the mixing and engineering to make it so. And unless they’re a big-name producer like Rick Rubin or Brian Eno, once the record is out, the mainstream credit goes to someone else.
It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Just ask MRK1. “When I first got into music seriously, I would go out to clubs and go buy records and start paying more attention to the music,” he says. “I listened to jungle, which is fairly minimalist: big beats and big bass. I come from that era, that type of presentation.”
MRK1 (born Mark Foster, 1981) is one of the pioneers of the dubstep genre; a Manchester-based production legend best known for being the creative force behind grime/dubstep act Virus Syndicate, along with the rappers Goldfinger, Nika D and JSD. They released their album The Breakout Trilogy in May, and when we speak to Foster prior to the record’s release, he’s on the verge of leaving for a short tour to the US. “I don’t think there is much difference between a producer and a beatmaker,” he says when asked about how he works differently to someone who simply creates a piece of music and then hands it off to a vocalist. “I’m still sitting in the studio making beats. It just depends what you want to be called at the time. I’m laid back; you could say I’m the guy who makes beats.”
We suggest that perhaps there is a difference. After all, a guy who makes music sitting in his bedroom is a little bit different to Foster, who has three rambunctious Virus Syndicate MCs to stage-manage in studio. He demurs: “There’s a lot more direction because you’re a producer and you’ve got the group there with you. You give them your take on it, and they give you their take and you mix it together. If you’re just making the beats – I mean, there are a lot of people who just make beats and give them to rappers who then rap on top of it – it doesn’t always glue together as well as it could. If you’re in studio with a group, and you can [bounce off each other], it sounds better.”
This aspect of production, the psychological manipulating and mixing to balance the egos of group members versus what actually sounds good, is absolutely crucial to the role of the professional producer. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the other members of Virus Syndicate don’t know what’s going on (one listen to their massive, speaker-shattering tunes dispels that) but when the four are in studio; Foster is the one with his eye on the ball. “It used to be a bit more like that [me being a ringmaster]. But I’ve been in the studio longer than they have. I’m 28 now, so I’ve got 10 years worth of producing, and the guys would have got into recording when we did the first album. Back then, I’d have a lot more say about what goes into it. Over the years, they’ve learnt what sounds good and what doesn’t, so I don’t really get that involved now. Sometimes I won’t like something, and I’ll say, try doing this or try doing that, but it’s very hard to tell three guys what to do. It’s three against one! But we argue a lot in the studio, even if we end up making up.”
Of course, Foster is extremely fortunate. He has a rock-solid group, a full studio setup, Room 5 Studios (“It’s in a big building with loads of other studios. I think The Ting Tings moved out recently! The building is falling apart, but our studio is okay.”), and a ready and willing record label, Planet µ. But he’s in the minority. Many other producers work from a much more fluid setup; one that is flexible, dynamic and small-scale, and which caters to a far wider group of artists.
Meet Batsauce. He’s one of those guys. The festively-named producer (born Britt Traynham in 1971 – and the name comes from his initials combined with his love of hot sauce) was born in Florida and currently lives in Germany. He’s produced for everybody from his wife Lady Daisey and his group The Smile Rays to hardcore Boston rapper Mr Lif.
Traynham’s studio is compact and portable – he’s a bedroom producer in every sense of the word, and unlike Foster, Traynham doesn’t always make bespoke beats. “Usually for me, I make the beat first,” he says, “without even thinking about who might use it. That’s usually the beginning, so I end up sending out a lot of beats. Usually, it’s just catching different moods and vibes. I try to tap whatever mood or feeling I have and run with it. I did make one beat for Mr Lif specifically, and occasionally I’ll make one beat for Lady Daisey specifically, but usually I just try to be creative at the beginning of it.”
In many ways, Traynham is emblematic of the globalisation of production in the past 15 years. As the internet has allowed fans to experience music from multiple sources, so has it given producers access to different musical cultures. One of Traynham’s more recent projects, Gypsy Diaries, is a free instrumental project which takes in influences from across the globe. “I’m a big fan of soul music, world music, jazz, old rock, psychedelic rock, Brazilian music,” he says. “To me, being a producer now is: how big is your palette? You have everything in the world to pull from, and use, and manipulate.”
Traynham’s production swings between genres like a tail-gunner on a B52. It runs the full gamut between smooth soul, bouncy pop and gritty hip-hop. In his time, he’s played bass, guitar, saxophone and keyboards, and has a very particular modus operandi in studio. “A lot of my music is manipulated samples, sometimes looped or sometimes it’s highly chopped. I do play music and try to incorporate that, and I have a sample-free project that I’m working on, but yeah, I sample in spite of the legal ramifications. That’s the raw hip-hop aesthetic.”
One of the big industry criticisms of current production is that with the cheapening of studio technology, unskilled beatmakers are starting to proliferate in all genres. Where before only producers with skills and some chops on them could get access to expensive studio hardware, now various software versions can be downloaded for very little – with what can often be an unfortunate outcome for general quality. Traynham, however, calls this cheapening of technology liberating.
“Even though I do this professionally, I’m still very much a bedroom producer. Right now, my studio is in my bedroom. I think I couldn’t do this right now in the current climate if I had to have a professional studio and pay rent on that as well.” And does this proliferation of cheap, liberating software and equipment affect quality? “I do think that’s true. There’s a big difference between a beat and a finished song, and sometimes that does get lost. But again, hopefully, listeners can discern the difference. They know when they hear something good, and when they hear something that sounds like a demo.”
Traynham maintains that another of the key aspects of production is what happens to the song after its been recorded. Although big labels and studios will have dedicated engineers employed specifically to make a song sound as good as possible, in Traynham’s world, where there are no big budgets or other employees, he’s the man, and makes it a point to mix his own material wherever possible. “They’re always your babies,” he says of his beats. “You’re always concerned how they’re going to be treated. I’m fortunate enough to work with [artists] where I don’t have to worry about the quality of what they’re doing, so I generally trust that the artist is going to do it right. I always get concerned if someone else is mixing the beat though, because to me the sonics and the overall texture of the music are a huge part of it.
“I think you have to be a bit of a visionary in the sense that you have to know what the end result should sound like. I think it’s more than just making a beat or being an engineer, I think it’s a little bit of all of that and knowing what’s best for the artist.”