How to work with a producer

Two top producers share their top tips for how singers can get the most out of the recording process

Ben Hillier

Blur, Elbow, Doves and Depeche Mode – Hillier has produced albums for some of Britain’s most iconic bands.

Initially a drummer, Hillier learnt his craft in the studio with legendary producers Paul Oakenfold and Steve Osborne. His most recent work is Nadine Shah’s Holiday Destination.

iSing: Where do you start when making an album?

BH: I always build tracks around the vocals. The vocal is the key part of the song. I like to get the vocal in early and then I can keep coming back to it.

iSing: Where do you love to work?

BH: Some people feel a sense of validation when they record in a big studio. They like having someone sitting on the other side of the glass. I enjoy working in different environments. A lot of vocals are recorded in dead, controlled spaces, chosen to allow the engineer and producer to do what they need to do. It’s hard to be inspired in a place like that. You run the risk of getting a dead, dry vocal. My advice is find an environment that makes you feel special.

When I made Think Tank with Blur, we recorded a lot of stuff in Morocco. We worked on some tracks in West London and took them to Marrakech. The band immersed themselves in the culture. It was a fascinating place: no radios anywhere, but musicians playing live everywhere. It was just after the Twin Towers attacks and there was a lot of anti-Islamic rhetoric in the West. They went partly as a reaction to that. It also served to remove the band from the distractions of daily life in London.

iSing: How has technology changed the way you do your job?

BH: When we did the Blur album in Morocco, we took a truck load of stuff. Now, you only need a laptop and you can make music just about anywhere. I’ve recorded in a curtain warehouse with Nadine Shah, on the edge of Loch Ness with the Doves and in Santa Barbara with Depeche Mode. I also have a studio in the Sussex countryside, looking out over fields.

iSing: How can a singer best deal with nerves during the recording process?

BH: Do multiple takes of a vocal. You put too much pressure on yourself if you try and do it in one. I do four or five takes of the whole performance and then comp it. Do too many and you start to lose focus. I like to do the entire song, rather than just fixating on one word or phrase. It’s hard to get it right in isolation and, even if you do, what happens next? The next phrase won’t flow or make sense.

Make sure you’re singing in a happy environment. I like to work in an environment that is creative and not too structured. If you love playing live, make the scenario feel as close to playing live as possible. Dave Gahan [Depeche Mode] likes to hold the mic when he’s recording. He’s an amazing live performer and using a hand-held mic gives him an energy. I use an SM7B or SM58 on most recordings. You don’t need a posh mic. If it’s too posh it takes the punch and energy out.

iSing: Do you need to like someone to work with them?

BH: It helps if you respect them, at least [laughs]. I find it hard to work with people I don’t like. It turns it into a stressful scenario. Each time you work with a band or artist, it’s like joining a new family. You need to fit in with the atmosphere they create. As a producer, you bring a direction and focus, but it’s very much the artist’s party.

When I started working with Nadine Shah in 2009, the creative chemistry was instant. We’ve made three albums together: Love Your Dum And MadFast Food and Holiday Destination. We write together and I’ve played on all her albums. We’re like siblings.

iSing: What issues should a singer consider before working with a producer?

BH: The question to ask yourself is: are you willing to collaborate? The biggest issue I have is people who are not willing to let you in or to let you do your job as a producer. If people are too focused on details and aren’t willing to hand over some level of control, it’s very difficult. You need to connect.

Think about what sort of music you want to make and how you can stand out – there are a lot of records out there already. What are you trying to say? If there’s a producer you’d like to work with, then approach them. You never know where it might take you.

Emery Dobyns

Dobyns is a Grammy-winning producer, originally from New York City he is now based in Nashville. He’s worked in the studio with Patti Smith, Sia, Suzanne Vega, Black Crowes and Mary J Blige and has produced for Noah and the Whale, Parlour Tricks and Jamie Lidell.

iSing: How is a producer different from an engineer?

ED: A producer’s job is to inspire an artist and bring an overall vision to a project. The right producer can help a singer access parts of their personality or their range that they may not have explored yet. A producer has input into the arrangements, the structure and the sound. The sound engineer does anything related to capturing and recording the music. They’re responsible for recording the source of the musical content, whether it’s a singer or a band, drums, bass, guitar or strings.

iSing: What issues should a singer be aware of before coming into the studio?

ED: Often, when inexperienced singers come into the studio, they’re unfamiliar with singing into a microphone.

They don’t know how close to get and the importance of finding the right headphone mix. A singer should always warm up, and memorise the lyrics or have them in plain view at an appropriate angle so as not to block your breathing.

iSing: What should a singer look for in a producer?

ED: Someone you trust, your best friend. They should challenge you and bring the best out of you, but also pull you back from the edge in a performance.

You need to have a similar sensibility. I met singer Jamie Lidell at a dinner party in Nashville. I mentioned I worked on an album with Antony and the Johnsons and it turned out he loved that album. We started talking, hanging out and writing together. Our friendship fell into a cool working relationship.

iSing: How many vocal takes do you aim for when recording a song?

ED: The first couple of takes always have something special. In a sense they’re always better, but I do think that 20 takes in you can get a certain syllable or a note that just rings true. Sometimes it’s worth going after that, but you don’t want to strain the singer’s voice in the process. About 30 years ago I saw a producer make a young female artist sing 30 takes of a powerful song. It was horrible. She couldn’t sing the next day. If a singer isn’t sounding right, or isn’t getting the notes, I’ll just call the session. We’ll come back to it.

iSing: Is Nashville really the Mecca of the music industry?

ED: There are so many opportunities in Nashville to perform your music. There’s a very supportive community of songwriters here and, on any given night, you can see an amazing number of singer-songwriters playing in awesome clubs. It’s hard to find that in any other city. The disadvantage, I suppose, is that your songs must be good. There’s a lot of competition.

If you move to Nashville, you need to get your boots on the ground. You need to write and play much as possible and establish your voice. People here are looking for sounds, songs and ideas that are left of centre. While a lot of country music is still about a story, the boundaries of that are constantly being pushed sonically.

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Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.