What is a producer? This is opening up a potential can of worms/Pandora's box, but what I will give is an example, only one, of what a producer can be.
I often wonder what the word "producer" means. When people ask me if I produce records I answer with a hesitant "yes." I don't know. I feel like a lot of times I co-produce with a band. I don't feel like I'm running sessions with an iron fist, rewriting songs, dictating tempos and forcing my own vision on the band. Instead I play it pretty mellow, trying to capture what's best about the group, offering sonic ideas and such. I've worked in a few sessions where there was a producer on hand but it wasn't until recently where it became apparent what a producer could be.
The band was well rehearsed and had even demoed many of the songs at home. The producer showed up the day before the session with a bunch of notes culled from the demos and sat in on a practice suggesting ideas. They came in the next day and I concentrated on being an engineer — getting good sounds, watching levels, keeping records, making rough mixes and all. The producer worked on getting guitar tones, watching the tempos, keeping an ear out for tuning problems and, most importantly, looking for the best take of each song. His ideas on how the instruments would fit together and what made a great take made my job easier — I could just focus on getting what was happening onto tape.
In four days we tracked over an albums-worth of songs. All the takes were sounding great, and despite some long hours everyone seemed to be in pretty good spirits. On day five the producer had to leave for another job and I was to start on guitar overdubs for three days. We had a listening session and took notes on what each song could use. No problem, right?
Day five just didn't work. We kept trying to guess if what we were doing was what the producer had in mind. Band members were edgier without the producer there taking charge. It felt like someone was missing.
The band had put a lot of their trust and faith into the producer. Insecurities and worries about the work were assuaged by gentle positive comments when he was there. Instead of trying to "produce" the record by committee within the band, a large amount of decisions and fears had been placed in the producer's hands, most of which were never even discussed. It made the job that the band had to do much easier, allowing them to concentrate on playing to their utmost and getting the mood of the songs right. Without him these things rose to the surface and stopped the session dead in it's tracks. The band decided to wait and do the rest of the album with the producer present.
Did I feel slighted? Not in the least. The presence of a producer whom they put their faith in would take a load off of the band. I wasn't the person for this job or this band, though I think I have been for others. The album is going to be amazing and when we resume sessions I'll bet it goes very smooth. And I think I'm one step closer to knowing what a "producer" is.