If you’re like me, you’ve probably gone about most of your musical life in blissful ignorance about producers, mixers, record labels, publishers, and other roles. Sure, you might have a general idea about them, but do you really know exactly what they contribute to the business, why they exist, and whether or not you need them for your own music career?
In this post, I want to help clear away the fog a bit, to help you better understand the music world and everyone’s place in it.
The simple way to look at it.
One way to keep everything straight is to think about the process of making and distributing music. Here’s how most independent musicians just starting out think about the process: a writer creates a composition, an artist (usually the same person) uses that composition to create a sound recording, and then the artist uploads it to a site like CD Baby to distribute it to all of the music services around the world.
OK, there’s nothing wrong with that approach. It’s sort of like making a hamburger… you got the main ingredients right: meat and bun. But a hamburger can be so much more! 😉
Check out my music industry overview after you read this article for an overwhelming amount of detail on the music business and where writers, artists, and distributors fit in.
Meet your kitchen crew!
If you are an independent musician, you probably wear all of these hats and do everything yourself. If you ever want to branch out and delegate some work, these will be your likely candidates:
- Producers: help you record a great song
- Mixers: help your recorded song sound great
- Record Labels: help you share your recording with the world
- Publishers: help you share your composition with the world
There are lots of other roles out there, but let’s just focus on these four above for now.
PRODUCERS: Taking your song and music to the next level!
A producer works with an artist to help make his songs better. Simple. This might include basic things such as recommending a certain instrument be used in a section, or a vocal take to be redone. Or they might be much more involved, such as helping arrange the song, suggesting new lyrics, getting other performers to play parts, setting the proper recording mood, changing the name of a song, changing the track order, helping decide which tracks make it to the album, and even recommending changes to the main melody of a song.
Producers come in all shapes and sizes, each with their own skills and experience, and each with their own styles. Some are very hands off, but some are very hands on. As a solo independent artist, you likely act as your own producer. That said, having someone else that you trust get involved into making the sausage (doh! I mixed my metaphors!) can be very helpful.
Although many producers can work with lots of different genres of music, they are often well-known for their work in specific genres, such as rock, rap, electronic, or pop. So choose wisely.
Since a producer can end up playing a big role in shaping what the song becomes, they often get part of the backend as well. An artist might give 3-5% out of his share to the producer, as well as pay the producer a fee. There is no hard and fast rule of what to pay, however.
MIXERS: Making your songs sound professional!
Let’s say you work with a great producer and finish a recording of a really epic song that you are sure will be a hit. Then you listen to your song next to popular music in the same genre and you notice that your song somehow sounds inferior. You can’t quite put your finger on it, and no matter how many knobs you turn, or how many effects you add to your track, nothing seems to help. If this sounds familiar, then you probably want to learn more about “mixing” or hire a professional mixer to mix your tracks.
Mixing is an art and can take years to “master” (yes, I really just made that pun). Mixing a track involves much more than simply changing the levels of each track. Mixing also includes things like EQ, effects, delay, reverb, compression, limiting, panning, etc. Generally, mixing does NOT include things like changing the composition, getting new artists to perform, or most everything I listed in the producer role. That said, nowadays with digital workstations and sample libraries, it would not be uncommon for a mixer to change out one type of sampled instrument for another of the same type (e.g. choosing a different bass virtual instrument because it has a better sound or feel that fits into the mix better), or doubling an instrument with another.
Some people like to record everything and save mixing until the end. In fact, some mixers start by moving the faders all the way down for all tracks, and then bring up the level for each track one at a time. My preference is to mix as I go. In other words, as I add new tracks to my song, I adjust the mix to make it sound good. There are benefits and drawbacks to each approach, but both can result in a solid mix if done right.
NOTE: Each genre can have its own way of shaping a song and approach to mixing. For example, a genre might emphasize bass, highlight compression pumping, and limit their dynamic range. But another genre might want a huge dynamic range with a clean, natural sound.
Here are a few of the things that professional mixers focus on when working on a track:
- Balanced levels
- All instrument volumes fit nicely with each other.
- Each instrument can be clearly heard.
- Levels are generally even across all frequencies to get that full, pleasant sound from bass to treble.
- Dynamics and emphasis
- The song builds, swells, and diminishes in the right places and at the right levels.
- Particular parts, instruments, or melodies are highlighted and clearly heard at the right time.
- Stereo spread and EQ
- The mix sounds really wide (usually desired) and instruments are spread out appropriately.
- Instruments complement each other across the audio spectrum and aren’t occupying the same sound space when not appropriate.
- Reverb and delay
- Just the right amount and type of reverb or delay is added to each track, groups of tracks, and master bus, so that everything sounds cohesive, like it was recorded in the same studio and belongs all together.
- Loudness and attack
- Everything sounds appropriately loud for the genre by using transparent compression and other techniques.
- Instruments obviously pump and/or have a strong or weak attack, as appropriate by using compression, envelope shaping, and other techniques.
- All problems fixed
- No sibilance problems.
- No clipping problems.
- No phase issues.
Mixers usually get an upfront fee, and it’s not unheard of for mixers to also take a small percent of the backend as well.
MASTERING ENGINEERS: The secret sauce!
I bet you didn’t even realize I sneaked this one in! Similarly, mastering engineers are sort of like the thin layer of secret sauce that some restaurants put on your hamburger. You can’t quite place the taste or identify the ingredients… all you know is that it tastes really good (this post is getting me hungry)!
Without going into lots of details on these mysterious creatures here, just realize that they are the ones that make sure your sound recordings sound the best they can be on each format. In other words, you want to get your music mastered for each unique format you want to distribute to. If you’re distributing an album to music services, you’ll likely want to master your audio in stereo (aka two channels) and so that all the songs on the album have roughly the same levels, feel, and similar EQ. This is what most indie artists will do. However, if you’re going to use a song in a film in the theaters, you’ll probably want to mix and master it in surround sound (aka multiple channels) with huge dynamics. It’s the same recorded song, but with wildly different target listening environments.
The mastering process comes after you’ve mixed a song. Mastering engineers work on the final mixed output from the mixer, and the only tools they use in this process besides leveling are EQ, compression, and limiting.
Even though mixing and mastering are separate processes, it’s a little confusing because most mixers also do mastering, and mixers can and do use the same tools I mentioned above that mastering engineers use. For example, both mixers and mastering engineers can make a song sound loud. The difference is that mixers can do that at the individual track level as well as the overall level, while mastering engineers can only work on the final mixed output (they don’t have access to individual tracks).
Anyway… just think “secret sauce.”
RECORD LABELS: Getting music heard!
Record labels exist to help you make the most out of your sound recordings, and to make money from your sound recordings.
- To help you make the best music possible that they can exploit, record labels might advance you money to hire a producer, record your album, and manufacture CDs. They might also connect you with other well-known artists on their label.
- To help generate the most money from your music, record labels might help with distribution, marketing, promotion, getting on playlists, submitting to radio stations, and placing your music in films and commercials.
- To help make sure all of your sound recording royalties are collected, record labels might track all of your royalty income, analyze your data, audit your royalties, and register your tracks with PROs such as SoundExchange.
The list of things that record labels can do is long, and no two labels are the same. But the general idea is that record labels want to get the most out of your sound recordings. Check out my comparison chart below for more information.
PUBLISHERS: Getting the most out of your composition!
Publishers exist to help you make the most out of your compositions, and to make money from your compositions.
- To help you write the best compositions ever, publishers might advance you money so that you can concentrate more fully on composing music and writing lyrics. They might also connect you with other songwriters that use the same publisher.
- To help generate the most money from your compositions, publishers might pitch your compositions to famous artists that might want to record them. They might also try to get your compositions recorded and placed in films, TV, commercials, and other opportunities.
- To help make sure all of your composition royalties are collected, publishers might track all of your royalty income, analyze your data, audit your royalties, register your compositions with mechanical royalty collection agencies such as Harry Fox Agency and Music Reports, and register your compositions with PROs such as BMI and ASCAP.
Check out the comparison below for more information about publishers.
Many record labels are also publishers.
In many cases, the artist writing the song is the same person recording the song. Also, for various opportunities, such as placing a sound recording in a film, permission is needed from both the record label and the publisher. For these reasons and more, many record labels also act as publishers.
Record Labels versus Publishers
Lastly, I thought it would be helpful to give you a list of things that a record label might do compared to a list of things that a publisher might do. This is by no means a complete list, and a record label and publisher may or may not do everything in this list.
Now, enjoy your meal!
For getting through all of this, I think it is only right that I leave you with this picture of a juicy hamburger with all the fixings… way more than just the meat and the bun. 🙂
If you have some helpful “meaty” insights into this part of the music world, why not share them with the rest of us by using the comment system below.