“If something happened where I couldn’t write music anymore, it would kill me. It’s not just a job. It’s not just a hobby. It’s why I get up in the morning.” Hans Zimmer
You probably have moments when this is what you think. Music isn’t something you can just put away and pretend you don’t want to do anymore, at least not if you’re really serious about it. But what does it even mean to be serious about the music industry in the modern context? And even more importantly, how do you get it to pay the bills?
Back in the day, it was enough to be able to just be a singer, or an instrumentalist. Nowadays, it’s not. 30 years ago you had to go to a studio space and pay top dollar to rent out equipment in order to have a piece of music recorded by dedicated engineers and producers. Nowadays you can open a laptop and make a track in 20 minutes which falls into the radio formula and could end up going big (definitely not as easy as that, but you get the point)
The important part of this is to realise that while back in the day certain roles were quite well defined. It’s not so black and white anymore and in order to really do well, you need to be at the top of your game in one particular field, as well as having a decent knowledge of others in order to really succeed.
The producer in the traditional sense, was the overseer. The person who put all of the elements together in terms of the right studio, the equipment, the artist. The absolute definition of the traditional role for the producer was the guy that pressed the big red record button and recorded an entire band all at once. This changed slowly over time as multitrack technology started, and slowly the producer has become a creative field as well as a technical one, this has become especially true since computer tech has evolved.
Modern producers are the people who understand the recording process in depth, you need to be technologically minded and you’re going to be required to know about the systems, programs, and instruments you’re using.
As a producer, you also often help an artist out by ensuring they get the best from themselves as well as sometimes getting involved singing backup or playing an instrument if you can.
Composing is the job description which has probably seen the most change because it’s been around for longer than the rest. Significantly longer, to the point where the first composers who we know wrote music weren’t even writing for an orchestra but a choir, because the violin hadn’t even been invented yet. Ever heard of Gregorian chant? That’s what is was. Acapella only.
Composers used to be the guys that wrote music and only write music. They often know how to play at least one instrument, but their knowledge was all about what players and instruments were capable of, as well as having a very in depth knowledge of music.
This is something which in fact still persists for many modern composers. Not enough of them want to move forward into the modern age, at least not fully. Technology is constantly evolving and so then, must music. Writing a concerto for string quartet is great practice, and there’s no reason not to do it. But be aware that something like that is likely not to be the next grammy winner.
The one thing that never changes for the composer is that you absolutely have to have an in depth knowledge of how music works.
The mixing or recording engineers are the sticklers for good sound, as such we think of them as the guys sweating behind the mixer with headphones on listening intently every-time someone presses record. The people who want to ensure that the mix, levels and effects on every instrument are enabling each artist behind a mic to be heard.
Traditional engineering involved a very diverse range skill sets, including sound technology, acoustics, electronics, and computer science. Many of these still persist today, for instance, the guys that make instrument plugins which we all use are acoustic and physics engineers who need a background in programming as well, to be able to put the necessary elements together to create a project. All of the plugins that we use for compression, fx and the like were at one stage, an actual physical unit, which someone had to know how to operate. These are the engineers.
Engineers today are mostly focussed on two parts of the recording process – the live recording and the post recording mix. They are there to make sure that the mix is perfect and that all the effects (compression, autotune, reverb etc) are in the right place and active at the right level to make the song sound exactly as it needs to before it gets its final master.
Nowadays this is where most of us are required to be. A little bit of everything. Gone are the days when you had to setup a range of more than two mics in order to record a band. Thanks to computer technology and the range of capabilities granted to us by our Digital Audio Workstations (DAW’s) we are able to record in real time on single tracks, making scheduling and recording a much easier and far faster process.
Over and above that, being able to compose, produce and record your own music as well as engineer and master it means that your footprint is lower and fewer hands are getting involved in the process of making the music, which allows for more artistic integrity because fewer people are trying to put their mark onto what it is that you are creating.
The Last Note
Modern technology is moving at a pace far faster than ever before, and music is evolving with it. In order to stay current, we have to be learning new tech and staying in front of the curve so that we remain current, but also so that we are able to create better music as improvements are made to sounds and effects in the future.