The simplest explanation is that music producers compose or produce music while sound engineers record and mix music. The designation ‘Music Producer’ has come in vogue in the past twenty years or so. Sound Engineers have existed since the era of radio broadcasting that commenced in the 1920s. These lab coat-wearing personnel looked quite different from the modern sound engineer. It is important to understand the history of names and designations used in the field of music over the past hundred odd years.
Before the advent of music technology, music was composed by composers on paper. A composer would write down his musical ideas as music notation on staff paper. Think of classical greats such as Beethoven and Mozart. A composer would use instruments such as a piano or an organ to work on his compositions. A ‘transcriber’s help might be taken to formally notate the compositions. Lets take the example of a symphony. A symphony is meant to be performed by a large orchestra. The composer himself might conduct the orchestra or a ‘conductor’ might be commissioned for the recital. Imagine a 60 piece symphony orchestra performing for a live audience in the 18th century. There was no audio technology in the form of microphones and loudspeakers to take advantage of. But the audience had to be satisfied aurally. This was achieved through the acoustic properties of the concert hall. Acoustics happens to be the oldest field of sound engineering (Ancient Greeks were the first to delve in to the field of acoustics). A skilled ‘Acoustician’ would design the room to constructively enhance and amplify the sound of the orchestra so that every person in the audience would receive optimum quality of sound.
Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and Thomas Edison invented the Phonograph. Collectively they initiated the field of ‘Audio Technology’. Sound could be now converted into an electrical signal and also stored as a recording. With the emergence of Radio as a mass media format and also with the increasing popularity of vinyl playback systems, the masses became used to the idea of listening to music over loudspeakers. Electric Guitars became popular in the fifties and led to the development of blues, jazz and rock. Technology was influencing the style of music, the methods used to capture the performers and the manner in which the audience consumed music. Singers, Songwriters and Bands replaced the Composer as the creator of music. An artist would write and compose his songs and perform them to his audience. Sometimes a songwriter would write and compose the songs only to be performed by someone else. Thus began the profession of commercial songwriter. An artist could be a talented song writer but could lack the skills required to transform his song into a full fledged composition including parts written for a larger musical ensemble. An ‘Arranger’ would be called in to address this requirement. An arranger would generally be classically trained and have background in transcription and orchestration. His skills would be used to make the composition more complete with additional parts such as strings, horns, percussions etc.
In India film music formed the mainstream music style. Motion pictures were released with songs that were specially recorded for the film. With the movies released across the country, film music garnered support among the general public. The composer of film songs was designated as the ‘Music Director’. The music director would be briefed by the director of the motion picture in terms of the style and mood that the songs must follow. A ‘Lyricist’ would be contracted to write the lyrics for the songs. Some times the lyrics would be written to the tune created by the music director, at other times the music director would think up melodies for the lyrics. Traditionally the music director is expected to come up with the primary melody and rhythm for the songs. The standard practice in Bollywood till the late 90s was to appoint an arranger to ‘arrange’ and essentially finish the production.
As mentioned earlier, music was now being recorded. The link between the artist and the listeners was ‘Audio Technology’. Personnel were needed who understood ‘Audio Technology’ in order to facilitate the mass distribution of music. Earliest of studios were owned by record companies and broadcast companies. Staff engineers were trained in audio science and also in operation of early recording equipment. These men were qualified in electronics but now worked in the field of Audio Engineering making them the first generation of Audio Engineers. There seems to be some confusion over the two designations that are used interchangeably, Audio Engineers & Sound Engineers. Audio is sound as an electrical signal. A microphone picks up the pressure variation created by a sound wave and creates an audio signal at its output. A mic doesn’t create sound signal, nor does it respond to an ‘audio’ wave. These are two names for the same job.
From the 60’s a new role emerged in the field of music business in the west. This was the all-important role of the ‘Producer’. A producer is a link between the artist and the audio engineer. We know that the artist is the creator of the music, the artist has the single biggest creative contribution towards the record. Most artists at the time were not comfortable with technology and did not understand the process of record production all that well. The engineer on the other hand was interested in the technical aspect of the process, ensuring that the recordings and the mix are of the highest quality. The engineer may not have a complete understanding of the artist’s creative vision. This gap is filled by the producer, who is a person with a musical background and is also experienced in audio engineering. Traditional producers were in their 40s and 50s with years of experience behind them. Good producers would make insightful improvements to the song structure and arrangement while employing creatively interesting production techniques. The decision would range from deciding the correct tempo for a song to what mic to use for the signer and which effect to apply to the drums. Some who brought the role of the producer to the forefront are legendary Beatles producer George Martin and the eccentric Phil Spector. As the recording and mixing process became more sophisticated the producer became the same with examples such as Quincy Jones (Michael Jackson) and Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Madonna).
Unlike the west, Bollywood did not use a producer in the music business. The job of the producer was jointly handled by the chief engineer (main boss man behind the mixing console) and the music director.
MIDI technology was introduced in the 80s. MIDI technology allowed digital musical devices such as keyboard, synths and samplers to be used for music production. This was a revolutionary approach to music production as it reduced the need for live musicians. A talented operator could use the MIDI gear to program all the musical parts. This led to the creation of a new profile in the music production business, the ‘Programmer’. Initially programmers used keyboard and hardware programmers as made by companies such as Akai, Yamaha, Korg etc. Ability to program also led to the development of dance music styles such as Rap, Hiphop, EDM etc. Later the computers took over the field of music production and a variety of computer based MIDI programming software such as Logic Audio, Cubase etc became popular. In India the programmer was initially referred to as the arranger, probably because the programmer effectively replaced the erstwhile arranger in bollywood.
In contemporary music production the ‘Music Producer’ has become a multi faceted profile. Ability to accomplish most of the production tasks within a computer environment has led to the condensing of multiple roles into a single profile. A music producer is generally expected to have some amount of formal music training. Some are self-taught and some spend years learning music formally. A music producer is likely to be proficient in his principle instrument, which is popularly the keyboard or the guitar. A music producer possesses good programming skillset on one or multiple software platforms. A modern day music producer produces music using all the aforementioned skills such as composition, arrangement, orchestration, production and programming. A music producer will collaborate with others to widen the palette of ideas and skills. A modern day music producer will produce music in genres of his preference. A music producer creates music for single or album release, A music producer will produce a background score for any visual content such as TV show or motion picture, Modern trend has led to the evolution of EDM producer who are music producers specializing in contemporary electronic dance music genres such as Techno, Dubstep, Trap, Trance etc. A music producer is also likely to tour and perform music live.
An audio engineer is a technically qualified personnel who is trained in audio engineering tasks. An audio engineer is trained in the science of sound and is a skilled operator of professional audio equipment. A Music oriented audio engineer is a person who specializes in recording musical instruments. A song is made up of parts from many individual instruments. These have to be recorded separately and blended together to form a balanced presentation. This engineer must have a good understanding of microphone technology and miking technique. An engineer working on a music project should be skilled in editing and mixing of music tracks. Music being a creative endeavor behooves creativity in the way in which music is recorded, edited and mixed. It’s a field where Art & Science meet. Audio engineers working mainly in the field of music find further specialization in the form of recording or mixing engineers. Broadcast studios and stations also require audio engineers to accomplish the task of good quality audio broadcast. The sound of the TV shows you enjoy has been engineered and mixed by an audio engineer. The field of Motion Picture Production is another large area of employment for Audio Engineers. The soundtrack of a motion picture comprises of multiple elements such as Dialogues, Foley (sounds such as footsteps), SFX (Monster screaming) and Background Score. Audio Engineers are the people behind the delivery of a motion picture soundtrack. In the west different teams work on different elements of the soundtrack. In India such distinction is a recent trend, Traditionally an ‘Audiographer’ would be the Audio Engineers appointed to work on the sound of motion picture. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences deems that there is creativity involved in motion picture sound, which is why it awards Academy Award for Best Sound and Best Sound Editing to deserving candidates every year. Another exciting field where Audio Engineers play a key role is Live Sound Entertainment. Next time you find yourself dancing to the music at a gig, realize that there is a team of audio engineers who are responsible for that sound.
If you play an instrument, you love composing songs on your guitar or keyboard, you dream up lyrics in the middle of the day, you cant get over how great a record or song is, you spend the night tweaking a synth, you dream of producing, gigging, recording, performing professionally then Music Production is your future.
If you love technology, you love music, you listen to a song a hundred times to figure out how it was recorded or mixed, you watch the same movie multiple time cause you cant get over the sounds, you stand next to the console at a gig and watch the engineer more than the artist, you dream of working in a big studio with great gear, touring with the biggest bands and handling stadium PA systems, you dream of creating the ultimate sound design for a game or a movie then Audio Engineering is you future.