As audio professionals, these two terms get thrown around a lot in the studio, but knowing the difference between the two of them isn’t just convenient – it’s the difference between knowing your role in a session and coming across as inexperienced to the people you’re working with. Sound harsh?
While those seem like two opposite ends of the spectrum with plenty of gray area in the middle, you really will seem out of place if you can’t definitively say which part of the production you’re involved with. Don’t worry: being involved with both is fine too (but we’ll get to that in a minute).
Audio production and music production have two very distinct skill sets. Knowing how to describe what is involved with each one will help you out when it comes time to press record, and can even help you price your services more accurately when working with a band.
Let me just say that if you’re here reading this, you’re probably involved with audio production in some way, shape or form. Self-recording musicians are involved with audio production. Recording engineers and mixers are involved with audio production. Nearly every person that works on film sound from the ones who record the ambience of a room to the dialog editor is involved with audio production.
Simply put, audio production is the process of capturing sound and manipulating it to make it sound the way you want it to. In a music studio, these are the recording engineers that are involved with choosing the mic, adjusting its placement, and making sure that everything gets recorded accurately from a technical perspective.
There are certainly creative aspects to audio production too – every piece of gear adds it’s own flavor to the mix. A mixer might choose to use one type of compressor over another – a creative decision, but one that’s wholly part of the audio production realm.
Music production has much more to do with the flow of the song; what instrumentation fits where and how a certain melody or scale can elicit a different reaction from the audience.
These professionals are the composers, arrangers, songwriters, and often the more traditional personification of a producer. They have many different aspects of the song to focus on other than the tonal quality of the song, though they’ll often cross into that territory if a certain tone is needed to maximize the impact of a riff or fill.
Music producers spend most of their time and energy on things like:
Should the song go verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, and chorus? Does it make more sense to double the chorus at then end? Would cutting the bridge out keep the listener’s attention better? (The most common approach is verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus, by the way.)
The structure of your song is almost more important than the musical content itself. Even the best riffs aren’t going to do you any good if they’re repeated too many times or don’t appear enough to get stuck in your listener’s head. Finding the order that works best is one of the primary focuses of any music producer.
Once you know the order the song should go in, do you know where your instrumentation is going to have its biggest impact? An acoustic ballad is going to have a very different arrangement than a metal song. Finding where pieces can be added and removed is another major part of a music producer’s responsibilities.
Think of each melody as a piece of a puzzle that the music producer is assembling. Done correctly, you’ll end up with a full picture where all of the pieces come together seamlessly. If the music producer cannot pull this off, pieces will be missing and won’t end up fitting together at all.
Within a song’s arrangement, you have all kinds of musical parts from the melodies and harmonies written to the contrasting elements and rhythms driving the song forward. A good arranger should be familiar with the parts that work, while also being enough of a free thinker to put these together in new and interesting ways for your listeners to enjoy.
Today’s music industry is a changing and growing environment full of people working on multiple parts of a production - sonically and musically. As I mentioned before, home recording musicians are now often involved in the technical side as well as the writing side, but the overlap doesn’t stop there.
Modern music producers keep a foot on both sides of the fence in order to operate at their creative best. Great producers speak the music lingo as well as the technical lingo, feeling just as comfortable suggesting a new melody as they do recommending a particular microphone or preamp.
This new era of producers tend to maintain their own recording rigs for when inspiration strikes, with their own set of creative, in-the-box recording tools to go along with it.
Similarly, audio engineers and mixers that are well versed in music terminology and concepts tend to outperform their peers in session. Not only can they articulate what they’re hearing more clearly to less technically-inclined musicians, they’re more comfortable understanding how the music can translate to technical adjustments like volume swells.
Defining Your Role
Regardless of the side you’re more comfortable on, know that there’s a premium out there for engineers and producers that can speak to both sides of the coin. Bands aren’t just seeking engineers that can record them anymore – they’re looking for creative partners that can help develop their sound.
If you’re looking to build up your chops in either the audio production or music production realm, make sure you subscribe to our YouTube channel where we’re posting weekly tips that benefit this new group of “super-producers” that bands want to work with. Once you’ve subscribed, come join the conversation over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum to see how others are walking the line between sound and music.