The Producer's Style
"Is there more than one
style of record production, or more than one type of record producer?" The answer is
an unequivocal "Yes." And after contemplating this question for a long time,
I've come to the conclusion that a case can be made for many different types and styles of
production. However, when you take the long view, almost all record producers, no matter
how different their individual approaches are, fall into one of two main style categories.
For want of an established name for these categories, I've chosen to call them "The
Obstetrician Style" and "The Author Style."
The Obstetrician Style Record Producer
This style of record production is named after the type of doctor whose job it is to
deliver children into the world. Like an obstetrician, this record producer is most
concerned with preserving the integrity of what is being delivered. A good obstetric
producer never interferes with the artist's musical style, but concentrates instead on
making sure that all the elements are in place to insure a perfect delivery. The most
important trait that this style of producer needs is the ability to suppress his or her
own ego in favor of the artist's needs, never forgetting that the artist's name is on the
front of the album cover, while the producer's name is on the back. Since an artist's
music is the child of his or her creative brain, it follows that this producer's job is to
deliver that brainchild. Examples of this type of producer are: Jerry Wexler, George
Martin, Peter Asher, Tony Brown, Don Was, and Robert John "Mutt" Lange.
The Author Style Record Producer
I used to call this style the Auteur school of record producing, borrowing the
word from the French film critics of the 1960's who first proposed the idea that the
director, not the writer, is the actual author of a film. But after a while, using a fifty
dollar foreign word in place of the more direct English word seemed pretentious as hell,
so I changed it.
This style of production is much more involved with the actual music than the first
style; in fact, if you look closely at some of the producers who fall under this category,
you'll see that they are at least as responsible as the artist for the musical content of
the record. In some cases, even more so. This style of producer is often what's referred
to in the entertainment industry as a "hyphenate," meaning someone who is doing
more than one job: the writer-producer, or the producer-engineer. It is usually quite easy
to tell the work of an author style producer, because no matter who the artist is, the
record has an identifiable sound. Examples of the author style are: Phil Specter, L. A.
Reid and Babyface, David Foster, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
Do I have a preference here? Speaking for myself, of course I do. I have chosen to work
in the obstetric style because it is best suited to my own natural abilities. And that's
how every budding record producer should choose the style in which they want to work. You
should start by looking very carefully at your own abilities, and then asking yourself a
Are you a great organizer but only an average musician? Are you a sympathetic listener
and a natural leader, but someone who shies away from the spotlight? Are you a chameleon
when it comes to musical taste? Chances are you'll be an Obstetrician Style Record
Are you an excellent musician and a good, collaborative songwriter? Are you talented
enough to be an artist yourself, but unwilling to stomach the idea of life on the road? Do
you favor one type of music over all the others? Chances are you'll be an Author Style
If you study the credits on a large number of albums, you'll find that certain artists
will prefer one style of producer over the other. Let's look at some examples:
Self-contained bands and singer-songwriters would be most likely to prefer working with
an obstetric-style producer, since they generally do not wish their music to be altered
beyond their control or intention. A producer who is adept at creating the right creative
atmosphere for recording without trying to make any unwanted stylistic changes in the
music is much more likely to get the results that these types of artists are seeking. A
good example of someone who favors this type of production is Robert John "Mutt"
Lange. In the past few years, this South African-born producer has had huge hits by
artists as diverse as Def Leppard (a hard rock band from England), Billy Ocean (a
pop/urban/dance artist from the Caribbean), and Shania Twain (a Nashville-based, country
singer-songwriter who hails originally from Canada). Listening to them back-to-back, one
is struck by how diverse these records are. Even the most astute listener would be
hard-pressed to tell that they were all the work of one record producer. In fact, if an
obstetric producer does the job right, the only similarity among his or her albums would
be the high quality of the production.
Artists who prefer not to write their own material, or who have the ability to work in
more than one style, are the ones most likely to need an author-style producer. A perfect
example of someone in this category is the Los Angeles based artist-producer Kenneth
"Babyface" Edmonds, who has had a remarkable string of pop/urban hits both alone
and with his sometime partner, L. A. Reid. In December of 1995, Babyface had hit singles
by Whitney Houston (from the "Waiting To Exhale" soundtrack), TLC, Jon B., and
himself. If you listen to these records back-to-back, you are struck by their stylistic
unity. They all bear the unmistakable artistic stamp of Kenneth Edmonds.
Naturally, it is possible to combine elements of both of these styles, and in fact,
most good producers of one style will invariably have a certain, small number of elements
from the other style in their work. And some exceptional producers have combined both
styles almost equally, the most famous of which is probably the legendary Quincy Jones.