Production: The Maker or Breaker of Music

Writing a good song isn't that difficult really. It may take a while, but with a bit of playing around, most ideas can eventually be molded into something at least half-decent. However, the success of that song can depend on a few other factors: marketing, release date...and its production.

It's easy to forget the work that goes in beyond the writing and recording of a song. Between the recording and the release, the song will go through multiple stages of production and it is crucial that these stages are done well, lest the song come out sounding muffled, quiet or, at worst, dull.

Let's use Halestorm as our example. As a hard rock band, they are driven by their passion and energy for music. Take a listen to their 2012 single 'Love Bites (So Do I)' to first get an idea of how a well-produced Halestorm sound.

The snarl, the aggression, the power of the drums and energetic guitars...all come together to create one of the hardest rock songs of the last decade. It's electrifying to listen to, almost like a live performance with studio-quality production. It's Halestorm on top form, with production to match. It's Halestorm in their purest form.

Unfortunately, they have not always been blessed with such sublime sound. Two years later, the band released Reanimate 2.0: The Covers EP, their 2nd selection of covers, but despite using the same producer for it as they did for 'Love Bites', the production is far, far more flat. Take a listen to their cover of AC/DC's 'Shoot to Thrill', one of the all-time great rock songs, and compare it to both 'Love Bites' and AC/DC's original rendition.

Admittedly, it seems popular enough, with the comments section full of praise in particular for Lzzy Hale on vocals. Nevertheless, the cover is lacking a certain flair and energy. The guitars in particular sound incredibly lifeless, almost like the guitarists were bored during the recording. Is this the fault of the guitarists? Perhaps, but it is the job of the producer to coax the best performance he can out of the performers, and either way, he certainly didn't add anything in post to help matters either. There's a sense to this song, and the whole EP, that it was slightly phoned in, done lazily over a weekend without much care.

Poor production also marred the soundtrack to the latest DOOM game, with the most obvious difference being the huge levels of overcompression. Most notably was the difference between 'BFG Divsion' from the 2016 game and its 2020 sequel, 'BFG Divsion 2020'. Listen to the difference below.

It's a shame, because though the compositional quality of DOOM Eternal's soundtrack was as high as ever, the production issues really hamper the listener's overall experience when listening to it. Fortunately, the best songs on the soundtrack - the likes of 'Meathook' and 'The Only Thing They Fear is You' did get the Gordon treatment, which is lucky for us. Clearly he knew had a time limit, so concentrated on the getting the best he could out of what he had.

Of course, we have discussed the DOOM Eternal situation before and the controversy that stemmed from the soundtrack. Not only did the simple matter of poor production nigh-on ruin a good soundtrack, it also caused huge controversy for id Software with most fans taking the side of Gordon. DOOM fans are probably the most likely out there to be audiophiles and it showed with this reaction to the soundtrack.

That's not to mention a similar situation with Metallica's 2008 album Death Magnetic. Like the DOOM Eternal OST, the album was met with controversy when the audiophiles amongst Metallica's fanbase found their ears being blasted with some of the most compressed music ever released. In contrast, the same songs were mixed differently for Guitar Hero: Metallica, with those versions being far less compressed than those released on the album.

Two waveforms of the same song, 'My Apocalypse'. Above is the Death Magnetic version; below, the Guitar Hero: Metallica mix. Picture by Stormwatch at English Wikipedia.

These controversies prove that sound quality matters. Mess up the production and the consumers will notice. The production of a song, or album, can make or break it and yet, when it's done right, it often goes under the radar. Like a defensive midfielder, producers are in the firing line if a bad job is done, but largely unnoticed if the music sounds good.

It's rare that a chart-topping hit will have a bad production job on it. Lots of criticism gets levelled at pop artists for their often repetitive songs and clearly borrowed ideas but the level of sound quality and production is at an all-time high. Sonically, modern pop records sound fantastic and it is the vibrancy of the productions that are the difference between them being a good song and a huge hit.

A good production is about far more than just mixing and faders. Imagine a BTS song with buried vocals, a sombre Adele track with no reverb for space, a Sigala song with all the beats and melodies but no energy. Make no mistake, it is important that the compositions are good, but if the production doesn't live up to it, the song simply won't see success.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Certain genres of rock music, such as early punk (Sex Pistols), garage, and noise rock, have made bad production almost a staple. They simply want to turn up the instruments, record loudly, shove it together and put it out. But it works; the raw aesthetic suits the sound and therefore messing with it would almost be overproducing it.

But those are niche genres for a reason. The majority of us want a clean, clear sound that captures the energy of the band and adds a little studio polish to them. Rushed jobs simply aren't acceptable in this day and age, particularly when a good-sounding song can be made in one's bedroom.

Next time you're listening to a song, really concentrate on its sound. Take the time to value its sonic output and appreciate the work producers do to enable your favourite artists to sound amazing. That song's only out and successful because of the producer's work on it, so let's be grateful and ensure that we value that work. The production of a song is the key to its success, it is the secret ingredient. Let's make sure that is never forgotten.