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Grammy-Nominated Producer Dana Nielsen on Finding the Best Producer

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Producer/engineer/mixer Dana Nielsen (Bob Dylan, Adele, Rihanna, Weezer, Slayer, Noah Gundersen)

We’re living in an age in which you can create a full-quality demo of a song without leaving the comfort of your home. Heck, you can track drums, live guitars, vocals, strings and more, piece together a full-band song and never have to see another person, let alone the light of day.

Even with all this capability, however, are too many artists today prematurely cutting out the valuable role of the producer? You may very well be able to create an entire symphony from scratch in your basement, but is there still value in having another professional in the room to offer direction and creative insight?

To tackle this question, we recently pitched questions to Grammy-nominated producer/engineer/mixer Dana Nielsen, who boasts credits from Bob Dylan to Adele, Rihanna, Weezer, Slayer, Chic Gamine and Noah Gundersen. He’s also had a hand in multiple film soundtracks, including “Casa De Mi Padre” and the upcoming “Anchorman 2” soundtrack. Top acts in every sector of the industry are coming to producers like Nielsen, and we want to know why.

Here, as a part of our series with full-service management company GPS, we talk to Nielsen about the evolving role of the producer, the producer-artist relationship and the secret to finding the best producer for your next project.

How has the role of the producer changed in the past 20 years with the advent of the home recording studio?

I don’t think the role of the producer has changed that significantly. As a producer I try to cultivate the best possible performance from each artist, create a work environment that will stimulate creativity for the musicians and everyone involved, and keep an ear out for what sounds truly great, such as what keys and tempos are working best for the song, etc. That role, for me, is just as relevant in a commercial studio as it is in a home studio.

That said, home recording has made the production process less expensive, allowing producers and artists alike much more time and flexibility when it comes to writing, arranging, pre-production and even recording and/or mixing.

Is there a secret to finding the best producer for a specific project?

I think it’s natural to seek out someone who has produced records that you love. It probably starts there, but there are lots of talented producers, well known or not, who could be a good fit for your project, especially in a large city like Los Angeles. It’s important to get a feel for someone’s personality, workflow and strengths.

Each artist and band is unique. What I’ve found in my experience is that the best, most successful artists are, themselves, excellent producers. They’re great at crafting songs and arrangements and very savvy with their own instrument -- and sometimes several others. You can hear this in their demos. The producer at this point becomes someone who can guide them through the recording and mixing process, ensuring the best possible renditions of their songs get recorded, finding the best studios and auxiliary musicians for their budget, keeping track of session details, to do lists and, most of all, making sure that the finished record sounds and feels as good as it possibly can.

How important is the artist/producer relationship?

Very important. There needs to be a level of comfort, ease and respect among all parties. This doesn’t mean that the producer is always right. Even if you’ve hired a producer for your project and given them sole producer credit, it is still a collaborative process. Finding someone you enjoy working with -- someone who inspires you and isn’t a drag to be around -- is very important.

Do you think the DIY movement is a good thing for producers?

Well, we all love working in a world-class studio with an amazing console, well-trained staff, outboard gear for days and a mic collection that could make Frank Sinatra cry, but when that doesn’t fit the project -- for budgetary and/or stylistic reasons -- we all turn to our DIY skills. Sometimes those projects and their inherent challenges can be the most thrilling. You want to record a chamber orchestra in your living room? I can help with that! You’d like your ukulele solo recorded on cassette in a barn at sunrise? No problem! You want me to mix your Ukrainian punk record at my home studio? Nostrovia!

Digital vs. analog? What is your preference and why?

I work predominantly with Pro Tools HD and a slew of outboard analog gear during recording and mixing. For tracking, I prefer a vintage Neve or Api console with lots of EQs and compressors available. I always go into a project with a pretty clear idea of how I’d like it to sound and am a firm believer in dialing that sound in the analog realm before it goes to tape -- err …. hard drive, as the case may be. For mixing too, even when the mix is in Pro Tools, I tend to use a lot of outboard EQs, compressors and other analog processors. I’m not a fan of doing everything “in the box,” although it certainly can be -- and has been -- done.

What should an artist bring to the table before working with a producer? Ideas? Finished songs? Demos?

Bring the best of what you’ve got. Demos are fine. One of my favorite parts of my job is listening to demos. It’s like raw inspiration, and the sky is the limit! Until you have a working relationship with a producer, unfinished ideas may not be the best. Or maybe bring several demos and mostly finished songs, and if things are going well and you feel inclined, then bust out the unfinished ideas. If all of your ideas are unfinished, you may be looking for a co-writer. That’s OK too -- many producers are good writers as well, or can help you find one.

How important is pre-production?

How important is your budget? Hah! Studios are expensive and there are many affordable places to rehearse and prepare for a recording outside of the recording studio. A lot of the “heavy lifting” -- arrangements, tempos, keys, song selection, etc. -- can be done at a fraction of the price at a rehearsal space with your producer.

Do you think traditional albums are dying? If so, are you excited to work on more singles, EP’s and/or other types of projects?

I’m excited to work with any great music, be it a single or a boxed set. I hope albums do not fall by the wayside. I think part of the reason vinyl has made a bit of a resurgence lately is that listeners enjoy a long-form album with beautiful artwork, and hey, lyrics and credits too – wow! My iTunes is overloaded with albums, singles, EPs and the like, and I find that, for all their convenience, iTunes and Spotify can be a bit overwhelming and distracting.

I’m like a kid in a candy store. I love a great single. I do think there’s a real place for EPs, especially for emerging artists, but when I discover a new song that really grabs me, I love to seek out the album and hear the other songs. I like to hear a broader representation of where an artist was at, creatively, at that time. When the majority of those songs on there are really good, man, you can’t beat a great album.

If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about the music business or the business of making music what would you change?

Oh that’s a tough question. The business of making music is changing so much these days. It’s exciting -- and a little bit scary. But mostly exciting. I’m optimistic. There is so much great music being made every day by incredibly talented bands and solo artists. The DIY and home recording movements have made it possible for virtually anyone with a computer and a little know-how to be heard. That’s a good thing for all of us!

That said, making a record that is commercially viable and of the utmost sound quality is expensive. It takes a lifetime of hard work and dedication, like any great art. In an age when traditional record labels are taking few and fewer chances on artists -- both new, and even those who are well established -- I’m encouraged by platforms like PledgeMusic that connect bands directly to their fan base. I think my magic wand, if I had one, would keep these systems working, letting the cream rise to the top, providing the most talented and deserving artists a platform to be heard, in the studio or on stage. That is something we can all strive for and enjoy as music lovers and music makers.

Read our interview with producer Billy Bush (The Boxer Rebellion, Neon Trees, Garbage, The Naked and Famous) here.

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