Engineer vs Producer: What's The Difference?

Music producers and sound engineers are an integral part of the music business landscape. The fact is, if you are a recording musician or band, you will need to engage with at least one of these services in your lifetime. But what actually is the difference between a producer and an engineer and how do you know which service or combination of services is right for you? To help clear up the confusion surrounding this topic, I’m here to explain exactly what role each position plays in the music production process and why it matters to your band.

Let’s begin with the role of the producer. There is a lot of misconception when it comes to the role of a music producer, and understandably so.  It is a widely varied position with a number of different approaches and in a lot of cases, the music producer will also take on the role of an engineer or musician. Due to this pattern of one person wearing multiple hats, the lines between producer and engineer are often blurred.

To put it simply, a producer is someone who works with a band or artist to help them realise their creative goals and connect with their audience in the right way. They are responsible for taking your vision and ideas and transforming them into a well-rounded, high-quality product, though the methods in which they do this can vary greatly.

Usually, a producer will begin work with a band prior to the recording phase of a project to workshop and refine the songs, arrangements and concepts in preparation for the studio. Once recording begins, it is then the job of the producer to communicate with the band and engineer on decisions regarding sound, performance and vibe to ensure the material is captured in the way that will best represent the band, their music and their creative vision.

There are three main categories used to define music producers; hands-on, hands-off and ears-only. These categories operate like a sliding scale, with many producers falling somewhere in between and some even changing their approach on a per-project basis, as it relates to their client’s needs.

As the name suggests, a hands-on producer is someone who is very involved in the creative process. They will often take the lead role in a project and have a lot of control over the decisions that are being made. They may take an active role in the songwriting process which could involve anything from working on song arrangements to writing harmonies or even completely rewriting parts of a song. Most hands-on producers will also possess a certain degree of technical or theoretical knowledge as musicians or engineers and many have experience in other areas of music business too.

Hands-off producers tend to be a little less upfront about making direct changes to a band’s music. While most do offer creative input into their projects, that input is typically centred around ideation and communicating their thoughts and opinions in a way that all parties can understand and act upon. When working with a hands-off producer, the band is usually the main decision-maker in the project, with the producer acting as more of an advisor and overseer of the entire process. This kind of producer usually has at least a basic understanding of the technical aspect of recording and/or the theoretical aspect of music and songwriting which allows them to take the bands vision and provide insight into how to best achieve it.

On the contrary, an ears-only producer is someone who typically lacks the musical and technical skills of the first two options, but has a great ear for what sounds good and what an audience will respond to. Because of this, they tend to communicate their ideas in layman’s terms that everyone can understand, which can be extremely valuable for bands and engineers to get out of that technical mindset and gain a greater insight into how the audience will experience and respond to their music. A great example of an ears-only producer is Australia’s very own Molly Meldrum.

It’s important to note that, while music producers are an invaluable asset to any recording project, you do not need one in order to record and release your music. Many bands are self-produced or rely on their sound engineer to take on a secondary role as producer. However, if you don’t have a clear vision for your project, or you are unsure how to achieve the results you want, it may be worth considering hiring a producer for your record.

While producers typically focus on the creative aspect of music production, sound engineers are the technical brains of the operation. Their job is to know how to use and manipulate various sound producing and sound recording technologies to capture a performance and subsequently display that performance in a way that is both sonically pleasing and that aligns with the band’s and producer’s creative vision.

While engineers do still have creative input, it is usually geared towards the way in which sounds are created and captured as opposed to the actual musical and lyrical content of a record. Of course, this is different for those who take on both the role of sound engineer and music producer.

When it comes to engineers, there are a few different terms and specialisations that you should be aware of. Sound engineer and audio engineer are broader terms which are often used to describe an engineer at any stage of the music production process. It is particularly common among independent musicians and new bands to use a single engineer for all stages of their recording project, however, it is not unusual for bands to hire different engineers for different stages of their production.

Many engineers specialise in recording, mixing or mastering, in which their specialisation would preface the title of engineer in order to differentiate their roles. One or multiple engineers may be working on a project at any given time and knowing the role each one plays in the process really helps when it comes to budgeting for your project and choosing the right people to work with.

Unless you are a completely DIY band doing all recording, mixing and mastering yourself, a sound engineer is an essential part of the music production process and hiring one is pretty much unavoidable. If you are on a tight budget but feel like you need a producer as well, I highly suggest finding yourself an engineer that can take on both roles. Multi-skilled producers and engineers are everywhere these days so finding the right person to suit your individual needs highly important in realising your musical goals.

Words by Bianca Birt