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It's become more and more common for “producer” to be a catch-all term for engineer, programmer, composer, mix engineer — the list goes on. There are so many different skills and roles that fall into our job description now, and at times it can be difficult to know where to focus our energy in terms of development. Many producers get lost in the weeds of technical ability, overlooking one of the most important parts of becoming a successful producer: developing a unique sound.
A lot of what we call taste could be considered subjective, but I do believe there's such thing as good taste and bad taste. I find that producers who have good taste — assuming they have an understanding of the nuances of the genre(s) they're working in — typically have good taste across many different styles and situations. They know what the song needs and just how much to dress it up.
If you really think about it, once you reach a certain level of technical proficiency, the defining difference between two producers is their taste. It's arguably the biggest factor in your sound.
I think that to some extent, taste is a muscle that you need to work and develop. Listen to lots of music critically and ask yourself questions: what's exciting about this track? Why is it exciting? What sonic palette is the artist using? (Instruments, sounds, colour, etc.) Why is that effective? What's the focus?
I think the key here is to ask a lot of questions. I find that specifically, the “why” questions can really strengthen your ears. Also, if something doesn't work, ask yourself why! Sometimes you can learn just as much from critically listening to what you don't like and trying to really figure out why you don't like it.
The amount of times I've started a track with a sound or part that I thought “sounds okay” and then struggled to finish it or to really make it into something is crazy. Or there's the number of times I've reworked one of those tracks only to find myself boxed-in to something that just isn't working. But when I've started a song with a part or sound or sample that I've felt was exciting from the get-go, I find that the process of finishing is so much smoother and 9 times out of 10 the end result is so much stronger. Taking the time to dig for an exciting idea before moving forward has been huge for me. But don't overthink it! If it feels exciting, it is.
We all have our strengths and weaknesses. I think it's important to know what they are and also to know what is worth improving and what is worth outsourcing. If I tried to improve all of my weak spots until I was okay at everything, I'd never be truly great at anything. I believe it's much more worthwhile to put that energy into growing your strengths, and then build a team of people that can fill in your weaknesses
For example, I'm not a singer. In fact, I'm a very bad singer. If I was working on a song that needed a vocal, I could spend the next 5 years of my life grinding away to maybe get a decent performance. Alternatively, I could call up a great singer, get that vocal sounding great, and spend those 5 years improving my strengths.
If you spend time actively developing your taste across different genres, following your gut, and focusing on your strengths, you'll quickly find yourself developing a sound that is unique to you. There are thousands of producers out there, and the main factor in you getting the call over any of them is how distinctive and tasteful your work is, not how meticulously you can program a drum track or how quickly you can engineer a vocal.