What Does a Producer Do? Jay Ruston (Anthrax, Stone Sour) Explains
So the whole band thing didn’t work out for you. Now what? You’ve still got your skills as a musician, and you still have your drive and your hunger and even if you no longer have the ambition to become a successful artist, there’s an entire ecosystem that exists just to get those artists on record, onstage and in front of audiences — and you can be part of it.
There are hundreds of jobs that exist within the music industry and the most challenging hurdle can be figuring out where you belong finding a point of entry. For those who are more technically minded and still want to work in the creative realm of making music, production is an attractive role.
But what exactly does a producer do? There’s a lot more to it than some knob-twiddling, sliding a few faders and telling someone, “Do it again.” A producer is the guiding force throughout the recording process, tasked with focusing on the final product, which allows each musician to concentrate on the nuances of their craft. Setting the tone for the record, the producer can galvanize a band and serve as an additional member of sorts, aiding in songwriting and ensuring the instrumentation and vocal work all serve the greater good of the songs.
There are a number of producers in metal who have become synonomous with the actst that they've frequently worked with: Martin Birch with Iron Maiden, Deep Purple and Dio-era Black Sabbath, Bob Rock with Metallica, Terry Date with Pantera, Tom Allom with Judas Priest, Bob Ezrin with the Alice Cooper group, Rick Rubin with Slayer. While these enduring relationships netted some of heavy music's best albums, even first-time collaborations with producers can reenergize a band's sound and writing process or help achieve liftoff during the more formative years.
To help you learn a bit more about what a producer does, we spoke with Jay Ruston, who has been at the helm of recent works from Anthrax, Stone Sour, Steel Panther, Avatar, Uriah Heep and more.
How did you first get involved in music production?
I got involved in production in the early '90s. I’m from Canada and I grew up about 20 minutes outside of Detroit on the Canadian side of the border. Growing up, Detroit had great radio so I was always really into music.
I went to college in a city called London, Ontario because they had one of the only recording programs in the country at that point. The production teacher was Jack Richardson who produced the Guess Who, Alice Cooper, Bob Seger and all these classic acts. His son, Garth Richardson produced Rage Against The Machine, Mudvayne and all kinds of other stuff.
I ended up moving to Ottawa and working with this producer Leslie Howe, who had discovered Alanis Morissette when she was 16. In 2003 I got the opportunity to move to LA and work at a studio here, and eventually, that morphed into building my own studio in 2005 and my first few years in L.A. was all pop music, cutting vocals for 10 hours a day.
Then I ended up connecting with the Steel Panther guys. It was nice to get back into the creative side of things again in the rock world and I've kind of stayed there ever since.
Producers all have different skill sets and specialties, wearing numerous hats. What are the three main roles a producer plays?
I produce, I engineer and I mix and those three jobs are very different. Now you add songwriting to that, programming, playing - there's producers that do six or seven jobs. The more you can do as a producer these days, the more valuable you're going to be. I'm not a songwriter and that limits a lot of the artists I work with because some of them need songwriter or want songwriting.
What's the first thing you do with a band before you begin recording?
I want to know what their direction is, why they come to me. Someone will say, oh I love the sound on this Anthrax record can you make a record sounding like that? I'm like, well, you can but you're not Anthrax. It sounds like that because they're them. That's the challenge, really, find out exactly what they want and why are they asking me to get it, and can I do that for them? I want to have the same vision. Which is why I only produce two or three records a year and then most of my other time is spent mixing.
What would you define your production sound and style as?
I try to do a modern sound mixed with the classic records that I grew up with. I love Iron Maiden; Martin Burch is one of my favorite producers on the planet. I love some of the Bob Rock stuff. Even into the more pop and rock world — I listen to a lot of music and I want to take all of those influences and output something that I think has natural but modern sounds.
I use drum samples, I use tempers for guitars [edit: temper tuning is slightly imperfect tuning] and things like that, but I also use as much as live drums as possible if not totally live depending on who the drummer is and the band. I love to record live and you still can’t beat that in my opinion.
I don’t fix things, I don’t chop things up into a million pieces; that’s just never been my thing. So, I would avoid a band that would want that sound. I don’t find that part of the process fun at all — to robotically curate something that sounds great, when I can just have them play it a few more times and it sounds great.
How do you tell an artist when a song, riff or lyric is bad? Is it different with veteran guys like Corey Taylor and Scott Ian compared to a younger group?
You’d think it’s difficult, but it’s not. They have you there for a reason. Scott and Corey are two people who I have a close working relationship with and we’re friends and they have me there because they want to know what I think. They might not agree with me and that’s fine. If Corey says, "No, I like it," I’m not going to fight him unless I think that it just really isn’t good.
It’s tough with a younger band because they probably are very into what they’re doing in their sound and what they’re going after. Sometimes they just don’t know the process quite yet. I tell them to trust the process.
With a band, the guitarist is laying down guitar tracks, they’re focused on what they’re doing in the moment, whereas maybe you're looking at something that's a little more big picture.
Correct, and that happens a lot as well. They'll be playing a specific part and I'll say - well the bass and the drums are doing this, who should change? Which is another reason I record albums a little differently. I don't just do five days of drums, five days of bass, a week of guitar and then a month of vocals. I prefer to do one song at a time. Meaning, we get up in the morning, we start tracking and by the end of the day we have a song almost finished.
At least you have the sketch of the song so if something is not happening, the drummer can jump back there and fix a drum fill or the bass player can drop back in and change a bass note if he and the guitar aren't gelling. You avoid a lot of missing parts and playing wrong things, especially with technical music — something a little more progressive or metal.
It doesn't really work for a band like Anthrax because they all live in different cities and sometimes I only get them one at a time, but I can get Scott, Frank, and Charlie in a room together because they're the core music writers.
We did it with Stone Sour; it worked. They loved that process. Almost every time I made a record that way, I finished ahead of schedule. I did it with Avatar last August; we did their whole record in two weeks and then I just did it in England with Uriah Heep in two-and-a-half weeks instead of five. For some reason when you attack it one song at a time it helps the team. If I had five days of guitar [sessions], I can't imagine the poor guitarist sitting there literally for eight hours straight having to play, play, play.
In Some Kind of Monster, Bob Rock diffused a lot of arguments between the members of Metallica, trying to keep the band on track. Is this something that you've had to do often — navigate some tricky situations where you are trying to keep everything going?
Absolutely, you know, a lot of producer's jobs can be psychiatrists, therapists, whatever you want to call it, and every single band I've ever worked with has had issues when it comes to creativity. A lot of times at the end of a record certain members will come to me and say, '"ook I really appreciate you like being that voice that kind of helps us just get along and get through that process." So, yeah, therapists, you can add that to the list!
When you're going through the song and you begin to identify a potential radio hit, is there anything you do — maybe polish it up a little more and make it more radio ready? Or is it, "This is the finished product. If there's something on there for radio, then cool."
Sometimes I'm in that position where we have a group of songs and a couple really stand out. It certainly happened with Stone Sour with "Song #3." From the moment I heard that demo I just thought, "Wow, that chorus is a smash." It spent five weeks at No. 1.
But all the little intricate things and the little fun things like... we used reverse pianos, we used an eight-string bass… that was stuff we came up with on the spot. When you have a really good song and everyone is feeling it, the ideas just start coming from everybody because you're not trying to fix something that's broken. You're just trying to enhance.
What's been your biggest mistake in the studio?
When I was younger, overdoing things. I discovered it much later that less truly is more if you have a great player with great gear and a great song.
As an engineer under a producer, I think the best thing you can do is just keep your mouth shut. An engineer is not there to give the artist advice. It's hard for somebody outside to come in and hear what you're working on and just not voice their opinion when the artist could be in a really fragile state. A lot of artists can be perfectionists and Corey is one of those. He's harder on himself than I could ever be.
We saw two huge artists go with pop producers last year: the Foo Fighters with Greg Kurstin and Queens of the Stone Age with Mark Ronson. Is it threatening to see two big potential clients go to pop producers and are you worried that this is going to signal a trend that's coming in rock?
I'm not worried at all. I think diversity in a producer's background is a really good thing. Vocal production is probably the biggest thing — you're not going to program keyboards and drum beats for Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age, so what else can you bring to it? Songwriting and vocal production, and Dave Grohl or Josh [Homme] were probably looking for just a pop hit song sensibility approach, and when you made as many records as those guys had with as many different rock producers as they have, doing something a little different was good for their creativity.
What do you feel is the most perfectly produced metal album?
Ooh, that is a loaded question. Yeah, I mean, I've got, my five or six favorite metal records start from the first couple Black Sabbath records to The Number of the Beast to Master of Puppets to the first two or three Pantera records [starting with Cowboys From Hell] to the 'Black Album.' A couple of the Mastodon records I think are really well produced.
There's no perfect metal record. At the time, in 1991, the 'Black Album' was pretty much perfect. It sounded amazing. The songs were great. It broke a huge barrier for production, and I give Bob Rock a lot of credit for that. Certainly, that was a massive moment.
What Terry Date did with Pantera, what Bob Rock did with Metallica, and what Martin Birch did with Iron Maiden, those are all huge moments because they sort of defined production. Even what Martin Birch did with the Dio version of Sabbath, like those records sound super thick and I don't think there was a bottom end like that before that.
It's really hard to just pick one, but yeah, I think it's a fairly obvious answer that those five or six records are my favorite, but that's why those are probably the top five or six metal records of all time.
What advice would you have for a kid who wants to get into production?
Probably to understand that less is more because it's different now. When I was learning on tape, you had to play great — there was no other way around it. You could cut tape, and we could splice it together. That was a very difficult process that I don't miss, but you could do it. You could fix things and you could pitch a vocal here and there, like maybe a word or a line, but nothing like what you can do now.
Now you can make everything perfect, but my advice would be, don't do that. Just strive for the best performance as close as you can, and if you need to do a little tweaking or fixing, sure, we all do that, but it's not necessary. If you're going to spend seven, eight hours chopping drums and chopping vocals and fixing guitars, I'd rather them just spend that time making the sound better because I think that that's going to give it the longevity, not the perfect chopped up production.
Convince a band to spend that time on their craft. If you're looking at why did it take the Eagles a year to make a record? Because they were so hard on themselves as songwriters, so yeah, that's why they sold more records than anybody else. They just waited until the songs were perfect and then they added great production on top of that. Metallica can take as long as they want, and they came back and made a great new record. The most important thing is spending the time to get the songs right.
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