Short answer: it depends.
Long answer: When my band recorded their first 'real' album in the 90s, we had been in studios before, and some of them were actually pretty decent. We recorded on 1 or 2 inch analog tape most of the time, as usable digital recording formats were just starting to emerge. Our band was a three piece and we approached everything in a very democratic way. We all contributed to the songwriting, shared the cost of rehearsal rental space, split recording expenses, and shared any profits equally. Each time we went in the studio to do a demo we worked with an engineer but functioned ourselves as the final arbiters of how things were going to sound. It was usually me who wound up staying late and listening to the mixes, asking questions and driving the engineer crazy in pursuit of a certain sound for our band.
As a result, we kind of knew what we were doing, so we thought, when it was time to record our first real, full-length album. We decided to go to Houston and record at Rivendell Recorders because of a contact we had there. In setting up our session, the engineer, Ryan, asked us if we wanted to work with a producer, specifically a friend of his that we knew of as well. I think I basically asked, "what does a producer do?"
I found out over the course of that recording, and it forever changed my understanding about the importance of a good producer in making music.
We all see production credits on the back of CDs. Well, we used to when people actually bought CDs. And we all know people in the music industry who introduce themselves as a producer, which of course makes me immediately cringe and become suspicious. But the fact is, a good producer can take your music to another level and is worth the expense as much as other costs in recording.
So what does a producer do?
Using the band analogy: you and your bandmates play your instruments; the producer plays the studio, which has a dramatic effect on how your recording sounds. In short, much like a film production, a producer directs the recording experience so that the best possible version of your song is achieved. Yes, I mean version, because when you take your music into a studio…in fact any time you involve anyone else in your music, you have to be willing to let go of it somewhat and see what it becomes, and how it changes, by virtue of other people entering into that relationship. The same is true with the studio. You can take the exact same song, using the exact same musicians, and go to four different studios and the result will be four different songs. This happens in part because humans are not robots, but mainly because of the choices that are made as to how to record the song, and what choices are made is often the role of the producer. Here is just a short list of some of those choices:
Song arranging – some people write their music in such a way that even the finest and most minute details are decided ahead of time before they walk into a studio. They leave nothing to chance, are inflexible in their vision, and know exactly what type of reverb trail they want on the final note. These people are rare, and, arguably, kind of difficult to work with. For everyone else, the song is in some sort of evolutionary process when they are ready to record even if they are settled on an arrangement. A good producer will be involved in this songwriting process and make helpful and aesthetically beneficial suggestions as to how the song is to be put together. Make the bridge one measure longer, have the drums intro the song, cut the vocal harmony on the last verse, speed the song up 4 bpm, change the lyric here so as to be easier to sing, be understood, alter the melody of the chorus so that it 'pops' more, etc. Sometimes producers help write the song in the first place. Regardless, these are all examples of how a producer might be helpful in the songwriting process.
Choosing a studio – a lot of people choose a studio based upon the price, how close it is, or whether they know someone who works there or who has recorded there. These are not bad reasons. However, a good producer can steer you in the direction of the right studio in light of these concerns as well as some that you probably have never thought of. Given the sound of your music and your artistic goals, do you need to go to a studio that is analog or digital, or both? Does the engineer at your friend's studio know your type of music well, and is he or she experienced at recording this type of music? Is a certain studio the best place for tracking or does it excel at mixing, or both? Does a certain studio have the proper vocal mic for your voice? Is a particular studio known for working with clients according to their budget? Does this studio have good session musicians they can recommend? Do you know the capabilities of a certain studio/engineer in terms of turning out really good recordings? A good producer can speak to all of these.
Making the most of the studio – this is related to the previous point, but even if you are decided on a studio before you enlist a producer, it's still an asset of said good producer. A good producer can walk into just about any studio and identify what setup is going to work best for your band and your type of music: are you going to track everything live, is there going to be 58 overdubs of the bridge harmony, do we want to use that old SVT head in the corner for the bass tone, would that Leslie cabinet be just right for that one song, how should we utilize that RCA 44 sitting in the isolation booth, is this an API or a Neve type vibe that we want, what order should we track the songs to stay on schedule/budget, what instruments/vocals should go down next so that no one's time is wasted? Is this studio a place we want to camp out all day or is it better suited for a few hours at a time?
Choosing musicians – for those of you who play in a fixed personnel band, you can skip to the next point. But for a lot of songwriters, it is important and necessary to hire or enlist the services of other musicians for a recording. This is where a producer can be crucially important. A good producer can quickly track down the right session musicians that are going to make your project sound the best. This is not simply a function of the skill of individual musicians or how many degrees in music they have. A lot of extraordinarily gifted musicians don't necessarily sound that great in certain settings or in certain styles. Some people kill it in the studio but don't come off as great live; some people are great live musicians but don't thrive in the studio. Some musicians sound amazing on R&B or jazz sessions, but don't seem to fit when it comes to rock or country. A good producer will hire the right people to help you achieve the sound that you have in your head, or better.
Leading the engineer – most musicians, when it comes to their music, live in the world of the aesthetic and spend their time focused on the emotional impact of their music. They rarely get excited about frequency response graphs for condenser microphones or impedance levels on preamps. Both are extremely important, though, when it comes to making a good recording, and a good producer can speak both languages: Artist and Engineer. The fact is that sometimes engineers don't really understand what the artist wants and vice versa, so a good producer can often serve as a sort of translator between the two so that both are on the same page. A good producer will therefore lead the engineer down the same path as the band, maximizing cooperation and minimizing conflict or misunderstandings.
Getting the best out of you – "Singing in the studio is 90% mental." It's a mathematical formula that I operate on for every session. The same is also true, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, when it comes to playing an instrument. What I mean is this, especially when it comes to singing: you don't walk into the studio and magically become able to sing. You can either sing, or you can't, and the studio is not going to change that, it's just going to reveal what is really there. That being said, if you can sing, you want to make sure that the studio does not inhibit your ability for some reason. It's somewhat of a high pressure environment: you have people staring at you, the red light is on, you are spending money, etc, and it can be easy to become nervous or self-conscious such that you don't perform your best. This is another context where the producer can play a crucial role. A good producer will always work with you and manage the studio environment so that you are able to perform to your very best ability. Somewhat like a coach (or a midwife) he or she will help you focus, relax, believe in yourself, and dig deep to get the best possible delivery of your performance (pun intended).
Keeping track of the big picture – when you are recording an entire album, there are a lot of details to keep track of and it is easy to overlook these details when you are the one performing. It's very helpful to have a producer who is making sure that everything gets recorded: did we do the tambourine on the chorus? do all the songs have solos that need them? did so and so do their harmony for all the songs we wanted? Also, the producer can make the subjective decision of whether you are spending too little or too much time on a particular aspect of the recording. Meaning, it may be important to redo the guitar solo because it's such a key part of the song if the first couple of takes don't do it for you. Conversely it may be time to move on from trying to tune that snare drum because we are starting to get bogged down and risk going over budget. Also, a good producer constantly pulls back from the details to make sure that the entire project is sounding like what the band intended. He or she will know if that drum sound is going to sound good throughout the album, or if that vocal mic is going to work on most of the songs given the strengths and weaknesses of your voice.
Can't a good engineer take the place of a producer?
Yes and no. Well, not really. A good engineer can do some of these things, like making sure that you pair the right equipment with your music, putting you in touch with good session musicians, and even getting the best out of you and your band. It does happen that good producers engineer and good engineers produce. But, especially for larger projects, the engineer is often too preoccupied with the many technical details of the recording to devote much mental energy to the bigger picture, as well as the subjective aspects. This is why you often find a good producer working regularly with their preferred engineer because they have established the dynamics of their relationship and each knows his or her respective roles.
All in all, whether you should enlist a producer is entirely up to you. Many brilliant recordings have been done without a producer, or with the band functioning as producer. And, of course, hiring a producer costs money, as does everything else that adds value to your recording.
But here I have tried to list some of the reasons why seeking out a producer might be a good idea. If you can't afford one, you might at least research the studio that you are considering to find out if the engineer there has any producing experience. If they do, you might benefit from their knowledge and talent in this area as you negotiate a price for your session. Regardless, I hope these observations help you make good choices, and serve you well as you embark upon your next recording experience!