Opinion: AI won’t replace music producers anytime soon — but many need to adapt

The CTO of Masterchannel, Simon Hestermann, argues that AI will categorically become part of music production — and that it’s time to embrace it.

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Producer in the studio, photo by standret via Getty Images

Image: standret via Getty Images

Simon Hestermann is the co-founder and CTO of Masterchannel, a company offering AI mastering services.

The music industry is on the brink of an AI transformation. Despite this, AI is mostly seen as a ‘nice-to-have’, optional tool for artists and producers, or an existential threat that requires heavy regulation. The reality is that AI represents a paradigm shift that will revolutionize how the industry operates by taking over myriad human tasks. It is not an existential threat to human-made music, but it will require profound adaptation from producers to remain successful.

By embracing this shift instead of shying away from it, producers can leverage the huge creative and strategic upsides available with the implementation of AI. Producers can save time, create more tracks, and explore more musical variety than otherwise possible.

Drawing from my experience as a mastering engineer and computer scientist, I recognized years ago that technology was poised to bridge the final gaps in mastering and music production. Confronted with this prospect at the close of 2019, I made a conscious choice: if AI was going to supplant my role, I would ensure it did it well.

With AI’s rise, producers face a critical juncture but they have the power to chart an encouraging trajectory. Not only can producers use AI to improve efficiency, but also to enhance their creativity.

Masterchannel Simon Hesterman
Masterchannel’s Simon Hestermann

The future of music production

AI will automate many established processes in music production, providing producers with abundant opportunities to redefine their roles. Traditionally, being a ‘skilled’ producer meant mastering the art of arranging the instrumentals and vocals of a song, taking a song from an idea to a polished product.

Today, AI models have started to perform all those steps convincingly, and producers need to take on much more of a conductor role integrating those models into their workflow. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t know their craft, but it does mean that performing their craft alone no longer gives them a competitive advantage over AI. The modern producer’s focus will be on orchestrating and harmonizing the AI technology at their disposal to create music that resonates with audiences. This requires producers to develop a solid understanding of AI technology.

As a mastering engineer myself, I’ve witnessed how AI has already transformed the way my fellow artists and producers work. A prime example is an artist friend who tours extensively, but who also produces music in the studio between tours. To streamline this process, they employed a voice clone tool to re-record parts of their tracks that needed improvement. Not only did this expedite their creative process, but it also reduced their hours of studio time, giving them the flexibility to focus on writing, performing, and taking rest.

The pivot to AI is already happening in the visual arts space, and these artists are being celebrated for their innovation. Take Refik Anadol’s AI-generated living paintings, for example. In these artworks, credit goes to the artist for the composition, not the execution.

However, the same attitude is not so prevalent among music creators, apart from some notable exceptions, such as Grimesfuturist approach to AI.

If producers want to remain relevant, they need to reevaluate where their value lies. The producers that are truly going to stand out are the ones that embrace new technologies ahead of everyone else. That way, they can become the source of knowledge of music tech production for their peers and stay relevant in discussions regarding the future development of AI tools.

Producer working on music, photo by M Stock via Getty Images
Image: M Stock via Getty Images

Embracing market pressures

The ongoing debate about AI in music production tends to be polarized, which potentially oversimplifies the issue.

On one hand, there is a prevalent fear among artists about AI’s impact: a recent survey indicates that 73 per cent of music producers are concerned that AI may replace them, with another 30 per cent worried that AI could undermine creativity and originality. Others believe that AI is just a tool intended to augment the creative process. Indeed, 53 per cent of artists hesitate to disclose their use of AI, suggesting a stigma associated with its use.

However, the reality is more nuanced. A middle ground is emerging, led by a new generation of producers who skillfully integrate AI with human creativity, from simple things like sampling in the case of Deadmau5, all the way to vocal generation in the case of David Guetta. The bottom line is that producers need to challenge their preconceived notions about AI because those who master its potential will undeniably shape the future trajectory of the music industry.

Producer working on music in a studio, photo by Drablenkov via Getty Images
Image: Drablenkov via Getty Images

Artists tend to look for producers who can integrate cutting-edge technologies into their production process. My expectation is that artists will soon expect AI integration to be as standard a component of a producer’s toolkit as knowing the ins and outs of a DAW. It’s no surprise that DAW-makers themselves have therefore started betting on that development, too.

Producers must also consider what they believe constitutes the intrinsic value of their work. The resonance of music with audiences is predicated on the artists’ narratives, and the ability to evoke human emotion. Therefore, automating routine processes will free up resources and time to cultivate artists’ distinctive brands and personas, aspects of artistry where AI cannot readily compete. This strategic use of technology in music production echoes historic shifts in other creative industries, such as the advent of filmmaking technology on storytelling.

The challenge and opportunity lie in harnessing AI to enhance the art of music production, potentially reshaping the music industry as fundamentally as cinema did for storytelling.

Producer working on music at home, photo by Kosamtu via Getty Images
Image: Kosamtu via Getty Images

Harmonizing AI with Music Production

Finding harmony between technological innovation and the human touch is the path forward.

I believe there are huge upsides to this new era of music production. Acknowledging and embracing it will not only prepare us for the change in the industry, but also position us to navigate the future of the industry. In this new era of music production, an artist’s skill in mastering and shaping AI-powered music technology is pivotal, positioning them as a source of expertise and innovation.

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