There is a very subtle dividing line between keyboard players and programmers.
Let's say that a keyboard player specialises in tinkling the keys and may tweak the odd sound here and there if he feels inclined, whereas a programmer is hired for his collection of instruments, sounds and samples, and is expect to be able to produce exactly the right sound for the occasion, and maybe do a bit of playing on the side.
As a budding producer, perhaps you have a MIDI setup and are capable of programming yourself, as many established producers are. But you will be aware that programming takes a lot of mental energy and patience.
Hiring a programmer to do something that perhaps you could have expended valuable energy on yourself will allow you to concentrate fully on the music, which is exactly what a producer needs to do.
The programmer will also have a fantastic memory for sounds, and when you need a string sound that is just so, the programmer will be able to call up a few patches and demonstrate them to you so that you can choose the best.
Equipment-wise, what should you expect a programmer to bring to the session?
Having seen top programmers in action, I can say that you should be expecting three or four keyboards, a couple of racks full of modules, a powerful computer equipped with a pair of large monitors running an audio sequencer and Digidesign Pro Tools, and all the interfaces disks, cables, backup devices etc that are necessary to make it all work.
The time spent setting up such a system is considerable, as is the time spent after each day's work logging all the sounds and making sure that they can be recalled the next day, or at any later time, if necessary.
It is quite common for a producer to regard a programmer as a kind of producer's assistant. The producer will give the programmer an idea of what he wants, then go away for an hour or two and leave the programmer alone with the equipment to see what he can come up with.
This is where you really need to be working with people who understand your requirements and who you can trust to come up with something that is likely to suit your taste.
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