The Produce Section Is Sweeter Than You Think
Musicians make music, true. Some musicians produce their own music while others leave it to someone else. In any case, there is a difference between writing the stuff and then committing it to a recording in a way that will really bowl over listeners. Great producers have insights and skills that turn even the most pedestrian songs into vibrant and vital pieces that stand the test of time. So, what is producing, exactly?
While many people are familiar with the concept of a producer as a person who puts up money to complete a project, it also goes to say that said money-person is going to have some creative input for their dollars. That's putting it bluntly, but artists don't tend to solicit the aid of producers without hoping that they'll work some of their gifted magic upon the production. Sure, there have been stories of ill-matched bands and producers (Todd Rundgren and Sparks; The B-52's and David Byrne spring to mind) but sometimes you just get a match made in heaven (Brian Eno and U2, Nile Rogers and David Bowie.) A producer typically has recording studio skills, knowledge of processes and effects, arrangements and dynamics, market and intent, mood and atmosphere, from which to draw. The producer can sit back and let the band go wild or they can step in and make suggestions or be even more hands-on during the recording process. There may be a producer in the band, but even they will respectfully open their hearts and minds to a more seasoned veteran in the studio.
When tracking Mohave's cool blue trickling at David Schweizer's Richter Records Studio in Orlando back in 2004 or so, I had an idea of how the project should flow and sound, but David had some fabulous ideas that we used and it resulted in tracks that were more fully-formed and engaging. When I work with artists, like Wendy Songe or Gabe Mariscal or Ben Dehart, my job as a producer is to get inside of their heads and find what they're looking to achieve, then use the tools at my disposal to make it happen. I also make suggestions here and there, which can be taken or left because, ultimately, it's about what the artist wants, even if they're misguided. Sometimes, techniques from the stage don't work in the studio, so you offer tips on the production and performance to get the most out of our session. Been on both sides of that chasm, and I started producing when I was 19 years old. To listen to some of those old tapes (yep, recorded on 1/8" cassettes!) is a blast.
I've been in the studio working on an album called The Beauty and the Terror and have been doing a lot of studying and listening to reference material. This is when you listen to tracks that have a similar feel to what you hope to accomplish; you're hearing the kick drum sound, how the vocals and guitars are mic'd, how reverb is used to create atmosphere and detecting the use of compression, among other things. Recording and mixing is tremendous fun, if you're at the faders, and it can be downright mind-dulling for anyone else not involved because you're listening to tunes ad infinitum, so even the cats are like, "blow this" but you've got to live in the music, soak in it, take a break from it and go at it again. Especially in a project studio where you are the only musician, doing multiple overdubs to create a "full-band" sound.
The first tune out of this project, "Just Like You", started as a piano demo and ended up as a pop-rock song that had elements which were a little bit familiar to me. A bit of Paul McCartney-esque bass on the final verse, a T-Bone Burnett dry touch to the drums, a Peter Gabriel approach to stacking vocal harmonies. Every song I listen to is a master-class in do's and don'ts; I'm really looking to push the envelope with this new project.
Went to Epcot right before I left for this week's gigs and saw the purposefully-monikered The Orchestra Featuring Former Members of ELO. There was a whole shit-storm about the name, usage of, and Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynne which often happens after classic rock bands split and form different touring ensembles, but seeing the Lynne-less act still showcased his incredible songwriting and production mastery. That these guys pulled this stuff off live is pretty phenomenal as well. It led me to dig into Lynne's history a bit and I turned up some mighty surprising stuff, man. Like, he produced Cloud Nine for George Harrison, which is a freaking amazing album. He also co-wrote "When We Was Fab", which has got to be the best non-Beatle song by a Beatle ever.
Digging deep into some of my favorite productions, I posted a few on Facebook and wanted to share some of them here. These are some of the most amazing productions across many genres of music. When I hear them, I hear the music and the heart of the artist, first and foremost. But, then, I also hear the sticky fingers of the producer in there, calling some shots and making real studio magic. Enjoy this little trip - and I hope you'll check out The Beauty and the Terror as it takes shape this spring and summer - demos, work tracks and final versions all available on Patreon!
These guys have been self-producing their own music for years and it's just stunning what they can create with just themselves and a room full of equipment. With Russell Mael providing voice and his brother Ron providing songwriting, instrumentation and production, they are a force to be reckoned with and have inspired everyone from Queen to Erasure to U2 to Depeche Mode!
Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley produced Flood for They Might Be Giants and it still stands as their most incredible-sounding release to date.
Quite simply one of the most stunning, and platinum-selling, records ever. Produced by Daniel Lanois. Peter Gabriel is quite a producer himself - but even he knows when to pass the (red, red) reins to someone else.
My favorite producer in the world, T-Bone Burnett, puts his touch on ex-wife Sam Phillips' classisc "I Can't Stop Crying."
Jeff Lynne of The Electric Light Orchestra has gone on record as saying he's more comfortable in the studio than on stage. Besides his luminous and lush work with ELO, he's produced Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and The Beatles.
Though not "technically" a producer on this track, veteran producer Nile Rogers took command of this session that found everyone else in the taking his lead. Sassy, sexy and sizzling.