We all have our heroes in life. For some of you it’s sports, comedians, actors, scientists, etc. For some inexplicable reason, record producers are my heroes. Ever since I was really small – like 8 or 9 years old – the “sound” of songs has always been magical to me. I would listen to music and be essentially ignoring the lyrics, ignoring the parts, ignoring what the song was about – and be listening to the “sound” of it. Years later I realized that it was production that I was listening to. So many infinite variables, and yet somehow somebody would cook up a way to communicate the song that would seem so perfect, or perfectly timed for the era in which it was happening.
There are obvious examples to throw around here – there are whole books written about it! All that great 60’s pop music was production heavy (Zombies, Beatles, etc etc) – the 70’s were just an explosion of varieties – think about what Dancing Queen by Abba sounds like, or Fleetwood Mac, or the Bee Gees – not to mention all the rawness that happened between Dylan records and Sex Pistols records (too many different avenues to get into this more, but I’d love to!) – and then in the 1980’s record production was redefined by guys like Nile Rodgers, Prince, Daniel Lanois – and so many more. Drum machines and synthesizers and atmospherics and live bands and digital sounds all combined in a myriad of ways to make an eternity of new combinations and sounds.
It’s really a wonderland, record production. You can take a song that has simple parts and simple chords and by using a bag of tricks employing knowledge of music and rhythm and sound, you can make that song sound like a symphony. Or you can keep it simple. It’s all about choices. And a producer’s job is to sit with an artist and make these choices, and in a way, you really only get one chance with a song. You’re affixing a sound and style to a piece of music that will forever define it, even if you never release it.
I’ve been blessed. I’ve gotten to sit in a room with some amazing producers and learn from them. These moments have shown me my true path, sitting next to a Master and communicating ideas and realizing my brain is wired in the same way. The role of a producer can be incredibly important – and sometimes totally unnecessary! Prince is a good example – or Jimmy Page. Or Nile Rodgers. These guys produced themselves. Meaning they didn’t need anyone to make any choices for them. What I would give to back in time and sit and watch Prince write and record an album like 1999! What gear, what rooms, what microphones. Probably none of it was that unusual, and my guess is (as I do) his workflow was just brutally fast and efficient. Get inspired, get it down, do it right, play it well. Know what’s going to to work and then execute it- know your gear, know your talents. I play some pretty mean bass guitar, but sometimes I get to work with a “real” bass player who can play anything I can hum. I know when to get that guy, and then to just play one take myself and call it done. I know when to play something in one take and let it be raw. I also know when to take 15 minutes and chop it all up and edit and sprinkle it across my song. Some of the best, most raunchy, “loose” rock and roll is actually tightly metronomed, pristinely recorded, badd ass performances ( AC/DC comes to mind, and Nirvana’s Nevermind). The music of AC/DC is so tight and perfect, it’s a golden platter for the singer to wail over – he’s the juicy cheeseburger sitting on the plate. But those guys produced their music with clarity and purpose. Purpose to kick ass!
There’s an interesting balance between speed and choices when it comes to recording. This is why I like my studio set up. It’s a digital-based set up, I record into ProTools – but i have a gazillion instruments and keyboards. I like to be able to do anything I want, quickly. French horns, African shakers, accordions, miniature theremins, violins, glockenspiel, tight DI Paul McCartney bass, big sounding electric guitars. I like to be able to mock up multiple versions of a song quickly. It’s fun and mind-opening. Here’s one with no drums. Here’s with huge drums. Here’s acoustic with violins, here’s with a breakbeat. This is what the Beatles did back in the day, except it took longer. Creating a song like Strawberry Fields Forever meant doing tons of takes, splicing them together, letting happy accidents stay, getting musicians in when someone had a whim to get one. Now we can have that same level of experimentation but QUICKLY (which means it’s affordable, because most people aren’t able to book Abbey Road on an on-going basis and work at their own pace!) And I excel at moving fast – changing on a dime – and keeping it organized. Have a song on piano and want to get 3 different versions of it? If you know the song well, we’ll do that in a day. Probably less. That could be a punk-piano version, an electro version, a jug band version. Picking one, perfecting it, making it everything that can be, that might take another day. Depends. I have a microphone 12 inches from me at all times. Shake a shaker, play a mandolin. Play a drum machine. Play a snare drum. I also keep a turntable and a CDJ right on hand. I’ll record your voice and play it back on a CDJ using crazy effects and panning craziness and things that the Beatles would have flipped for if they had them back in the day. There are no rules, except of course the ultimate rule of rock ’n roll: have a good time, all the time.
I love vintage gear and the whole Jack White approach. I love recording to analog tape. I’ve done it many times. If an artist comes in and says “we are a live band, and we want to record live, all analog, to tape, no digital, no computer”, then great. Let’s do it! But I can’t force everyone to follow that path. It’s like telling a poet they can’t use a computer to write their poetry on, that they have to use a pre-war Royal typewriter. The means of making the art is really not that important, it’s the end result. I also love taking an artist out to the country, where the phones don’t work and there’s nothing to do but make music. I have had life changing experiences making music this way. And nowadays we can do 5 days of that, and then finish in a small room. It keeps the costs relevant to the realities of the world and music business today. I think everyone who makes music should afford themselves the opportunities to explore this stuff. You never, ever regret it.
Record producers manage all this stuff. They recognize what the artist wants. They recognize their age, their astrology, their strengths, their timing, their place in the world. They gently help push an artist into being a more amplified, stronger version of themselves. It’s very similar to hiring a cool photographer to take your picture. They make you look great, by finding your good side, making you feel natural, making little suggestions – here, hold this flower or hand grenade or whatever suits your style. Suddenly the picture has more weight, more authenticity.
This is what it is. This is why these guys are my heroes, and why I do what I do.