The spin doctors
Record producers today are enjoying the kind of fame formerly known only to their celebrity clients.
In the spring of 1962, there wasn't a record company in London that deemed the Beatles worthy of a contract. The not-so-fab four didn't have any good tunes, they were scruffy, and drummer Pete Best didn't live up to the promise of his name.
It took producer George Martin, head of Parlaphone, to recognize that the latent abilities of Lennon-McCartney just needed some honing. Under the direction of the "fifth Beatle," "Please Please Me" went from a dreary ballad to a rocker that became the Beatles' first No.1. (Martin also hinted that John, Paul, and George - who now wore suits - might consider finding a new sticksman.)
The intuitive ear of a record producer is as key to hitmaking now as it was in Martin's era. But the business of producing has changed radically in recent years.
Young producers with the Midas ability to turn seemingly any song into a gold or platinum record are no longer content to be a small credit on the back of an album cover. Among others, The Matrix, Timbaland, Kanye West, and The Neptunes have started marketing themselves as a brand name. A few of them have used that name recognition to release their own records, such as The Neptunes' just released "N.E.R.D." project.
Moreover, where producers once had to rely on vast mixing desks that looked as complex as the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, they can now compose, mix, and edit on a laptop. Now, anyone with a Mac G4 can be a producer.
Given these changes behind the glass of studio control rooms, The Monitor asked four veteran producers about the status of producers in the industry and how technology is changing the process of creating music. More fundamentally, we asked them to explain just what it is that producers do, and whether hotshot computer software is all you need to make a good album.
The panel includes Arif Mardin (Norah Jones, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand); Bill Bottrell (Sheryl Crow, Shelby Lynne, Five for Fighting); Phil Ramone (Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Elton John), all of whom spoke by phone; and, corresponding via e-mail, Tim Palmer (David Bowie, Robert Plant, Ozzy Osbourne).
Monitor:How do you see your job as a producer?
Bottrell: A CD is a piece of plastic, and it's a replicated product. A producer has to take someone's performances and somebody's songs and make that piece of plastic out of it.
Palmer: I see my role as bringing out the potential of the artist to its highest and most rewarding potential. Therefore, it follows that I may be required to play a completely different role on each occasion. Sometimes I need to be a writer, sometimes an arranger, sometimes very little but help capture a great performance.
Mardin: It's a lot like being a movie director, except that you also manage the budget and studio time. You also find songs and take care of licensing of songs.
Ramone: It's so helpful as a producer to be able to talk the language of a young musician today. They're more intrigued and more free to make a better record.... The days when you did maybe three or four songs in three hours, just like the Beatles did their album in one day, it was a way of life. Now, it's more of a composition of both the artist and myself and what we see in the big picture and ... how their A&R [artist and repertoire] person there sees them.
Bands can now produce their own records with Protools recording and editing software. How has technology changed producing?
Palmer: Anyone can try to be a 'record producer' now, and anyone can have a 'studio.' I now am in competition with most of the public. I can only hope my experience from 20 years of recording and mixing is worth something.
Bottrell: It's made it easier, but ... I think that ease is not the issue. I think quality and craft and love and obssession result in better music than ease.
Ramone: It's made it a different approach to making records. There is the philosophy where you pretty much don't erase anything. It's kind of like a series of pages of the same chapter written in four different versions.
Mardin: Protools has made the job a lot easier and faster. I can show an artist lots of options, like what a different intro would sound like. But I'll record in analog if an artist prefers it.
It seems as if some pop producers are developing a brand name by developing a trademark sound and then finding and developing artists.
Palmer: Some companies now rely on signing completely finished product. The producers who are actively finding the new talent or writing material will obviously therefore have more control of their recordings. But like it has always been, you are only in a commanding position when you have a 'hit.' We see new guys rise to the top and then straight out again.
Bottrell: I think as the labels got swallowed by bigger labels and everything got consolidated, the people in charge naturally applied the skills they had learned in business school, which is that a consistent product is preferrable to an out-of-control product. So they ended up spending more money on fewer records, lowering the risk by lowering the experimentation, and raising the consistency. Sort of like going to McDonald's, where the burger will always be the same.
Ramone: It's nice for [the new breed of producers] finally to see the proper recognition for the role they play.
Have labels ever dictated the need for a hit?
Palmer: Yes. Many have tried, and some have succeeded. You walk a fine line with A&R men. They want to feel involved. If you [annoy] them too much they can lose interest in the project.
Bottrell: [Michael Jackson's "Dangerous" album] was very successful and somehow bought me 10 years of no A&R people having any other opinions other than, 'Go on, you're doing a great job.' The labels really do control the creation of the music to an extent I couldn't have imagined 20 years ago. I went to Japan as a guest of the Yamaha Corporation ... in 1989. I was astonished at the culture of the record industry there and the fabulous business-like atmosphere there. And yet as a creative person, I was appalled. And I said to myself, 'I'm glad I'm from America. What we have is wild freedom.' The moment I got back, I think, the process had begun of turning our record industry into a model of the Japanese record industry.
Band members may have a different vision from you as a producer. How do you umpire the process?
Bottrell: You try to steer the band to a consensus. But if they have a vision, then it is not the producer's job to alter it, even if he or she disagrees. If there is a solid vision and it works for everybody - meaning the people who are paying for the recording - the producer just has to enable that vision. One of the main necessary talents of a producer is to understand when they themselves are what I call "out of vision."
Palmer: My job is often to be the deciding vote in a rock democracy but on certain occasions be an evil dictator and just do what I think is best!
Ramone: The easiest way around that kind of problem is to record. Ultimately, in discussions prior to that you say, 'I don't agree with that, but let's do it your way. And then, let's do a take the other way.' It's a diplomatic relationship you have to have. It's not that I'm always right. You can't be that kind of dogmatic person. But if you need to circle the wagons, make everyone understand that this is why we're doing it.
What's the key to making a record that doesn't sound dated a decade later?
Mardin: You can't. They're always gonna sound dated.
Palmer: I don't think that it's necessarily a bad thing if a record is 'of its time.' You just do what is right for that little moment. I listen to Robert Plant's 'Now and Zen' now and really hear the '80s and don't love that, but it was the '80s.
Ramone: First of all, a great song helps. I can't say that, working on a Paul Simon, or Billy Joel, or Elton John record, that they are dated. Someone says, 'Oh, that's the drum sound of that period.' Maybe, but rock and roll hasn't been around that long. You have to ask the question, 'Is the song content there?'
What do you think of the idea of digitally fixing the pitch of a performer's voice?
Bottrell: I don't have strong feelings about any sort of technology. Toys come and go, you know. I wouldn't do it, because I try and avoid any technology that identifies the three-year period we're in.
Ramone: I'm much more interested in the performance. A lot of us had to go through the case where an artist knew they could re-punch or re-sing an area that was out of tune. I much prefer the ability to have the editing between two or three takes. And if you chose a phrase because it was sung so brilliantly, but it's slightly out of tune or it needs some correction, then so be it. I don't think it's cheating. It's subtle; it's like makeup.
Palmer: I think we rely way too much on vocal autotune these days. Today's sessions are usually kept way too close to perfect pitch, and by the time you go to put the vocals on top of this perfect track, you have cut down your tuning flexibility.... In the old days, the vocalist had a much wider sounding track - pitch-wise - to sing to, and therefore could add some emotion and some bends in his performance.
Mardin: You can do anything with voices today. People in the pop world who wear fancy clothes and dance aren't singers. They're entertainers. They're the mouthpieces of producers. I'm pleased to see a return of emphasis on the singer-songwriter. Norah Jones went into [Blue Note president] Bruce Lundvall's office and played a few songs on a piano and he said, 'Get a lawyer. I'm signing you on the spot.' I'm pleased to see that Bette Midler's tribute to Rosemary Clooney is doing well. So is Rod Stewart's album of standards, and Josh Groban. I'm working with Queen Latifah on a standards album - not the ones that you're used to from Porter or Gershwin - but forgotten songs.
What record are you proudest of?
Ramone: That's a tough question. [Paul Simon's] "Still Crazy After All These Years." [Billy Joel's] "The Stranger."
Bottrell: I really think the most challenging artistic record I ever worked on was "Triage" by David Baerwald.
Mardin: The Bee Gees. Chaka Kahn's "I Feel for You." The Aretha stuff. Of course, the [new] Norah Jones record.
Palmer: I suppose I am proud of certain individual achievements, but as a whole I always feel I could do better. Pearl Jam selling over 12 million in America was a good tonic, but getting Ozzy [Osbourne] to complete "Down to Earth" was an achievement in itself!