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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.