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Blue Collar's Music Production, #1 Salvo!
By Mick Polich - 11/10/2008 - 09:56 AM EST

Producing music – what exactly is THAT all about?

What is there to PRODUCE? I mean, what do we – the artist, the public, and media –

receive from the producer? Is this the walk-on-water person who commands as much revenue from the artist for his or her work?

As Christopher Walken, aka “Bruce Dickenson”, ‘legendary’ Blue Oyster Cult producer once said,” Yes, I put my pants on one leg at a time, but they are GOLD – PLATED PANTS!!!! This was, of course, after he requested ‘more cowbell’……

Rick Rubin, Butch Walker, T-Bone Burnette, Daniel Lanois – producers of  Big Ol’ Pop and Rock Albums. But… what the hell do these guys DO for the artists that they’ve worked with (Dixie Chicks, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, AC/DC, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, John Mellencamp, Spoon, and Slayer)?

From what I’ve heard and read, producers can do plenty if they’re worth their salt. Song arrangements, ideas, vocal harmonies, guitar parts, engineering the album or single – sometimes I’m amazed at what producers DON’T do for artists.

Case in point: Bob Ezrin, producer of big ol’ hits for Kiss, Alice Cooper, and Pink Floyd,

Literally took Kiss to music school for one album on music theory, rhythm, dynamics, etc. Apparently had a chalkboard, not unlike a sports coach, to draw up ‘plays’: “O.k., this is a G chord, this is an A minor….” To me, it’s pretty foreign that you didn’t grasp some music basics along the path, but I’m not Paul Stanley (and, you know, in spite of that big income gap, that’s o.k.!!).

Fellow columnist Jerry Flattum has got some installments on production – I know that we have e-mailed at one point, with some depth, on what it takes to produce songs, or why we need producers.

All I know is regarding production is what I’ve learned in the studio myself, and what I’ve heard.  Things pop out of a song mix while others sound just a step up from a demo. There is some amazing sounding stuff out there – let me name a few, new and old:

  • “I Should Have Known” – Aimee Mann from the “Whatever” album. Boy, the Beatle - like influences just wash over this single. Aimee was just fresh out of the band ‘Til Tuesday (who I had the pleasure of seeing in concert with Tom Petty back in the late 1980’s), and her propensity for pop hooks, along with fine lyric writing and song arrangements. The dissonant warm-up at the intro gives clue to what lies ahead – a canophony of instruments (I hear an oboe, maybe a bass clarinet, or is it a Mellotron?) huddled and mixed in a manner that wouldn’t be out of place in a Fab Four session, circa 1967. Very rich mix on CD – engineers were starting to get some things figured out for digital by the early 1990’s.
  • Robbie Robertson (solo album –1987), Geffen Records – under the white –hot talents at the time of Daniel Lanois, with a gaggle of  Super Friends of the 1980’s ( Peter Gabriel, Manu Katche, Maria McKee, and the Bo Deans), Robbie Robertson delivered a fine solo album - being several years removed from the legendary Band, and reeling from the death of Band keyboardist/vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel ( hence the moody groove piece, “Fallen Angel”), Lyrically, a lot of the album’s tracks could easily fit in content against the Bush regime while being written in the Reagan empire – “American Roulette”, and especially “Showdown At Big Sky”, with it’s apocalyptic dire and doom, foreshadow what’s happening in our world back yard now. Production-wise, it’s a Lanois wash – panned, separated, slightly compressed drum and percussion sounds come at you in a light prisum of directions, with some gorgeous guitar and synth sounds wash over the top of the entire production. Say what you will about Daniel Lanois style, but he seem to avoid the cliché ‘80’s sound processing of big compressed snare/ metal laced guitars to craft a wholly individual statement for a number of artists.
  • “In Rainbows”, Radiohead, (2008) – I like the idea that these guys are throwing in the kitchen sink ( and everything else) on this CD – there are distorted, processed sounds in an analog fashion that roam the mixes that give a lot of production credence to these songs ( but not the recent ‘they’re-mixing-way-to-loud’ brew-ha-ha that’s been erupting). Throw in Johnny Greenwood’s street cred for the “There Will Be Blood” soundtrack, and these guys have got another launch pad.
  • Fleet Foxes (2008) – The dawning of the new psychedelia is upon us, again, in music, and Fleet Foxes leads the way: this orchestrated, folk/multi –colored drenched release leads many ‘best of ’ lists for 2008. Reverb soaked in production, with multiple layers of vocal harmony, acoustic and punked electric guitars, it’s as if Pink Floyd held off on recording “A Saucer Full Of Secrets” until this year. Big thumbs up for instrument panning and separation per my ‘car stereo test ‘- someone at the mastering plant knows how to mix a ‘clean’ digital throwdown, for sure.
  • “Boogie With Stu” - Led Zeppelin, from “Physical Graffiti”. Well, this baby has REALLY intrigued me for years – WHY??  The production style pre-dates a lot of stuff that’s now commonplace in pop and “Americana” music. First off, the drum processing, mix, and style are really cool – first, I thought it was Bonham banging on a sheet of tin - now, I think he’s playing the side of a snare rim or drum rim and handclaps with heavy processing (flange and compression, perhaps?), tambourine, and a bass drum (in fact, I know those are handclaps at the end of the song when it strips to the break…). Also, there’s a MANDOLIN solo in the middle  - not very many ‘heavy’ groups were thinking about THAT in 1971 (yep, recorded then, released in 1975 on “Graffiti”).  Ian “Stu” Stewarts’ boogie woogie style piano playing is WONDERFUL – probably on a out-of-tune old upright piano, just 50’s style boogie. Robert Plant copped lyrics and feel from Ritchie Valens “Ohh, My Head”, whom Ritchie copped ‘em from Little Richard’s “Oooh, My Soul”. Very much a feel of bridging old blues, Sun Records rockabilly, and English Celtic feel (thus the mando, I do believe). “Hey Stu, we’ve got a jam going. Come on over and we’ll record!” – very loose, indeed. You hear this stuff all day every day now –back then, it was like, ”Huh?” 
  • “The UFO’s Have Landed” –The Ry Cooder Anthology (2008) – I like ol’ Ry – very few could have covered the multi-cultural ground such as Mr. Cooder since the late 1960’s – you look at the breath and depth of his recordings, and it’s simply amazing. The “Anthology” can’t possibly cover everything, but it is a heartfelt effort – Ry’s liner notes to each song give us a story and a wink.
  • Sharon Jones and the DapKings,”1000 Nights” – Been listening to the Daptone stuff since the first CD, and they stay true to their track record of lovingly re-producing material that sounds ‘ Motown/Stax-Volt-1966’. I would be surprised if the front –end of the production (recording) is not all analog – I mean, even the snare drum tone is Benny “Papa Z” Zapata! Songwise, it’s Holland/Dozier/  Holland up the middle on a power dive – songs of loss, lament, and good times in mid-1960’s America (where the ‘good times’ masked an underbelly of war, unrest, civil rights issues, and inequality).
  • “Graduation”, Kanye West – I’ll rank Kanye and Jay Z as some of the more innovative and inventive rappers on the scene. Throwing samples as diverse as Steely Dan, Kanye weaves some great sampled and arranged backgrounds for his raps on life, learning and moving on from it’s challenges. The mix is fairy clean and separated, with samples and loops coming at your ears from all directions.

This is all a stream of quick thoughts and judgements on music production – we haven’t really scratched the surface. I know what I know at this point, and am throwing ideas out right off the bat. As my fellow columnist Mr. Flattum puts it, “Recording is producing an illusion.” True – we live in a world of audio and visual illusions. Many things we encounter during the day are enhanced thru media production. It’s the facts, ma‘am, and you take from this whatever you want to. Are things better, sound-wise, today than putting on a scratchy 78 rpm record on Grandma’s Victorola? I would say yes, but certain purists would beg to differ. The vibe is different, for sure, also – it’s probably like arguing if bluegrass is better than metal: apples, oranges, football, baseball. I think as we move towards better bit resolution, you hear some amazing things from the digital world……

Having said that, you still have to figure out how to mix music correctly – recent debates have been on why certain CDs are being mixed loud enough to the point of distortion. I think it’s the oldest trick in the book – t.v. commercials are always compressed and expanded to be louder than whatever show the networks break away from. Why? THEY WANT YOUR ATTENTION, FOOL!!! So, perhaps with certain new CD mixes, well……. THEY WANT YOUR ATTENTION!! HEY MOM, LOOK AT ME!! I’M ON AN IPOD!!!!!!

Again… debatable merits!

Here are some quick hints on listening to a recorded music arrangement : do certain instruments and voices feel as if they are coming out at you from one side or another? This is panning, and there are 'hard' pans ( definite mixes in either the right or left sound source) and 'soft' pans ( the blending of sounds bleeding either on the right or left). Center up mixes are in stereo, of course. No training, folks - just use your ears! Also, do certain instruments sound like they're in water, or a big ol' church hall made of tile and marble, or just plain 'funny-sounding'? Special effects, such as reverb, flanging, echo, or vibrato can be used as 'enhancers'. The main thing is, do it sound cool to you, and do you like it? That's all you need to know at this point - plenty of web and library info on the history of effects and sound mixing.  

Music production is too vast a subject to tackle in one fell swoop – as I’ve re-read this article, I think in terms of, oh, I missed that point and such. Really, it’s like throwing a pebble into a lake – much more to cover down the pike. With that, I will sign off – but remember, it pays to start listening closer and with intent to how music is recorded and arranged – you don’t need a degree; just use your ears and listened with an open heart and mind!

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