Question: What do Phil Collins, Howard Jones, Chaka Khan and David Bowie have in common? Answer: They have all recorded with Arif Mardin, one of the world's top record producers. Robin Tolleson chats to the man himself...
Q: What do Phil Collins, David Bowie, Howard Jones, Chaka Khan and Scritti Politti have in common?
A: They have all recorded with one of the world's top producer/arrangers - Arif Mardin. Robin Tolleson takes up the story...
In his remarkable 23-year recording career, Arif Mardin has been consistent and daring - traits that don't always sit well together. Arif (pronounced 'a-reef') has left his mark on three decades, working largely out of a home base at Atlantic Studios in New York. That career is far from over - Mardin will probably still be a step ahead of his peers in decades to come.
The 54-year-old producer, born in Istanbul, Turkey, and trained in Boston, became a partner with Tom Dowd and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic in the '60s, making wonderful records with Aretha Franklin. He developed into a crafty popster in the '70s, helping shape Hall and Oates' 'She's Gone' and the Bee Gees' 'Jive Talking' as well as merging jazz and R&B to turn that most unusual trick, the instrumental hit, with the Average White Band's 'Pick Up The Pieces'.
In the 1980s, Mardin has put his stamp on such artists as Chaka Khan, Scritti Politti, Culture Club, George Benson and Howard Jones. He worked with Phil Collins on the Against All Odds soundtrack, with David Bowie on Labyrinth, and is heading back into the studio with the Bee Gees to see if he can locate the magic he found with them on Main Course over a decade ago.
"Here is Arif in his 50s, and he's still as innovative and fresh as anybody," says top session bassist Nathan East. "He's definitely one of my favourite producers, musicians and people to work with. Pros don't really get any better."
On the 1982 Chaka Khan album, Mardin arranged a 'Bebop Medley' for the singer, featuring 'Hot House', 'Epistrophy', 'Yardbird Suite', 'Giant Steps' and more. His string, horn and vocal arrangements can be found across the spectrum of contemporary music - James Taylor's cover version of 'Up On The Roof' from Flag, Steve Winwood's 'My Love's Leavin' on Back In The High Life, and George Benson's In Your Eyes all sport the Mardin arranging touch.
Howard Jones' You Know I Love You is a shining example of Mardin's ability to maintain a clear, clean sound in the midst of sampling and all sorts of studio processing. Chaka Khan's Destiny, on the other hand, shows Mardin (with help from his producer-son Joe Mardin) at his most daring, mixing outrageous audio effects, metal, pop, R&B and rap, and shuffling around a roster of the finest contemporary musicians of the day, including Marcus Miller, Scritti Politti's Green and Gamson, Phil Collins, Pino Palladino, The Brecker Brothers, Philip Saisse, Steve Ferrone, and Sam Rivers.
Drummer Steve Ferrone began working with Mardin in the Average White Band but has continued to get calls from the producer for projects with Khan, Scritti and others. "Arif knows how to get the best out of you," says Ferrone. "He gives you a shot at doing things that you might have an idea for. He knows how to use musicians to their utmost. And sometimes he'll have you do something in a certain way that'll make you think about it differently, so that you'll come up with something fresh."
SOS: You've been involved with a lot of the classic R&B records of the last 20 years. Did you have a lot of R&B in your background?
Mardin: Actually, since I was a kid, nine or ten years old, I used to collect Duke Ellington records. I really started with jazz. I loved the free spirit of jazz, and black heritage and everything. When I came to Atlantic Records I was actually more involved in the jazz side, producing sessions with Max Roach, Herbie Mann, King Curtis and others. Tom Dowd and I co-produced The Rascals, and that was like my first leap into the pop side of things. From then on, working closely with artists like Aretha Franklin - even when I wasn't producing her I was doing arrangements for her in the studio, watching her and listening to her sing - I guess that was the school for me. Aretha's School of Soul.
SOS: What were you doing before you joined Atlantic Records in 1963?
Mardin: I was a graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston. I was a recipient of the first Quincy Jones Scholarship to Berklee College, if you can believe that! I was an arranger and composer, actually. And my heart was totally in jazz. And it still is, as much as it can be. On some of the albums I try to inject some jazz influence from some of my loves. Like on Chaka's album, I usually have one tune that reflects that aspect. After I graduated from Berklee, I taught there, and then I made the big move to New York. And you know, I was struggling, writing arrangements for jazz groups, things like that. I became part of the studio personnel at Atlantic and was involved with test pressings, paperwork, the master books and tape library. I really started from the bottom. And I had a teacher named Tom Dowd - I learned to edit and mix, then I moved into production.
SOS: You, Dowd and Jerry Wexler did some memorable recording as a team.
Mardin: Yes. Jerry was obviously our superior and motivator. And in almost all the cases he also signed the artist to the label. We worked with Aretha Franklin, but it was through Jerry's signing. And the team was formed, but we would report to him.
SOS: One of the first things I heard you do was Aretha's Live At The Fillmore.
Mardin: Yes, I really liked that. I'm proud of that, because I mixed that and we tried to capture the actual live feeling. That was a memorable experience, just being part of the audience. The audience participation and excitement was unbelievable.
SOS: Was it harder to do a live recording back then, or easier?
Mardin: Well, just the same. Equipment changes, equipment gets better. But after all, you go there with a truck and make sure the microphone lines are secure. You mike the audience and hope for the best! The artist usually has the problem. They have to deal with the audience. So it's just the same old problems.
SOS: Does your keyboard training and arranging knowledge help a lot as a producer?
Mardin: Yes, of course, because at least I can put on different hats for different occasions. I'm a lousy piano player, but my knowledge of orchestration and harmony helps a lot because I can sit down and re-harmonise a tune and suggest new chords. To me chords are very important. It's a certain language - there could be an ominous chord, there could be a happy chord, and people wouldn't know why a certain song at a certain spot feels strange or good. The chords have a lot to do with it, the harmony of a tune. So I try to really keep a watchful eye on what the chords are going to be in a song.
SOS: You seem to have had a big hand in Scritti Politti. That sounds kind of like a producer's wonderland, there are so many great sounds.
Mardin: Again, I was fortunate. Green Gartside, a founding member of Scritti Politti, wanted me to work on a specific tune called 'Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)'. And from that I eventually worked on three songs. Basically it's how Green and David Gamson arranged those tunes. There was no need to change anything, except I made some editorial changes probably on the length of the tune and where the chorus comes in, where the solo comes in. It was a great collaboration, actually.
SOS: It's a really sophisticated song, but the arrangements are kind of simple and open.
Mardin: Well, it's their style. It's state-of-the-art, and it's danceable. It's almost like having Stravinsky on top of a great dance rhythm. Some of those chords are really wonderful.
"I don't think technology is a big threat to live musicians, because you can't beat good live musicians. Man is the best computer..."
SOS: How important is it to have a good rapport with the studio engineers you are working with?
Mardin: I like to feel secure with an engineer, that the engineer will get the right sounds. After all, it's not my job. I can suggest changes, suggest sounds and colours, but the engineer is paid not only for bringing those sounds in but at the same time suggesting new ideas and new sounds.
What I like is an engineer who says "Don't worry about it, I'll surprise you." And that's why I work with the people I do. One of the processes of production is that you bounce off other people, you grab ideas, and I don't mean steal them - you always give them credit. It's like you're making an instant soup, and you're feverishly adding the mushrooms and herbs and this and that. And definitely at the end it's very rewarding. So an engineer says "Wait a minute, let me have this kind of sound here," and that will lead to another comment from me or from the artist saying, "Yes, but how about counteracting that with something here in the bridge section?"
So that's very important. I'm not a producer who sits down and fiddles with all the EQ, and if I don't say anything, that means I like it. If I hate it, if I don't like it, I'll definitely stop it or comment about it. When I'm producing I do or may have a finished sound in my mind. I know how it must sound. But then if the engineer gives me something better or different and equally good, I say 'Okay, abandon my idea, what you have is good.' I'm extremely flexible.
I've worked with Lew Hahn, I've worked with all the engineers at Atlantic Studios. Michael O'Reilly. I worked with Brian Tench again on the new Bee Gees project. And I work with Kevin Killen, who did some U2 and Peter Gabriel. Together we did the Howard Jones record - he's another fine engineer with a beautiful, clean sound.
SOS: I was expecting something a little more 'machine-like' from Howard Jones' last album, but it sounds played and warm.
Mardin: Our secret was that we used live musicians on almost all the tracks. The single ('You Know I Love You') has Steve Ferrone playing drums. We cut the track with mechanical drums, brought Steve Ferrone in and he played over them, and then we took the mechanical drums out. So that's why it sounds nice. On one track we have Nile Rodgers playing and on another track we have some English musicians. We definitely didn't go the whole techno way.
SOS: There is some interesting sampling being done on 'Give Me Strength'.
Mardin: That's actually Howard's own vocals that we sampled from his original demo. He cut his demo on an Akai MG1212 cassette, the 12-track, and we took the backing vocals that he sang himself and sampled them in a very random way, almost like the 1950s tape editing, electronic style - cut the tape up. And we sampled those. Some of them were wrong, but sounded right. Some of the syllables were chopped, and some of them had extra space before it, as if a bad editor had come in. So we sampled those sounds, and that was the basis of his vocal answers to himself. We do voice sampling on all my albums, and we don't steal other people's voices. We sample things that are needed in the project.
SOS: This is a growing controversy.
Mardin: There is no controversy, actually. Sampling is here to stay. There's nothing wrong with it, with the act of sampling. It's the end result that's important. If one samples somebody well-known, at the end it should be so disguised and so covered with other effects and other things that it becomes just like using another tone colour. But if the well-known person is unadulterated and unashamedly out in the open, then there's a problem. I suggest that the Musician's Union could think of a sampling session where you hire a conga player or percussionist or drummer, and pay him a fee to be sampled and he goes home. And by the way, everybody who thinks "Wow, once I'm sampled I'll be there forever" is wrong. No good producer would use a sound for more than two or three albums, then it becomes passe. Everybody talks about Phil Collins' drum sound, which is sampled. I don't think they'll use it again, because everybody uses it, you see. It's gone.
SOS: There's a really interesting horn sound on 'Step Into' on Howard Jones' record. It sounds like an old big band recording.
Mardin: Yes, I don't know where that sample even came from. It was probably an old radio thing. It was mono, anyway. We even have a tap dancer in the middle part. We sampled her shoe clicks, soft click, loud click, and then we created our own pattern. We also had her tap dance on sand in the studio, and we recorded that.
SOS: You've seen a lot of change in the recording industry. Has it all been good?
Mardin: Yes; at the same time, though, there are some producers and artists, including myself, who make records and sometimes get bogged down or fascinated by the scientific details and gadgetry, and become like children with new toys, and forget what the essence is about. The essence is the song, after all. So that's very important. This gadgetry should actually enhance, and not occupy us. Sometimes people who make records use just a few synthesizers that everybody owns, and they use presets, so sometimes all their records sound alike. It sounds unbearable. That's the other danger. You have these two extremes - the ultra-sophisticated technology where you might lose track of what the song is all about, and the other side is all these cheap records that just sound alike and are terrible.
I don't think technology is a big threat to live musicians, because you can't beat good live musicians. Man is the best computer, built by God, so you have to have good musicians. Machines eliminated some marginal musicians who used to play terribly and would cost a lot of money in wasted studio time. The drum machine eliminated the people who would rush or slow down, unsteady. Now young drummers really play very well - they have to compete with the machines in a way. On one hand one feels that string players maybe don't have as many jobs now. That's true. But if there's a string arrangement to be done I always book the right amount of strings, and we do it. It's diminished a little bit, but it's not because of machines. It's because most songs now don't require the old padding that we used to have. Styles have changed. In the '60s and '70s strings played a big part in R&B music. Not anymore. Nowadays, you use them when you really need them.
SOS: What are your feelings about digital recording?
Mardin: I have a lot of objections to 2-track digital. I think it sounds brittle, sounds woody, doesn't have the warmth, definitely doesn't have the high octave, the silk that analogue gives you. And I'm not a stickler for "Wow, there's no hiss." I mean, I like tape compression - I'm probably more old-fashioned on that. Two-track digital has improved a lot. It's much better now, but I'm still waiting to be surprised. As for multitrack digital, we are going to use the 32-track Mitsubishi (digital) with the Bee Gees, and it'll be a first for me on that system. I hear it's excellent. At Atlantic Records we have two 24-track Sony machines, and they're especially good when you're recording synthesizers. Again, for some types of music I still like analogue, but multitrack digital doesn't bother me as much as 2-track.
Of course, when you talk about digital and compact discs, they sound marvellous, so I'm contradicting myself. That is another interesting thing. Some compact discs sound fantastic and some sound worse than the album mix.
I can only say one thing on that: if they use the original equalisation - either equalised tape or EQ and level adjustment - and compression necessary to make an ordinary LP; if you use those settings for CD then you're defeating the purpose, because there is no level problem with CD. We cheat on LPs you see, we raise the intros. When there's a big bass thump the disc mastering engineer would lower that particular instance on the tape so that the needle won't skip, and always watch the grooves etc. On CDs you have no problem, you just put it up. So CDs and cassettes actually need a new inter-master, a fresh new look. Some companies are doing it, and it sounds marvellous.
SOS: Musically, Chaka Khan goes all over the place on the Destiny album, and she pulls it all off.
Mardin: Chaka is an international person. She is an artist of much greater vision than some people want to shackle her with - in just one groove, one kind of music. This is my complaint - that unless you happen to hit on something of the magnitude of a Michael Jackson or Lionel Richie where there's automatic audience crossover, the people like Chaka who are true innovators, one of the original source voices... Like people copy Aretha (Franklin), young people copy Chaka. And she likes not only R&B music, but jazz, French music, rock and roll. When she was growing up it was the Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, you know, she likes Joni Mitchell. And when she goes in and records a rock and roll-inspired tune, it isn't because she wants some mythical instant crossover into the AOR field - far from it. Some nearsighted critics, especially in the black music magazines, accuse her of doing that. It's so untrue. She just likes those songs.
SOS: She also seems to be able to stretch into rap, with tracks like 'Earth To Mickey' and 'I Feel For You'.
"That's actually Howard Jones' own vocals... He cut his demo on an Akai MG1212 cassette, the 12-track, and we took the backing vocals that he sang himself and sampled them in a very random way."
Mardin: That's a very interesting thing. On the previous album when I called (Grandmaster) Melle Mel to rap on 'I Feel For You', and then played it to Chaka the next day, she was really embarrassed to hear her own name uttered so many times. Like when you hear your own voice on a cassette for the first time at a family gathering or something, you think it sounds terrible.
She said the same thing. It took her a long time to really digest that, and she learned to live with it. In fact, she likes it now. But we've prepared a single version and 12-inch version of 'Earth To Mickey' from the new album. It's hilarious. We took Chaka's rap, which sounds like a cross between Whoopi Goldberg and Bette Midler, and did a sort of - I don't want to say Max Headroom - but we did a very sort of New York surrealistic way of starting the record with her, and it's fantastic, really! We're going to release the single, and I hope people will enjoy it.
SOS: Have you learned any tricks from rap music?
Mardin: Tricks is the wrong term. Rap music is very alive and it's a very important music, especially for big cities. But again, some rappers, especially young ones, maybe for budget problems or whatever, sometimes it all sounds the same. Why can't they shift one accent so that we have something interesting? Obviously you have great rappers - Run DMC I really like. LL Cool J. But the younger ones take the cliches and imitate them rather than latch onto the inventiveness.
SOS: Complete this sentence: MIDI has made my life...
Mardin: Easier! Except that you have to know how to use MIDI. It's just like if you have a wild horse, you have to know what to do with it. There's a lot of MIDI delay problems that you encounter and have to measure. If you're playing one master keyboard and you have three other synthesizers responding, you have to make sure that they are all aligned properly. Some instruments lag way behind, especially the older instruments. You have to reckon with that, otherwise MIDI is a fantastic thing. Your DX7 would probably be close to time, but if you have a Jupiter 8 in your link it would be way behind. So that means you have to actually record it separately sometimes.
Or you have to bring it forward in time with the use of synchronisation devices like a Doctor Click or whatever. Unfortunately, sometimes you say "Why don't I just get a drummer and play it?" That's also sometimes what you do, rather than sequence every single line because it has to be sequenced. You get a great player, and a great player will play the chords and the patterns that you like. I like sequenced drums or bass, or mechanical sounding guitar parts, or things that have to move in exact 16th notes. But when you have a great guitar player around you want him to play over it rather than simulate a guitar sound with a synthesizer, and spend hours and have the end result sounding possibly stiff.
SOS: (Drummer) Steve Ferrone said that on "I Feel For You' he was just recording along with a bass and click-track.
Mardin: Well, I don't know about 'I Feel For You', but we certainly did that with 'Wood Beez' on the Scritti Politti album. He had only a bass and a guide hi-hat to listen to. He played wonderfully, and when we played him the song when it was finished, he was surprised.
SOS: What was your reason for recording Steve like that?
Mardin: Well, sometimes things happen because of, not technical reasons, but logistics. I don't think we had the time to give him a guide keyboard track. All we were able to do at that time was guide drums and a bass. He was in the studio, so we didn't want to lose time, and that was it. On that particular track, spontaneity was not the object. We wanted solid rhythm, hypnotically playing the same thing.
SOS: I was a little surprised and intrigued by the drum sounds on 'Coltrane Dreams' on Chaka Khan's Destiny.
Mardin: Chaka and I have always been dreaming about a song where everything is her voice. And she came into the studio one day and sang these drum sounds, and we recorded all of those. Then they were put in the Synclavier and we processed them. And Steve Ferrone came in and played Chaka's sounds as if it were a drum kit. All the drums and bass sounds were actually Chaka's voice. We added a little extra bass to her bass part, but apart from the keyboard sounds and the tenor sax it was all Chaka.
SOS: How do you feel about how many takes a singer should be given to get a part right?
Mardin: There are different types of singers. Natural singers like Aretha or Chaka would sing maybe three versions, and that would be it. Sometimes you would take a whole verse or a chorus from one take and the rest from another. There are younger singers who are maybe not experienced, so you might piece together a whole vocal from as many as 10 or 12 takes, it all depends. Now with the new technology, if there's a repeated section like a chorus, once the lead singer sings it correctly you can just say "Look, the second and third choruses are exactly the same, so we can use the first chorus there. All you have to do is sing your ad libs on top." It's good and bad, it depends on the situation. Chaka always sings different things, subtle variations on the third word of the second line, or whatever, so that it's not an exact copy. She would do a little something that only the connoisseurs would know.
SOS: You used 16 engineers on the Destiny record.
Mardin: Well, ten songs. If there were 16, I'm sure the assistants would be included too. I would go to the Hit Factory to record vocals, and there would be assistant engineers there. I did some at Greene Street studio and other places. Probably about five main engineers.
SOS: Do you have a problem with tracks sounding different because you're using different engineers and studios? Or is that an intention?
Mardin: I'm looking forward to a little of that, at the same time I was in charge of almost all the mixing. It was done at Atlantic. If you provide them with your original 2-track recording tones, which will set your equalisation and your levels correctly, then in the process of mastering you will have no problem as to what track is misaligned or what track needs to be boosted two dBs or something. Everything will be the same. That's one of the tricks of doing an album where there are different producers or songs recorded in different cities. You have to provide the tones for however many producers you have on it. Then when the mixes come around you don't have to tamper technically, only the producers' tastes are different.
SOS: What are some of your most memorable tracks, and why do you think they stand out?
Mardin: I have many fond memories. Some of them would be not my production techniques, but incidents in the studio where the vocalist would overwhelm you with great vocals. Most of the Aretha Franklin sessions were like that, and Chaka Khan. I keep remembering Donnie Hathaway in the studio singing those wonderful vocals. Maybe I'm a little prejudiced because he's no longer with us, I just remember him fondly, with his exaggerated yearning. Also the making of 'Night In Tunisia' was very interesting with Chaka, Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock. I liked 'Jive Talkin' very much, because for 1974 it was close to state-of-the-art with the synthesizers. Those are really memorable sessions.
For a session to be memorable there has to be a great marriage between the artist, producer, musicians and environment. All hits come out of a good marriage. You have to include the A&R department too, record company, artist, management - the relationship really enhances and helps make a great record in the end. Like with the Bee Gees 13 years ago, there was incredible electricity in the studio. Everybody was creating, everybody was suggesting something. Good ideas were flying around, and I guess that's what it comes down to. For example, 'Pick Up The Pieces' was great with the Average White Band, but we didn't know we were making a hit record. We were making a grooving record. A few weeks later, after the record was released, the promotion department came and said "Wow, it's an instrumental, but it's a hit."
SOS: Finally, are there any steps you take to try and ensure the success of a session?
Mardin: Yes, I always communicate with the people interested, and I give reports. I don't try to guard things. On some projects we used to do that, and it's not successful. You have to get other people involved - session players, management etc. You have to send them 'work-in-progress' cassettes. You have to not be afraid of sending them a cassette saying this is just a rough mix, and don't make too many excuses. If you believe in what you are producing, send them the cassette. Let them comment about it. In the end they will be more supportive. I like to spread my responsibilities in a way that I know I have somebody fantastic working on the arrangement - it's my forte anyway - so I go in and bug him, and change things. And then I know that there's somebody else great doing this and that. The days of doing everything yourself are over. You've got to have a great team.
This article is used with the kind permission of Mix Publications, 2608 Ninth Street, Berkeley, California.
Interview by Robin Tolleson
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