George Martin (Part 2)
Part 2 of the interview.
We conclude our conversation with this top producer about his book 'Making Music'
The Beatles set an example of adventure that is part of British music — a comment that Sting made in the songwriting section. Who do you see that has this very big creativity now?
"One of the difficulties is that so many people are so good and the competition is getting so fierce that I doubt whether we will have anyone breaking through in the kind of monumental way that the Beatles did, or like The Who or the Rolling Stones.
To get into that kind of classic category I think you've got to be head and shoulders above the rest, but the rest are so tall now that it's very difficult.
I know many lyric writers who don't write as many songs as they used to because there's not quite such a demand. The classic lyric writers, and Stephen Sondheim is a marvellous example of that, tends to find that their wares are not needed so much and the songwriter today prefers to write his own lyrics anyway. He prefers to get down to basics, so I'm afraid the golden age of lyric writing is slipping from us.
Do you consider that the clarity of words is important on records?
Well I'd like to think so but it's not, judging from a lot of records I've heard it's not, but I do like to understand the lyrics. It may be old fashioned to say that but I do like to hear.
Of course there's this line of thought that a voice could be regarded as another instrument where the sounds they are making don't have to become words in the end.
Well this is in order to get maximum impact of course. You submerge the voice into the backing so that the loudest thing is probably the drums rather than the voice. Yes, I hate to have a lyric sheet that I have to look at before I know what it's about.
Do you still like tape manipulation effects such as tape reversal?
That of course was done a long time ago and a lot of people have done it since. Yes I like to have them but I don't like too much clutter on the record and I think if you're going to hear something that is unusual I like to hear it good and plain.
It seems that the bass and the drums are recorded at a much higher level than other tracks on current releases, is that your general consensus?
It's very necessary today I think, because the emphasis on the beat is much stronger and I think this is because everything has become body language much more so than it used to be. I like it myself, I like to have a really good beat, the kind of thing that makes you want to dance but still not get in the way of the voice.
Where did you learn your own music writing skills?
From the school of experience really, but I actually did study orchestration at Guild Hall School of Music. I was there for three years, but what I learnt there was classical training. One week I would be given a movement for a Beethoven Sonata and told by the professor 'arrange this for full orchestra so that it sounds like a movement from a symphony'. So I'd spend all week orchestrating this thing and then I would take it back to him and he would look through it. He'd spend hours studying it and say 'yes it's very good, I like the use of the strings here, now don't double the clarinet on the third there because the overtones come through, that's wrong, you should put it on the fifth. This kind of thing, and I would listen to him and try and remember. I never heard the bloody thing, that was the awful thing, and the only way I could hear anything would be writing for small groups and my friends who would have a string quartet or woodwind quartet or something like that. I used to play in groups like that myself. It wasn't until I started handling orchestras in the studio that I really learnt my craft. Music is what you hear, not what you write.
John Dankworth in his 'Arranging' chapter said that choosing the key takes the time for him and that's the first thing.
I think it's a marvellous point that he made because so many people forget that. Even really important singers forget that they've got to choose the best key for their voice and someone not very far away from me was actually singing and I thought 'well your voice sounds very good on that, why are you singing it in that key, it sounds too high for you?', and he said 'well that's the key I play it in', and it was natural to him so I said 'well doesn't it make sense to try and take it in a different key' and he said 'well I never thought of that'.
If you're just working in the studio, two people together, it's much easier to go to the piano and say look I'll take the key down a fourth, listen to it and then you learn it that way, and that's how we evolve it. Keys are terribly important, particularly if you lave a fairly wide range in the song.
It's silly not to consider that, because you're not going to use the best part of the voice.
How do you actually get a backing done these days? If you were handling people who tend to work alone would you have to bring in session men to play the thing?
You would have to, yes. In that case, if I had someone like that I would get the very best session people I could. I mean, working with McCartney I have to get session men in.
The days of the big session stars seems to be diminishing, do you think the career of the session man is on the wane?
It's been thinning out which is unfortunate but I think the top people still are very heavily employed and you know if you try to get the best because they are terribly busy.
They've got to be very good readers, they've got to be very good musicians and an awful lot of the session people I use are people who are stars in their own right. For example, if I was doing a record over here with Michael Jackson I would probably ask Phil Collins to play drums for me, that kind of thing.
In Carl Davis' chapter, "Film Music", this comment 'the battle of the dub' points towards the strength of synthesized sound and the problems of selecting layers from the multitrack.
Yes, and then the danger of course is that you may be selecting sounds which are conflicting when you get them onto a record. He talks specifically about the film 'Battle of the Dub' and of course it's even more critical there because the film cut-off is about 8 kHz and you don't get anything much above that.
With something like the PPG, where a digital machine with all these waveforms is playing with such tremendous clarity, can this actually be a problem if you've got a vocal line that you want to get over the top as well?
It's always a problem for the engineer, and quite often you get sounds which sound fantastic in the studio but they're not what I call 'value for money'. In other words they don't cut very well on disc, you get great sounds but they don't come through in the way they should do.
How do you get over the problem of people being tense while recording do you have a few little ways of doing this — tried and tested formulas?
Not really. Again every artist is different and I always get frustrated at not being able to help someone on the other side of the screen. I know how difficult it is because I quite often go the other side of the screen and I know what it's like to be nervous when you're planning something or performing something. But if they know you're routing for them that's half of it.
Are you a fan of complex vocal counterpoint?
One of the dangers is that if you have too many melody lines it can become a mess. I don't think the human brain is capable of listening to more than three lines at once. I mean, when Bach wrote his five-part Fugues the end result was boredom for most people listening to them.
What do you consider your role to be?
I think that the producer's main function is to be the person who doesn't look at all the detail too much but looks at the overall thing.
There's the common reaction of people, it's like when you get a school photograph, the first thing is 'where am I?' — and this is true of any instrumentalist, when he comes in for playback he listens to his own instrument, and doesn't listen to the whole lot, and a producer's function is to stand back and look at the whole composition, the whole portrait.
Over the past thirty years we've gone really full circle, we've now got our technology into such a state that we can make virtually perfect recordings and that throws even greater emphasis on the content, which means we are back into the business of making music and not making technical things. Making music is the most important thing of all.
Part 1 | Part 2 (Viewing)
Interview by Mike Beecher
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