What is a producer's role in making music? Come to that, what is a producer? With today's technology bringing the recording studio into peoples' homes, the rules are changing.
A FEW MONTHS ago I invoked the displeasure of a number of readers by commenting on the sorry state of The Pet Shop Boys' music. The smouldering remains of the postman's bag that now sit in the corner of the office will bear me out on that. The line "meticulously-produced whingeing" quickly became the most quoted Music Technology copy since Roland stole "superlatives are not enough" for their D50 advertising. Nuff said.
For those of you not convinced by my argument, and afraid that the Boys wouldn't get the opportunity to answer back, you'll find their meticulous producer, Stephen Hague, interviewed elsewhere in this issue - that's editorial objectivity for you. At present however, the PSBs themselves remain as elusive as ever. Chris, Neil... are you listening?
So what does Hague have to say? Well, he goes some way towards disputing my allegations and helps shed a little light on the construction of some very well-received music - and not just that of the dynamic duo.
When you consider the techniques available in today's recording studio and the power those techniques vest in a producer, it's no surprise that certain producers have taken over every musical aspect of their productions bar the vocal and the personal appearances. Without getting into another discussion about Stock, Aitken and Waterman, it's easy to see how the charts have lost something important along the way.
But not all producers-turned-music-makers have set their sights on chart domination by proxy - instead they've declared themselves artists. In fact, some of those producers are producers in another sense entirely - notably DJs who have developed their own methods of making commercially-available music fit their own particular needs: mixing between records, mixing two copies of the same record into each other to extend sections of the music, even playing a capella sections of one record over rhythmic sections of another. Samplers have found much favour in these vinyl re-workings as has the odd drum machine. New music from, well, not old exactly, but new music all the same - and without so much as a sniff of the 24-track masters. Don't confuse re-mixing with reworking.
Curiously this has lead to a distillation of the rhythmic aspects of popular music, specifically house music (which was born of Frankie Knuckles' running mixes of disco and Eurobeat at Chicago's Warehouse club). There are a number of reasons for this apparent obsession with rhythm. First of all, recorded rhythms are more accessible to a potential "producer" than are recorded melodies, and it's far easier to cut, mix and overlay to produce rhythms where none existed before. Also, most rhythms will mix without the problems presented by the key clashes that frequently crop up with pitched sounds. And maybe the beat is closer to our hearts (at least historically) than melody anyway.
So where does this leave melody and our old friend, "the song"? Well, they're not dead, I'm sure of that, but they do seem to have got a little knocked about as a consequence of these production wars. In the case of Stock, Aitken and Waterman, melody seems to have become a routine part of making another top-five single - and lost its soul in the process. In the case of The Pet Shop Boys, as I say, it's time to write another song. In both cases a good dose of rhythm wouldn't go amiss. But I'm sure we'll see "the song" turn up again - and in better shape than that of covers painfully executed by American girls you'd refer to as jailbait in less polite circles. Perhaps there's a good case for forgiving The Pet Shop Boys their sins after all.
Editorial by Tim Goodyer
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