A complete history of record production accompanied by quotations and anecdotes from no fewer than 18 of the world's leading producers.
The history of the development of the Producer as we know him is long and varied, stretching over 40 years from his beginnings as a fulltime record company employee to his current status as a powerful force in the development of popular music. With the help of interviews and anecdotes from some of the most famous names in the business, Richard Buskin charts the Producer's Progress.
"Looking back, some of the noises we got on the mics were pretty awful," says George Martin when reflecting on his work with The Beatles, "but I was out to get performance — the excitement of the actual live action — and technical things like that didn't worry me too much. Sometimes the engineers would express disdain that I wasn't worried, but it was important to get the feeling rather than anything else."
Things have come a long way since Martin first encountered the 'Fab Four' at EMI's Abbey Road recording studios in North London in 1962, not least in terms of both his role as a producer and his relationship towards the artists and engineers. For, back then, it was his job to not only act as a musical arranger during recording sessions, but also to sign the acts and select their material. In effect, therefore, he was the all-round 'musical expert', while the technical chore of setting up microphones and twiddling volume and tone controls was left to the men in white coats, the sound engineers, who largely stipulated what and how things could be done, and frowned upon ideas which might push the equipment beyond its prescribed limits.
For more than 30 years this had been the accepted procedure at not only Abbey Road but also numerous other studios around the world, yet during the '60s things were to change — thanks in no small part to the likes of The Beatles and their contemporaries. After all, until the mid-'60s it was common practice (and EMI company policy) to expect that two single A-sides and two single B-sides be produced from a three-hour session, while a maximum of three such sessions was allocated to each album. Hence, The Beatles' first album, Please Please Me, was completed in a single 13-hour day, yet as their power and stature grew so they began to not only take longer over their work, but also to exert more control, and by the end of the decade it was not uncommon to see the artists playing with the knobs at the mixing console, while both producer and engineer looked on.
In the US it was the same story. In 1950's Los Angeles, Ahmet Ertegun, the founder and boss of Atlantic Records, was signing and producing the likes of Ray Charles during the early days of his rise to prominence. Eventually his signings would also include Cream, The Bee Gees, Led Zeppelin, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes and The Rolling Stones, but by then Ertegun would no longer be taking charge of the recording sessions. Instead, he would be acting as what is now known as an A & R (Artistes & Repertoire) man, while the role of producer had been taken over by those more attuned to the increasingly creative requirements of ever more demanding performers. Indeed, some had already shown an early flair in this direction.
Sam Phillips had been running his own small Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee, since 1950, working mainly with black artists in the area of Southern roots music. The problem was that it was difficult trying to mass-market this kind of product within a largely racist society, and so Phillips, who was always on the lookout for "something different," eventually realised that while it would be impossible to find a white man with a black man's voice, the answer to his prayers might come in the form of a white man who could convey the excitement and the feel of black music. Enter Elvis Presley.
"I switched on the microphone and he sounded different," recalled Phillips. "Different! Hey, that's all I ever looked for in my entire life. Be different!" Effectively, Phillips had managed to spot a market need and had the good fortune to find someone who could fulfil it. But where his genius as a producer truly emerged was in the way that, over a period of several months, he managed to inspire the 19-year-old Presley with his own enthusiasm and draw out of him the performance and feel he had been looking for. Here, therefore, was the archetypal producer, acting as both arranger and inciter of performance. Later, when Elvis had moved on to a bigger record company and worldwide success, Sam Phillips would achieve similar feats with artists such as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, but by then there were also numerous others who were taking up the cause.
In the jazz world, it had long been commonplace for the composer of song material to also arrange it and act as producer in the studio, and by the late 50s and early '60s this trend had manifested itself within the rock 'n' roll industry. Bob Crewe performed in this way for The Four Seasons, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller did likewise for The Coasters, The Drifters, Elvis Presley and Ben E. King, as did Jerry Wexler for numerous acts at Atlantic Records. After all, these people had proven their ability to write hit material, so who better to convey to the artists how they envisaged their own songs and what type of performances they required?
"In the beginning, we recorded Ray [Charles] like we recorded anybody," recalls Wexler. "He didn't have a band, and he hadn't been writing songs, so we would give him songs and musicians, and we would do the arrangements."
Much the same approach was taken at Tamla Motown, where owner Berry Gordy had clued in to an exciting new form of dance music (boasting the trademark 'four-on-the-floor' bass and drum rhythm), and employed a number of composers and musicians to turn out the desired product on a production-line basis. So it was that the team of Holland/Dozier/Holland, for example, wrote, arranged and produced hit after hit for The Supremes, The Four Tops, The Temptations, and Martha & the Vandellas, among many others.
"Brian [Holland] was basically the recording engineer, melody man and producer," explains Lamont Dozier. "Eddie [Holland] wrote lyrics, and he would sing the demos for the artists. My functions were melody, lyrics, I'd sing backgrounds on the demos, and I produced with Brian. If I started a song, like 'Heat Wave' [Martha & the Vandellas] or 'It's The Same Old Song' [The Four Tops], I'd give it to Eddie to finish up. Down the line somewhere Brian and I would get together and produce it."
"The producers had the clout," recalls Mary Wilson of The Supremes. "They received more money than the artists. We were broke for years before we became stars. The producers ran Motown, the producers and Berry."
Among the most powerful producers of that era, however — or any other, for that matter — was Phil Spector, a man who not only wrote a lot of the material which his artists recorded, but also co-owned the label which they were signed to (Philles Records) and laid down the rules at LA's Gold Star Studios in a manner which was often nothing less than dictatorial. Labelled 'The First Tycoon of Teen' by famed writer Tom Wolfe for his all-round ability to provide the kids with what they wanted to hear, Spector enjoyed a golden period between 1962 and 1966, when he turned out one classic hit after another with proteges such as The Crystals, The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans, and Darlene Love. Yet, while their appearance was obviously fundamental on stage and in front of the cameras, the artists were really only secondary in importance when it came to the recordings, for here it was Spector's own unique vision and techniques which took over.
What, in effect, he achieved and has since been forever famous for, was the much-acclaimed 'wall of sound', whereby instruments were layered upon one another in such a way that the overall effect was of a huge collage — guitars, brass, keyboards, strings and percussion all seemed to merge together into one single entity instead of retaining their separate identities. 'Da Doo Ron Ron', 'Be My Baby', 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'' and 'River Deep — Mountain High' are all fine examples of this technique, which was largely achieved with the combination of numerous musicians playing in the room together (three drummers, five guitarists, etc), Jack Nitzsche's talents as an arranger, engineer Larry Levine's massive use of tape echo and reverberation, and, above all, Phil Spector's amazing pair of ears.
"You could have five guitarists all playing together," recalls producer Russ Titelman, who was present at many of the sessions, "and Phil would look at one of them and say, 'Your bottom E is flat,' and he'd be right every time!"
What Spector said was law in the studio, for he could write the songs, play the instruments and produce the hits (Stock, Aitken & Waterman would follow his lead 20 years later), and much the same went for one of his major admirers, Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. Deaf in one ear since early childhood, Wilson nevertheless utilised the other one to good advantage, for he too was capable of writing hit after hit, playing numerous instruments and, when he wanted to prove a point, singing all of the various harmony parts for this five-piece band. Of course, with talent and power such as this, it was not long before he also took over the production reins, and the result was a string of classic songs and the landmark 1966 album, Pet Sounds.
This was just a foretaste of things to come, for during the next decade and through into the '90s it would become commonplace for major recording stars to act also as producers or co-producers on their own projects. They know what they want, and they have sufficient respect from the money-hungry record companies to enable them to produce it. Alan Parsons, just one example, takes care of his own records in his own home studio virtually by himself.
So it is that over the past three decades the independent producer has had to carve out a niche for himself, whereby he becomes known for a particular sound or style of working, and subsequently has his services requisitioned by not only those who are starting out in the business, but also those who are at the very top of their profession, wish to remain there and recognise that they cannot do so without some outside assistance. In the '60s we witnessed The Beatles with George Martin, The Rolling Stones with first Andrew Oldham and then Jimmy Miller, Bob Dylan with John Hammond, The Animals with Mickie Most, and The Doors with Paul Rothchild. As time and technology moved on, however, the difference in working methods and product between producers became more pronounced: the hi-tech sound of a Giorgio Moroder, the pop commercialism of a Mike Chapman, or the more conventionally orchestrated feel of a Peter Asher, for instance.
Certain producers have also become readily identified with specialised musical genres, such as the Jamaican, Lee 'Scratch' Perry, self-styled 'Upsetter' who has been responsible for some of reggae's most innovative techniques during the past 30 years, working with anyone from Gregory Isaacs, Big Youth and The Silvertones to Delroy Wilson, Errol Dunkley and Bob Marley & The Wailers. In an altogether different place, but along the same lines, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, born and raised in Philadelphia, created the dance-funk Philly Sound with artists such as The O'Jays, Lou Rawls, Patti Labelle, and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.
At the same time, within the very broad range of mainstream popular music, some producers have become inextricably linked with certain internationally famous artists: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois with U2, Gus Dudgeon with Elton John, Narada Michael Walden with Whitney Houston, and Hugh Padgham with both Phil Collins and Sting. In Padgham's case, he usually takes care of the engineering as well as the production, and this style of working is a development which has taken place as engineers too have enjoyed greater recognition for their talents and services, and often used engineering as a stepping stone towards production.
During the early '60s, Bones Howe was one of the first independent engineers out on America's West Coast — having decided that, being as valuable as a session musician, he wanted to be paid on the same session-by-session basis and exert a little more control over his life and career. "I went independent," he recalls, "and within four days the studios were hiring me back at an hourly rate that was twice the money they were paying me before... Amazing. Guys like Lou Adler, who had never used me before, started calling. Because they were independent producers they wanted to work with somebody who worked for them, not the studio.
"Lou and I had a good working relationship. He had a good sense for songs. He knew how to cast particular songs for particular artists — he wasn't technically minded and he wasn't a musician, but he knew what he wanted a record to sound like. Our working relationship was so good that we hardly spoke."
A similar situation existed between George Martin and Geoff Emerick during their collaboration on The Beatles' records during the latter half of the '60s, for by this time the artists' innovative demands were so great that it was up to the producer to translate their ideas into musical terms, and the engineer to make everything possible with the then-limited machinery which he had to hand.
Today, this is no longer a problem, as technological advances often precede their demand, and in this age when little boxes are rendering some drummers redundant, certain engineers are making a living simply as remix specialists — in other words, taking records that have already been produced elsewhere and re-working them so that the kids in the discos have more music to dance to, and the record company executives have more cash to hang on to. Where all of this actually leaves the newly-hired artist is anyone's guess.
"Nowadays, particularly in America, everything has to sound brighter, louder and more 'go for it' than everything else, and this includes the singer," says producer Robin Millar. "The poor old singer is wheeled in to sing over this track where the bass is as bright as a bloody lead guitar, the bass drum sounds as if it is being shot, the snare drum sounds like a car crash, the guitars come out of an Emulator and sound as if they're just throwing up every now and then, and someone shoves some razor blades in your ear and that's the hi-hat! So the singer has no choice but to just stand there and try to scream over it all! You know, 'Shout a bit louder dear, we can't hear you over all this!' A case of 'Scream and Shout'!"
Having started out as an assistant at London's Olympic Studios in 1967, Kimsey engineered records by the likes of Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, Ten Years After and Bad Company, before going on to produce albums by, amongst others, The Cult, Escape Club, Psychedelic Furs, Marillion, Killing Joke and Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman & Howe. He has also engineered two albums and co-produced three more for The Rolling Stones.
"I remember on [the Stones' 1980 album] Emotional Rescue, I sat down at Charlie [Watts]'s drum kit and I was looking at the skin, and there was all this confetti. He said, 'Oh yeah, that's from the Hyde Park gig.' The confetti had just trapped itself in the rim, and with the drum never having been cleaned it had remained there since 1969! During rehearsals for Steel Wheels, he told me he'd bought some new equipment. I said, 'Oh really, what did you get?' He said, 'I bought a new pair of sticks and a new snare head.' That was Charlie's idea of new equipment!"
Raised in New York, Visconti moved to London during the late '60s and over the course of the next 20 years worked on records by David Bowie, T. Rex, Paul McCartney, Thin Lizzy, Iggy Pop, The Moody Blues, Joe Cocker, Procol Harum, The Stranglers and U2. In 1974 he formed Good Earth Productions, and set up his own state-of-the-art studio two years later. He moved back to New York in 1989.
"In one of the films that Bowie did, his voice had to age during the course of the picture. So I came up with the crazy idea of putting a C-ducer — a strip of tape with a built-in microphone — around his neck, and he wore a scarf over it. That then was fed into a harmoniser unit, and so while he spoke normally we would vary the pitch to make his voice sound higher or lower. What we didn't expect, however, was that the mike picked up his pulse so that you could hear his heartbeat, as well as a scratching sound from the bristles on his neck when he didn't shave!"
Through the mid '60s and early '70s, Miller produced the likes of Traffic, Blind Faith, Motorhead, Ginger Baker's Air Force and five albums for The Rolling Stones, on his way to amassing 88 gold records. He then dropped out of the business and moved back to his native America, before returning to the British recording scene in 1991.
"One day I was sitting with Mick Jagger away from the studio and I asked him, 'Mick, why are you always asking for less voice? Aren't you confident about how your vocals sound?' He said, 'No, it's not that.' The reason was that when he grew up, kids were never able to make out the words to a record by hearing it now and again on the radio. They'd have to go out and buy it and play that record over and over. So, in his practical way, he believed that as a result of mixing down his vocals, people would now have to buy the Stones' records in order to be able to get all the words!"
Having first garnered attention for his work in France during the 70s, Millar acquired his own London studio in 1981 and thereafter produced anyone from Sade, Fine Young Cannibals and The Kane Gang to Big Country, The Style Council and Big Sound Authority. Having relinquished his studio commitments, his most recent production is the new album by Patricia Kaas.
"In 1986 we were in the studio with Colin Hay of Men at Work. Colin is half Scot, half Australian, and a pretty rough, tough character with a fairly mean look to him, and so you learn to expect moments of high 'excitement' when you're in his company. Well, we'd already had a fairly up-and-down day when, during a vocal take, he started singing the chorus and suddenly screamed, 'Ah, Jesus!' threw his headphones across the studio floor, pushed the mic stand over and stormed out.
We thought, 'Oh God, what have we done?' but when we asked him soon afterwards he told us, 'Oh, it was nothing to do with you guys. It's my f***ing voice! When I sing high it's like a f***ing razor blade going through my head! I can't stand it!'"
One of the most successful British production teams of the early to mid '80s, Swain and Jolley earned a string of silver, gold and platinum singles and albums on both sides of the Atlantic, courtesy of projects with Imagination, Bananarama and Alison Moyet.
"Working with Bananarama wasn't easy," recalls Swain. "True Confessions was a very, very difficult album to make. We'd complete a track and then they'd start saying, 'We don't like it,' and we'd be thinking, 'Oh, Jesus!' They would want to sound like The Mamas and Papas, then they wouldn't want to sound like The Mamas and Papas. They'd say, 'We want to sound like The Bangles,' and then once this had been accomplished they'd say, 'We've changed our minds. We don't want to be like The Bangles!' This is what we went through for years. Don't tell me a producer's life is easy!"
Legendary for having produced almost all of The Beatles' landmark recordings between 1962 and 1969, as well as having signed them to EMI Records in the first place, Martin in fact parted ways with EMI in 1965 in order to co-found Associated Independent Recordings Limited, since when AIR has become one of London's top studios.
"On [the Beatles song] 'Tomorrow Never Knows', John Lennon told me he wanted me to make him sound like 'the Dalai Lama singing from the highest mountain top'. So what I did was to feed his voice through the Leslie rotating speaker of a Hammond organ. John was really impressed with the swirling effect that this produced, and so he then came up with the idea that we should suspend him from a rope in the center of the studio ceiling, place a microphone on the floor below, and then give him a push so that he could sing as he swung around. That, I thought, would be going too far!"
Since teaming up in the late 70s, musical arranger Langer and technical man Winstanley have scored hits with, amongst many others, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Madness, China Crisis and The Neville Brothers. They are currently based at their own West Side recording complex in London.
"We were recording the song 'Absolute Beginners' with David Bowie, when work had to stop at six o'clock one evening in order to record 'Dancing in the Street' to accompany a video for the Live Aid concert," recalls Winstanley. "We had about three hours to do this and rough-mix it before they started shooting the video that night, but when the band were running through the song it sounded like a cabaret thing until Mick Jagger turned up, and then they all went into fifth gear. He walked in and started jumping around like he was on stage, and together he and Bowie did two vocals. For once there was no messing about; luckily they didn't have time!"
A house engineer for a number of years at Sigma Sound Studios in New York, Kral gained his experience working on records by Talking Heads, The Ramones and Whitney Houston, to name but a few. He went freelance in the late '80s, and has since produced and engineered regularly on both sides of the Atlantic, including recent projects with Adult Art, Drink Me and The Professor & Marian.
"We're cutting a live track in London and it's going super well. Everybody in the control room is hopping up and down with excitement, and then all of a sudden one guitar just disappears from the meters on the console. I'm looking around, wondering what the hell has happened, and the next thing I know in the middle of the take one of the guitarists walks in and very politely says, 'Excuse me, but I have a small fire in my amp.' We look at him like he's crazy, but sure enough when we look through the control room window the entire isolation booth is filled with thick black smoke! It took four hours to clean the place up and for everyone to get over their headaches."
Having graduated from London's Utopia Studios in 1985, Palmer has since been a freelance producer/engineer and proved to be popular with his clients, working on five albums with The Mission, and two each with Robert Plant, Tin Machine and Texas. He has recently been co-producing and engineering a new album by Tears For Fears' Roland Orzabal.
"If a project is more demanding from the musical side, I don't want to have to worry about sound levels and so on because I'll have other things to concentrate on. In such situations I'll get someone in to help. Now, quite often, here in Britain, you're doing well if your assistant doesn't go absent, yet the morning Jimmy Page came in to play on Robert Plant's Now And Zen sessions I suddenly found I had three assistants and a maintenance man who insisted on fixing something immediately and wouldn't leave. I've never understood why I don't get this treatment all the time!"
While maintaining a solo recording and performing career, Edmunds has spent the past decade indulging his love for roots rock by producing the likes of The Stray Cats, The Everly Brothers, The Fabulous Thunderbirds and KD Lang, as well as acting as musical arranger for Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins and other rock legends. He was also recently a member of Ringo Starr's touring line-up.
"I don't know what I have to offer until I get in the studio and we start off, and then I think, 'Oh, I know, why don't we try this? How about doing that?' and it just starts happening. You just wait for a bit of magic to take place, and it does so when you're working with good people. For me, the whole buzz of being in this business is working with good musicians, good singers, good songwriters — the best — and you can get them if you've got a bit of a reputation and had some success chart-wise. It does help."
Formerly a session musician, Britten scored a songwriting hit with Cliff Richard's Devil Woman in 1976, before hitting the jackpot in 1984 with Tina Turner's Private Dancer album. 'What's Love Got To Do With It?' was voted Song of the Decade by Billboard Magazine, and Britten then went on to help shape the sound of Turner's Break Every Rule album.
"The beauty, for me, of 'What's Love Got To Do With It?' was Tina's understated voice in this very tight, low-key track, but this was, in fact, against her own better judgement. She kept saying, 'I've got to sing it loud! That's the way I sing!' and I kept saying, 'No, softer! Softer!' So she'd sing a short passage softly and then she'd say, 'Look, I've got to let it rip now!' and I'd say, 'No, not yet, trust me! You'll be able to sing loud at the end!' She couldn't believe it, but then, when she got it right, it was fantastic, and she was absolutely staggered!"
Having entered the music business as far back as 1955, Lenhoff spent several years struggling to run his own studio before moving to King Studios in Cincinnati, where, from 1966 to 1972, he spent a lot of time working on James Brown's classic records. He has since retired.
"On one occasion, I was summoned by James to go to Nashville, and as there were no flights available I made the five-hour journey by car. James and the musicians were ready in the studio, and so as soon as I arrived we got on with recording several numbers, and then afterwards James was so appreciative that he told his manager, Bud Hopgood, to immediately draw up a contract giving me a 10% songwriter's royalty on one of the tracks. Well, I've been collecting on it ever since. The song, you see, was 'Sex Machine'!"
One of the most successful composer-production teams of all time, these three became household names all over the world during the mid to late '80s due to their hit recordings with contracted artists such as Princess, Mel and Kim, Banarama, Samantha Fox, Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. Yet, having amassed a pile of gold and platinum records, they also drew a lot of criticism for what many considered to be computer-based, production-line pop.
"We were looking for a new direction for Bananarama, and so when I was in Paris I stayed in my hotel bedroom for about three days and just listened to the radio," recalls Pete Waterman. "I then returned to the UK with four dance records out of Italy, and I said to the guys, 'Here is what it is: Italian melodies, with the Euro beat and Motown lyrics.' You see, the foreign lyrics don't translate well into English. So these were the elements for Bananarama, and it was up to the guys to make them work, which they did."
During a career which stretches back to the early '60s, Dudgeon has engineered hit records by artists ranging from The Rolling Stones, The Zombies, John Mayall and The Small Faces, to Tom Jones and Marianne Faithful, while enjoying enormous chart success as a producer with David Bowie, Black Sabbath, Joan Armatrading, Ten Years After, The Boomtown Rats, Chris Rea, Elkie Brooks, Jennifer Rush, the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and, from 1969 through to 1986, Elton John.
"I don't believe that the equipment makes the difference between a hit and a miss. I'm not the kind of person who says, 'The bass drum? Oh well, you've got to stick it through one of those!' I don't think that way. With me it's more a case of, 'Why don't we stick this through here and see what happens... That sounds pretty good; I never would have believed it!' Sometimes you can turn knobs in all the wrong directions and get the most amazing effect."
Winner of a Grammy Award for Producer of the Year in 1985, Padgham has established himself as one of the world's very top producers and engineers during the past decade, courtesy of acclaimed projects with such internationally famous names as The Police, Genesis, David Bowie, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney and, most recently, Sting.
"I'd rather have a bad-sounding record that's got a good vibe and is a good song, than a bad song that sounds fantastic. Sometimes you get demos that sound fantastic, and when you go into the studio and try to recreate them everything's clean and nice, and it doesn't sound as good. There are times when dodgy equipment can be nice, and I use quite a lot of cheap equipment; people come in and say, 'Wow, do you use that? I've got one of those in my home studio!'"
Feature by Richard Buskin
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