To the layperson, the producer is a sometimes invisible part of any recorded piece of music. While different levels of fidelity and production are apparent in some recordings, for many music lovers what a producer does is somewhat ineffable. That’s the way they like it, in general, because while they are usually musicians themselves, they approach their job like a craftsman, making the best work look like no work at all.
“[Music] that doesn’t excite you may not have reached you in part because of the way it sounds. Presentation has a lot to do with perception of music,” explains Marc Williams, a protege of Rick Miller who’s worked with Miller on several Southern Culture on the Skids albums.
But most producers agree–the key is the performance, not necessarily how or what’s used to capture it.
“I have a microphone I literally used to hammer with, so it’s got all these dents in it,” producer and musician Chris Stamey says. “One day, we were out of mikes. [Ryan Adams] was playing guitar and wanted to sing along, so I said give him that mike. It was recorded on an ADAT. He did like 10 songs in a row and they’re great, and nobody complains about the mike or about the ADAT. Making records is about recording people. It’s people, combined with machines and a lot of technical elements in it, given–but people’s ears are going to go to the people on the track. What’s great about good hip hop is it cuts out all the distraction, it’s just the voice.”
None of the producers we talked to preferred the sound of digital recording to analog, but every one of them found it useful.
“I’m so used to [digital sound] sound now. It’s one of those things where if you don’t look back, it’s alright. But when you look back it’s like, ‘Wow, listen how much better that sounds.’ But you have to weigh that against the flexibility, speed and options that working with a digital workstation give you. Especially when you’re working on something quick and dirty,” says producer Brian Paulson. “Even on long term projects, it’s time consuming doing it in analog and it’s mind-melting to sit there and operate a tape machine for 10 hours a day. After two hours my eyes start to glaze over.”
There’s no disputing that the flood of inexpensive digital recording equipment has radically changed the nature of recording for bands, who can now do many things at home right into their computer, then mix it down with software such as Pro-Tools, creating the possibility of making studio-quality recordings in your bedroom. But opening up the playing field didn’t necessarily make things easier for bands or music fans, because as Rick Miller puts it, “more shit just makes it harder to pick out the good pieces.”
“It’s been a great thing for us,” says Brent Lambert, who masters albums by numerous regional acts in his studio The Kitchen. “Although digital technologies democratized the actual creative process of making records, in the end it really boils down to physics. And if you don’t have a great listening environment with the proper ratios for acoustics, you can’t make a really great record at home.”
Another problem with recording the individual parts directly into a computer and assembling them that way is you can lose the interaction of the players and the spark that energized the song in the first place.
“It’s funny, there’s recordings I’ve done where you do the demos and then do the so-called real records, and then all of a sudden it’s like there’s no imagination left,” Paulson says. “That’s the thing about that Comas record that we did. Everything was so worked over, and it was definitely a computer-generated record. It was great at the time. I really wanted to make a record like that, to turn on all the toys. That was kind of the goal. I don’t think I realized what we would be losing in the process.”
But it’s more complex than an aesthetic choice between digital and analog. Most recordings are a blend in one way or another. Even if you record to digital, you can use the color that analog equipment provides in other ways on the front end.
“You can try and get a signal flow that represents certain sonic qualities and paint with that,” says Williams. “It’s not just about the source, but choosing between a ribbon or a dynamic or a condenser mike, picking a particular amplifier and choosing a couple different kinds of cable. Pick a heavy transformer and a couple older type pre-amps or a direct coupled later type pre-amp. All these things add up and affect the sonic color of the signal going through them.
“You choose analog gear based on its side effects. You go through this thing and before you’ve ever adjusted anything it sounds a certain way. Digital stuff is designed to be invisible. Which has a place, and there are all sort of virtual things that imitate the analog gear. But virtual is just another word for imitation, and the real shit just sounds better,” he says.
Choosing a producer is much like choosing the gear to record on. Each brings something unique to the recording of an album. It can be as simple as a good business arrangement, such as that of Durham’s Pox World Empire studios. Run by Zeno Gill, who also runs a label of the same name, Gill allows the bands that sign to his label free use of the studio, essentially for a split of the profits.
Stamey suggests people seek him out when “they’re looking for someone that can arrange. Or maybe they’re looking for someone who knows about songwriting.”
For Miller, “the selling point on a lot of studios is how the room sounds,” which has made his very “live” studio Kudzu Ranch a popular location to record drums–one of the most integral and difficult parts of an album’s construction.
Paulson, who tends to work in other people’s studios (“To this day I don’t want to be in the business of studio management”), feels his strategy is akin “in the classic sense to something like Phil Spectre. Someone who has the vision. Though, I feel like there are a lot of bands that aren’t looking for a vision.”
But just because a producer may have a particular style doesn’t dictate the album’s sound. Sometimes producers like to take jobs to stretch out and try something new, or may like to try a variety of different musical takes on the same material.
“I have my preferences, definitely, but I think it’s pretty unreasonable to think that works for everybody. So I always get extra–it’s easier to take something away than to add,” says Track & Field Studio’s Nick Peterson, who like Paulson grew up on Midwestern punk, and recently has recorded albums by Des_Ark, Fake Swedish and The Nein.
“With a lot of new artists I ask the direction. When I did the joints with Destiny’s Child, Beyonce came right out and said, ‘This is where we’re going, this is what we’re trying to do, and why we got you here,’” says DJ 9th Wonder. “She said, ‘We’re trying to go for the old emotional type sound. We got you here because you got a lot of soul in your tracks. But can you bring the emotions through your tracks but make it a Destiny’s Child sound?’ Not like I’m a chameleon and you don’t know it’s me. But I’ll conform to that artist.”
Part carpenter, part psychologist, a producer’s job is one of a facilitator working with the band to capture the music in its best light. Because of that, what a producer brings to a project can be as ineffable as the idea of great music.
“Records are like movies in that you have to go through a lot of crap to end up with less than two hours on the screen,” Stamey says. “It’s hard work, but if you love records and you love music, it’s what you do.”