The enigmatic record producer: an eccentric wizard with the ability to weave untold wonders from the musical meanderings of the mere mortal. Or so the legend goes. But, how otherworldly are the brains and skill sets of these sonic architects? With technically advanced home recording software as omnipresent in the modern musician’s arsenal as a capo, what has become of the producer’s role? It is over a year since we at Bido Lito! ran an extensive feature posing the question: ‘Has the MacBook killed the record producer’ (Issue 13, July 2011); an article that in part lamented the demise of the knowledge-base built up over six decades of recording music. Fourteen months on, we’ve decided to investigate further and get hands-on with some of Liverpool’s top producers for a PRODUCTION DECONSTRUCTION.
Current odd-pop wonders and darlings of the scene Loved Ones have kindly furnished us with the full multi-tracked recordings of Matchsticks (taken from the group’s debut LP) and we’ll be entrusting mix duties to some of Liverpool’s best producers: Mike Crossey from The Motor Museum (who’s worked with Arctic Monkeys and The Black Keys), Michael Johnson of Tankfield Studios (whose recording credits include Joy Division’s Closer and New Order’s Blue Monday), Rob Whitely from Whitewood Studios (Clinic /Wombats), Daz Jones of Elevator Studios (Ian McCulloch /Bill Ryder-Jones) and Al Groves of Sandhills Studios (Ian Broudie/Elvis Costello). The fruits of the producers’ mixes will be premiered each week throughout September on bidolito.co.uk with a blog from each, giving an insight into the thinking behind their individual take on the track. In the meantime, Bido Lito!’s Mick Chrysalid caught up with the producers ahead of the Production Deconstruction to try and gain an insight into their dark arts…
The world of the producer is, on the surface, a disorientating one; what with equalizers, compressors, reverb units and multiple effects, never mind microphones and the consideration as to where exactly you are going to put them. Add in all the digital versus analogue concerns, considering the actual physical space you choose to record in, and the amount of options on offer are huge. Silence is the canvas here and the sound is mixed from a palette of technology and technique (and other too true clichés). Up steps the producer, who has previously drilled to untold sonic depths, coming back with tried and tested tricks (if they’re worth their salt anyway). It is this mastery of the tools that helps them bring out the best in a modern world where producing music comes with a high variety of requirements.
So, what is the first thing on a producer’s mind then when they’re faced with a new project? The much celebrated Mike Crossey states that, “Great music evokes a genuine emotional response; producers need to be able to identify what it is about a band that does that and bring it out to the forefront”. Michael Johnson of Tankfield Studios, a producer who has experienced many changes in the industry since overseeing the construction of early cuts from the legendary Factory Records, offers a personal insight, “Can I imagine a way of making a record I’d like to hear on the radio? If the song gives me ideas that I think will make it a good record then I’m interested. If I can’t think of a way of dramatically improving it then there’s no point getting involved.”
Al Groves of the excellently equipped Sandhills Studios catches a similar tone conveying an ardour for his craft which is charming: “It’s all about the songs and the feelings they give you. My job is to amplify these feelings so other people will get them too.” This isn’t a view that finds a consensus, mind, something that mirrors the different paths involved in the occupation itself. Rob Whitely, a buoyant figure and skilled producer on the Liverpool scene, doesn’t see his primary role as thinking too far ahead: “I’m not really here to judge. It’s much more of a question of how do I make it better”.
As a producer, you’ve obviously got to try and capture what a band is attempting to do but also make individual decisions in order to help them arrive at the place they’re aiming for. Surely a balance has to be struck? Mike Crossey explains, “I think early on in a session it’s important to not put too many walls up around how the approach to capturing the record is going to be. I guess I try to ensure that there is an atmosphere that feels fun and creative where the artist feels very involved in every decision.” Daz Jones of the highly decorated Elevator Studios reveals the importance of keeping your ears on the sum and substance: “Never forget the demos and what is good about the song. Add diplomacy into this mix with exploring several options and you get there in the end.” It’s definitely horses for courses as Rob points out: “Part of gaining skills over time is recognizing what bands are after. Every band is different. It is you that has to figure out what to do.”
Every band may be different, but many now come equipped with more of a precise vision of what they want. The rise of compatibility between home recording rigs and professional studios enables an artist to bring along their own sessions. Rob Whitely: “People used to bring in demos but now they bring in files. We then may start to replace parts with overdubs. However, sometimes the house does need pulling down completely and re-building.” Al Groves is all for it: “There have been bands that have made amazing music at home on limited equipment, so I’m certainly open to them bringing in their tracks.”
The producers’ studios all vary in the degrees of technology and gadgets they posses, but nonetheless they all add up to an expense rarely seen in the amateur’s studio. Therefore I put to them the question: is it technology and its advancements that lead sound and its production, or is it technique and knowledge? The man versus machine conundrum. Rob Whitely: “Of course some of this stuff we have bought for the studio becomes almost essential, because it’s that good, but you won’t get everything you need without learning how to use it at its best.” Daz Jones: “You learn as you go along, constantly learning new things with the technology you have. That is at the core.” Al Groves, who is self-taught, also believes that technique trumps all: “You can arrive at different sounds with a variety of methods. Cheap equipment or expensive, it’s the art of use that will get the best out of it.” This is an idea that Mike Crossey has considered before and arrives at the conclusion, “I would go with personal technique. I read somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert or world class at something and I think that holds some truth. If you work super hard at getting great at production and engineering, I think over time you get lots of light bulb moments.”
So if we are to reach a consensus that individual technique and skill are the producer’s key calling card, does a producer over time develop their particular aural persona, their own ‘sound’? This may be down to personality or even experience, bearing in mind that the producers in question range from six years’ experience in the business to over thirty, which may be why Michael Johnson seems pretty certain of where he is right now: “Yes, I think I have my own sound. It’s not something I’ve developed deliberately – it’s just the way my productions turn out”. We will be sure to find out soon enough as Michael, Mike, Al, Rob and Daz all work their individual magic on Loved Ones, as we become absorbed in September’s Production Deconstruction. Different personalities, techniques and equipment will surely all result in an absorbing insight.