Sparked on by a love of classic record producers such as Phil Spector, Joe Meek, and Sam Phillips, Bowers & Wilkins got together a panel of musical experts to see what they had to tell us about music and sound reproduction. Producers, musicians, and people at the very heart of the music industry, we asked them what exactly it is a producer does – and why modern music on CD doesn’t always sound as good as it could.
At the head of the table, and chairing the meeting was Martyn Ware, a sound pioneer and member of Heaven 17 and the Human League, who also has an impressive collection of production credits including the massive-selling Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby
Steve Levine is well known in the music industry for producing hit albums for the likes of Culture Club and Westworld. But he was also the engineer on early Clash recordings, and has presented an excellent BBC Radio 2 show on the art of record production.
KK has produced music from the likes of Tim Booth and Natalie Imbruglia, and worked on film scores by such big names as Society of Sound Fellow James Newton Howard’s soundtrack for Collateral. He’s also recorded an album of children’s music with Sophie Barker of Zero 7 – which is much loved by parents and toddlers.
Simon Gogerly is a renowned mix engineer, who has worked on a number of Hip-Hop and R&B remixes for artists such as Missy Elliot, Busta Rhymes, Lil’ Kim, Rakim, Mase, Jamiroquai and Simply Red. He also won a Grammy at the 2006 Grammy Awards for his work on U2’s album “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”.
Jim Irvin is the former singer with the band Furniture, and is now a songwriter signed to Warner Chappell. He’s also a journalist, and is a regular contributor to Mojo and Word magazines.
Steve Sasse is Head of A&R at Atlantic Records, and is therefore involved heavily in the partnering of musicians with producers. He has worked with Paolo Nutini, James Blunt, Leftfield, Razorlight and the Propellerheads.
What is a producer?
The role of the record producer equates closely to that of a film director – albeit with original connotations of actually producing the finished product, records. It is their job to get the best out of the musicians/actors and make the creative vision these people have into something that the rest of us can enjoy.
Steve Levine explains how it works: “When a songwriter or a band say ‘how can we make it like this?’ You’re then trying to interpret their wish, their dream or aspiration”.
It also appears as though the relationship between artists and producers have changed in recent years, and whereas once an artist had no concept of a production and was simply given a producer, so there’s much more of a two-way relationship, especially as many emerging artists have already laid down tracks at home using Pro Tools and even Garage Band.
KK claims that the producer maybe isn’t the magical figure he once was: “The studio is not this big mystery that it used to be. And there isn’t this kind of dogma and mystique surrounding how to record anymore.
Steve Sasse of Atlantic Records agrees, and says that when a band has already had some experience of recording, and has developed their own ‘sound’ he tries to encourage them to keep that sound with their debut ‘professional’ recordings, and find a producer who facilitates that. “James Blunt has an affinity to that kind of west coast American tradition,” he said. “And found a producer in Tom Rothrock that gave him that sound and you know, whether you like him or loath him, I think he has sort of achieved what he wanted to.”
It’s almost as though producers are doing their own A&R, and getting involved with new artists early on and taking that completed sound to the record label. Surely that can only be a good thing for the quality of the music we have to look forward to, but what about that other important matter: sound quality.
Sound quality in the modern age
Compression is an important, and controversial topic in modern music production, especially as far as people concerned about sound quality is concerned: how much influence does a producer have on the sound quality of modern music.
With recent debates over the boosted loudness of albums by Metallica and Lily Allen, mastering engineer Simon Gogerly was obviously well placed to discuss how mastering a record effects the quality of the sound the listener gets out of a hi-fi at the other end of the process!
The loudness wars seem to be affecting more and more artists, with Gogerly explaining how an increasing number of artists are coming back to him saying how they love the mix, but it isn’t as loud as some CDs they have, for example.
“Because things are getting mastered so hot and compressed and limited so much, people are expecting to hear that when you are mixing their stuff as well. So it is colouring how you can mix something. I mean I personally am not such a big fan because you know it kind of, the reduction of the dynamic range of the track is just squashing out a lot of the space, that it’s nice to have in a track.”
This arms race towards loudness, as KK called it, seems to be taking priority over sound quality in a lot of modern masters, and seems to be a sticking point for the recording industry, when it comes to making great sounding releases. Steven Sasse explained how the record companies felt about it, and why it was prevalent: “It is a fear thing I think,” he says. “A band or a label or manager does not want their track to come on the radio and sound quieter than the track that was just on before it.”
However, while compression is a by-word for bad sound nowadays, Steve Levine pointed out to us that it was actually originally a very useful tool for producers, and some of the world’s finest music benefited from compression, including Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and the Motown sound.
“Berry Gordy would specifically listen to his mixes in his office,” Steve explained. “He would have them cut on to an acetate and he would play them through a transistor radio to hear how they would sound on a radio and would then use mastering compressors in those days to make sure that they sounded as powerful as they would on radio. That is one of the big differences between certain CD reissues and your recollection of them in the vinyl world, they actually sound different because the engineers and producers who originally cut the records had a totally different approach, primarily because they could not get the level on the physical vinyl disk of the day.”
But today things are different, and the loudness war is resulting in albums where every track is produced like a radio friendly single, and it can be very fatiguing.
The latest Metallica album was a good case in point, and sparked off lots of debate, especially as the version available for download in the video game Guitar Hero was less compressed and therefore sounded better than the CD release!
And it’s not only heavy metal acts who strive for loudness, as Steve Levine explains, “One good example is Snow Patrol. I cannot listen to two tracks in a row from them. It is so loud and so in your face that my ears get fatigued by the time the first verse is coming of the next song. It is just too much.”
But it’s not all bad news, as artists such as Mercury Music Prize winning Elbow made a conscious effort not to use these kind of mastering techniques, and it resulted in a top quality album that also sounds great on a quality hi-fi system.
As the band itself say, if you want to hear it louder, then turn your system up a bit. We couldn’t agree more.