“For me engineering and record production are about helping people make artistic, creative and forward thinking music whilst giving that music an appropriate and exciting sonic world to live in.
Real magic can occur when an artist and a producer/engineer work together to create something truly special from the beginning rather than just layering a random assortment of sounds and parts before processing them into oblivion further down the line.
High sound quality or attention to engineering detail can often be confused with something sounding too slick or overproduced, but this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact sometimes it can mean the complete opposite. Whilst there are any number of tracks that fit into the description of great music with great and interesting sonics, the following are ten tracks which connected with me before I become completely obsessed with sound and recording. It’s only through revisiting them that I realised that part of the reason for my appreciation was that the artistic vision and technical vision were working in harmony with the song.
Whether you like the music or not I think the following are all great lessons in not just recording but recording with purpose and courage.”
Tom Morris, Producer/engineer, 4AD Records Studio
1.Lou Reed-Street Hassle (Street Hassle)
Although Lou’s Berlin album is a superior album as a whole this song is such an ambitious piece of pop music that I come back to it time and time again. A binaural head was used to capture many of the sounds, Bruce Springsteen quotes himself in the third verse, it’s almost 11 minutes of one riff and it never get’s boring. When I listen to this I feel like Lou is talking directly to me, whilst the backing vocals sound like distant angels.
2.D’Angelo-Devil’s Pie (Voodoo)
Recorded entirely to tape when everyone else was embracing digital technology. Four years in Electric Lady studios doesn’t come cheap but the results speak for themselves. Engineer for the Voodoo sessions Russell Elevado always gives the impression that he had been waiting for an artist to push him and realise the ideas he had had previously and that’s what happened with D’Angelo. The drum sound on this song is mind blowing, the balance between the instruments and vocals perfect.
3.Brian Eno-Here Come The Warm Jets (Here Come The Warm Jets)
I’ve been trying to recreate the guitar sound on this for about ten years. If you’re ever unsure of the direction to take a production making it sound a bit more like this track is always a positive step. I used to listen to this song on loop and try and visualise the recording process that created it. It sounds like traditional instruments being beamed in from another world. When the track really get’s going it is an incredible example of sonic texture and harmony reinforcing the emotion of the track.
4.Tom Waits-Goin Out West (Bone Machine)
Tom turns up at the studio and decides to set up in the boiler room instead of the live room. His sonic signature is so unique that there’s never any doubt in who you’re listening to. Tchad Blake mixed this who’s worked on a lot of very distinct records and has a very individual approach to engineering. The boiler room at the studio is now “The Waits Room”.
5.Michael Jackson-Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’ (Thriller)
The use of the stereo field on this song is brilliant the weird dry vocals in your left ear the brass, guitar and BV’s all merging into one. Bruce Swedien (Engineer on most of Michael’s recordings) uses a stereo microphone technique not a million miles away from the binaural technique used in Street Hassle. Listening to any Michael Jackson album on headphones gives you an idea of how natural the stereo field appears. At the same time it sounds incredible in mono on the radio and nothing get’s lost, a real engineering feat.
6.David Bowie-Sound and Vision (Low)
This is such an obvious one but the whole of Low is a masterclass in creating a sonic landscape for great songs and performances. Eno, Fripp, Visconti, Bowie. Really heavyweights creating something incredibly fresh and new. I believe the snare sound (created by the eventide H3000) caused much discussion in the engineering community and there were rumours of a “magic snare”.
7. Fleetwood Mac-Songbird (Rumours)
When they couldn’t get the right atmosphere in the studio producers Ken Caillat and Richard Dashut hired a concert hall and a mobile studio to capture the sound of Christine Mcvie in a more interesting environment. This isn’t my favourite song from Rumours and I know that it wasn’t as big deal in the 70’s as it was now but the sheer bravery of “this isn’t working let’s rent an auditorium and a remote recording truck and have another go” is inspiring.
8.Can – Halleluwah (Tago Mago)
This record was recorded by the bass player in a castle. Although it’s on the surface an improvised live band recording, the edits and the space around the instruments make it completely distinctive. I can’t imagine how creative this record sounded in 1971 it still sounds brand new today. Everyone claims to be influenced by Can but no one sounds quite like them.
9.Sonic Youth-Eric’s Trip (Daydream Nation)
When guitars sounded like this in 1983 there’s no excuse for some of the derivative tones I’ve heard in the last few years! When I discovered this record it changed everything for me as it will continue to do for years to come. Another showing for the eventide H3000 multi FX processor which was used by Lee Ronaldo on a lot of the guitars. I always love Lee’s songs on Sonic Youth records his voice floats above the wild guitars and hectic drums without ever getting lost. “Can you dig it”.
10. Meat Loaf – Bat Out Of Hell
One of the biggest rock songs ever. Meat Loaf isn’t the most fashionable of artists but as a ten year old this Todd Rundgren production completely blew my mind. Listening back now it is of course completely ridiculous yet an incredible piece of rock composition and production. The way the music moves around the vocal over it’s ten minutes is particularly impressive.
11. Kate Bush-Cloud Busting (Hounds Of Love)
Kate Bush is an incredible producer. Although she only produced one or two tracks for other artists her own records are so strong it doesn’t matter. According to the internet she built her own studio to do this record and when you listen through to it as a whole you can tell the time and care that’s gone into making it. The instrumental section in the middle and the way the strings come in at the end is breathtaking. If you look through the credits of any Kate Bush record it’s like a who’s who of recording engineers.