Back when I played in the band “Glass Eye” with Kathy McCarty, we had a little schtick we’d do together. I’d say “Hey, Kathy, how do you become a record producer?” And she’d say “I don’t know, Brian, how do you become a record producer?” And I’d say “You stamp your foot on the ground and shout “I’m a record producer! I’m a record producer!!”” As we all know, no one knows what a record producer does. BUT if a record sucks, and a producer is involved.... it's probably the producer's fault.
A songwriter is likely looking for a different set of skills in a producer than a band would. Sometimes a producer does no more than bringing some people together to work in a place. To help them get settled, relaxed, and focused. Maybe the producer needs to help clarify, or tighten, or loosen the way the song is being played. (Many a unique song is made average sounding by a "middle of the road" approach, and many a perfectly simple, beautiful song is obscured by unnecessary ornamentation ...) Perhaps the producer is helping with the arrangement, maybe even playing as part of the band. If you’re Allan Toussaint, you’ll bring a song or 2 to the session. If you’re Mike Chapman, you might have co-written the whole record! If you’re John Hammond, you might get out to the studio every once in a while and say “Sounds good! Glad I got you guys together. Keep it up!”. One million ways to get it finished. Any one of them might work... and yet, inappropriately applied, any one of them might stop the job in it's tracks. SCARY!... Musicians and artists ARE such sensitive souls, it's true!
I especially enjoy co-producing. My default recording/ producing method is to find out what an artist wants and try to achieve it together, with decision making partially filtered through my ears and perspective. An especially important part of figuring out an approach before getting into the studio is the LISTENING PARTY! We listen to some favorite records (and some favorite sounding records), and then we work on developing a common language of sounds and goals. Why does this recording feel and sound SO different from another? Is it studio tricks, or simply the way it's played? The last thing you want to do when you're enjoying music is to wonder WHY you like it, but before you make a record, it helps to analyze some of the things that have thrilled you as a listener. What about it gets to you? Well, It's some amazing combination of the composition, the artist's performance , and the way it was captured. I actually think it's magic, but it's also kind of quantifiable. Listening to and talking about this stuff helps us develop the language we'll use while we're recording and mixing. These listening sessions usually are an essential part of the whole pre production process. When we start to record, instead of suddenly being lost in an ocean of abstract sonics and possibilities, we find that we've already mapped out a direction, and maybe we can even clearly communicate about how to get there!
I don't mind taking a songwriter with no particular opinion about where to go to a pleasantly surprising place. But even if I’m left a lot of discretion in guiding the recording’s direction, I always try to serve both the artist and the song equally, and well. A producer should always fight for the song. No one’s gonna step on the song’s toes… (unless the song likes it?) It's usually a matter of helping the musicians find common goals for the performance, and working together towards a beautiful end result. It can be perplexing, but mostly it’s a thrilling journey into the unknown. Every time.
I also am in awe of the complex psychological world of the BAND, and I love understanding how a band works, how they knit and tick and tock and roll together, how a band’s inner world contrasts with an outsiders perspective, and how to herd a cast of cats.
I am a lover of acoustic tones (sounds in a space), and a lover of contrasts. Large, full range sounds next to sounds recorded with a very odd, cheap mic, next to sounds recorded with a less cheap microphone… Close and far, bright and dark.
Analog tape delay is a wonder, and I can make it do a bag of tricks, from regular old short to long delays, and all of they magic that happens with feedback and echoey regenerations, to tape delaying the sounds of room ambience, to swooshy flange drum echo, stereo vocal delays warbled by hand, stuck through a dark spring reverb and recorded through tiny speakers (for playful psychoacoustic delight!)… I hand make and print all effects… I love replacing a track with its (messed up?) taped analog doppelganger. You can mellotronize anything, with varying tonal approaches, from full and lush to fucked up. Analog delays and analog tape create a sound playground where I like to play and play.
I always try to record the vocals live. The most memorable experiences I’ve ever had in a studio are when I’m listening to a song as it’s being recorded, and it’s so beautiful and right that I feel like I’m listening to a finished record. BUT, I also love taking time with vocals later on, too. Many a record becomes great with that approach.
I love big broad dynamics and little distorted oddities. I tend towards minimalism, but sometimes you wouldn’t know it. I especially love when I can help a song achieve a cinematic soundscape, it’s own life. Even if it’s in subtle ways, a recording needs to have crackling psychic beauty. It may want a slight reshifting of tones and sounds so some under the surface psychological aspect is more apparent. Achieving "crackling psychic beauty" may be as simple as getting all of the players to tell the same story… (Subtle dynamics can make music come alive!) When all the stars are aligned, nothing is more beautiful than a bunch of musicians, in a room, playing music. However we get there, I want to help give the song it's own world. I like records to sound fun, unique, mysterious and plugged into some deeper feelings. I like the subtle stuff, and the crazy stuff. The boneheaded and the bighearted. Either way, if it’s good music, when you get on the same page as the song, you can’t go wrong. Let’s push record and see what happens!