Thursday, August 30, 2007

"Well, What Does a Producer Do Anyway?"

I have written a few words about the important role a producer plays in the recording process. My friends in the Sellaband community have made some interesting comments and have asked questions which caused me to take a step back and approach the subject from another angle.

In a perfect world, we would all abide by the sage words of Rodney King and "Just get along." Musicians would make music, engineers would see to it that the music was recorded to broadcast specifications and producers would steer the ship in the most efficient direction. Ego-less collaboration would be the order of the day, flowers would be in full bloom, the lion would lay down with the lamb and every day would begin with a happy ending.

NEWS FLASH! This just's not a perfect world. Collaboration implies cooperation. Making records, as in any endeavor where success hinges on sacrificing the needs, goals or opinions of the individual in favor of the welfare of all, can often become a competition of urinary ballistics or an exercise in comparative male protrusion measurement.

Engineers often see themselves as producers or are themselves frustrated musicians. And musicians are forever grabbing knobs and faders to show that they also know a thing or two about engineering. After the smoke clears, the producer will have a word with the musician, telling him to ignore the engineer's tips on how to play the guitar, tell the engineer to put the knobs and faders back to where they were before the drummer played with them, and try to get a good take so the day hasn't completely been a waste of time.

My friend Pieps, a very talented guitarist and songwriter from The Netherlands checked into the Sellaband forum and asked, "...But what if it all goes wrong...and an artist with a huge potential works with a bad taste producer?" Well, producers can be thought of as soccer referees. They never have a home game and the operative word, "taste", is in the tongue of the beholder. Is a recording bad because we don't like it? Or is it bad because it doesn't make money?

Pieps' question opens a far reaching discussion concerning the cyclical cause and effect inherent in commercial music. The music must sell in order to justify the production costs which support the artists who make the music which must sell in order to justify the production costs which support the artists...etc. But what if we turn this question around? What happens when a producer is assigned an artist with worlds of potential but lacking in the skills associated with professional recording and/or the desire to acquire those skills?

The title of this entry is a direct quote from a young songwriter who was also the guitarist and bandleader of an act we attempted to produce at Shangri La. I'll call him Dip-shit although that isn't his real name. His band mates were John the drummer and an eye-candy bassist and co-writer called Dingbat. The band, Shit-for-Brains (also a pseudonym), had great potential. Their songs were catchy, they had a good look and there was commercial potential in their sound. We assembled a production team consisting of Dennis St. John, Neil Diamond's former musical director and producer, engineer Ron Hitchcock, and me. I was to assist Ron in engineering, help the band dial in great sounds using Shangri La's collection of vintage amps and instruments, oversee the vocal sessions, and help Dennis with any musical issues.

Dennis had been working with Shit-for-brains for two months polishing their songs. He helped them with song forms, had them re-write some weak lyrics and rehearsed the process of basic track recording. All of us, including the studio owner who was underwriting the project, believed that a hit record was in the making. After a long day of loading in, setting up the studio and getting sounds, we put a precious roll of tape on the Studer and mounted up.

What followed can only be described by a caravan of words. Funny, curious, innovative, frustrating, exasperating...and six weeks later, as we listened to the final mixes, the very walls of the studio oozed with vitriolic ill will. Shit-for-Brains respected nothing, learned nothing, acted every bit the superstars and left the studio without doing the production team the courtesy of listening to the mixes all the way through.

When we pushed the record button, Dip-shit lead his band through the first song. Without any discussion with us, Shit-for-Brains decided to ignore the weeks of pre-production with Dennis. It was a classic case of passive-aggressive nutless behavior. Dennis went into the room and tried to give Dip-shit a way out by humorously asking if they had forgotten their medication. But it was clear that there was conflict within the band. Dingbat, who's day job was telephone dominatrix ( I swear I'm not making this up!), stared daggers at Dip-shit as he stammered to Dennis that the band felt that the changes made in pre-production didn't reflect "where the band was coming from." As the studio owners representative, I stepped into the discussion to explain that a great deal of money and resources were being extended to Shit-for-Brains with the intent of realizing commercial return on investment. Therefore the production team, respecting the best interests of all parties, had a responsibility to use our best judgement in creating a viable product.

Everyone pretended to kiss and make up...but every change, every suggestion, every effect, every tone...every last detail was a fresh battleground. We would talk to Dip-shit in the control room, he would go into the studio and talk to Dingbat, she would yell at him and hand him one of his balls so he could remember that he had a pair at one time, the band would half-heartedly run through our version, tell us, "See, it doesn't work!" and go back to their original demo versions. It was absolute hell and if it were left to me, I would have stopped the bleeding immediately. The studio owner didn't deal well with confrontation so he went to Italy leaving me with instructions to "just get it done." I think Dingbat the Dominatrix scared the shit out of him and he couldn't wait to get away.

Speaking of Dingbat the Dominatrix, She really set the bar for stupid when we began to cut background vocals. Her bass playing was weak and out of time. She complained that she couldn't hear the kick in the headphones but when she took them off, they were roaring like a boombox. We decided that she was deaf and planned on letting her overdub the bass parts without the drummer later. When it came time to set her up for vocals, I noticed that before putting on her headphones, she put wax earplugs in her ears! I was twisting the knobs on the headphone box with a Makita trying to get her enough gain...and she was wearing WAX EAR PLUGS!!! I started to point out how counterproductive this was and she launched into a self-righteous ignorant rant that this is the way she always worked and why everyone should think about protecting their ears and do the same. I tried to explain the obvious downside of her listening strategy but it was like pissing into a stiff wind. Besides, it was really hard to make words, I was laughing so hard.

You will never hear the music of Shit-for-Brains. I listened to a copy of the mixes and wondered what could have been. Here was a band that we believed in strongly enough to invest six weeks of studio time and three salaried professionals toward recording a product that would benefit everyone. Ultimately it was our error. They just weren't ready. And to answer Dip-shit's question, "What does a producer do, anyway?"...well Dip-shit, you may never find out. But it's lucky for you that euthanasia is not part of the skill set.


gd said...

Hi Pete, I find this blog particularly amusing and at the same time incredibly frustrating!
I have worked with many really good musicians, and as part of a band involving other people, felt helpless when ego and stubborness gets in the way of making great, listenable music.
The studio seems to be a spot where some excellent players really let themselves down, their unwillingness to "let go of themselves" ruins the entire experience for everyone involved.
I now work solo, not because I enjoy 'creative control', but because I am yet to really identify musically with anyone in a studio situation.
One of my greatest musical desires is to have a meeting of the minds with someone to share ideas, work towards a common goal and just create some great music that sells - thus allowing me to make more music. I'm not into the 'frustrated musician' natterings, nor do I have any desire to 'suffer for my art'.
It takes intelligence, patience and wisdom to be able to work cohesively as a group.
Compromise does not always mean that ideas are lost, it can often mean that ideas are built upon, extrapolated and the project flourishes to new and exciting heights. To be strong enough to encourage one's own ideas, but selfless enough to know when to tack in another direction takes courage. I also believe that faith in the people involved is a key ingredient.
Sometimes you just gotta pull out those wax earplugs and get the right mix.

Gary said...

Very interesting.
My wife is about to record an album with a respected producer (and musicians). He has said some of her vocal melodies need re-writing, as lines 3 and 4 in some of the songs aren't the same in the verses (eg lines 3 and 4 in verse 1 are a little different to lines 3 and 4 in verse 2). He says the verses need to all have the same melody, to get into the listeners brain. She feels it's good to have them as they are, but is happy to try things out in pre-production.
What's your opinion?