Thursday, August 6, 2009

Best Record Producers

The role of the producer in the making of records is one that is as varied as the bands they work with. Their basic job description is to guide the recording process but this seemingly innocuous role invariably leads them to make important contributions to the sound of the music both technically and artistically.

5. Phil Spector

One cannot talk about the role of record producer for any length of time without eventually bringing up Phil Spector. The reason is that he practically invented his own job and the jobs of everyone that followed after him.

However, he is definitely not the best producer because many of the approaches he pioneered are also some of the most hated qualities that producers can have. Spector would leach onto a promising band when he thought he could use them and then throw them away like yesterday's garbage when something better came along, destroying their careers and relegating them to the dust bin of rock history. He often had little regard for singers and musicians as artists or even as human beings. (For examples, see his entire marriage to Ronnie Spector. The time when he showed her the glass coffin he intended to put her in if he ever had to kill her comes to mind.) He is the archetypal cigar chomping (in the figurative sense) music industry big shot who looks at a band and sees dollar signs over their heads. Moreover, he was an enemy of the LP as a means of artistic expression and only believed in one-off, money-making singles. Although a sonic innovator, he was also a sonic Luddite as he opposed the use of stereo channels because he thought it took power away from him and gave it to the listener. I'm not kidding, he's that much of a megalomaniac. He would also sometimes ignore a band's artistic intent and decide to create the songs he wanted to make, famously in his contributions to the Beatles' Let it Be. It's because of the increased power he brought to the role of producer, as well as his abuse of that power that some bands handle production by themselves. They don't want some money hungry big wig watering down their music and turning them into corporate whores, all the while glorifying himself and lining the pockets of the record company. Entire careers in record production have been forged by people not doing what Phil Spector did.

So why in God's name is he on this list? Well, quite simply, all production careers have been forged by doing things that he did do. He changed the rules by which music would be made. From a technical standpoint, his Wall of Sound treatment was one of the final pieces of the puzzle that needed to be created for modern rock music to be formed. However, the very nature of his role was one that the industry would have to take on as the idea of rock music evolved beyond the concept of recording the sound of a dance hall group. Besides, who else should be here? I'm not saying that there are only four good producers so we might as well put ol' Spector here to fill up space but seriously, anyone else in his place would just seem like a hollow move on my part. Take Glyn Johns. He's been involved with virtually every rock band that ever mattered during the 60s and 70s. Clearly he was doing something right, and his resume is beyond impressive. Likewise, Martin Hannett, Gil Norton, Nigel Godrich and Scott Litt have been great with their respective bands. But these achievements are eclipsed by the sheer scope of Spector's work and influence.

4. Brian Eno

Eno is definitely not a hands off producer. Well, come to think of it, a producer that is hands off would be a producer not doing his job. What I mean is, when you hear a record that he was involved with, you'll invariably narrow your eyes, pick up the sleeve/case, scan for the producer's name, and nod your head in confirmation. His fingerprints are all over the recordings he supervises and his use of sound dynamics to create feelings of space, texture and atmosphere are unmistakable. When you hire Brian Eno as a producer, what you are basically doing is hiring him as a temporary member of the band. However, this is a good thing. Brian Eno is a bona fide musician and artist in his own right. He was a founding member of Roxy Music, had a solo career in which he almost single handedly invented the genre of ambient music (a movement which would have a profound influence on synth pop, industrial, electronic music and pretty much any music that involves sythns, samplers and computers in its creation) and also would later record records with former clients like David Byrne. Eno's production would certainly not work with all bands (or if it did, it would probably be because he didn't use any of the techniques that make him unique). However, when paired with the right band at the right time, he can raise the music to heights that would have been completely out of reach for the group in his absence. A key example of this would be U2: a band whose style and approach were good in concept but never properly executed until they teamed up with Eno. While David Bowie, Devo and Talking Heads were obviously amazing in their own right, their decision to work with Brian created some of their best and most iconic work. A jack of all trades he is not, but his artistic presence contributes greatly to not only the records he produces, but to the history of rock music itself.

3. Steve Albini

First off, Steve Albini would hate to be on this list as he has repeatedly demanded that he be credited and referred to as an engineer. However, that is precisely why I have included him. Albini's approach to production is to record a band's sound in the truest way possible. In this sense, he is the ultimate in independent record creation which seeks to give an authentic representation of a band's art that has not been touched by the hands of chart-performance oriented businessmen. When I talked about Brian Eno, I said that when you hire him as a producer, you're also hiring him as a band member. With Steve Albini, when you hire him as a producer, you're hiring him to not be your producer and leave your music well enough alone. However, in a subtle way, I'd argue that Albini makes important artistic contributions through the use of of his seemingly hands off approach. Some might compare the studio to a machine and the engineer is simply a technician with the skills to operate it. In this sense, an engineer contributes artistically to a band as much as the pilot or bus driver who gets them around, or the roadies that set up their equipment. However, it seems to me that the studio is more like an instrument than a mere machine. While I'm sure Steve would never make any ultimatums to a band, his function as a recorder of music would involve suggestions and directions that are, by necessity, artistic in nature. Records he works on have a reputation for their raw, uncompromising sound, and he is often sought after for specifically this reason (although he's hardly a one trick pony in this regard). In any case, Albini's contributions to the role of producer (or lack thereof) have helped bring forth some of the best music that followed punk rock, most famously with the Pixies, Nirvana and of course with his own seminal bands: Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac.

2. Brian Wilson/ Jimmy Page

Brian Wilson is pretty much the poster child for the do-it-yourself approach to record production. Phil Spector imbued the role of producer with its power, but Brian Wilson was the first one to absorb that power and bring it back to within the band's sphere of influence. Pet Sounds is pretty much the Citizen Kane of rock records as it saw Brian Wilson fully take the reins of all elements of record creation: writing the songs, directing the other band members, singing and playing on every track, recording the vast array of voices and instruments that comprised every single track, and finally, overcoming his disability (deafness in one ear if you can imagine) to create one of the most complex and layered mono mixes of all time. All in the single-minded pursuit of his own vision. His direction alienated the other members of the Beach Boys but the end result demonstrated that when the producer was in full alignment with a talented band (as would happen by necessity when the two are one and the same) the result was much more powerful than when the group was the hapless slave of a puppet master like Spector.

So why is he sharing the penultimate spot with Pagey? Well, although I have to give Wilson credit for being the prototype, Jimmy Page was the guy that embodied the role of band leader/producer in a manner that was much more stable and organic than with Brian and the Beach Boys. Somewhat like his idol Spector (only way less creepy and evil), Wilson's role as band producer was inexorably tied to his growing dictatorial tenancies and mental instability. Page proved that a member of the band could be trusted to be a better and more appropriate producer than anyone else and also not demand that songs be cut from the recording schedule for fear that they were starting fires hundreds of miles away. Page not only had uncompromising artistic vision, he also had more technical studio ability than the top engineers in his field. Often, the impressive sound of Led Zeppelin records was achieved in spite of the involvement of people like Glyn Johns and Ron Nevison; not because of them. The albums have an explosive aural quality that was unprecedented at the time and unsurpassed today. This was entirely because of Page's contribution as the band's only producer.

1. George Martin

First off, George Martin produced every Beatles album, meaning he has been involved with the creation of 12 of the greatest rock records EVER. This doesn't necessarily mean he is the best however. After all, we know how good the Fab Four were and just because they are the best at what they do, doesn't mean their producer was the greatest at his craft. Maybe the Beatles did a fair bit of their production work by themselves, à la Brian Wilson, and Martin was merely a hired hand.

Well, the long and short of this question is: they didn't do it by themselves. The Beatles may have been great song writers and musicians but the demise of Apple, the loss of legal control over their own material and the slow financial and personal unraveling of the Beatles Empire following the death of Brian Epstein are testaments to the fact that these guys probably couldn't be trusted to maintain a home aquarium if left to their own devices. One of the reasons that the Beatles' music found the form it did was because George Martin helped record it. However, he was not only able to make the studio express the band's ideas, he was also capable of constructive and artistic contribution. When Lennon recorded Strawberry Fields, at the time a simple and unadorned acoustic piece, Martin was able to say “I think I know where you're going with this”, combine Lennon's two vocal takes into a varispeeded hybrid and add all the horns and extra instrumentation. In effect, he made the song what it is.

Now think about this for a second. This means that when the greatest team of rock/pop song writers in the history of humanity handed their ideas over to this man for guidance, he was not only able to fully realise the songs to their creators' satisfaction but sometimes actually improve upon them. Moreover, the Beatles were also one of the most important innovators in rock, not only being ahead of the curve artistically but often drawing the curve for others as they went. And yet, for all their changes and progressions, they never once changed producers. George Martin, an unassuming and for all appearances, a very straightforward and square individual, was able to immediately accept, understand, process, record and contribute to the cutting edge of rock music during its renaissance. How many of us, if presented with a McCartney song, would say, “Yeah it's good but I think you didn't fully capture the essence of your own idea and I think I have what it takes to improve your music.” And the Beatles never once felt that his involvement betrayed their artistic intentions. In sum, the magnitude of his achievements is staggering. He's still at it too, as he and his son recently released Love: without hyperbole, the greatest Beatles mashup record ever. Successful production is always a balance between the roles of sound technician, artistic editor and musical guide. Never has this balance been more harmonious than with George Martin.


Cole D'Arc said...

What, no Bob Rock? (pause here for laughter)
Spector, the Harold Ballard of record producers, must make this list. Ive never been a fan of Eno but can't argue with his achievements.
Wilson is probably a sentimental favourite for a lot of people and I would have to be included among them.
Welcome to the fold, Bruce - where the hell have you been??

RyHo said...

For all the music I've listened to over the years I couldn't name five producers for the life of me, probably.

It's one of those things that goes on in the background and I rarely ever pursue more knowledge about.

The only one that comes to mind right now is Arnold Lanni, whom I've always liked, but is in no way prolific.

Anyway, in short, that was a VERY interesting read. Great stuff, man.

Shane Patenaude said...

Very interesting list. It's been an education. I knew most of the names on the list, but very little about their role as producers.

The only way I've really known Brian Eno is from the album "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" he did with David Byrne. I listened to that a lot in high school.

Anyway, like I said. Great list. Keep 'em coming.

Sam said...


Bruce Burns said...

Thanks guys! And RyHo, you're right, Arnold Lanni is pretty cool! And since Cole mentioned Bob Rock, that could be a whole new list: producers that bands hire on the path to losing all credibility. Although Metallica would strike out twice as Rick Rubin would also have to be on it.

And Shane I had no idea you had listened to that record! And in high school? I just listened to it for the first time in 2005.

To answer your question, I've been in Taiwan for the past six months but reading your guys' lists has brought me back to thinking about all these things I love. Thanks for letting me in on this.