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Ponderous Pontificating: The Two Schools of Record-Production Philosophy

People have asked about my "production philosophy" from time to time, and after thinking about it I realized I often encounter two different schools of thought about making records. Here's where I weigh in on the matter.

Let me make a grand analogy here. This is going to get pretty self-indulgent, so be warned.

Granted that a musician is an artist, what is the nature of their art? Is it the creation of songs themselves? Some people are primarily songwriters for other people. Is it live performing, being a band, doing good shows? This too can be art, performance art let's say, and I mean any live-performance-based music no matter how raunchy. Even performing other people's songs can be an art, if the "interpretation" is original enough. It's all a form of art, good or bad, makes no difference, the intent is to be art, that is, a structured creative activity existing in the realm of time, space, ideas, or all three.

Got me so far?

What, then is a RECORD? What can it be, or should it be? What sort of activity is record-making? How does that shiny CD relate, to a band that plays those songs onstage in front of a room full of crazy people?

Here's where the difference in philosophies lies. Some people adhere to a "purist" viewpoint, whereby the record should adhere as closely as possible to exactly how the band sounds "live", with nothing extra added, no cheating allowed. The art is considered to be in the performance, and the record attempts to be an accurate document of that art. This works pretty well in jazz and classical where what you hear is what you get. The producer or engineer should be as invisible as possible in this process. You could call this the "portrait photographer" school of record-making.

I do not subscribe to this school. (Ironic in view of how "live" my records supposedly sound. I do whenever possible record bands "live" in the studio, playing together in real time, but build from there.) To me, the evolution of the recording studio has made possible the record as a piece of self-contained art. A good record is a piece of art in itself, not just a document of some other "more valid" art form. It parallels and relates back to other forms of the band's art, but it is a different medium and needs to be approached with different creative tools. I think of this as the "portrait-painter" school of record-making, and this analogy describes my idea of what a producer/engineer does. A good portrait painter can look at his subject and paint something that looks like the reality, only better; hidden beauty can be brought out, emotions and subtle gradations of feeling suggested. Even though it is two dimensions, it looks like the person, yet there's more somehow; maybe it looks like the person on a really, really good day.

There's the difference. Do you want to take a photograph, or do you want to paint a picture?

I think that if you really believe that you're NOT painting a picture, you're kidding yourself.

Ever notice that if you take a bunch of pictures of someone you know, most of the pictures look terrible, and you say "But you dont look like that!" The camera doesn't lie. So what? You prefer the reality you experience over what the picture is telling you.

Ever stand in a club when the band is playing and close your eyes, put your hands over your ears to bring the volume level down below 120dB, and really listen to just the pure SOUND of it? It usually sucks pretty hard. If it didn't, millions of bootleg records would sure sound a hell of a lot better, wouldn't they? With rock bands, that idealized live performance cannot exist when reduced to just the sound component of the event. Want to make a "purist" recording that just "captures the live performance as accurately as possible"? You can't. Its a two-dimensional representation of a four-dimensional event. The visual excitement ain't there; the eye-contact, the emotions being broadcast by the performers' faces, the low frequencies moving your chest, the inner-ear limiting and overload caused by the 120dB sound levels, the people around you surging and pushing and spilling their beer on you.

And just where does this piece of art that is the live performance actually exist? Everyone in each part of the room is seeing a slightly different show sonically, visually and emotionally. The idealized live performance that you're maybe trying to "capture" on audio tape doesn't exist in any one place. There are as many "shows" as there are people in the room experiencing it.

A great live performance, experienced live, will often blow away the album version. A recording of that same show usually will not. If it did, live albums would be a lot more popular. I learned this with my own band first; we'd think we played a brilliant show, our subjective experience up on stage was near-godlike, the crowd was nuts and people afterwards were panting and drooling (well, figuratively in our case). Then I would listen to a tape of the show, and sometimes it would totally, totally suck! And sometimes the exact opposite would happen; the experience would suck but the tape was amazing. Which was more "real"? The shared experience of the band and the room full of people, or that roll of tape? The isolated "sound track" of the event, no matter how "accurate", may have almost nothing to do with the experienced reality of the performance.

So much for the "photographer" school of recording. If you want to make great records, a more imaginative approach is needed. At the very least, you might use the studio to create an enjoyable illusion of a great live experience (my fallback, default position) - or you can take that as just your starting point, and with the musicians, create something of an entirely different order, a whole new animal. This is nothing new; it is the entire history of pop music since Les Paul built his 3-track recorder.

OK; I've been going to live shows nonstop since the seventies. About 10 percent of 'em both sound good and are enjoyable; another 40 percent sound "tolerable" but are still enjoyable, maybe because the band are good entertainers or because I already know the songs. The other 50 percent are hopelessly ruined by bad live sound. I remember seeing Zeppelin in '77 in the Seattle Kingdome (well, I was pretty young) and they were five songs into their set before I was able to recognize what song they were playing. The same thing happened when I saw the Clash at the Paramount in '79; the sound man was determined to kill us. Back then, I was angry; now I just shrug. (Or leave.)

I'll be blunt: the raw, pure sound component of most live rock shows, isolated and examined, sucks hard. The emperor has no clothes. Get over it. Etc! (Don't believe me? Go stick a couple mics up anywhere in the room during a rock show. And remember how all those "audience" bootlegs sound.) This is not necessarily to fault all live soundmen either; they are making the best of a horrible acoustic environment. (A really skilled live soundman is worth his weight in gold.)

Have I sufficiently beaten my point into mangled, bleeding submission? Making records in the studio, especially rock and pop records, is a whole art form in itself. There's good artists, and there's bad artists. But here's where the analogy stretches: this is the one art form where the portrait painter and the subject get to work on the portrait together. It's a team effort, unless the producer's a nazi.

Why does the musician need the producer? Because learning to write and perform and play is hard enough for most people without having to learn how to operate a building full of recording equipment. The key word is "specialization", friends. The musician is not omniscient, no matter how many fans tell him so. He may know music, but the producer knows record-making. Then, who is the "artist" here? They both are, like it or not.

What about artists who produce themselves? Record companies hate this, 'cause it's risky. In the 70's, it was the kiss of death; I remember a lot of self-produced rock albums that sounded terrible. Typical 90's musicians have some home recording equipment and at least a marginal familiarity with the recording process, so they can at least speak the same language as the producer/engineer. Some have their own studios and are fully qualified, and self-producing will save them a ton of cash! I support this, more power to 'em, IF they actually know what they're doing. But I have had a few very depressing experiences in the studio with bands who thought they knew what they were doing and really didn't, but were so belligerent about controlling all aspects of the process that I might just as well have given them the studio keys and let 'em hang themselves. This made me appreciate perhaps why certain highly paid producers have nazi-like reputations, but it still ain't my thing.

And, know what? The advent of "electronica", "techno", whatever the heck it's called this year, renders the whole two-schools argument pointless! There's nothing "out there" to take a "photo" of in the first place; the act of creation and the act of recording/producing are inseparable. Suddenly, almost by definition, everyone's a producer. In fact, the whole problem is turned around: after making the record, the artist then has to break it down musically and technically in such a way that an approximation of it can be adapted to live performance.

Like I always say -- there are no rules!

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