Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Producer as a Composer - Shaping the Sounds of Contemporary Music

You know how educational institutions act like you have to jump through the same hoops as the last guy to aquire the same fictitious ideal of success? Well The Producer as a Composer by Virgil Moorefield breaks all that by taking a comprehensive look at the evolution of the Producer over the last 60 years.

Here's a few excepts:

On Les Paul:
"Les Paul is probably best know for the electrification of the guitar; the mellow-toned Les Paul model electric guitar has been manufactured by Gibson ever since the fifties, and it is still quite popular today. Yet his experiments with various placements of recording and playback heads on the tape recorder is at least an equally important contribution. Paul realized that if another recording head were placed next to the one already there, two signals could be recorded in sync with each other, without generational loss, seperately or at the same time. In addition, when a playback head was placed behind the record head on a tape machine, signals could be played back out of sync, resulting in now-standard effects such as phasing, flanging, chorus & delay. Although their names may suggest otherwise, these effects can all be obtained by simply delaying a signal against itself at various tape speeds, and have become staples of modern pop recording.
Paul wasted no time in applying these discoveries to his own music, and he had a number one hit in 1951 together with Mary Ford called "How High the Moon." Les Paul had let the genie of multi-tracking out of the box, and although the recording industry wouldn't realize it for a few years, there was no turning back." pg. 4-5

On Tony Visconti:
"Known for his 'electrification' of former folk singers such as Mark Bolan of T. Rex, and David Bowie, Visconti, a high-school dropout from New York, went on to co-produce classic albums such as Bowie's Heroes and Low, and produce Iggy Pop's The Idiot. Working in Berlin's Hansa TonStudio, which featured a huge main recording room which had once been a banquet hall for Nazi leaders, Visconti employed complex, imaginative recording techniques which are still talked about and often imitated. The most obvious, immediately audible feature of his sound is the cavernous room ambience, which flew in the face of the then-prevalent convention of bone-dry studio sound... ...He set up drums, bass, and guitar at opposite ends of the banquet-hall-turned-tracking-room... ...placed mikes at various distances and rolled tape. The result is the hard-rocking, get-up-and-move drum sound heard on hits such as Iggy Pop's 1977 Lust for Life...
A more sophisticated technique unique to Visconti was the placement of three microphones at varying distances from vocalist Bowie. Each mike was linked to a gate set to open only when signal was within a certain range. If Bowie sang softly, only the close mike was operational; at medium volume, the second mike ten feet away kicked in; full-throated singing would open up the third gate. The effect, which can easily be heard on the title track of Heroes, is to add more room tone the more the singer projects. The effect is not the same as simple reverb; the gate cuts off the reverb tail, so that what the listener is left with is a strange, otherworldly quality to the vocal."

On Trent Reznor:
"The way the drums are arranged and recorded is an element of the sound which is often crucial to the feel of the music. Reznor is no exception. His take on recording and sampling drums is particularly intriguing, because it involves a peculiar trompe l'oeil effect:

Everything was programmed. My idea of a drum is a button on a machine. When I hear a real drum kit... when someone hits a kick drum, it doesn't sound to me like what I think a kick drum is. Any time I've been faced with, "Let's try miking up the drums," well, you put a mike up close, you put another one here, 300 mikes, gates, bullshit, overheads, bring 'em up and listen to it and it doesn't sound at all like it did in the room. It sounds like a "record-sounding drum kit." It doesn't sound like being in the room with live ringy drums. You read these interviews where producers will say, "It sounds like you're in the room with the band." No it doesn't. Nirvana's record doesn't sound like you're in the room with them. It might sound sloppy, and it sounds interesting, but it's not what it sound like in the room, to me, anyway.
So we were experimenting with just two mikes, PZMs usually. We ended up taking a drum kit into about 25 different rooms. (We) put mikes at about the same distance from the drums, then hit each drum at several velocities and recorded them on a DAT machine. Then we sampled them all with velocity splitting on the Akai 1100 samplers. I noticed that when you sat down and played those on a keyboard, they sounded exactly the same way the did in the room: shitty, ringy, you know. And that, in itself, lent a strange, unexpected vibe to the thing. So on a few songs, we used that. I made the drum programming very rigid, so that maybe someone will listen to that and think: "is that a drum machine? Nah, can't be. No machine sound that shitty." I like the idea of hearing a record and thinking, "That's guitar, bass, and drums," and then, on further inspection, "Wait a second, that's not what it appears to be."

In other words... keep having fun.

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