The Producers

Sep 1, 2009 12:00 PM, By Barbara Schultz



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In the May issue of Mix — our annual theme issue, which focused on “Getting Noticed, Getting Heard, Getting Paid” — we explored the ways that new music business models have pushed producers to expand their services, particularly their involvement in artist development. We continually explore the changing role of the producer in these pages — sometimes from the business side, but more often from a creative perspective. The producer's job — part bandmember, part therapist, part cheerleader, part musical mentor — constantly evolves along with the project at hand, and the business in general. Books could be written on the role of the producer — and they have been.

Mix's former Nashville editor, Rick Clark, is currently working on a book that delves into production techniques (Mixing, Recording, and Producing Techniques of the Pros: Insights on Recording Audio for Music, Video, Film, and Games, published by Thomson). Featured are conversational contributions from engineers, mixers and equipment developers, as well as top producers, covering topics ranging from technology to temperament. Here, with thanks to Clark, is what some of the producers have to say about their work and the state of the recording industry.


Though American born-and-raised, producer Joe Boyd made his mark in England beginning in the mid-’60s, and now has credits spanning more than four decades and scores of artists, including Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, R.E.M., Kate Bush, Pink Floyd and the Flaming Lips.

Live Band and a Live Room

Everyone talks about how much the recording process has altered in the past 30 years. And it's true that digital recording has changed the game tremendously. But for me, the essentials remain the same: getting as much of a live feel as possible while maintaining a high-quality sound that permits achieving a mix of the highest quality. That means getting as much of the track recorded live, as well as using rooms that are live, have character and reward an approach that takes risks by forgoing isolation in most cases.

It is important that musicians have a sense of occasion and danger in recording. Putting down tracks or vocals with endless opportunities to correct and perfect accomplishes the opposite of what I look for in a recording. When there is one track left on a 16-track machine for vocals, for example, the singer and the producer have to choose after each take whether to go for another or erase the last pass. This puts everyone on edge and forces great performances out of singers.

People sometimes comment on the depth and warmth of the recordings I made with [producer/engineer] John Wood at Sound Techniques [London] in the 1960s. Recording in modern, small, dead rooms cannot accomplish this. To me, many if not most modern recordings sound shiny and two-dimensional.

You could say that 2-track recording is the purest form of record making. Four-track, 8-track, et cetera, through the present limitless expanse of possibilities on Pro Tools have all been steps backward in terms of making recordings that will endure the test of time.


Versatile producer/engineer/mixer Nick Launay’s credits include the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Silverchair, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, The Posies, David Byrne (with and without Talking Heads), Midnight Oil and INXS.


Interview With Nick Launay

Analog and Digital

I think analog still sounds better than digital for many reasons, but a lot of it has to do with how you line the tape machine up and what tape machine you use. It's not just about renting any old Studer and throwing black-and-brown tape on it. It really depends on what tape you use and what level you record the different instruments at. I do, however, think that with digital we can be way more creative, allowing us to manipulate sound in wild ways. So for me, it's a combination of both that makes for the best-sounding and most imaginative recordings.

Nowadays, you'll find a lot of really good young engineers who know their Pro Tools and are killer with their plug-ins, but just have no idea about tape because they've simply never used it before. When using analog for the first time, the most common mistake is to record hi-hats, bass drum and snare really loud on tape. You can wind guitars and bass on really loud and it sounds great, but anything percussive that's got high transients, you've got to leave a lot of headroom. Using analog tape is a whole art in itself.

If today's dwindling budgets allow me to record as I prefer, I'll go all the way analog for the basic backing track. I'll record the band backing tracks all at once with the band playing together, in the same room, looking at each other, sometimes without headphones. I do whatever it takes to get the most energetic or moody performance. Then I will edit the 2-inch old school-style with sticky tape. I'll often do lots of edits on the 2-inch. We might do 10 takes of a song and then decide that take 8 is the one, but the middle section was better from take 2. So I'll go back to take 2 and edit that section into take 8 and so on.

I've done up to 30 analog edits in one song. When the arrangement on 2-inch is the way I want it, I'll stripe it with code, sync it up and bounce it to Pro Tools with the idea that we'll do all our overdubs on Pro Tools. So now we've got lots of extra tracks to do vocals and overdubs and go crazy with plug-ins if we want. Then at the end of the day, when it comes time to mix, I'll sync the Pro Tools back up with the original 2-inch so that the basic backing track is analog and the rest is digital.

Analog absolutely sounds better than digital, but digital allows us musical types to get what we imagine in our heads to come out of the speakers quicker.

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