The Producers

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



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Engineer/producer Tony Shepperd has worked with an array of popular artists, including Madonna, Kenny Loggins, Diana Ross, Lionel Ritchie, Whitney Houston and even a Cheetah Girls remix.

The Art and the Deal

I'm sure there will always be major labels around trying to push 16-year-old artists. What's a 16-year-old going to sing about? The whole industry is going this way, and I think now you have this backlash where people are saying, “I'm going to come up with my own thing.” They create a record for $30k, and they're touring the hell out of them.

The real [deal] out there is the indie side — the indie rock bands. They need to rob Peter or pay Paul to make this record, but it's a great record. And that's the kind of stuff that people want to hear. And it may only sell 10,000 copies, but those are 10,000 hardcore fans. You have major-label artists who've sunk one-and-a-half million dollars into a record and sold 5,000 copies.

I think there is still art that is growing out of this crap. Something is dying, but something is being born and it's music once again. It needed to happen and get to the point where the money chasers who only wanted the money for a quick buck making records for 15-year-olds are finally either getting out of the business or realizing there's no money in it. So go! Now, let's get back to making some real music. I was talking to Kenny [Loggins] about this around last January. Ten years ago, 95 percent of my clients were major-label, and now 95 percent are indie. It could be an indie client like Kenny, who used to be a major-label client. Now I have indie artists who say, “I have $10k and a bunch of friends who want to make a record.” I say, “Yes, sure, we can do it!”

You can make great records that fit the artist. I produce all the time with artists one on one. You get together with the guys and figure out what's best for them. I'm the kind of guy who will shepherd the project and put this thing together and help, but this is your album. You've got to let me know when this is going too far, and you know your audience and what they're wanting to buy.


Former member of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, drummer/producer Ken Coomer has recorded with Steve Earle, Jars of Clay and Billy Bragg. His recent production credits include Will Hoge and the Latin Grammy-nominated debut album by Mexican artist Chetes.

The Group Is Key

James Brown said it best: “You are only as good as your drummer.” Great drummers make great listeners. The drummer has to listen to the bass player, to the guitarist, the singer and everyone else in the band. The drummer is usually positioned behind the rest of the band, which puts him or her in the position of being the backbone, the driver of the band; less in a “look at me” position and more in a “listen and keep it together” position.

I am a drummer and a producer. As a drummer early on, I was a purist about my sound. If anyone had the “novel” idea of taping up the drum kit to get that “fat sound” from the '70s or pulling the front head off the bass drum or building a “tunnel” in front of the bass drum, I had no interest in changing my sound. I was more interested in serving myself before the song, and when I look back I realize how selfish that was. I know now, as a producer, it is all about the song.

There is a famous story around [Nashville] about legend Johnny Cash. Johnny was recording at one of the famous studios here in town when a musician on the session told a fellow musician that Johnny was playing so quietly that he couldn't hear him. Quickly the other musicians turned to this individual and told him that if he couldn't hear Johnny, then he was playing too loud. There were no headphones used on this session. Every one of these players had to listen to Johnny and to each other. They didn't have the eight to 16 and beyond cue mixes. Here in Nashville, we call it the “more me” box. With everyone quick to turn up themselves in the cans, we miss the objectivity that is the magic of listening.

My favorite example of the art of listening is illustrated within the walls of Motown Studios in Detroit. There are some tape machines and vintage gear still there. The amps and drums are set up as well, but the part of the tour that really knocked me out was the floor. What really threw me for a loop about this section of the floor was how worn it was in just one spot. I was curious, and then it hit me: These world-class musicians stood in the same exact spot for years plugged into one amp. When is the last time you saw more than one guitarist playing out of the same amplifier? If you go back and listen to those classic recordings, you can hear that none of those musicians ever stepped on the other player's part. They listened to each other, not just themselves.

Listening is more than just using your ears, too. When I am working with an artist and we are trying to get the take, there will inevitably be what we call the “thinking take.” The “thinking take” may be executed with the precision of a firing squad and played to perfection, but there is nothing in my opinion that falls flat faster than the “thinking take.” Give me blemishes and squeaks, tempos speeding up and more. If it has soul and passion, it will speak to the listener. If it is precise and staid, it will be invisible to the listener. Whenever I am working with a band full of varying personalities, I like to hear the idea of the quiet guy who really does not have a lot of suggestions. I'm almost always glad I did. I ask bands to plug something into an amp that they think would never in a million years sound good. We all have to follow some of the ABCs of fundamental recording, but after that you have to go so far out to know how far “so far” is.

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