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Record Production: Science, Art and People
What is a record producer? The Recording Academy defines the producer as the person actively in charge of the recording session. This would make Thomas Edison the first official record producer. Edison was the first person to record and playback the human voice. The performance was Mary Had a Little Lamb in 1877. Since then there have been many technological advances.
And production is a combination of technology, creativity and people management. Beatles producer – George Martin likened record producers to film directors. An ear for talent is also essential: In July 1927 Ralph Peer founded the country music genre when he discovered and recorded both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in Bristol, Tennessee. John Hammond’s list of discoveries, productions and career assists stretches from Bessie Smith and Fletcher Henderson through Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday, to Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
But music producers exist because of technology. For the first 48 years of the history of recording, musicians played into a large acoustic horn and the only control over relative recording levels was achieved by moving them closer to or further away from the horn. Drums were often not included or barely recorded because they would overload the cutting stylus. This is a perfect example of the impact of technology on creative output. The invention of the electric microphone and the introduction of electrical recording processes, in 1925, gave producers and technicians far more control over sound quality.
Until the end of the Second World War the producer’s creative control extended to finding artists, players, repertoire, arrangements and the recording studio along with being a guiding force on the session. A real leap forward happened after VE day 1945 when the allies brought home the previously secret German invention of magnetic tape. Tape instantly allowed producers more control because of one simple fact: it could be edited with a razor blade. Now they could record multiple takes of a song or symphony and cut between them to optimize the final product.
But, the modern record producer dates back to Les Paul who not only invented the Les Paul electric guitar that changed the sound of Rock and Roll but he was also a versatile studio guitarist, hit songwriter and television star. He developed recording techniques such as overdubbing and multi-track recording. Prior to Les Paul all the sounds that would comprise a final production had to be created simultaneously in the studio in real time.
Paul figured out how to add sounds after the first pass, even at a different time and location. He then designed a multi-track recorder with discrete, parallel tracks thus allowing producers to add or subtract sounds and rebalance instruments and vocals after the recording session was done. He showcased this technique on his many hits including How High the Moon by Les Paul and Mary Ford. By 1952 Paul was using a self designed eight track recorder. It’s illustrative how slow the uptake of multi-track technology was that the Beatle’s complex and innovative Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded fourteen years later still using a four track machine.
Les Paul’s innovations expanded the concept of the recording studio as a creative instrument in itself.
Editable, multi-track technology enables producers to paint artificial soundscapes making the recording process part of the very creation of music and as much art as technology.
There was a parallel development in Columbia Records’ 1948 microgroove LP or Long Playing records. 78s could contain about three and a half minutes of music whereas LPs could exceed twenty minutes per side. Classical pieces could fit on one disc, and pop producers were liberated from the singles mentality ultimately leading to influential albums such as Sgt Peppers, Pet Sounds and Dark Side of The Moon.
These advancements introduced a golden age of record production, which lasted from the 1950s until the new millennium. The music industry became big business and producers enjoyed recording budgets which would sometimes reach over a million dollars per album by the seventies and eighties.
Prior to the introduction of the MP3 in 1996 every major format change, 78 to LP to cassette to CD, had caused a consequent boom. Perhaps because the new format was virtual rather than physical, the music business failed to understand the significance of this invention. Consequently, the industry made no attempt to accommodate consumer demand by integrating or shifting to digital delivery. This meant that, by the end of the 1990s, when the early MP3 players coincided with the first peer to peer service – Napster – it spelled the end of an era. For 10 years now the music industry has been in serious decline.
These days most recordings are made in the digital domain. Recording budgets have plummeted, and inexpensive recording software offers unlimited tracks and powerful editing tools that have democratized the process. The barriers to enter the field of production are lower than they ever have been and some feel this has led to a decline in standards of production, engineering and musicianship. In addition, the drop in sales is negatively affecting the professional production community and, in some cases, creative choices are being compromised by lack of money.
But producers are adaptable if nothing else and, like it or not, we are now in the next phase. In the final analysis, great production is about magical combinations of talent. By becoming more entrepreneurial; perhaps echoing pioneers like Ralph Peer and John Hammond, many of us are hopeful that discovery, creativity and diversity may yet rule the music business again.
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About the Author
Richard James Burgess
Richard James Burgess authored The Art of Record Production, The Art of Music Production, (1st, 2nd, 3rd ed), produced, recorded and played