Wednesday, 11 April 2012

10 Greatest Producers

Record producers were once just the businessmen that held the purse strings and went through the mental checklist of creating a hit. Firstly, the artist was chosen from the labels roster, then a suitable writer was selected from the little black book of songwriters and when a song was found that was catchy, commercial and fitting with the bands desired image they were ushered into the recording studio. Once in the studio the vocals were added to a pre-recorded backing track as they weren’t about to start wasting the company’s money on numerous takes when the best session musicians in town could easily knock off the required arrangement in minimal time. This formula was used continually and in some genres of music, is STILL used today! I It was a tried and tested winning recipe for success. There have been many mavericks that did things their own way, that have added their own sounds and flavours to recordings and it is these particular people that are the subject of today’s little dead end rant.

The top 10 Record Producers of all times and the songs that prove it

10. Rick Rubin
The go to producer when your career is either on the slide or needs a reinvention completely. Rubin is blessed with the ability to morph into many roles and wear many styles with equal ease and aplomb. Whether it’s recording Johnny Cash albums like a historian collecting field recordings of lost civilizations or mixing the newest Jay-Z track Rubin is still genuine and fuelled with love for the music on hand. His presence on a recording is as elemental as gravity, the final result would be lost without his input. In 2007 he won Producer of the year in multiple categories as he worked with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers (rock), The Dixie Chicks (country), U2 and Green Day. He repeated this amazing feat in 2009 also when he picked up ‘best producer’ gongs for Metallica (metal), Neil Diamond (classic rock/folk), Jakob Dylan (acoustic) and Weezer (rock). As well as being the co-creator of Def Jam records Rubin is one of the true renaissance men in the business.

KEY TRACK: ‘99 Problems’ – Jay-Z

09. Nigel Godrich
There are many types of producer, some just that turn up, control the sessions, point the microphones in the right places and signal to the band when they have the ‘take’ they need. Nigel Godrich always gets much closer to the band and the muse than that. When he is producing Radiohead he becomes one of the band, he is another member of Radiohead. It’s the care and control over every individual sound going on the record that he has worked on to make it sound the very best that it can so that the song itself has such a strong cradle that the band only have to worry about the performance.

KEY SONG: ‘Everything in Its Right Place’ – Radiohead

08. Frank Zappa
A controversial choice I’d freely admit but when you think about the type of records he was making and the finished product it’s probably more shocking that he’s not higher up the list. As it’s well documented Zappa wrote continually whether it was on tour, in a hotel room or at home in his own studio. On the road new pieces were rehearsed daily and later added to the live shows (which were all recorded as well). When he finally got home and was ready to record the actual version to be released he would use these ‘road recordings’ and a razor blade and manually slice guitar solos and drum tracks out of them before taping them and mixing them perfectly in sync to the now home studio overdubs. In the days before digital editing and Pro Tools it is a work of genius and very steady hand!

KEY SONG: ALL of ‘Apostrophe’ – Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention

07. Martin Hannett
Dubbed the ‘Phil Spector of Manchester’ due to his love of echo and reverb on his recordings, Martin Hannett was never going to be just a background boy in the studio that pressed record. Like Spector before him his explosive temper and difficult personality caused a lot of friction with musicians and engineers, although when the artists heard back through the speakers his interpretation of the original song they’d played to him, they couldn’t really argue. As well as being one of the forefront users of digital echo he also worked first hand with the makers of the reverb and echo effects and gave detailed explanations and technical schematics discussing where they were going wrong.

KEY SONG: ‘Atmosphere’ – Joy Division

06. Tom Dowd
Tom Dowd was just as famous as a recording engineer as he was producer. Learning his trade working for Atlantic Records he not only recorded both in MONO and true Stereo at a time when Stereo wasn’t even commercially available just so he could build a library on the back burner in case times changed (they later did and Atlantic were one of the very few labels to offer genuine alternatives rather than hastily remixed and panned ‘fake stereo’). Apart from his technical abilities and talents capturing the sound of the bands and artists he dealt with in all genres (Rock, Blues, Jazz, R&B) he was also free thinking enough to invent a problem to the ergonomically challenging volume and tone dials on the mixing desk by building the very first sliding faders in a studio. An idea he later regretted not patenting as this is the world wide standard now for ALL commercial studios.

KEY SONG: ‘Layla’ – Eric Clapton (a.k.a Derek & The Dominoes)

05. Sam Phillips
Sam Phillips seems to get overlooked when it comes to production mainly due to the snobbery surrounding the times in which the recordings were made (1950’s) as if technical limitations would have held him back and so he couldn’t really be considered along side those of the 60’s, 70’s and beyond. I would say that this proves him to be even greater than some of these for the very same reason. The fabled Sun Studios in Memphis is still today discussed in hushed tones due to its amazing natural live sound as well as the hand made and designed echo effects such as ‘slap back echo’, which Phillips himself designed, and everyone from Elvis, Gene Vincent, John Lennon to Liam Gallagher use to brighten up their vocals. Sam Phillips was a true pioneer and innovator in every respect and is even responsible for recording and producing the Ike Turner written, ‘Rocket 88’ which has been stamped officially as the first Rock and Roll song,

KEY SONG: ‘Rocket 88’ – Jackie Brenston & his Delta Cats

04. Joe Meek
From his flat in Holloway Road, London, Joe Meek created something that no other producer/artist before had managed to achieve. With ‘Telstar’ he produced a UK single that went number 1 in America. A true genius with sound and recording techniques Meek managed to make guitars sound like spiky bolts and a string quartet perched in a bathroom sound like a whole orchestra. Limitations were put upon him in regards to space and equipment (a lot of which he made himself) although these hurdles were seen as simple challenges that were corrected with minor inconvenience to him (although his put upon landlady would disagree as she noticed liquid rubber dripping from her newly painted ceilings after one particular ‘correction’).

KEY SONG: ‘Have I The Right?’ – The Honeycombs

03. Brian Wilson
As the leader of The Beach Boys it only seemed natural that the person creating the music and vocal arrangements should be producing the group’s records. After many heated arguments with his father (who up to then had taken the production job upon himself) Brian seized power in the studio as well as within the band itself. Using his love for Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ he created his very own ‘Wave of Love’ which used Spector’s initial idea of multi-instrumentation. Where as Spector achieved his ‘wall’ by meticulously doubling up many of the same instruments Wilson arranged and orchestrated rock and roll with mainly classical instruments such as French Horn (listen to the intro of ‘God Only Knows’ for this).

KEY SONG: ‘California Girls’ – The Beach Boys

02, George Martin
A definite ‘back room boy’ that was already well into his distinguished career when The Beatles manager Brian Epstein asked if Parlaphone (a comedy music label) would be interested in signing “his boys”. George Martin was another producer that worked ‘with’ the band rather than ‘for’ them. When you think of a song like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in its barest bones form demo of Lennon and a acoustic guitar and then listen to the final bombastic version you will see EXACTLY what Martin brought to the group. He managed to understand exactly what they meant when they couldn’t explain themselves fully. During the ‘Revolver’ album when John Lennon described a sound he wanted on the song ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ to sound like “the Dalai Lama chanting from a hilltop” Martin understood and immediately began hooking up the Hammond Organ’s Leslie Speaker to the microphone input resulting in one of the definitive psychedelic records of all time and one that has been copied countless times since.

KEY SONG: ‘A Day in the Life’ – The Beatles

01. Phil Spector
Number 1 is always going to be the position where the most arguments arise so it seems only right that someone who loves a heated argument more than most should fill this spot. Harvey Phillip Spector was 19 years old when he wrote and produced his first number 1 record. ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’ was taken from the epitaph on his own fathers grave stone that read ‘To Know Him Was To Love Him’ and knowing this about him opens up the kind of drive and fire Spector had inside him from day one. He learnt production from Gold Star Studios’ Stan Ross as well as being the sorcerers apprentice to hit makers Leiber and Stoller who happily let the young Spector sit in on many of their New York sessions (even letting him play guitar on some such as ‘On Broadway’ by The Drifters). Once Phil had learnt all he needed he immediately started producing full time and although got off to a slow start after his first number one he soon found his niche and managed to score an impressive 20 top 10 singles including 5 hitting the top spot in both the USA and UK.

Phil Spector was also the first producer to be credited as such. Before then it was generally “recorded by” or simply not listed at all on the label. When Spector arrived it became “PRODUCED BY PHIL SPECTOR” and this grand statement almost meant more to the record buying public and radio DJ’s than which artists the song was by. A lot of the time the artists were the least important aspect of the record as they were all interchangeable musicians and singers from his vast stable. The Crystals who sang ‘Da-Doo-Ron-Ron’ weren’t the same Crystals that sung ‘He’s a Rebel’ although it was credited to them it was in fact Darlene Love singing the lead vocals who moonlighted between being his first call backing singer and her group, The Blossoms, she was also a solo star and part of Bobby Sox and the Blue Jeans.

After many successes Spector’s first commercial flop was the now classic ‘River Deep Mountain High’ sung by Tina Turner (although credited to both Ike and Tina Turner for contractual reasons). The jury is still out on why it flopped stateside although many insiders in the industry saw it one of two ways. The first being that by the time the song was released Spector had many hits under his belt and flat refused to pay the ‘payola’ required to get a single played on the radio (payola was UN-official money given in a brown paper bag that bribes radio DJ’s to play singles and up the chances of hits). The other reason given was that the industry as a whole was sick of Spector’s one man monopoly of the charts and wanted to bring him down a few pegs to teach him a lesson in humility. Either way after its commercial failure, aged 26, Phil Spector retired. He came out of retirement occasionally to produce solo work by John Lennon, George Harrison, The Ramones and others but the run he’ll be remembered for will be his work during 1961-1966.

KEY SONG: ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ – The Righteous Brothers

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