Studios, arrangement, and the distributed production system of contemporary Turkish music

Eliot Bates

University of California Berkeley



Two fundamental shifts in the 1990s changed how Turkish music recordings are collaboratively created and the role of the studio in that creation. The first was the emergence of the arranger/ studio musician economy and production workflow, which supplanted previous systems across all genres and styles of music. The second was the transformation to a distributed production model, where the creative, arrangement, recording, mixing, and mastering processes were no longer necessarily done in the same studio and not necessarily done sequentially. In other papers and articles I will be discussing the nature of musical interaction, changes to criteria of musical competence, issues of ethnicity and gender in studios, and musical characteristics of traditional Anatolian music that have undergone rapid change due to specific technical processes and new musical "fusions." However, for this paper I wish to focus on the studio as a technological workspace and semi-private social space, on the perceived limits of the recording studio as a venue for creative work, on the cultural distinction between technical and creative roles when considering the work of the arranger and recording engineer, and on technologies connecting studio spaces. My case study is the most recent studio recording of political artists Grup Yorum, a very complex project involving numerous distinct studio and non-studio spaces located in two countries.

Background on the arrangement/studio musician economy

Düzenleme (arrangement), in a Turkish context is similar to Western concepts of "orchestration," as arrangers determine the scope of the studio musicians for a piece, and draft some sort of division of parts that in sum will form a complex, orchestrated whole. Work may include writing and copying parts, or may be more informal, coaxing musicians to play a known piece in a specific regional or ornamentational style. However, with the absence of Western-style "producers," or individuals who are entrusted to oversee the creative vision of a project, Turkish arrangers sometimes do work similar to "producing," in that they may direct some of the work of the recording engineer, studio musicians, and even the main artist of the project. Some arrangers actually contribute a large amount of the tracks that go into a song, including writing and executing drum machine parts, synth bass lines, ambient pads, incidental effects, or depending on the arranger, performing the entire percussion layer. Thus, at a practical level, the occupation of arranger is highly flexible and expected work is project-dependent.

The current arranger/studio musician economy emerged in the 1980s but wasn't in full force in Turkey until the early 1990s, when arabesk and Turkish halk müzi••i recordings came to feature larger and more complex "ensembles" than those used in live performances, and included partisyon (partitions) that were not possible to perform in concerts. Though düzenleme existed as a musical activity in the 1980s,1 it was not necessarily conceived as a separate occupation, and might be done by the lead artist, the recording engineer, or any of the musicians involved in the album. Additionally, the emergence of specialized recording artists — such as ba••lama-saz virtuoso Çetin Akdeniz, mey, duduk and zurna artist Ertan Tekin, and kaval and ney performer Eyüp Hami• — happened at the same time. Looking at a decade of studio recordings, it is apparent that a small cadre of highly skilled studio musicians have had a significant impact on Turkish music, as they have performed on thousands of songs and on nearly every recorded album.

The transition to the arranged/studio musician economy is perhaps best illustrated through the example of Grup Yorum, a very successful protest music group that released their first recording in 1987 and continues to record and perform to this day. Their first eight albums, spanning 1987-1993, are indicative of the former, less formal düzenleme style, as no studio musicians were used, and a consistent band that frequently practiced together created the albums. With regards to arrangement and instrumentation, the recordings greatly resemble concert performances of the time. However, starting with their album Bo-ran Fırtınası in 1998, one finds increasingly complex arrangements, and non-group members are brought in to play instruments such as oboe, duduki, and sipsi.2 Two seminal musicians in the old Grup Yorum, Kemal Sahir Gürel and Metin Kahraman, left and went on to become two of the best known arrangers of Turkish ethnic music from the late 1990s on. In 2006, Grup Yorum's "group" membership is quite large and flexible, and their arrangements very complex, involving 80 or more separate stereo tracks in one song, most of them performed by studio musicians. Their live shows range from four-person combos to twenty-musician ensembles, but always sound different than their lush studio-created albums. Though Grup Yorum doesn't hire external arrangers, for the recent project two musicians (one in Turkey, the other in Germany) acted as arrangers, directing the work of studio musicians and in many cases overseeing decisions about the düzenleme of the song.

On studio spaces in Istanbul

Studios serve, obviously, to facilitate the recording of sound, providing acoustic isolation and an equipment set up allowing for a dedicated sound recording workflow. Essentially all studios in Istanbul now record to a computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW) and process the audio using specialized software, making studios a computerized and markedly technological space. The studio also has an important (and often overlooked) function as a small-business workspace comprising employees, owners, and studio management. The studio, as a workspace, may even informally become a "second office" for record label owners, one less formal and more socially welcoming to artists than the record labels in Unkapanı.3 Like many other workspaces and other "semi-private" spaces in Turkey, the studio also has an important function as a social space. The çaydanlık (teapot) is always running, cigarettes and kuruyemi• (snack foods) are shared, and misafir (musician and non-musician guests) frequently come to the studio for networking opportunities, to talk music, football and politics, and to listen to and comment on albums in progress. In this manner, Turkish studios are entirely unlike the "isolated," "insular," or "laboratory-like" studios mentioned in Hennion and Theberge.4

Studios are primarily set up to facilitate the work of the tonmeister (tracking engineer), mix mühendisi (mixing engineer), aranjör (arranger), and for very rapid recording of the parts of studio musicians. Secondarily, they accommodate guests and the soloist(s) of the project. This configuration must be underscored. The preferred workflow of the early 2000s assumes that the bulk of an album will be directed by the arranger and studio musicians, and that the goal of any performed moment is to create something that the tracking and mixing engineers can use on the final album (therefore assuming that the engineers have their own vision of the album). The idea of creating a comfortable space for the primary soloists or a band is somewhat foreign in Istanbul, as is the idea that a soloist or group would actually control the artistic vision of an album (important exceptions do exist, including some indie rock bands, and exceptional composer/soloists such as Sezen Aksu — these artists tend to create their own studios or work in foreign ones, extricating themselves from the customary Istanbul music production workflow). Also, the notion of a studio as a "creative space " or place to explore ideas, is conspicuously lacking, or at the least secondary to the studio's function as a professional workspace and semi-private social space. To understand the creative aspects of a music recording made in Istanbul, therefore, it is essential to see a recording studio as one important node in a network of production sites, which may include several professional studios; home studios of arrangers, engineers and artists; conservatories and other university institutions; kültür merkezi (cultural centers); and music and film businesses in the Beyo••lu, Unkapanı, and Levent neighborhoods of Istanbul. Creative cultural and musical production happens at and between these spaces.

Distributed Production and the case of Grup Yorum

The contingency of the studio as the privileged creative space is apparent if we analyze the creation of one of 2006's most complex Turkish studio albums, Yıldızlar Ku•andık by Grup Yorum. Though the group and this album project is in some regards atypical, it is clearly exemplary of the distributed nature of music production, as it was composed by a network of lyricists and songwriters many of whom are political prisoners in Turkey or located in Europe, arranged by two Grup Yorum members at their own semi-professional facilities, performed and recorded by group members and studio musicians at three professional studios (two in Istanbul and one in Köln, Germany), mixed at three studios, and finally mastered at a German mastering facility. Up until the mastering stage, music charts, lyrics, mixes, and ideas were continuously circulated between spaces.

For Grup Yorum's twentieth anniversary album, they wished to achieve their most elaborate, orchestrated, and dynamic album to date. Well before beginning recording, the group had decided on themes that they wanted songs about, and had obtained lyrics and in some cases notation from their extended network of lyricists and songwriters. Following this, basic arrangements were facilitated by the two de-facto project arrangers, •nan Altın and Ufuk Lüker in Istanbul and Germany. The form of these arrangements was 4-12 MIDI plot tracks of the most important melodies, chordal sequences, and rhythmic layers, created on home computers using Cubase software. Following a rehearsal process at •dil Kültür Merkezi, the educational and publication offshoot of Grup Yorum, basic ba••lama-saz, acoustic guitar, and flute parts were performed at Stüdyo Sound in Istanbul and Studio Per Sound in Köln. Stüdyo Sound also tracked seventeen songs of studio musician drumset and electric bass parts in a two-day marathon. Finally, Istanbul arranger •nan recorded percussion for most of the pieces. WAV format audio files, along with the MIDI plot parts, were copied onto hard drives, which made their way both to Per Sound/ Köln and Stüdyo ZB Istanbul, where the remainder of work was done "in the box" on the Protools HD platform.

From this point on, the bulk of the arrangement, soloist and session musician recording, and editing work for the album functionally happened at two studios, though every day progress and text mixes would be made and shared with the "other" studio, but also auditioned for group members in both locations. Music was thus moving around on a daily basis, brought from here to there by memory stick, shipped from one location to another on CD-R, emailed as MP3s, and/or uploaded to a web server. In some instances multitrack Pro-tools sessions (the only format in common to two of the three studios) were transported by a friend of Yorum from Istanbul to Germany and vice versa, overdubs were recorded, and the sessions sent back. Evaluation of the songs' progress, discussions of future work to be done, and arrangement changes were done by group consensus by a group that never once wholly met face-to-face. This social structure mirrors the broader social movement in which Yorum members participate, which is similarly distributed and uses similar communications methods to temporarily connect nodes in a larger but hard-to-define network.

figure 1: Grup Yorum recording and decision workflow diagram

Here is a network diagram of sites and actors in the recording process, with lines specifying the direction and intensity of inter-node interaction, and a temporal flow from the top (pre-production) to bottom (mastering). At the top in circles are song writers and lyricists, who only had limited contact with •dil and no other nodes. To the left in the diamonds you see several "evaluation" nodes, distributed individuals or groups who only had occasional interaction with •dil but were integral to approving song ideas, arrangement, and mixes. However, you will notice studios had more extended contact with •dil, and to an extent some contact with each other. The purpose of this chart is not to argue for one style of social organization theory nor to rigidly document all sites and interactions, but to give a sense of the vast number of sites and the varying degrees of interaction in album-creation process, and to illuminate the very limited and controlled inter-nodal interactions that transpired.

An interesting situation existed during this process (comprising 300 hours at Stüdyo ZB, over 100 at Stüdyo Sound, and at least 100 hours at Per Sound Köln): the engineers were for the most part kept out of the loop regarding creative (and re-creative) processes, while soloists and studio musicians were kept distant from the engineer-driven processes that altered the timbre, tuning, or rhythm of their performances. Engineers (including myself) were envisioned as post-performance technicians and essentially unaware of what led to arrangement changes, while performing musicians were not included in what would happen to their performance after the performative moment itself (including liberal application of tuning-altering plugins, timbral adjustments, and even groove changes from cutting up the part or even completely editing its "microtiming"). It is important to reiterate that while empirically impossible to accurately delimit "creative" and "technical" work, or to objectively maintain the assertion that the recording engineer is primarily a technical craftsman while a musician has no technical knowledge and skill, such distinctions are normal in discussion about Turkish recordings and the customary division-of-labor. Even when I or another engineer made a key artistic decision that a part needed to be performed again, perhaps by a studio musician instead of by a group member (work which in the West would come under the purview of a producer), this was considered technical work, since as the engineer I inherently knew what was necessary to procure in order to make the piece and the group's vision viable. Group members' and studio musicians' individual performances therefore became entirely out of the control of the performing musicians, and only marginally considered an intact expression of their personal artistry.5

Studio musicians appeared to be expected to perform in one of two starkly different manners. For most studio musicians, parts were written and highly specific — extraneous ornamentation or a stray note would lead to a demand for another take. Their part was specifically conceived before they came, and their role was to perform this specific part, not to generate ideas for the song. However, for a few studio musicians, such as ba••lama-saz and bazouki master Çetin Akdeniz, it was quite clear that they would play whatever they wished as they wanted, to the extent of subtly re-writing the melody, changing the number of repeats, demanding double-tracking, or even suggesting mic positioning and EQ settings for their instrument. For these musicians, it appears they were brought in to impart their distinctive style to the musical work, to lend their expertise at improving a song-in-progress. Songs they played on, therefore, had a higher degree of düzenleme flexibility. Such individual-specific work distinctions have been a regular feature on most projects I've observed.

A number of factors contribute to why Grup Yorum developed this method of working on a recording. Issues of political citizenship and border crossing — members that are barred entry to Turkey, others in jail, and yet others who have difficulty traveling outside of Turkey — are the impetus behind the geographically distributed nature of Yorum. Yorum is as equally active performing for their numerous fans in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands as for those in Turkey, a situation related to their international production mechanism (Yorum is certainly not alone in this regard, as many recordings, particularly those of Turkish ethnic musics, are done in two or more countries). The group utilizes the chorus they teach at the •dil Kültür Merkezi (which performs both Turkish traditional and newer Yorum compositions) as a source for new musicians, as socioeconomic conditions have made it difficult to maintain long-term musical groups. Since •dil is their primary workspace, it is natural for them to utilize the space in the creation of their recorded artifacts; yet, the prohibitive cost of creating a professional studio and the lack of audio engineering skills by any Yorum members has limited the scope of the technological work they do there. Regarding their choice of studios in Istanbul and Germany, the main criteria mentioned by the arranger •nan was the comfort of the studio and the ability to get a huge amount of work done there in a short amount of time. Comfort, in a Turkish studio context, is a very complex issue that I won't fully detail in this paper, but in short, comfort involves a combination of specific communication qualities and the ability to socially use the space as is necessary to host guests and conduct business.

Though Grup Yorum is atypical in their democratic and distributed decision-making process, projects utilizing this many distinct spaces and the inter-nodal trafficking of music and ideas are commonplace. In most of ZB Stüdyo's projects, some editing and arrangement work is done at the engineer's home studio, pads and orchestral textures are generated on the studio manager's laptop, and MIDI and basic audio parts tracked at various musician or arranger project studios. Particularly for film and TV projects, funding is provided by and evaluation happens at a kültür merkezi and not at the technically-focused studio. Regarding studio musicians, in all recordings I've seen a combination of musicians brought in for their creative elaborations (and also for their name on the CD) with those who perform tightly controlled pre-conceived parts. However, studio musicians appear to universally have limited investment in their part, tacity acknowledging that after it is recorded it will likely be sliced and diced by the mixing engineer into something unrecognizable.

Concluding thoughts:

As Turkish recordings have become an increasingly distributed production effort, it is tricky to analyze decision making, musical interaction, and personal creativity, as none of these are apparent from listening to the finished product and few individuals are aware of more than one stage of the recording process. However, in the recording process I believe we can observe significant attitudes about music, artistic expression, and the interrelation between social and individual dynamics that have not been fruitfully studied before. Studios are a prime site for studying culturally specific distinctions between "technical" and "creative" work (a distinction I plan to critique in further research).

One of the themes for this year's conference is the studio space, so I'd like to conclude with a few comments in light of the extant research on studio spaces in academic literature. First, though the control and tracking rooms of the studio are mostly acoustically isolated, and obviously constitute a technological workspace, Istanbul studios are also geared towards entertaining guests, and individual studios are the center of particular social, political, occupational, and sometimes ethnic scenes. Though the introduction of project studios has made distributed production an obvious reality, and I argue that the studio can not be assume to be a privileged site for creative work, it does not make studios any less significant as a place (or the "non-place" of Théberge's "network studio"). Second, while Turkish studios use some of the same technologies as Western ones, the techniques for and conceptions of their use, the place of technologies in the process of artistic and cultural production, and the social inhabiting of space is by and large a local creation and phenomena. Studies of studios and their technologies need to be historically, culturally, and geographically situated. Istanbul studios in the early 2000s, dynamic places for specific kinds of musical and social work, are substantially different than the the creative nexuses like Hyde Street where San Francisco musicians lived and jammed in the 1970s, the French scientific laboratory studios that Hennion studied in the 1980s, or the "clearly circumscribed space of intense artistic interaction" that Porcello worked at in Austin, Texas in the 1990s.6


1. see Martin Stokes (1991), The Arabesk Debate, Oxford, pg 167-72.
2. For a history of Grup Yorum's albums, see Orhan Kahyao••lu (2003) "Sıyrılıp Gelen": Grup
Yorum, neKitaplar.
3. For more on semi-formal businesses, see Mehran Kamrava (2004) "The Semi-formal Sector and
the Turkish Political Economy," British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 31(1), pg 63–87.
4. see Antoine Hennion (1989) "An Intermediary Between Production and Consumption: The
Producer of Popular Music," Science, Technology and Human Values 14(4); Paul Théberge (2004)
"The Network Studio: Historical and Technological Paths to a New Ideal in Music Making," Social
Studies of Science 34(5).
5. This is maintained by the performing rights forms administered by MESAM, the largest
performing artist agency in Turkey, where royalties and authorship are only assigned to composers,
lyricists, the named artist, and the arranger. Studio musicians can not claim royalties on a
performance, even if it comprised the main melody or hook of that song.
6. Thomas Porcello (1998) "'Tails out': Social Phenomenology and the Ethnographic
Representation of Technology in Music-Making," Ethnomusicology 42(3), pg. 500.



My research would not have been possible without the patient assistance of Grup
Yorum, Aytekin G. Ata•
at Stüdyo ZB, and Ula•
Özdemir at Kalan Müzik Yapım. This research
was also made possible in part by a Fulbright IIE grant and a American Research Institute
in Turkey fellowship.


Grup Yorum (2006). Yıldızlar Ku•andık, Kalan Müzik, CD 374.
Grup Yorum (1998). Borun Fırtınası, Kalan Müzik, CD 103.
Grup Yorum (1989). Cemo/ Gün Gelir, Kalan Müzik, CD 011.


Figure 1: Yıldızlar Ku•andık workflow diagram