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2006 ARP Conference

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2nd Art of Record Production Conference 

University of Edinburgh

8th - 10th September 2006

Hosted by:

Professor Simon Frith

Keynote Speaker:

Joe Boyd

Industry panelists include:

Paul Baxter (Delphian Records)
Paul Borg (Mori Kante, Cheb Bilal, Abdel Gadir Salim, Emmanuel Jal, Busted, Girls Aloud, Urban Species)
Richard James Burgess (Spandau Ballet, King, Living In A Box, Adam Ant, Kim Wilde, When In Rome, Princess, Colonel Abrams, Five Star, New Edition, Shriekback, Landscape, author of The Art of Record Production and currently at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings)
Mike Howlett - Chairman of the Music Producer's Guild (Tears For Fears, OMD, The Teardrop Explodes, Martha and the Muffins, Gang Of Four, China Crisis, Berlin, Thompson Twins, Joan Armatrading, The Alarm)
Paul Savage (Chemikal Underground Records, Delgados)
Paul Theberge presenting and discussing mixes of Glenn Gould's 'Acoustic Choreography' 8 track recordings of Scriabin

The Other Side of the Glass: The Art of Record Production: a review of the 2006 ARP Conference written by Paul Harkin.


Record producers used to begin by making the tea. They progressed from tea boy (and it was mainly men, how many female producers can you name?) to top dog as part of an apprenticeship that was paid for by record companies. The costs of education were met by employers in the media industries who took on school leavers and trained the next generation of journalists and disc jockeys. As higher education expanded in the 1980s and student grants started to decrease then disappear, the cost of learning has been passed to students who have become customers of colleges and take out loans with the emptiest of promises: ‘get into debt so you can get the same McJob you could have walked into if you'd left school at 16.’ (K-Punk, 2006) Fatalism rules but job prospects have rarely been bright for arts graduates without plans, experience or an entrepreneurial attitude.

Courses in audio and sound production have been a staple of further education institutions for a while but it is only recently that the subject has begun to enter the academy. Producers are doing PhDs and degrees are being developed which add a body of theoretical knowledge to the practical skills required to cut a record. This process has been instigated by a mixture of academics and recording industry professionals who met in Edinburgh last month at the second annual Art of Record Production conference.

Organised by Professor Simon Frith of Edinburgh University and Simon Zagorski-Thomas of London College of Music, St Cecelia’s Hall in the Cowgate was the venue for a keynote speech by legendary producer, Joe Boyd who introduced the main themes which would be debated over the following two days. He also signed copies of his book White Bicycles and kindly ignored those who handed over cash and naively tried to engage him in conversation about his role in some of popular music’s key events. He was the production manager at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Dylan infuriated the purists and their political values by using electric instruments and starting something new:

‘It was something we take for granted now, but utterly novel then: non-linear lyrics, an attitude of total contempt for expectation and established values, accompanied by screaming blues guitar and a powerful rhythm section, played at ear-splitting volume by young kids. The Beatles were still singing love songs in 1965 while the Stones played a sexy brand of blues-rooted pop. This was different. This was the Birth of Rock.’ (Boyd, 2006: 105)

Not only was Boyd one of the midwives at the birth of a baby which defined a decade but, like the hip narrator of LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Losing My Edge’, he was also there when the 1960’s ‘peaked just before dawn on 1 July, 1967 during a set by Tomorrow at the UFO Club in London.’ (Boyd: 1) If this date seems rather arbitrary, he also forgets to elaborate on why he thinks they ended in 1973 so there is no doubt that he was there. Boyd was also in Edinburgh in the late sixties when he discovered The Incredible String Band and drank single malts in Sandy Bell’s with Scotland’s own Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson. It was therefore fitting that Boyd should be back in the capital even if the book belies an ability to spell its street names correctly.

Boyd was humble enough to admit during his speech that he wouldn’t have been travelling by train from London with the aid of a Senior Citizen’s Railcard if he had shown a greater awareness of the economic benefits to be gained from owning the copyright on the many great songs he produced. His company, Witchseason Productions, was responsible for records by seminal folk artists like Nick Drake & Fairport Convention without ever making him a fortune. Pink Floyd’s first single ‘Arnold Layne’ featured his signature sound but he was out of his depth when dealing with East London barrow boys turned businessmen who muscled in and arranged for the group to sign to EMI without any further input from Boyd.

This, though, was one of the main messages of Boyd’s largely unscripted and persuasive speech and his contributions to a panel discussion on communication in the studio with other practitioners, Mike Howlett, of the Music Producers Guild, Richard Burgess, author of The Art of Music Production and world music producer Paul Borg. He stressed the importance of involving yourself in projects that excite you so that it’s possible to communicate a love for the artist’s music and help them realise their vision instead of imposing your own. This view was echoed in an excellent paper by Mike Alleyne of Middle Tennessee University on Nile Rodgers, who has admitted that “production is psychologically taxing in trying to realise the artist’s vision.” The idea of the paternalistic producer as eminence grise who stays in the background is one that Boyd reiterates in his book, arguing that it has been replaced by a more dictatorial attitude among both producers and artists. There is now a vital difference in the recording industry. The artist employs the producer rather than the other way round.

Boyd spoke about the demystification of the recording process and an end of the producer as the gatekeeper of a mysterious temple. Musicians are striving for the perfect production because of the digital technology at their disposal with the result that many records now sound safe and predictable. Using Norah Jones as a counter-example was perhaps unwise and betrayed a certain sentimentality for the values of the analogue age. He was more convincing in his argument about some of the other things that had been lost in the move to a brave new digital world.

The prevailing idea of digital replacing analogue was later shown to be more complicated by Tellef Kvifte from University of Oslo. In his paper on the ‘Analogue Revolution in Digital Technology’, Kvifte pointed out that communications (such as Morse code) had been digital up until the 1870s when the phonograph and the telephone were invented and went on to quote the work of anthropologist Gregory Bateson who believed that all communication systems have both analogue and digital contents. The future won’t consist solely of zeroes and ones it seems.

One of the things Boyd mourned was the superior sound of vinyl and decried “the sonic misery” of hearing music played on an I Pod with speakers. One can only sympathise with the damage to his ears but he drew attention to more serious consequences for the quality of music caused by the expansion of multitrack recording. Writing in 1979, Edward R. Kealy described this process as part of the evolution of record production from a craft into an art in the 1960s:

‘Tape recorders and tapes became multitracked, with as many as 24 separate tracks available on a tape. Each instrument could be recorded separately and then replayed and edited in minute detail. Rock pieces now commonly consist of built-up layers of such studio performances, which are remixed and reduced to a final master tape.’ (Kealy, 1996: 214)

This mode of record production may seem overly familiar to us now but Boyd argues that it has led to a lack of spontaneity in the studio. A singer’s vocal performance is unlikely to express the same commitment if mistakes can be corrected and countless overdubs added afterwards. If the recording has to be completed in one take with all the other musicians present there is probably more chance of capturing the energy and emotion which are, what Richard Burgess described as, key to a successful session. Boyd proposes a return to recording in large rooms as Norah Jones did in New York with Arif Mardin but the problem is there are very few studios left with this amount of space. The other point to make is that so much contemporary music is not made by bands anymore, particularly in the fields of hiphop and electronic music and this was reinforced in a paper on laptop producers by Nick Prior of Edinburgh University.

The title of the paper may have alluded to the name of Radiohead’s most famous album but there was little that related directly to rock bands other than an observation by chairperson, Simon Frith. Thom Yorke still relied on an acoustic piano to perform at the recent Mercury Music Prize award ceremony even though the content of his solo album is mostly electronic. It was left to Hot Chip to highlight their lack of traditional instrumentation with a stage show that resembled Kraftwerk with vocals by Timmy Mallet. This anxiety about what constitutes an authentic live performance was one of the themes Prior explored along with interesting observations about the ubiquity of Apple I Books at academic conferences and laptop jams. Apparently, it is now de rigueur for laptop musicians to tape over the Apple logo in what seems like a pretty pointless protest against the power and profits of Steve Jobs. I much preferred the example of laptop composers on a New York stage who disguised their computers in pizza boxes.

It wasn’t surprising that discussions around the dichotomy between humanity and technology were far from the surface of many of the debates. Prior borrowed from Bruno Latour the view that pure humans do not exist because we are already mixed up with all kinds of technology from swatches to spectacles. The mistake is to see man and machine as separate but it is the tensions between them which prove important. As Helen Reddington of the University of East London pointed out, there is often a love/hate relationship with machines, be it a computer, guitar or washing machine. This was emphasized by a conversation with Richard Burgess who described an experience in the studio with a drummer who was growing exasperated at the time it was taking to record a particular sound before finally exploding: ‘I Hate these Fucking Drums!’

Interestingly, it was a quotation from an artist associated with disco which stressed the importance of keeping technology at arms length. According to Mike Alleyne, Nile Rodgers favours the organic approach to music making and believes “whatever I say comes from my fingers and my heart. Only after that do we bring in the technology.” Alleyne took the successful risk of going a little Freudian on Funk and concluded that Rodgers’ great skill in his production work for Chic, Madonna and David Bowie was to create space for uniquely human elements. Critic Kodwo Eshun would disagree:

‘Disco remains the moment when Black Music falls from the grace of gospel tradition into the metronomic assembly line. Ignoring that disco is therefore audibly where the 21st C begins, 9 out of 10 cultural crits prefer their black popculture humanist, and emphatically 19th C. Like Brussels sprouts, humanism is good for you, nourishing, nurturing, soulwarming – and from Phyllis Wheatley to R. Kelly, present-day R&B is a perpetual fight for human status, a yearning for human rights, a struggle for inclusion within the human species.’ (Eshun, 1998: 00-006)

Eshun wants to leave behind the concept of the human altogether but, as a former member of the Black Panthers who tried and failed to gatecrash the party at Studio 54, Rodgers still thinks there are some things worth keeping.

Nile Rodgers remains an artist and producer who moved between the worlds of experimental and more commercial music without gaining the same recognition as more successful black contemporaries like Prince. This is partly due to post-disco prejudice and perhaps also down to his ability to create vast amounts of space for other artists to fill in during the production process. Rodgers and Boyd both seem to share this paternalistic approach and, like a lot of great producers, are content for listeners to stumble across the imprint they have left on many musical masterpieces without taking the credit.

The analogy with visual culture isn’t a coincidence. Producers like Brian Eno have talked about the importance of painting with sound and Boyd likens the process to photography:

‘Mixing was an endlessly fascinating jigsaw puzzle with the reward of hearing a wonderful piece of music emerging slowly before you, like watching a print in the developing bath. But with sounds you can control the colour, the contrast and even the positioning.’ (Boyd, 124)

As musicians and producers continue to cut and paste sounds in a similar way to how photographers play with Photoshop, the art of record production will be mastered by those who can combine the depth of film with new juxtapositions on the surface. Producers will need to be able to communicate with those on the other side of the glass to achieve a vision which is sonically satisfying but also slightly imperfect.

REFERENCES

Boyd, Joe (2006) White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s, London: Serpent’s Tail.
Eshun, Kodwo (1998) More Brilliant Than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, London: Quartet Books
Kealy, Edward R. (1996) ‘From Craft to Art: The Case of Sound Mixers and Popular Music’ in Simon Frith & Andrew Goodwin eds. On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word, London: Routledge.
K-Punk (2006) ‘Reflexive Impotence’ on Excarnate Thought at
<http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/007656.html> 11 April 2006.

Paul Harkins is a PhD student at Edinburgh University and lectures in the Music department at Napier University.