The Producer As Critic

Now that everyone has GarageBand, or Ableton, or Renoise or REAPER, or Ardour, and now that everyone has a SoundCloud or Mixcloud account, or is a member at Indaba—yes, I’m guilty many times over—everyone is a music producer. Everyone is a D.J. too, but both those terms are capacious and fuzzy, with different meanings depending on the context of track, geography, or era. Virgil Moorefield’s monograph The Producer as Composer, a worthwhile read, uses a handful of case studies to show how the duties of the record producer (and D.J.) have accumulated and evolved through 50 years of recorded pop music. Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, George Martin, Brian Eno, and many others have shaped individual pop songs and the possibilities of how pop music can sound, and Giorgio Moroder created the concept of making records specifically for dance clubs.

Teo Macero and Miles Davis. Photo: Don Hunstein © Sony Music Entertainment.

These are the ways everyone is a producer. Other ways are off-limits except for a select few: Walter Legge corralling the leading singers of his age to record the great operatic repertory for EMI; Teo Macero splicing tape of Miles Davis’s electric band to make In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Legge’s contribution was administrative, Macero’s compositional, but the common feature of their work was their ability

Now that everyone is a producer or D.J., you’d think that production quality would improve, since having the production tools at hand means one can hone listening and music-making skills. But it hasn’t improved, and it hasn’t done so across whole swaths of music. (Classical recordings still sound good, but so many fewer are made these days that the producer’s primary duty is finding a way to pay the costs.) Ubiquitous software tools are used to create and consume endless prefabricated beats and loops, which are then regurgitated into pounding kick drums and bass lines, a sonic bed that requires overly bright and resonant synthesizers on top so that the chords will speak. I’m an old-school gear head, so I waste hours demo-ing and reading reviews of music software, and I’m struck by the persistent praise that an instrument gets when it can “punch through a dense mix.” Stop being so dense, dude.

It’s the dreary sameness of McDonald’s, of meat being ground and shaped into the same form and taste, no matter where it comes from and where you eat it. It’s the comfort of the marketplace, where people who identify themselves as consumers, whether they shop at Walmart or in Williamsburg, have volunteered to give up personal meaning in order to see themselves through what they buy. The self-producers don’t really listen to what they buy or make, except to make sure it fits into the micro-genre—dubstep, indie pop, deep house—that they identify with. And the critics, who should be able to hear production, are no help.

I have not been able to get past the first paragraph of anything I’ve read about Steely Dan without slamming into the cliché that they are “studio wizards.” This is so because Walter Becker once dropped in several guitar solo fills right on the exact 16th note, making him a competent recording engineer. Since anyone who learns audio production at one of the proliferating for-profit trade schools can do the same, I impatiently wait for the burgeoning abundance of studio wizardry to blossom. Who will hear it? Not Pitchfork, where legions of clever, cloth-eared college grads gauge how well a record fits into its purported lifestyle niche—and since it’s an arbitrary measurement, why not use decibels just to be cooler? The professionals are no better: Sasha Frere-Jones sniffs mindlessly about the production on David Bowie’s The Next Day; the New York Times 2012 pop roundup gets bogged down in fashion and philosophy. Isn’t anybody listening?

The professional producers are guilty too. If you want to hear how a producer can ruin a record, look no further than Elvis Costello’s Goodbye Cruel World, with some of his best songs buried under a terrible dance mix. Listening critically means hearing what works and what doesn’t, and what works is hearing Costello sing “Joe Porterhouse” while strumming a guitar. A critical listener has to get beyond the styles that move them towards self-fulfillment too: Tears for Fears are never going to be hip, but The Seeds of Love is one of the greatest examples of pop production. And it’s the production that makes the newest from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Push the Sky Away, so compelling; it puts his aesthetic into new musical sounds and structures. It is really that hard to hear?

Contributor

George Grella

GEORGE GRELLA is a composer, writer, and independent scholar. He publishes the Big City blog and writes for the Rail, Culturebot, ClassicalTV, and Sequenza21.

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