‘The Art of Music Production’ – Part 1

By Errol Michael Henry

In the interest of clarity, let me begin this article with some full disclosure. I am writing this document under protest! Whilst I deeply love the whole process of record-making: talking about it is rather less desirable. A few of the engineers at The Smokehouse (the studio where I do most of my recording) have been badgering me to share some insights from my many years at the production coalface, so here we go.

So where to begin? The problem with defining the role of music production is that it means different things to different people. For some, production is essentially an administrative title given to the person who hires the creative and technical people who actually make the record. In other instances, the producer is the creative visionary who shapes the song (perhaps from its inception), chooses who should sing it, where (and how) it should be recorded and everything else too. Back in the day, making a record was a vast undertaking. Music was made-up of a lot of moving parts because the entire recording took place at once (they recorded directly to disc with all performances taking place simultaneously). So if a recording featured vocals, drums, piano, strings, bass, horns and percussion, someone had to figure out who should be doing what – and when.

Here’s a little known ‘insider’ secret. Much of what is credited as great production – is actually the end result of excellent arrangement. Not surprisingly, some of the most prolific producers of our time, were also remarkable arrangers (Quincy Jones, Maurice White and Arif Mardin spring immediately to mind).

Arif Mardin Pic

String arrangement is an entirely different proposition from brass or rhythm arrangement. There are times when a brilliantly arranged and performed music track – is altogether ill-suited to the person singing the song. Knowing who to hire to get arrangements that are right for a particular song is an invaluable skill all by itself – and a clear demonstration of music production prowess.

So to my mind, ‘The Art of Production’ is a multi-faceted, highly complex procedure designed to accomplish a simple aim. Great songs, great singers, excellent musicianship, the right ‘ambiance’, the appropriate recording facility (a brilliantly performed song that is badly recorded is still a bad record) – all executed in what appears to a seamless event is how it ought to be done. These days everybody in the world is a producer. Almost every little yoot I encounter these days has a ‘studio’ (bootleg software on a laptop) and is therefore able to ‘produce’ music.

Do these cheery folks understand the complex arrangement dynamics that contribute to what are considered ‘special’ records? Vocal, string, brass and rhythm arrangements (the fluid and constantly evolving relationship between drums, bass, guitars, percussion and keyboards) are essential ingredients. ‘The Art of Production’ is knowing which ingredients are required to suit the specific creative needs of the artist and record label, determining who has those essential abilities – but most important of all – when the blend of those highly delicate parts is right. By the way, ‘right’ is an entirely subjective term. One man’s guaranteed ‘hit record’ is at once dismissed as a ‘s…t’ record by another.

There are of course massive variants that make ‘right’ even more difficult to prove. Some tracks have the right song, singer, arrangement and concept, yet the final mix down is perhaps lacking: meaning that the eventual record sounds ‘wrong.’ But here’s another problem that producers need to solve: sometimes what people have deemed ‘wrong’ is merely different from established habits, but at other times it was just a horrible (technically and creatively) record.

Many dismissed the Motown ‘sound’ as ‘noise’ when it first arrived because it was so different to what had become the accepted ‘norm.’ The snare drum was a bit more forward than people were used to, the driving beats were far more prominent than was typically the case and the string and horn arrangements were ‘busier’ than pop music of the day and mixed far higher in the track than the prevailing ‘standards’ of the day. The ‘Godfather of Funk’: Mr James Brown took the rule book, read it cover to cover – then set it on fire!

Stevie Wonder.Motown Studios_01

You could argue that the unprecedented success of Motown proved that daring to be different was the obvious answer. The breathtaking success of Motown also gave rise to something that has since proved to be as prickly as a rose bush – the ‘Super Producer.’ To avoid sensory overload, I’ll leave that thorny subject alone for the time being and return to my central theme.

New technology opens up a range of possibilities that previous generations could not dare to dream about. I started my recording ‘career’ overdubbing from one cassette deck to another. I still remember the day my good friend and long time collaborator: Winston Blissett let me use his Tascam 244 (a small four track multi-recorder) – I thought I had reached recording heaven. Having four tracks to use, plus an apparently endless capacity to ‘bounce’ (another subject for anther day) just blew my mind. Modern software allows people to record 384 tracks – without needing to bounce: which is a number so vast I cannot get my head around it.

Does this mind-boggling number of tracks, (let alone the astonishing advances in software ‘plug-ins’) lead to better made records? The jury is still out on that one. In the end, the fundamentals of production haven’t changed much over time. The available technology allows creative people more ways to capture their ideas, but the job of the producer is still essentially to decide which of those concepts taken together – will produce a better record. Knowing who to hire is still where it’s at. Knowing what a song needs in order to evolve from a simple lyric and composition into a fully-fledged piece of music (that is good enough to sell for money or to play on the radio) is still where it’s at. Recognizing a diverse range of talents (artistic, performance and technical), plus understanding how to ‘meld’ such divergent abilities together is what ‘good’ producers do all day – everyday.

I appreciate that this article perhaps throws up as many questions as it answers – but that was essentially why I wrote it. ‘The Art of Production’ is ultimately the art of people, creative, technical, psychological, fiscal, logistical and arrangement management. How exactly does one do all of that? If you have to ask…  

©2016 Errol Michael Henry/EMH Global Media LTD, All Rights Reserved.