Archive for the ‘Producer’ Category

The Pioneers of Audio Engineering: Tom Dowd

July 28, 2017

DavidSilverstein 7/27/17

If we had an audio Mt. Rushmore, these are the faces that would be on it. The first engineer in this series is Tom Dowd, the “Father of the Atlantic Sound.”

Who is Tom Dowd?

If you Google “incredibly interesting life”, you’ll see a picture of Tom Dowd.
Okay, maybe not. But you should.

Dowd performed nuclear research for the infamous Manhattan Project during World War II. He also created the first ever 8-channel console with sliding faders in order to record some of the biggest artist of all time: Ray Charles, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Cream, Rod Stewart, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the list goes on and on… and on… and… on.

As the main recording engineer for the legendary Atlantic Records for 25 years, his technical excellence and ability to think outside the box made him a true pioneer in the field.

He was an engineer during the golden years of music for several genres, working through multiple eras and recording all styles. Somehow, he was able to not only stay relevant through all of them, but remain in high demand at the top of the industry throughout.

To put the gravity of Dowd’s legacy in context, the first hit song he recorded was Eileen Barton’s, “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake”, released in 1950. One of the very last albums he worked on was Joe Bonamassa’s New Day Yesterday, released in 2000. That’s a full 50 years of recording and producing major releases.

Not only did he continue to record for over half a century, but he was at the forefront of the industry in adapting to changing technology. He was there for the change from hand-me-down radio gear and a mono disc cutter, to stereo recording systems, to 24 track tape machines, all the way to digital recording with practically unlimited tracks and digital effects.

Early Life

Thomas John Dowd was born in 1925 in New York City. His mother was a opera singer and his father a stage manager, in charge of theater productions. He played piano and violin from a young age and eventually learned tuba and string bass. Tom excelled at math and science and, after graduating from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan at 16, got a job working at the Office of Scientific Research and Development at Columbia University.

When he turned 18, he was drafted into the military and sent off to basic training. After that training, he was immediately sent back to Columbia University. His orders read, “United States Army Corp of Engineers: Manhattan District,” which later became known as “the Manhattan Project”.

That’s right: The man responsible for recording “Layla”, “Respect” and “Stand by Me” also helped develop the atomic bomb. During his stint on the Manhattan Project, Dowd operated a “cyclotron” particle accelerator, performed density tests of various elements, and recorded statistics, as part of the “Neutron Beam Spectography” division. He didn’t find out until 1945 that his work during this time was used to develop the bomb that ultimately ended the second World War.

After the war, Dowd finished his service and wanted to complete his degree in nuclear physics at Columbia University, since he was only short a few credits. He asked the school if they would acknowledge his work during the war and give him the credits he needed to graduate. Unfortunately, because his work on the Manhattan Project was top secret, Columbia refused to honor any of it. Now, in order to graduate, Dowd would have to return to Columbia and learn the physics that predated what he used in his time in the military.

Unbeknownst to them, Columbia’s decision changed the course of recorded music forever. Dowd decided to forgo finishing school in favor of a summer job at a demo studio, owned by the Fisher publishing company.

The Atlantic Years

In the late 1940s, Ahmet Ertegun, the head and founder of Atlantic Records, was recording at Apex a recording studio in New York. He had requested to work with the best engineer at the time, who he was told was a “German Professor.”

According to Ertegun, this professor was very strict, and would not let the engineers turn up the bass or drums “too loud”. At the time, bass and drums weren’t often heard prominently on records. This was due in part to mic techniques, but also because of issues cutting bass directly to disc (the needle could physically skip if you recorded low end too hot).

The next time Ertegun showed up to record, the German professor was not available, so in walked a young Tommy Dowd who had been assigned to the session. At the time, Dowd was a young kid who raised a few skeptical eyebrows, but wasn’t afraid of breaking rules that his older, conventional contemporaries would never think of—like using multiple microphones on sources and tracking bass and drums so listeners were actually able to hear them. After that session, Ahmet Ertegun decided he loved Dowd so much that he made sure he recorded just about every Atlantic record.

Dowd was eventually put in charge of building the Atlantic Records studio, which was located on West 56th Street in Manhattan. In the beginning, the studio was an office space during the day and at night, the desks would be pushed against the walls and groups would gather around microphones in the inner office. The outer office would be used as the control room, where Tom would record with a small mixer and tape recorder. Even the stairwell would be utilized as a reverb chamber.

Tom was a big fan of Les Paul, and after listening to Les Paul’s records featuring 5 guitars and 3 vocal overdubs, he couldn’t figure out how Les was doing it. Eventually, Dowd learned the secret: Les had his own 8-track recorder. In 1958, Tom Dowd, convinced Jerry Wexler (a partner and producer at Atlantic) to purchase the second Ampex 8-track tape recorder ever manufactured. This put them technologically ahead of other studios for many years.

To truly understand just how far advanced this was, the Beatles at Abbey Road were still using pairs of 4 track machines nearly a decade later while recording Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band.

(There’s a fun reenactment in the 2004 movie, Ray, in which Dowd introduces Ray Charles to 8-track recording in the middle of a session, who then tells the backup singers to leave so he can record all their parts himself.)

Since Atlantic had a new 8-track machine, they also needed to build a console to accommodate these extra 4 tracks. Tom immediately went to work on a new console. He had a longstanding issue with the hand-me-down radio equipment they had been using, and their large rotary knobs. Being a piano player, he liked the idea of having control over multiple channels at once. He sourced some slide wires, and decided to use those instead. This was the first time sliding faders were ever used on a recording console.

Dowd recorded all styles and genres, ranging from artists on Atlantic’s jazz roster, like John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, to pop and rhythm & blues legends like Ray Charles and Dusty Springfield. He eventually went on to record rock bands like Cream, and is credited with shaping the sound of Southern rock, as longtime producer for the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Later Life

In the late 1960s, Dowd left Atlantic Records to work as a freelance producer and, in 1967, moved to Miami where he worked primarily at Criteria Sound Studios. He made records right up until his death in 2002. Later on, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where his daughter, Dana Dowd, accepted his award in his honor.

Tom Dowd was there when Ray Charles was recording “I’ve Got a Woman”, when Ben E. King recorded “Stand by Me,” and when Duane Allman played his famous slide solo at the end of Eric Clapton’s “Layla.”

Think about that for a moment: He was right there, in the studio, arranging microphones and hitting the record button, when all of these songs were put to tape. Dowd spent a life actively involved in creating songs that are completely embedded in the minds of countless millions, and that make up the very fabric of our collective culture and history. We hear these songs on the radio, in movies, on television shows. We sing these songs in the shower.

Tom Dowd was right there when each of these iconic performances took life, and played an active role in those productions turning out quite the way they did. It’s a legacy any of us could aspire to.


Tony Visconti Talks The State Of The Music Industry And Producing For David Bowie

December 9, 2016

Hugh McIntyre 11/29/2016 @

Tony Visconti is a name known to anybody who has been in the music industry long enough to appreciate not just the biggest and brightest stars that have ever lived, but those that helped get them to the top. While not known as an artist himself, Visconti has produced and written music alongside the likes of Morrissey, Anti-Flag, Adam Ant, Elaine Paige, Iggy Pop, Sparks, and most notably and memorably, David Bowie, with whom he worked for decades, up until the beginning of this year when the rock star passed away. Visconti is a true rock and roll legend, and despite the fact that he could probably jump into the studio with anybody he’d like to, he opts to continue to discover new talent and work with lesser-known figures, simply because he finds them more interesting.I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with Visconti at this year’s Reeperbahn Festival, where he was a judge at the first annual Anchor Award. Thankfully, he didn’t hold back when it came to topics like the new music economy, and what made artists he’s worked with so special.Hugh McIntyre: You have been producing music for decades now. How have things changed in your line of work from when you began to when you go into a studio now?
Tony Visconti: I started out in the days of 4-tracks, multitracks. 4-tracks weren’t a lot, but if you listen to, say, Sgt. Pepper’s or Revolver, you can hear that you can do amazing things with 4-track, or two 4-track machines. It’s a very inconvenient way of working, and as soon as the higher numbers of tracks were invented, things got easier, but essentially nothing has changed except the technology.But, something strange has happened. The better the technology, the lower the quality of the musical content . That might be related to how convenient it is to work nowadays, and how many more people have their hands on recording equipment who shouldn’t even be let near a piece of recording equipment. I think there is much more mediocre music in the world today. There are very few iconic people making music.You might have digital workstations and Pro Tools and Logic and all that, but people still want microphones that are 50 years old, and they pay a lot of money for them. They want equipment that has tubes in them that are rarely made these days. They’ll pay a fortune for something that was probably built in the ‘50s. These things, they sound beautiful. It’s like an old car that’s been well-maintained. People like analog tape nowadays. The trend is going back to analog, back to vinyl. It’s nice that the younger generation values these things, because when my generation dies, we have to hand on this legacy. There was never anything wrong with the old way of recording, and people are now just learning how to do it.
I just came from Kingston University, and I think the oldest student I taught was about 23 years old. We worked on analog machines for five days and they were just in heaven. Nothing’s changed really.McIntyre: Do you find it odd that young people value and will pay for an instrument or a piece of recording equipment, but not an album? They’d rather stream.
Visconti: It’s interesting. This entitlement to having music for free is really ruining a lot of things. The ideal situation for any artist is to earn a living from their art. If an artist has to do a 10 hour job so they can support their music, there’s the law of diminishing returns. The artist should spend all day making their music, and that’s not easy. Nowadays music is more simple, and more basic. It’s maybe because people just don’t have the brainpower to stay with it all the time. Not because they’re stupid, but because they just don’t have the time. There are so many distractions. A lot of young people are struggling to make a living. There are internships all over the place that don’t pay. You might find people as old as 27, they’re still doing internships. These are terrible times. I’m not talking about my generation, I’m talking about yours. You deserve better. If you want people to be like David Bowie, his last real job was when he was 19 years old, and he spent the rest of his life as a paid artist. Of course, it paid off.

People need to make a living making music. When you go to a pub with your band, you should make money. You shouldn’t do it for the exposure. A bank teller doesn’t work for the exposure. A doctor doesn’t work for the exposure. A scientist doesn’t work for the exposure. Music isn’t taken seriously, and it should be. Every part of our lives is affected by music. If you walk down any street in any city, people have earbuds in, and they’re listening to music. If you get married, you have certain music for your wedding. You die, you have certain music for your funeral. You have sex, you have certain music for sex. It’s behind every human activity. People sing, they dance…whether they are going to do it professionally or not. It’s really a shame how it’s been devalued.
People pay big bucks for a blockbuster film like the new Star Wars. They might even see if three times and pay. Music doesn’t have that respect anymore, and that’s a very sad situation.

McIntyre: From the behind the music side of it, how has the business of creating music or producing changed?
Visconti: Again, that’s not changed too much. That structure still exists where producers still get money. I get hired all the time, still. I get paid very well because I have a legacy. I’m proven. I’ve got a track record. Young producers are making a lot of money, EDM people. A lot of pop music. I love pop music. I’m not a snob. I don’t have to listen to prog rock or something. I love good pop music when it’s done well. I think they’re doing well because if you go into a studio, it costs a lot of money to build a studio, even a digital studio. You don’t use tape and all that, but a basic digital studio that’s really good and that’s really going to do all the necessary jobs, and a bank of microphones–that’s hardware, expensive hardware—and everything else not in the box, that’s going to set you back $25,000. Then these things become obsolete, and you have to buy the latest computer, the latest plugins. They’re getting cheaper and cheaper. I remember when a plugin used to cost around $600, and now some of those very same plugins are about $50.

There’s an economy involved, and it’s important to support that system. That system is directly supported by royalties, which are dwindling because companies like Spotify, and to some extent iTunes, feel that they don’t have to pay for the stuff because, we’re getting back to that word again, “exposure.” That’s your payoff. You find more money is actually made playing live gigs. I think that’s a healthy thing, but I don’t see why your recording income should be cut. I know a lot of big labels are taking percentages of the live gigs now because they can’t make money selling records. They’re actually stealing money from their artists. They’re saying, “We’ll take 30% of your door.” Well, what are you doing for it? “Nothing, but we want it if you want to be on our label, you have to give us that.”

The business of music right now is in an upheaval. It needs a really well-timed revolution, because the music business isn’t like the U.S. government. It’s just a business, and the healthiest thing for businesses is when you have competition. We have to build an alternative music business, which a lot of people have taken on anyway. There are so many self-released artists. You can go through iTunes, but you can also still sell CDs and vinyl at your gigs. The minute you put your signature to a contract with a label, you owe them money.  You’re in debt from day one. If you don’t do that and you sell 5,000 CDs, it doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but it’s all your money. It all goes back into your band and your pocket. This alternative music business has already begun, but if it gets organized, it will leave the big labels standing saying, “Oh we missed out again.” They missed out on downloading when downloads and piracy first came out, they fought it instead of finding out how they could be a part of it, as if it was going to go away. Anyone who had a computer, which those old guys didn’t have, realized that this wasn’t going to go away. This was the future.

I’m in a funny position, I’m old school and new school. I reap the benefits of both in my work, but I feel for those that are just starting out. They practice in earnest and they write good music. This is my future, too, because when I retire, which will probably never happen, I want to hear good music when I turn on the radio or when I turn on TV! I want to hear really good bands and good singers who can sing really well, and not just have their only training be in the shower. I’d like people to take singing lessons again. Everyone does, and not say they do. All of the big stars have vocal coaching and all that, and I think that’s wonderful.

McIntyre: Since you brought it up, what would you consider a good pop song or album today?
It’s a couple of years back, but Amy Winehouse was a beacon in the dark. There was a woman who could sing, who could write. She had a lot of character, a lot of personality. She was a great pop star, really a great one. Adele to some degree is as big a personality, though it’s not my taste in music. Amy Winehouse was wonderfully retro, and yet recorded in a modern context, which was a great feat to pull off. I had high hopes for her. I was very sad the day she died.

McIntyre: Do you feel that the future of music, this revolution, is all direct to fan? It’s all artists running things as entrepreneurs?
I think it’s inevitable. Artists have to run it as entrepreneurs, and the fans are very loyal. Fans buy the music. They know it’s important to have the t-shirt and the CD and all that, and to pay for the downloads. Then in their own little private world they exchange bootlegs, but this is all very healthy. This has been going on for years, that aspect of it. I just met some young girls on the street who saw my South By Southwest hoodie. They must have been about 20 years old. They go to SXSW, and they want to learn about new music by going to festivals like this. They are now at the Reeperbahn Festival to see new bands. I believe you have to keep reinventing the music business. It is so important to have a festival like this.

More direct communication with the public, not from the ivory towers at the labels. Music venues in most cities are thriving. Little clubs. I go to them. You never know what you’re going to find. Usually run of the mill stuff, but occasionally… I think the next Freddy Mercury, the next David Bowie, the next Kate Bush, they’re all out there. That’s not going to happen once in the history of the universe. There are a lot of talented people at that level. Those people, unfortunately, are going to have to boost themselves through self-promotion and self-enterprise, because labels aren’t signing geniuses anymore. They don’t recognize it, it’s been devalued. They are following yesterday’s hits. They would rather have soundalikes and lookalikes. I’ll tell you something, if that system worked, you’d see sales rising. Sales every year are diminishing, even downloads.

Vinyl,  that’s making it go back up again, but that’s a medium, that’s not a genre. Vinyl is the thing that’s cool to put on your wall. You have to make vinyl these days to get more sales, but even that, that’s a fad. I’m glad that vinyl is now an option that exists. You can actually buy vinyl. There was a 10-year period where they just stopped manufacturing it. Nowadays, there are only three plants in the whole world, and they are backlogged by as much as six months. So if I wanted to put a vinyl out tomorrow, I’d have to get in the queue.

Then the labels are thinking, “Oh, that’s going to save the business!” That’s really small. It’s not going to save anything. What will save this industry is if they realize that people like Bowie, Kate Bush, and all that, were weird. They were very weird. Some people gravitate towards that. They are tired of the same old thing. They’re tired of their father’s music. They want to hear something of their own generation. Those people are out there. You’re not going to find them on a major label. I heard a rumor that the major labels are looking for weird people now, but I haven’t heard or seen any evidence of that.

McIntyre: It doesn’t seem like it .
Visconti:  Well, if Adele sells so many records, they clearly are looking for more Adeles. They would rather have more Adeles if such a thing is possible, but that’s pretty much an insult to Adele, who came up and decided to have this big voice and sing these big, dramatic songs. She was a little bit weird. That wasn’t de rigueur .

McIntyre: You have produced many genres of music. Rock, world music, pop, and several others. How do you decide what you’re going to do, even if you’ve never worked in that genre before?
Visconti:  My criteria is that I look for uniqueness. I still do. I still have faith in it. I’ve been offered a lot to do a run of the mill thing many times. To do the backing, put the singer up front, tune his or her voice and make it sound great. I find that I’ll get very bored doing things like that. I still look for a person who has a voice that’s unlike any other voice. In my history, for example, I’ve worked with Morrissey, who sounds like nobody else. Bowie, who sounds like no other person. Marc Bolan, who sounds like no other person. Even in my folky days, I worked with Mary Hopkin, who I married eventually, she had a great, great voice.

I nearly worked with Kate Bush. That would have been nice. I had a couple of meetings with her and a very long lunch all about working together. She transitioned into self-producing after that. She said, “I would work with you if I wanted a producer.” She called me, I didn’t call her. I gravitate towards that kind of person. There are plenty of people to work with.

McIntyre: Is there somebody you hear now where you think, “That’s an original voice! That person is unique! I would love to work with them!”
Visconti:  I just worked with such a person, Esperanza Spalding. I did her whole last album. I did the whole thing and then she went off and self-produced a few more tracks. I think about seven of my tracks are on there. There is a person who is quite unique in every way.

McIntyre: That was quite a weird album, I have to say. Very unexpected for her.
Yeah. That’s her attempt at being more widely accepted. If you listen to her earlier work… I think she did an R&B album once before. She is true to herself. She has no shortage of fans. She’s touring all the time, makes big bucks, plays to big audiences. She’s definitely not a top 10 pop artist, but she sells a lot of records. There are a lot of people who sell a lot of records who don’t make the top 10. They have their own specific audiences. Heavy metal doesn’t make the top 10, but they sell hundreds of thousands, millions.

That’s my point. Big labels are concentrating on pop more than anything, and they’re concentrating on this imagined teenage audience with loads of cash to spare. It’s an old model. It’s not working anymore. They’re signing artists that they think teenagers are going to go for, but there are people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s that actually have good jobs and they’re making good money. They would spend money on good, new music if it was presented to them, and if they knew where to find it. If it was marketed the way records were marketed in the ’70s and ’80s. Some people go out and buy the best clothes that they can afford. They’re buying quality. They don’t go to a real cheap clothes store, unless that’s all they can afford. We live in a society now where people do have a lot of cash to spend. They take holidays. If you take holidays, you’re making a good wage. They’ll spend money on quality, and it’s wrong to just target the teenage market, who by the way, know how to download anything for free. It’s a no-brainer.I think in the ’70s, the difference was a label might sign 50 new acts a year and give them enough money to make their album. They would sign those acts on the basis of their uniqueness. It was already proven that the freaky artists eventually became the biggest stars.

Bowie is a weird, one of the strangest artists. He has two different colored eyes… Everything about him is out of the ordinary. He’s probably one of the biggest stars that ever lived. He started out as a very strange musician. When I met him, he was laughable. He’d been around the block a few times. He’d submitted a few demos and the labels thought, “He’s weird, we don’t want him. We don’t know what to do with him.” “We don’t know what to do,” I’ve heard that so many times. Then he busted through with “Space Oddity.” He did the first thing that nobody had ever done: he invented a stage persona. Everyone would go on as themselves, and he went on stage as this character Ziggy Stardust. Ingenious. I’m telling you, we have people like that. That can happen again, and again, and again in different forms. It’s something I haven’t thought of yet, something you haven’t thought of yet. There’s some band of geniuses that will come up with new formulas and that will come up with new ways to make music.

Hit Charade

November 30, 2015

Nathaniel Rich 10/15

The biggest pop star in America today is a man named Karl Martin Sandberg. The lead singer of an obscure ’80s glam-metal band, Sandberg grew up in a remote suburb of Stockholm and is now 44. Sandberg is the George Lucas, the LeBron James, the Serena Williams of American pop. He is responsible for more hits than Phil Spector, Michael Jackson, or the Beatles.

After Sandberg come the bald Norwegians, Mikkel Eriksen and Tor Hermansen, 43 and 44; Lukasz Gottwald, 42, a Sandberg protégé and collaborator who spent a decade languishing in Saturday Night Live’s house band; and another Sandberg collaborator named Esther Dean, 33, a former nurse’s aide from Oklahoma who was discovered in the audience of a Gap Band concert, singing along to “Oops Upside Your Head.” They use pseudonyms professionally, but most Americans wouldn’t recognize those, either: Max Martin, Stargate, Dr. Luke, and Ester Dean.

Most Americans will recognize their songs, however. As I write this, at the height of summer, the No. 1 position on the Billboard pop chart is occupied by a Max Martin creation, “Bad Blood” (performed by Taylor Swift featuring Kendrick Lamar). No. 3, “Hey Mama” (David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj), is an Ester Dean production; No. 5, “Worth It” (Fifth Harmony featuring Kid Ink), was written by Stargate; No. 7, “Can’t Feel My Face” (The Weeknd), is Martin again; No. 16, “The Night Is Still Young” (Minaj), is Dr. Luke and Ester Dean. And so on. If you flip on the radio, odds are that you will hear one of their songs. If you are reading this in an airport, a mall, a doctor’s office, or a hotel lobby, you are likely listening to one of their songs right now. This is not an aberration. The same would have been true at any time in the past decade. Before writing most of Taylor Swift’s newest album, Max Martin wrote No. 1 hits for Britney Spears, ’NSync, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, and Katy Perry.

Millions of Swifties and KatyCats—as well as Beliebers, Barbz, and Selenators, and the Rihanna Navy—would be stunned by the revelation that a handful of people, a crazily high percentage of them middle-aged Scandinavian men, write most of America’s pop hits. It is an open yet closely guarded secret, protected jealously by the labels and the performers themselves, whose identities are as carefully constructed as their songs and dances. The illusion of creative control is maintained by the fig leaf of a songwriting credit. The performer’s name will often appear in the list of songwriters, even if his or her contribution is negligible. (There’s a saying for this in the music industry: “Change a word, get a third.”) But almost no pop celebrities write their own hits. Too much is on the line for that, and being a global celebrity is a full-time job. It would be like Will Smith writing the next Independence Day.

Impressionable young fans would therefore do well to avoid John Seabrook’s The Song Machine, an immersive, reflective, and utterly satisfying examination of the business of popular music. It is a business as old as Stephen Foster, but never before has it been run so efficiently or dominated by so few. We have come to expect this type of consolidation from our banking, oil-and-gas, and health-care industries. But the same practices they rely on—ruthless digitization, outsourcing, focus-group brand testing, brute-force marketing—have been applied with tremendous success in pop, creating such profitable multinationals as Rihanna, Katy Perry, and Taylor Swift.

The music has evolved in step with these changes. A short-attention-span culture demands short-attention-span songs. The writers of Tin Pan Alley and Motown had to write only one killer hook to get a hit. Now you need a new high every seven seconds—the average length of time a listener will give a radio station before changing the channel. “It’s not enough to have one hook anymore,” Jay Brown, a co-founder of Jay Z’s Roc Nation label, tells Seabrook. “You’ve got to have a hook in the intro, a hook in the pre, a hook in the chorus, and a hook in the bridge, too.”

Sonically, the template has remained remarkably consistent since the Backstreet Boys, whose sound was created by Max Martin and his mentor, Denniz PoP, at PoP’s Cheiron Studios, in Stockholm. It was at Cheiron in the late ’90s that they developed the modern hit formula, a formula nearly as valuable as Coca-Cola’s. But it’s not a secret formula. Seabrook describes the pop sound this way: “ABBA’s pop chords and textures, Denniz PoP’s song structure and dynamics, ’80s arena rock’s big choruses, and early ’90s American R&B grooves.” The production quality is crucial, too. The music is manufactured to fill not headphones and home stereo systems but malls and football stadiums. It is a synthetic, mechanical sound “more captivating than the virtuosity of the musicians.” This is a metaphor, of course—there are no musicians anymore, at least not human ones. Every instrument is automated. Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.

The songs are written industrially as well, often by committee and in bulk. Anything short of a likely hit is discarded. The constant iteration of tracks, all produced by the same formula, can result in accidental imitation—or, depending on the jury, purposeful replication. Seabrook recounts an early collaboration between Max Martin and Dr. Luke. They are listening, reportedly, to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps”—an infectious love song, at least by indie-rock standards. Martin is being driven crazy by the song’s chorus, however, which drops in intensity from the verse. Dr. Luke says, “Why don’t we do that, but put a big chorus on it?” He reworks a guitar riff from the song and creates Kelly Clarkson’s breakout hit, “Since U Been Gone.”
Session musicians have gone extinct, and studio mixing boards remain only as retro, semi-ironic furniture.

Pop hitmakers frequently flirt with plagiarism, with good reason: Audiences embrace familiar sounds. Sameness sells. Dr. Luke in particular has been accused repeatedly of copyright infringement. His defense: “You don’t get sued for being similar. It needs to be the same thing.” (Dr. Luke does get sued for being similar, and quite often; he has also countersued for defamation.) Complicating the question of originality is the fact that only melodies, not beats, can be copyrighted. This means a producer can sell one beat to multiple artists. The same beat, for instance, can be heard beneath Beyoncé’s “Halo” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone,” hits released within four months of each other in 2009. (The producer, in his defense, claimed they were “two entirely different songs conceptually.”) As Seabrook notes, although each song was played tens of millions of times on YouTube and other platforms, few fans seemed to notice, let alone care.

Once a hit is ready, a songwriter must find a singer to bring it to the masses. The more famous the performer, the wider the audience, and the greater the royalties for the writer. Hits are shopped like scripts in Hollywood, first to the A-list, then to the B-list, then to the aspirants. “… Baby One More Time,” the Max Martin song that made Britney Spears’s career, was declined by TLC. Spears’s team later passed on “Umbrella,” which made Rihanna a star. The most-successful songwriters, like Max Martin and Dr. Luke, occasionally employ a potentially more lucrative tactic: They prospect for unknowns whom they can turn into stars. This allows them to exert greater control over the recording of the songs and to take a bigger cut of royalties by securing production rights that a more established performer would not sign away.

But the masters of star creation remain the record-label executives. The greatest of them all, Clive Davis, whose career has run from Janis Joplin to Kelly Clarkson, is an avuncular, charming presence throughout The Song Machine. He tells Seabrook that the key to pop longevity is “a continuity of hits,” a phrase Davis imbues with the gravity of scripture, though it means only what it says: lots of hit songs. More telling is the record executive Jason Flom’s reaction to meeting a young Katy Perry: “Without having heard a note of music, I was sure that Katy was indeed destined for stardom”—a statement that says more about the nature of the industry than about Perry.
In the music industry, the performers are called artists, while the people who write the songs remain largely anonymous.

Most memorable—and instructive—is the story of the obese, oleaginous Orlando entrepreneur Louis Pearlman. A luxury-plane magnate, he met the New Kids on the Block in 1989 when they chartered one of his jets. Upon learning that they were earning more than Michael Jackson, Pearlman decided to cast his own boy group. After Pearlman hired Denniz PoP and Max Martin to write their songs, the Backstreet Boys went from playing in front of Shamu’s tank at SeaWorld to selling out world tours. Millennium, released in 1999, is one of the best-selling albums in American history. Pearlman then decided to start an identical boy band, performing songs by the same songwriters. “My feeling was, where there’s McDonald’s, there’s Burger King,” Pearlman tells Seabrook on the phone from the federal prison in Texarkana, where he is serving a 25-year sentence for defrauding banks and investors in Ponzi schemes. Pearlman was a poor businessman but a savvy promoter. ’NSync, led by Justin Timberlake, formerly of The Mickey Mouse Club, was even bigger than the Backstreet Boys. Next, seeking his own Debbie Gibson, Pearlman scouted another ex-Mouseketeer: Britney Spears.

Many of Pearlman’s strategies continue to dominate the construction and marketing of pop acts, particularly in the one pop market more delirious than the United States. Seabrook credits the Backstreet Boys’ 1996 Asian tour with helping to inspire a Korean former folk singer, Soo-Man Lee, to create K-pop, a phenomenon that gives new meaning to the term song machine. Lee codified Pearlman’s tactics in a step-by-step manual that guides the creation of Asian pop groups, dictating “when to import foreign composers, producers, and choreographers; what chord progressions to use in particular countries; the precise color of eye shadow a performer should wear in different Asian regions, as well as the hand gestures he or she should make.”

In K-pop there is no pretension to creative independence. Performers unabashedly embrace the corporate strategy that stars in the United States are at great pains to disguise. Recruits are trained in label-run pop academies for as long as seven years before debuting in a new girl or boy group—though only one in 10 trainees makes it that far. This level of control may seem eccentric to American readers, but Seabrook reveals that the careers of stars like Rihanna and Kelly Clarkson are almost as narrowly choreographed.

By the end of The Song Machine, readers will have command of such terms of art as melodic math, comping, career record, and track-and-hook (a Seabrookian neologism). One term remains evasive, however: artist. In the music industry, the performers are called artists, while the people who write the songs remain largely anonymous outside the pages of trade publications. But can a performer be said to have any artistry if, as in the case of Rihanna, her label convenes week-long “writer camps,” attended by dozens of producers and writers (but not necessarily Rihanna), to manufacture her next hit? Where is the artistry when a producer digitally stitches together a vocal track, syllable by syllable, from dozens of takes? Or modifies a bar and calls it a new song?

Hitmakers today don’t only create hits. They create “artists.” The trouble comes when successful performers believe their press and begin writing their own songs, or when songwriters try to become stars themselves. Taylor Dayne—who, against Clive Davis’s advice, demanded to write her own songs, and bombed—is a cautionary example of the former. Ester Dean, who has had mixed success as a solo act, is an example of the latter. “To be an artist, that’s another story,” says Mikkel Eriksen of Stargate. “You can be a great singer, but when you hear the record it’s missing something.” Esther Dean, a prolific writer of melodies and lyrics, is an artist, but Ester Dean is not making it as an “artist.”

What is that ineffable something that separates pop stars from the rest of us? What is the source of Rihanna’s magical powers? Eriksen, trying to pin it down, describes it as “a sparkle around the edges of the words.” A K-pop star proposes another theory: “Maybe it is because of our great good looks?” Seabrook lands on a more subtle quality: an “urgent need to escape”—escapism as a matter of life or death. Rihanna was desperate to escape an abusive father; for Katy Perry it was her family’s repressive evangelical faith; for the Backstreet Boys it was Orlando. The perfect pop star creates a desire loop between audience and performer. We abandon reality together, meeting in a synthetic pop fantasy of California Gurls and Teenage Dreams. Only they are not really our teenage dreams. They are Karl Martin Sandberg’s.

Nile Rodgers: Still Chic After All These Years

November 22, 2015

Nile Rodgers isn’t holding his breath about the prospect of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum this spring.

Why should he, after having already been nominated nine times with his group Chic, nine times that left him a bridesmaid, not the bride?

“My attitude is that there are plenty of buildings that want to have me. Why would I want to live in a building where they don’t?” said Mr. Rogers, drawing a metaphor from Manhattan real estate, where he learned over the years that he was sometimes too famous or too black to appeal to everyone’s tastes.

As it happened, Mr. Rodgers was milling about on a recent afternoon not in his Upper West Side co-op but in his six-bedroom compound in Westport, Conn.

The view of the Long Island Sound stretched for miles, the furniture included Louis XIV chairs and ancient Chinese beds, and the walls were covered in platinum records he earned producing hits for Madonna, David Bowie, Chic and Sister Sledge.

Mr. Rodgers began to say something about how the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was not about sales or statistics or even quality, but then stopped himself.

He was in danger of sounding bitter. And bitter is not in Nile Rodgers’s lexicon. Nile Rodgers doesn’t do bitter.

He’s the sort of cat who describes recent collaborations with Kylie Minogue and Janelle Monae not as groundbreaking or cool but as “smoking” or “bananas.” When he is with friends like Jay Z, Beyoncé and Stephen Hawking — whom he met while giving a speech at Google Zeitgeist in London — they don’t have dinner or watch a movie. They “hang” or “cut loose.”

He is helping to score Hugh Jackman’s new one-man show, and it’s going to be “insane.” Coachella called him and booked Chic to perform at the festival for the first time next spring, right around the time he is due to hit 64. How “awesome” is that?

In 2013, Mr. Rodgers teamed up with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams for the ditty “Get Lucky,” which has sold 9.3 million copies and won him three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. And since that time, he has been on a victory tour rare in the youth-driven music business.

Admittedly, some things have changed about Mr. Rodgers since his heyday.

The flattop is gone, replaced by the dreadlocks he wears underneath a backward Kangol hat or navy bandanna. So is the “Miami Vice”-inspired 28-foot cigarette speedboat.

The white powder that was once his main dietary staple has been swapped for stevia, packets of which were strewn all around the house — on top of his alligator-skin side table in his living room, on his desk in the upstairs recording studio and in his bedroom, where he packed for a gig Chic was due to play in Milan, opening for Duran Duran at the Piazza del Duomo.

On the bedside shelf was a picture of Mr. Rodgers’s mother, Beverly Goodman, and a copy of his memoir, “Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny,” which was published in 2011.

The CliffsNotes version goes something like this.
Ms. Goodman was 14 years old when she gave birth to Nile in New York City. He met his own father, a traveling musician named Nile Rodgers Sr., just a handful of times.

Sometime around his second birthday, Ms. Goodman met Bobby Glanzrock, who became his stepfather and introduced his mother to both heroin and to Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, who spent a lot of time at the family pad.

“It was the place to hang,” said Mr. Rodgers, who talks about his childhood with an air of perennial amusement, having come to the conclusion that it was better for his development as an artist to have been raised by people who were colorful than by people who were responsible.

In a house full of addicts, Mr. Rodgers likes to say that he was “the dog who could talk,” and this is a pretty good summation of how he processes things.

If he didn’t look like the stylistic love child of Bob Marley (that hair) and Dean Martin (those suits), he would fit right in as one of the Dalai Lama’s monks.

In high school, he began playing guitar and joined the “Sesame Street” touring band, after which he was hired as a house musician for the Apollo Theater.

He met a young bassist named Bernard Edwards, and together they formed Chic, which was responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 1970s, among them “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” songs that would be sampled by the first rappers.

In the ’80s, Mr. Rodgers moved mainly to producing, becoming the Phil Spector of the post-disco era, a man who brought his Midas touch to Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”) and Madonna (“Like a Virgin”).

Lest there be any question of Mr. Rodgers’s position in the pop producer pantheon circa 1985, a plaque from Billboard proclaiming him to be No. 1 hangs high on the wall in his recording studio.

Vacations took place in St. Martin and Martha’s Vineyard with friends like Oprah Winfrey and Mick Jagger. Playboy bunny flight attendants came by the dozen, cocaine by the kilo.

Mr. Rodgers could barely fathom slowing down. He was a functioning addict, the sort whose heart could stop on Thursday night after a bender, but be in the studio Friday morning for a session with Peter Gabriel or Cyndi Lauper.

In 1994, Mr. Rodgers went into a state of cocaine psychosis while at a party in Madonna’s Miami home. Soon after, he was on a plane to rehab.

Unsure of his ability to stay sober in New York after he got out, he relocated to Westport.

For a while, things were quiet. Mr. Rodgers scored video games, hung out with his girlfriend Nancy Hunt (a former magazine editor) and produced albums for artists like Michael Bolton and Tina Arena.

But royalty checks kept rolling in, as the Notorious B.I. G, Pitbull and Will Smith recycled Mr. Rodgers’s productions over hip-hop beats and rode them once again to the top of the charts.

Then, in 2010, Mr. Rodgers was diagnosed with “extremely aggressive” prostate cancer. Rather than slowing down, he decided to kick his career back into high gear. “I really didn’t know what the future held, so my philosophy was I was going to go out like a lion,” he said.

Instead, he went into remission, just as the time was ripe for his revival.

Rock was going out of fashion, and a new crop of dance producers viewed Mr. Rodgers as an icon, the sort whose music made the feet move and had layers of grit and soul underneath.

At the 2012 Montreux Jazz Festival, where he performed with the remaining members of Chic, Mr. Rodgers was introduced to Dimitri From Paris, who happens to be one of the planet’s best known D. J.s and was eager to remix the best of the Chic and Sister Sledge catalogs.

Mr. Rodgers was thrilled by the prospect, seeing in it an obvious tie-in to the memoir he had just released.

Then he went to Ibiza to accept what he describes as “some lifetime achievement award” and met Disclosure, who wanted to collaborate with him and a singer named Sam Smith on a new track.

But it was the collaboration with Daft Punk that really changed Mr. Rodgers’s life.

Afterward, Mikael Jansson photographed him for Interview. Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin captured him for French Vogue, then introduced him to Lady Gaga, whose video “Applause” they had directed. She brought him into the studio in the spring to do some work with her on a forthcoming album.

In June, Louis Vuitton flew him first class to D.J. at its 2016 spring men’s show. Over the summer, Tom Ford hired Mr. Rodgers to rejigger Chic’s 1978 disco anthem “I Want Your Love” for his fall 2015 ad campaign, with none other than Lady Gaga singing lead.

And that is just a smattering of his latest projects.

Last month, Mr. Rodgers was on deadline to deliver tracks to Mr. Jackman, to Mr. Urban and to Stargate, the Norwegian producers behind many of Rihanna’s and Katy Perry’s hits.

He had parties here, there and everywhere.

One was back in the city, on the evening of a reporter’s visit, to be followed the next day by a conference where he gadded about with John Legend. After a short trip to Europe, Bette Midler was expecting him to perform at the annual Halloween benefit she gives for the New York Restoration Project.

In fact, it was time to go. A black Escalade was waiting outside. Mr. Rodgers’s electric guitar was by the door, along with his Tumi luggage. The world was calling.

Quincy Jones: Honey, we have no music industry

July 6, 2015

Michal Lev-Ram 7/01/15

Taylor Swift isn’t the only outspoken skeptic in the music industry. As legendary producer Quincy Jones tells it, the record biz is broken—though not beyond repair

Before Apple and Taylor Swift and even the Moog synthesizer were born, there was Quincy Jones. Over the last six decades, the legendary composer and former record company exec has amassed 79 Grammy nominations (winning 27 actual awards) and produced hit albums like Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Today, he is involved with several projects. One of his latest? An online music-learning tool called Playground Sessions, which recently kicked off a fundraising campaign via Crowdfunder. But his role as co-creator of the self-proclaimed “Rosetta Stone” of music doesn’t mean he believes the Internet has had a positive affect on the record industry—a topic he remains as opinionated as ever about. Fortune caught up with Jones to ask for his take on new digital music distribution models and why he got involved with Playground Sessions. Read below for an excerpt of the recent conversation.

FORTUNE: Is the music industry better or worse than it was 50 years ago?

Jones: Honey, we have no music industry. There’s 90% piracy everywhere in the world. They take everything. At the recent South by Southwest [an annual music festival in Austin], they had over 1,900 musicians, but fans didn’t know where to go. You can’t get an album out because nobody buys an album anymore.

What about some of the newer, online distribution models. Doesn’t that give artists more ways to get music to fans?

That doesn’t mean anything. They sell 4.5 million albums and they think it’s a hit record. It’s a joke. We used to do that [sell 4.5 million records] every weekend in the 80s. Today, you don’t get paid.

Why did you help create Playground Sessions?

You want to see kids getting into music instead of shooting each other. I’m very frustrated with America. After being creators of jazz and blues, we’re the only country in the world without a minister of culture. Americans don’t know the sources of their own music, from bebop to doo-wop to hip-hop.

We have only 12 notes. From Beethoven all the way to Bo Diddley, all of them had just 12 notes. That’s all we have and Playground Sessions is the perfect platform for teaching what we want to do with them.

Do you remember learning music?

Of course. I started at age 13 in Seattle, and met Ray Charles when he was 17. He was an amazing musician. It was never about money or fame back then. We just thought about what gave us goosebumps.

You must get requests from various music startups and projects. How do you decide which ones to pick?

I just go with Malcolm Gladwell’s book—Blink. And I’m not one of those “back in the days” kind of guys. I think when it all pools together it [the music industry] will be twice as good. And Playground Sessions will help bring it all together, it’s all there.

A legendary producer bridging the old & new in music: Steve Lillywhite

November 30, 2014

Tertiani ZB Simanjuntak 11/30/14

Although he’s a record producer who has defined the benchmarks for the global music industry, Steve Lillywhite says that he is still the same person he was 40 years ago.

He still enters a recording studio with excitement, feeling the joy of working with creative people — even on the other side of the globe from home.

“I’m always trying to feel like when I walked in a studio the first time at 17 in 1962,” said the British producer, who defined the sounds of U2 and The Dave Matthews Band from their debuts. “I was full of awe. Working with great musicians who make something from their heart will stop you from being complacent.”

Lillywhite spoke during breaks as a judge in the Guinness Amplify Talent Development competition, where he was also a mentor for four selected indie bands. He will produce the winning band’s single and local label Musica Studios will distribute it.

He is full of charm and passion for his job and music — as well as good-natured jokes and a lot of stories about the artists he’s worked with — including how he teased The Killer’s vocalist Brandon Flowers a lot on faith and religion.

Lillywhite, a five-time Grammy award winner who has produced more than 500 records since he got his start in 1977, also has worked with The Rolling Stones, Phish, Peter Gabriel, The Talking Heads and Jason Mraz, among others.

He was as in-demand then as he is now.

Of his time in Jakarta producing NOAH’s Second Chance album under Musica, Lillywhite said he had a great time riding unruly ojek (motorcycle taxis) and eating gado-gado (salad with spicy peanut sauce) on the street.

“I have high standards. I always focus on the voice,” Lillywhite said of his craft — and why he first came to Jakarta for work. “For me, [NOAH frontman] Ariel is one of the best voices. I love working with him.”

Another reason was that he saw how the industry was changing from a technical and business standpoint, given that recording studios have slowly been replaced by computers and that art and commerce were no longer so closely tied as before.

“It is a good change, but not for me. That’s why I’m here. Musica is more like a family; everyone is connected, just like in the old times. More than most, young producers don’t know what it was like to create the best records in the 1970s. I know both worlds and I like mixing them.”

However, Lillywhite is no Luddite. He works with ProTools to mix audio, even though he says the process makes him feel like a typist.

He prefers his own way of processing at a recording studio by tracking, a method that he found worked well in finding the right compression for drum ambience — clapping his hands a few times in different spots.

“There is a science to it,” he says. “The best spot to place the drum set is the spot that has more echoes.”

The sound of drums was his signature in his early years, although Steve says he has loosened up after producing the second album of singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.

“At that time I was working with U2, Simple Minds and Big Country. I made [Crenshaw’s] record different, but later I realized that I was putting my sound on it. I should listen to their music and let it grow.”

While Lillywhite was named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for his contributions to British music, he prefers to call himself a captain.

“I don’t build the ship. I’m the captain of the ship. I decorate it. I take full responsibility,” he said, explaining why he didn’t think much of whether he was given too much credit — or the blame — for his works.

“A producer doesn’t go: ‘Ah, that’s a good production’ on a record. They should go: ‘That’s great music.’

“I used to tell aspiring producers to find local recording studios and make them useful. But now, studios are dying. Now, I would tell them to do whatever they do because they love music. They could help a musician friend to make them a record,” he said. “Just get involved.”

As about his best work, Lillywhite cites the Counting Crow’s Hard Candy; U2’s Boy, Juanes’ Loco de Amor — the first Latino pop album to win a Grammy; the Dave Matthews Band’s Crash and This is War from 30 Seconds to Mars.

Lillywhite, who landed a job as a tape operator at a recording studio — the womb, as he calls it — when he was 17, said part of his strength as a producer was that he was a fluent communicator — and a little bit of a teacher.

He has built lasting relationships with his artists, including U2’s Bono and, more recently, Jared Leto, the from 30 Seconds to Mars.

“Jared told me once: ‘Steve, you’re the only man over 50 whose advice I would listen to.’ That’s the greatest thing someone ever said to me.”

Although Lillywhite has a lot to say about the music industry, he says he is not writing a book anytime soon.

“I have started talking with a friend, like in an interview, and he writes it up. But I feel that it needs to be in my language, but I’m not a writer. If I still have to do it, as there are lots of things from the past I have forgotten about.”

“Maybe I have wisdom on something. I would like to talk about the idea of art and how the ideas changed the world.”

Trevor Horn: Conversation 2013

August 20, 2013
Trevor Horn
 Paul Williams/ MusicWeek/ 0820/13

Chart-topping frontman, legendary producer and music industry businessman with interests including Sarm, Perfect Songs, ZTT and Stiff. Now Trevor Horn is turning his hand to a new talent as a musical composer.

Under a new manager, Sandy Dworniak, he has teamed up with former 10cc man Lol Crème to pen a stage production set appropriately enough in a recording studio.

“I’ve nearly finished it,” he tells Music Week, revealing: “I’m a big fan of musicals. I got to see a lot of them. The musical Billy Elliot was brilliant. That’s the best modern one I’ve seen. I loved that.”

It marks a new departure for Horn, best known as the lead singer of Video Killed The Radio Star chart-toppers Buggles and ace producer of such albums as ABC’s The Lexicon of Love, Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Welcome To The Pleasure Dome, various from Seal and more recently Robbie Williams’ Reality Killed The Radio Star (see what he did there?).

Besides the musical, Horn talks to Music Week about what else he has been up to, how he became a record producer in the first place and whether it is still possible to make a living out of the profession.

You have worked with so many people over the years – is there anyone left?

I always like working with people who’ve got really good songs and something they want to say. I don’t care if it’s a first record or a 15th record. In fact, if anything I prefer the first record. I don’t really like going through the motions. I like things where there’s something in it. Like Johnny Borrell, I did his sort of album and Johnny definitely felt like he had something to say, he had to get it out and I like that. ABC: Martin [Fry] had something to say. Seal had a whole new view of the world, Future Love Paradise or whatever. He was saying something.

Do you get lots of approaches or do people think you are probably too busy?

Most people think I’m way too expensive so they don’t bother.

Are you way too expensive?

It depends how much I like the music. I like to do a good job of things.

What do you make of the way production is often done these days with songwriter/producer teams – sometimes a whole series of them for one album?

It obviously depends who you are, but when I started out I wrote sort of three songs for Dollar with Bruce Woolley and then I produced the records, but then I thought if I just write them it’s really going to limit me. In the same way, if I have to play on every record I make then that’s going to limit the kinds of records I make. Back then in the Eighties you could still earn money from selling records so I didn’t [write] . If you look at all the Seal albums I’ve done I’m not credited anywhere as a writer. Frankie Goes To Hollywood I’m not credited as a writer, yet we chopped that stuff up a lot, but I had this ethic I was the producer. That was paramount. These days writer/producer teams are fine. It works. It’s a different sort of job really, because all the stuff, all the keyboards that we had to buy in the Eighties, now you can get all of those sounds so easily. It’s a different world.

You mention you like to work with new artists. Some of the biggest records you worked on like ABC’s Lexicon Of Love you didn’t subsequently work on the second albums. Were there circumstances there?

There were circumstances with ABC because I was wrestling with [the creation of Frankie single] Relax and they kept saying to me, “You’ve got to start our second album.”?I said I couldn’t and, “You’ve just got to wait until I finish this one.” Mark [White] the guitar player said, “We wouldn’t wait for God that long so we’re certainly not waiting for you,” which I thought was funny at the time because I said, “You’ve got to let me have another four weeks” or whatever. So that was the reason I never did the second one – but after the second one I was off and running somewhere else anyway.

Do you think there’s a chance of working with Robbie Williams again?

Yeah, I thought there was a nice album we made together.

At the time of making the album he said it was the most positive he had ever been creatively.

He was lovely – I saw him the other day coming in here. We had a cuddle and I said I’d been writing a musical. It was nice to see him and there’s a couple of tracks on that record I really love. I though the first single was great, Bodies, I thought was hilarious, really good fun and Deceptacon and a couple of other things that I’ve got on my own personal playlist. He looks in good shape and has got a great voice, too.

Is it still possible to make a living out of being a producer these days?

Oh yeah, especially if you work on the Adele album. If you’re a producer, my advice is: if Adele phones up take the job.

Can you make it just as a producer now?

No, you have to be a songwriter as well.

People can now record their music on their laptops, so what is it that a great studio and great producer can still add to the recording?

It’s not just the right producer, it’s the right manager and the right song. It’s surprising what producers can bring to certain things. In the case of a band like Yes where I’ve done quite a few albums with them – I’ve been a Yes fan since year dot – I just run the whole thing because it stops them falling out with each other. The thing about an old school producer you’re the central focus of the making of the record. Every decision comes back to you so when everyone’s gone home you and the engineer are still there at 1 o’clock in the morning. Back in the Eighties it was sometimes trying to figure out how to get something sounding like it was in tune with whatever we had at the time. It’s trying to get something to sound in time by slicing bits out of a two-inch tape in the late Seventies, early Eighties, whatever you had to do to get that record finished. And, of course, a recording studio like [Sarm] isn’t like your bedroom. It takes a bit of learning. This is like my bedroom studio is, but back in the Seventies people would have no way of getting anywhere near [Sarm’s quality] unless they actually came in. You might be a writer with a great script but unless you know the process of making a great film your first film will be terrible. Well, exactly the same thing happens when they come in here.

Can you remember when you first came across the phrase ‘record producer’?

Yes, I do. I was aware when I was 14 that George Martin produced The Beatles and I was intrigued by it and I saw him on television and I thought, “He’s a bit like a music teacher,” but I didn’t really understand what he did. Then I remembered looking at the producer credits on records: Andrew Loog Oldham and the Glimmer Twins and weird stuff on Rolling Stones records. I was obsessed with recording and recording studios.

I started playing when I was about 11 and by the time I was 15 or 16 I was playing semi-pro, playing bass guitar. My dad was a bass player so I used to stand in for him so the whole producer thing didn’t really happen. When I was about 24 I built a studio with another guy in Leicester and we were working seven nights [a week] at a nightclub while we were doing it and because we got no work we put an ad in the paper. Some guys came around with songs that they had for the Leicester Song Competition. We got these guys’ song out, gave it a structure and arrangement and somebody said to me, “You know what you did there was being a record producer” and I was like, “That’s what record producers do?” I had no idea. But he said, “If you become a record producer the production of the record is more important than being a bass player so that comes first.”?It took me five years after that to get a hit.

Those records you made in the Eighties like the Frankie Goes To Hollywood ones still sound ultra-modern today…

That’s the funny thing because in a way they were the first time you heard that kind of record. I just had this idea of making pop records with a mechanical rhythm because I liked Kraftwerk. All records have got mechanical rhythm sections now, but that was the big idea then.

Those records are still heavily hammered on the radio as well.

Yeah, thank God. If they sound good it’s because we were in studios like [Sarm] to analogue tapes even though they were digital records. A lot of people in the music business have come from Sarm and they’ve been trained here and I’m pretty proud of all the people who we’ve worked with. They’ve all gone on to do really good things. If you can work for me you can work for everybody.

Legendary Music Producer Phil Ramone Dies at 79

April 1, 2013

Mike Barnes 03/30/13 The Hollywood Reporter

A former violin prodigy and expert engineer, he worked with Dylan, Sinatra, McCartney, Bennett, Charles, Streisand, Simon, Joel and Bacharach and spent more than 50 years in the business.

Phil Ramone, the instinctive music producer whose mixing mastery for Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Paul Simon and Billy Joel helped fashion some of the most sumptuous and top-selling albums of his era, has died. He was 79.

The 14-time Grammy winner and 33-time nominee once dubbed “The Pope of Pop” was hospitalized in late February [3] with an aortic aneurysm in New York and died Saturday morning at New York Presbyterian Hospital, according to Ramone’s son Matt.

A native of South Africa who at age 10 performed as a violinist for Queen Elizabeth II, Ramone spent years working as a songwriter, engineer and acoustics expert in New York before charting a path that would make him a trusted studio partner in the eyes (and ears) of the industry’s biggest stars.

Among the albums on which he worked were Streisand’s 1967 live A Happening in Central Park; Paul & Linda McCartney’s Ram (1971), sandwiched between the Beatles and Wings eras; Dylan’s aching Blood on the Tracks (1975); Simon’s pop classic Still Crazy After All These Years (1975); Joel’s critical and commercial breakthrough The Stranger (1977); Sinatra’s last-gasp Duets (1993), a model of technical wizardry; and Charles’ final album, the mega-selling Genius Loves Company (2004).

Ramone served as a songwriter in New York’s famed Brill Building music factory and worked early on with Quincy Jones, Tom Dowd, Creed Taylor, Jerry Leiber & Mike Stoller and Burt Bacharach & Hal David, among others. In 1959, he launched the A&R Recording studios on Seventh Avenue in New York, where Blood on the Tracks and so many other classics were recorded.

Asked to describe his philosophy as a producer, Ramone told Sound on Sound [9]magazine in 2005: “I served a long time as an engineer and watched many famous producers work, and I decided on the personality that came most easily to me, which is the more relaxed; to give artists encouragement when needed.

“Players are like prodigies, thoroughbreds,” he added. “You have to handle them with care.”

Born on Jan. 5, 1934, Ramone at age 3 began studying the piano and violin, and he attended the Juilliard School in New York as a teenager. Although he was an accomplished performer and composer, he was attracted to the technical side of music and became a wizard working with the dials.

In 1964, Ramone engineered the classic bossa nova album Getz/Gilberto, from American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist Joao Gilberto. It would become one of the biggest-selling jazz albums of all time and earn him his first Grammy, for best engineered recording. It also won the album of the year Grammy.

Later in the decade, he worked with folk superstars Peter, Paul and Mary, then won another Grammy in 1969 as co-producer of the original Broadway cast album of Promises, Promises, with music and lyrics by Bacharach and David.

Ramone’s career reached another level in 1975 when he produced Simon’s Still Crazy After All These Years — which featured the No. 1 single “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and won Ramone a Grammy for album of the year — and Blood on the Tracks.

About the Dylan album, Ramone said: “It turned out to be the best four days of what Bob Dylan does, which is he wanders from song to song, sometimes coming back to the first one. Other than changing the roll of tape, you just had to let it all happen.”

In 1977, he produced Kenny Loggins’ Celebrate Me Home, Phoebe Snow’s Never Letting Go and Joel’s The Stranger, which kicked off a seven-album, decade-long relationship with the Long Island-raised singer-songwriter. He and Joel were “both lunatics,” he once said.

For the screeching tires on “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” from The Stranger, Ramone recorded bassist Doug Stegmeyer’s Corvette peeling out, taping a microphone to the tailpipe. He also added a bit of echo to Joel’s whistling throughout the album.

“There’s nothing like the challenge of devising and reproducing an effect you’re looking for,” Ramone wrote in his 2007 book, Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music. “Sometimes that chase is more exciting than the catch.”

Ramone won the record of the year Grammy for Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” from the album (after removing a “cha-cha-cha” background from the song), captured album of the year for the follow-up 52nd Street and was named producer of the year in 1980 after guiding the rock-infused Glass Houses, which featured Joel’s first chart-topping single, “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.”

On Oct. 1, 1982, 52nd Street became the first commercially released compact disc, and Ramone later received a Technical Grammy for his lifetime of innovative contributions to the industry.

In 1993, Ramone produced Duets, a comeback album for Sinatra. The legendary singer never sang in the same studio with his duet partners, who included Streisand, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, Bono and Kenny G. Ramone used an EDNet fiber-optic system to record the artists in different locations in real time.

The first of two Sinatra Duets albums sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S. and made it to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart.

For Genius Loves Company, Ramone and fellow producer John Burk provided a clean, retro setting for the pop classics sung by Charles with James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Norah Jones and others. The album, recorded over a period of nine months and released in August 2004 — two months after Charles’ death — earned triple-platinum status, made it to No. 1 and raked in eight Grammys.

“If Ray is looking upon us now, he’s just made his career last another 50 years,” Ramone said as he accepted the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Ramone also produced Bennett’s Duets II, the 2011 release famous for the crooner’s collaboration with Amy Winehouse. With that album, Bennett became the oldest living artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.

Other Ramone-produced albums include Lesley Gore’s I’ll Cry If I Want To (1963), Julian Lennon’s debut Valotte (1984), the Broadway cast album for Passion (1994), Liza Minnelli’s live Liza’s Back (2002), Rod Stewart’s It Had to Be You: The Great American Songbook (2002) and recent works from George Michael, Dionne Warwick and Glee star Matthew Morrison [5].

Ramone recorded Streisand and Kris Kristofferson live during filming for A Star Is Born (1976) and co-wrote “Imagination,” sung by Laura Branigan in Flashdance (1983), good for another Grammy. He also contributed to the films Midnight Cowboy (1969), Ghostbusters (1984) and Beyond the Sea (2004), with Kevin Spacey acting and singing as Bobby Darin.

Ramone also recorded Marilyn Monroe’s boozy rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” sung to President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and received an Emmy in 1973 for his work as an audio designer on the NBC special Liza With a Z.

In a Recording Academy statement confirming his passing, the Grammy organization also credited Ramone as “a pioneer of audio technological developments — creating new innovations for the compact disc and surround sound technologies.”

In an interview with Music Radar in November [13], Ramone credited his ability to seize upon spontaneity as one reason he became such a prolific hitmaker.

“You have to be able to run as fast as the artist, capture the magic early on,” he said. “After a few takes, people start intellectualizing what they’re doing, and it loses something. What’s special happens right away — so you have to be ready for it.”

In addition to his son Matt, Ramone is survived by wife Karen and sons BJ and Simon.

Benny Blanco, Hit Maker for Rihanna and Maroon 5

January 7, 2013

JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr. NY Times 01/04/13

ONE of the first things you notice about Benny Blanco, besides the impish brown eyes and the curly hair piled up in a Prince-like coif, are the many curios adorning his hands and wrists.
He started collecting them a few years ago to mark the hits he has helped write and produce. The old Rolex on his right wrist he bought when Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” topped Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in 2011. The fat silver ring on his left hand was added last summer when “Payphone,” by the same band, reached No. 2. And a Buddha ring on his left thumb marks the rise of Trey Songz’s “Heart Attack” to No. 3 on the R&B chart last June.

At 24 Mr. Blanco is already running out of fingers. Since 2008, when the pop hit maker Dr. Luke first recruited him into his stable of songwriters, he has had a hand in six No. 1 hits on Billboard’s Hot 100 as a writer and producer, working with artists like Rihanna, Kesha, Katy Perry and Maroon 5. He’s been a writer for another seven songs that have cracked the Top 10. It is hard to listen to pop radio for 10 minutes without hearing a song on which Mr. Blanco has played a pivotal role. Last month two songs he helped compose and produce — Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and Kesha’s “Die Young” — were lodged in the top two spots on Hot 100 chart. Over the past three years he has been behind ubiquitous radio hits like Gym Class Heroes’ “Stereo Hearts,” Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” and Kesha’s “Tik Tok.”

Lounging among giant pillows on the bed he keeps in his home studio in Chelsea — he says he likes putting a bed in every studio he uses — Mr. Blanco acknowledged that luck has played a role in his winning streak. “I am still waiting for the day that they say ‘Time’s up, Blanco,’ ” he said, grinning lazily. “Back to your shift at Walmart.”

Songwriting for pop radio is a team sport these days, and Mr. Blanco is by all accounts like a utility infielder in baseball, someone good at all positions who makes everyone better at their jobs. He is talented at making electronic beats and drum tracks from bizarre samples. But he also has a gift for sunny hooks and catchy chord progressions, and if the need arises, he can turn out competent lyrics, often with a crisp and profane edge.

“I just try to fit in where it makes sense,” he said. “I’m not particularly good at anything. I’m not an incredible guitarist or piano player or songwriter. I think what I do is, when I notice someone is really good at something, I try to get that out of them.”

Mikkel S. Eriksen, part of the songwriting team Stargate, said that Mr. Blanco, as a producer, always reaches for unexpected sounds. On “Diamonds,” the Rihanna hit he wrote with Stargate, he took a snippet of Mr. Eriksen’s singing, altered the sound electronically to make it dirtier, then used that timbre, manipulated with audio software, to create ghostly accompaniment lines. “His technique is somewhat unorthodox,” Mr. Eriksen said, “as he almost never plays the keyboards but throws in weird samples and alters them to the right pitch to go with the song.”

Mr. Blanco is a scavenger of peculiar sounds, including those made by his body; his French bulldog, Disco; the lock on his door; and the clatter of bowls on a table — all of which he has incorporated into Top 10 pop songs.

He shuns building music from scratch with computer-generated timbres. He instead seeks out traditional instruments and low-end keyboards, records them and then builds melodies and chords from the tones they yield. His studio is littered with peculiar instruments: rare guitars, ukuleles, a pump organ from Egypt, a Roland analog synthesizer from the 1970s, stacks of cheap Yamaha and Casio keyboards and assorted percussion instruments, toy pianos and accordions.

One of his favorites is a small Yamaha keyboard that he used to record parts of “Tik Tok” and Ms. Perry’s “California Gurls.” He bought it for $25 at a yard sale. The keys are yellowed and uneven, and he had to install a jack so it could be connected to a soundboard.

“I just want to sound different than everyone else,” he said. “I don’t care if it sounds bad. I just want people to be like, ‘Yo, that dude Benny was different.’ Even if it sounds awful, at least they can’t say, ‘Oh well, I’ve heard that before.’ ”

Yet his collaborators say Mr. Blanco’s biggest asset lies not in his hard-to-duplicate catalog of sounds but in his ears and instincts. Much of what Mr. Blanco does during songwriting sessions, they say, is direct the creative flow of other musicians, pulling them in directions they would normally avoid.

“I think Benny’s greatest strength is his taste and his ability to know when something is amazing,” said Ammar Malik, who wrote “Stereo Hearts” and “Payphone” with Mr. Blanco. “When I’m in the room with him, he inspires me to find a different sound, one that I didn’t know how to do on my own.”

Adam Levine, the lead singer and songwriter for Maroon 5, said: “It’s almost as if he has the Midas touch in putting the right people together at the right time to create a musical moment. He’s about the collaboration. And he’s so good at nailing down who does everything best.”

When the production of “Payphone” stalled, Mr. Levine said, it was Mr. Blanco who called up the rapper Wiz Khalifa, with whom he had worked on other projects, and invited him to do a solo. Though Wiz Khalifa had never touched a ready-for-pop-radio song, he freestyled a rap over a beat that Mr. Blanco invented on the spot, and it became central to the song’s appeal.

Mr. Blanco starts songwriting sessions by playing a mixtape of tunes he finds inspiring, tracks he has harvested from the Internet to evoke the sound he wants. He then pushes the artists to jam along those lines until he hears the kernel of a song. He likens the process to group therapy.

“When you are writing in the studio, it’s like the people who are in the studio with you are a dysfunctional family,” he said. “You are basically like a therapist. It’s psychology.”

His colleagues say one of his studio tools is a wicked, self-deprecating sense of humor, which he uses to break tension. “He’s so funny, it’s crazy,” the rapper Spank Rock said. Asked about his passions outside music, Mr. Blanco said, deadpan, “Lots of peyote and masturbation.”

Mr. Blanco, whose real surname is Levin, never expected to become a pop tunesmith. Growing up in Reston, Va., he fell in love with hip-hop, he said, when he bought a Nas cassette at the age of 5. He started rapping and making beats when he was a teenager, performing at his older brother’s college parties at the University of Delaware. Before he graduated from South Lakes High School, he was making weekend trips to Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York, where he befriended producers who let him use their studios.

Among them was David Shayman, or Disco D, an eccentric and troubled beat maker who became his mentor. After graduation Mr. Blanco moved to Brooklyn and worked as Disco D’s intern, an experience he likened to being a monk in a kung fu monastery. (At one point Mr. Shayman threw Mr. Blanco’s CD collection out a window.) Through Mr. Shayman, who committed suicide in 2007, Mr. Blanco met the Baltimore rapper Spank Rock, and in 2008 the two of them put together “Bangers & Cash,” a raucous EP that quickly landed them a contract with Downtown Records.

That collection of five risqué raps also attracted the attention of Dr. Luke, the former guitarist for the “Saturday Night Live” band who has become a hugely successful pop songwriter. In 2008 Dr. Luke recruited Mr. Blanco to help create songs for Britney Spears and two new artists: Ms. Perry and Kesha. Mr. Blanco said he had little interest in writing Top 40 songs at the time. His tastes ran toward left-field electronic music, like the tracks Justice and Diplo were making, and his main influences were Prince and Motown vocalists like David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations.

But working with Dr. Luke taught him about song structure and dynamics, about creating rising drama and moments of respite from that drama in the verse, bridge and chorus. “Pop songs are like a D.J. set crammed into three minutes,” he said. Asked to define the secret to a pop hit, he said it was simple: The message must resonate with listeners. “You’ve got to feel like that could have been me,” he said.

Over the last two years, as his reputation has grown, he has started moving out of Dr. Luke’s orbit, collaborating more with the Swedish songwriters Shellback and Max Martin and, more recently, with the Stargate duo and with Bruno Mars. He has also begun to dip back into hip-hop and urban music, composing songs with Wiz Khalifa like “Work Hard, Play Hard” and “No Sleep.”

Though his dance card this spring includes projects for Maroon 5 and Rihanna, he said he is looking to break out of pop and further establish himself in hip-hop. He relishes the role of newcomer. “I want to be that new guy that no one wants to work with,” he said.

Profile: Rudy Van Gelder

February 9, 2012

New Jersey Jazz Revolution
By MARC MYERS/ 02/07/12

Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
Rudy Van Gelder warned his guest not to trip over the thick cables snaking along the floor as we made our way through a forest of microphone stands at the far corner of his famed recording studio. “Here it is,” he said, tugging a gray plastic cover off a Hammond organ. “Nearly every organist I’ve recorded—Jimmy Smith, Ray Charles, Jack McDuff, Charles Earland and others—used this instrument. Many people would probably be surprised to learn that it’s actually a C-3 model, not a B-3.”

Mr. Van Gelder is still a stickler for details. Since 1952, the 87-year-old engineer has recorded thousands of jazz albums—first at his parents’ home in Hackensack, N.J., and then here. The lengthy list includes Miles Davis’s “Workin’,” Sonny Rollins’s “Saxophone Colossus,” Art Blakey’s “Moanin’,” John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay.”

On Saturday, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will honor Mr. Van Gelder with a Trustees Award—a Grammy that recognizes his lifelong contribution to jazz recording. As an engineer, Mr. Van Gelder is credited with revolutionizing the sound of music in the LP era—capturing the distinct textures of each instrument and giving jazz albums a warm, natural tone.

From the outside, the building that houses Mr. Van Gelder’s studio looks like any chocolate-brown suburban home—except there are no windows. Inside, the butterscotch-hued, cathedral-like space features a vaulted ceiling made of laminated Douglas-fir arches and cedar planks, giving the room a Scandinavian feel. Snap your fingers or talk, and the sound appears to hang in the air momentarily, as if the rafters were evaluating the sonic quality before letting it go.

Mr. Van Gelder is notorious for stonewalling questions about his recording techniques. “But I’ll tell you this,” he said, seated in his studio’s long control room. “I used Neumann Condenser mikes before anyone else did. I bought one of the first ones sold here. They were extremely sensitive and warm-sounding.”

When asked about the creative ways he placed microphones near instruments—in one case reportedly wrapping a mike in foam and sticking it into the piano’s tone hole—Mr. Van Gelder channeled his inner Sphinx. “All I’ll say is nothing is simple, everything is complex.”

Born in Jersey City, N.J., Mr. Van Gelder began listening to jazz on the family radio. At age 12, he ordered a home recording device that came with a turntable and blank discs. “I tried playing trumpet in my high-school marching band but I was soon demoted to ticket-taker at football games,” he said.

After high school, Mr. Van Gelder attended the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in Philadelphia. “I wanted the mental discipline and the prospect of a steady income after college.” While there, he visited a network radio station. “A powerful feeling swept over me. The music, the equipment’s design, the seriousness of the place—I knew I wanted to spend my career in that type of environment.”

Immediately after graduating in 1943, Mr. Van Gelder opened an optometry office in Teaneck, N.J. By day he worked on eyeglasses and in the evening he recorded local artists who wanted a 78rpm record of their efforts. “I was obsessed with microphones,” Mr. Van Gelder said. “When I’d see photos of jazz musicians recording or performing, I found myself looking at the mikes, not them.”

In 1946, his father decided to build a house in Hackensack, N.J. Mr. Van Gelder asked for a control room with a double glass window next to the living room, which would serve as the studio. His father agreed. “The architect made the living room ceiling higher than the rest of the house, which created ideal acoustics for recording,” he said.

Early clients included singer-accordionist Joe Mooney and pianist Billy Taylor. Then in 1952, Gus Statiras, a local producer, brought baritone saxophonist Gil Mellé to Mr. Van Gelder’s studio to record. Mellé later played the results for Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records in New York. “Alfred wanted more tracks and went to his engineer at WOR Studios to see if he could duplicate the natural sound,” Mr. Van Gelder said. “The guy told him he didn’t know how, and urged Alfred to see the person who had recorded the originals. So he did.”

Before long, Prestige, Savoy, Vox and other labels began booking studio time for LPs. “To accommodate everyone, I assigned different days of the week to different labels,” he said. “But I continued to work as an optometrist, investing everything I made in new recording equipment.”

Mr. Van Gelder learned his craft on the job. “Alfred was rigid about how he wanted Blue Note records to sound. But Bob Weinstock of Prestige was more easygoing, so I’d experiment on his dates and use what I learned on the Blue Note sessions.”

As the home’s driveway filled with cars, Mr. Van Gelder’s parents added a separate entrance to their bedroom wing to avoid walking in on the musicians. “My parents and the neighbors never complained,” he said. “Only once my mother left me a note asking me to do a better job tidying up.”

In 1954, Mr. Van Gelder and his wife, Elva, moved into a nearby apartment. A museum exhibit in New York on Usonian architecture gave the couple an idea. “The image I had in mind was a small concert hall,” Mr. Van Gelder said. Then came a meeting with David Henken, a Usonian architect and student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Henken designed plans for Mr. Van Gelder, and Armand Giglio, one of Henken’s developers, built the studio on a wooded lot in Englewood Cliffs.

“A crane had to hoist the arches and rafters into place,” Mr. Van Gelder said, pointing up at his studio’s ceiling. “They were bolted together at the top and joined at the bottom with a steel cable under the floor. This design allowed for the large space to stand unencumbered by columns, which was essential for a studio.”

During the 1960s and ’70s, Impulse, Verve, A&M, CTI and other labels used the Van Gelder studio. “‘A Love Supreme’ was recorded right here,” Mr. Van Gelder said. “The session was hypnotic, exciting and different. But I didn’t realize that until I remastered the tapes many years later. When Coltrane was here, I was too worried about capturing the music.”

Before departing, this writer tried once again to pry Mr. Van Gelder’s techniques loose. “All I can tell you is that when I achieved what I thought the musicians were trying to do, the sound sort of bloomed. When it’s right, everything is beautiful. I was always searching for that point.”