Behind The Glass, Vol. II - Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft The Hits
By Howard Massey

Backbeat Books 2009, $24.99, pp332

At last! About ten years after that great, successful Volume I that by now I almost considered as being destined to remain a "one of a kind" specimen, here's Volume II of Behind The Glass - Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft The Hits. The "glass" in the title, of course, referring to the famous glass panel behind which those producers and engineers who guide the creative process usually stay - or stand (a role that, as the book successfully shows, remains just as essential today, even in a world where the "glass" is often of the virtual kind); with the book's subtitle making explicit reference to the skills of the artisan implied by the word "craft", while implicitly referring to the apprenticeship system so essential for the health of a profession (and, by implication, music) today greatly endangered by the diffusion of "home studios", however technically evolved they are.

Massey's interviews initially appeared in Musician magazine, and then, after Musician went under, in the pages of EQ. Many interviews now featured in Volume II - 42 in all, plus two Producer Panels - had already appeared in Home Recording and EQ magazines, though in abridged form. The interview pattern remains the same as Volume I: a brief intro about who's being interviewed, the interview text, and a selection of not-to-be-missed audio material. With just a few exceptions - the only ones that really bothered me were those with Tchad Blake and Joe Chiccarelli - no interview here can be said to be "too brief" ("brief" here being a relative term: it often happened to me that a single sentence became the source of all kinds of thoughts, while the book rested on my table). The only thing I really found annoying was the fact that - just as it was also the case with Volume I - all interviews bear no date of their original taping session: which is not good, since it's impossible to understand if we are listening to somebody who's quite good at anticipating things, or to somebody who has thought a great deal about the (recent) past.

While Volume I was bound to have an easy life - who could remain cold when confronted with a list featuring albums such as The Dark Side Of The Moon, Revolver, "Heroes", Aja, Pet Sounds and Electric Ladyland? - Volume II is quite good, too. There are familiar names such as Daniel Lanois and T-Bone Burnett. Veterans such as Larry Levine (there's a fine interview about Phil Spector's Wall Of Sound), Bruce Swedien (Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones), John Simon (The Band), and Russ Titelman (here I found the part about Steve Winwood to be of great interest). There are also those whose specialty is live performances (David Hewitt, Ed Rak), Jazz and Classical music (Steve Epstein), orchestras (Richard Lush, John Kurlander), surround sound and film music (Steve Parr).

I happened to read interviews with people who I thought were unknown to me (Kevin Killen) til I had a look at the list of their works (Peter Gabriel, U2, Elvis Costello, Shakira). I discovered those names behind the music: Rodney Jerkins (Destiny's Child, Monica, Mary J. Blige), Darryl Swann (Macy Gray), Ann Mincieli (Alicia Keys). I read interviews with people whose work was at the foundation of the music of the 80s (and beyond): Hugh Padgham, Trevor Horn, and Stephen Lipson. The real revelation for me were many names who work in Nashville, the most interesting interviews for me being the ones with Kyle Lehning, Clarke Schleicher (one of the best ones in the whole book), and Trina Shoemaker (whose CV features both Sheryl Crow and Queens Of The Stone Age). And I could go on.

It goes without saying that many changes took place in the decade separating the two editions of this book, the first that comes to mind being the fast change when it comes to all things technical. Most interviews bearing at least a trace of those changes, I'd define the two Panels that open and close the book as those where it's easier to see what changed. And while the two Panels in Volume I had seen (US) East Coast and West Coast producers acting as main characters, the two Panels here take place in London and Nashville. Which, in a way, is only logical, if we consider how many studios in New York and Los Angeles have closed their doors.

With hindsight, it's quite easy to see how slow-paced the rate of change was at the ("classic") time of the interviews appearing in Volume I - though at that time it appeared to be quite fast. Those important issues of the time - such as: Which is the best way to mike drums? How do you know when a mix is done? How can one have the vocals "sit" in a track? Does everybody really need a producer? Digital or Analog? What are the worst traits of home recording? - sat on a plane that moved quite slowly, this also being true of "quality".

The two Panels featured in the book - this being also true of quite a few interviews - take place at a moment when Majors are in disarray, earnings and profits are just a hypothesis, recording budgets get lower and lower, equipment maintenance becomes increasingly problematic. It goes without saying that the "loudness wars" and the fact of listeners having tiny earbuds as their main listening devices make the work of both producers and engineers increasingly difficult. New worries - When is too much autotune really "too much"? Are plug-ins really much worse than the "real thing"? Does analog still have a place in the world? - now stand side-by-side with many of the old ones.

By now I'm quite certain that the (future) publication of Behind The Glass, Volume III  is not a question of paper books still being bought and sold. Will there still be a kind of "music-making" that can be considered as a high-skilled occupation? In closing, I'll quote from George Massenburg's Foreword (which presents a first-draft type of explanation, and which deserves to be read in its entirety):

"Maybe that's because today there are no 'gatekeepers' that recognize great recordings (that is, great tunes, great performances, and/or great innovations) and introduce them to a broader audience. Now, it's many-to-many, with what seems to be at once a hugely democratic opportunity and a denial of the requirement for uniquely individual, idiosyncratic talent".

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | Jan. 7, 2010