Behind The Glass - Top Record Producers Tell How They Craft The Hits
By Howard Massey

Miller Freeman Books, 2000
Backbeat Books, 2002

For quite a long time the role of the record producer was surrounded by an aura of mystery, the general public not having a precise idea of what a producer really did; sure, the fact that the producer's role can be played in so many different ways - depending on his background, the type of artist that's being produced and the specific characteristics of a particular project - didn't exactly contribute to make this understanding any easier. Nowadays things seems to have changed - seeing the producer's name mentioned in a record review and reading about his contribution to a project is not uncommon anymore. But some things stay the same: many people still believe that making "artists" out of "personalities" (i.e., Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez or the "boys bands") is a producer's main responsibility - hence, the argument that real artists need no producer. Others still believe in the difference between "real" and "artificial" - an argument that in recent days has been dressed up in the guise of "lo-fi" - like "real" rock groups' records were magically born out of thin air: here I can only direct the reader to Chris Thomas' contribution to the Sex Pistols' Never Mind The Bollocks... or, in Howard Massey's book, to what Craig Leon says about the recording of Ramones (1976). Of course, many still believe that learning about an artist's life and motivations will tell us all there is to know about the artifacts of her/his art, while knowing about the "technical" choices that contributed to make those artifacts what they are - will tell us nothing. Which is exactly the way the majority of music magazines write about music. And so we have a lot of books about artists' lives and not exactly lots of books like the one written by Howard Massey.

Would someone decide to get some informations about these topics s/he would not have too many titles at his/her disposal, the only other book currently in print that I know of being Mark Cunningham's "Good Vibrations - A History of Record Production". Published by Sanctuary 1996, and reprinted in 1999, it's definitely a book that's worth one's time: clearly written, it examines a wide range of styles; only a caveat: for what I imagine being "practical" reasons, it deals almost exclusively with UK's contributions to that history.

A producer and engineer besides being a journalist, Howard Massey has collected in Behind the Glass thirty-four of his interviews with producers from both sides of the Atlantic (the interviews having previously appeared on US magazines Musician and EQ). Each conversation opens with a brief "portrait" of the interviewee and is followed by a selected discography.

All the interviews have a clear focus. Massey has sometimes asked the same questions to different people, so to have a wide range of opinions about topics that are considered to be of a more "technical" nature (i.e., "analog or digital?"; "which is the best way to mike drums?"; "how can one succeed in making vocals 'sit' well in a track?") and also about more "open ended" ones, such as: "how does one decide when a track is finished?"; "what are the perceived consequences of the home recording phenomenon?"; "what the biggest faults of self-produced tapes?"; "does an artist always need a producer?".

There are quite a few fascinating glimpses about the recorded material that's discussed, a few highlights being George Martin and Geoff Emerick talking about the Beatles; Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys; Alan Parson on Pink Floyd; Tony Visconti on psychoacoustics; Nile Rodgers on his recordings with Bowie, Madonna and Chic; Frank Filipetti on James Taylor's "home recorded" CD; Mitchell Froom on The Latin Playboys. And even the conversations that didn't sound too promising to me - say, Humberto Gatica on Celine Dion - offer useful insights on the way these things work. The majority of the interviewees are mostly involved in "mainstream" productions, the main exceptions being former Black Grape Danny Saber and Sylvia Massy Shivy (Tool, System Of A Down). And it's a pity that we don't have Roger Nichols, who could have shared his inside knowledge on Steely Dan. But a second volume will surely follow - I hope soon.

Many producers have quite a lot to say beyond the technicalities - for in., see Mitchell Froom about the disappearance of the technical "dialects", or read George Massenburg. And it's the high quality of the thinking "behind" the decisions taken in the studio that makes this book essential reading for those who - though not professionally involved with these matters - listen to music with a level of attention that goes beyond the superficial.

I had read the book at the time of its first edition. I read it again a few days ago, and my positive judgment remained unchanged, though I was more than a bit surprised noticing how some questions that had remained in the background when I first read the book have now come to the fore.

A common point of view goes more or less like this: "What 'good production' means is too subjective a matter to be worth our time, unless we have professional reasons to do so; when production "works" - i.e., it has the desired effect on the listener - we can say it did its job. So?". But the crucial point here is: "How immediate the effect has to be?" This is the "invisible factor" in a debate that is often defined as being confined inside the borders of subjectivity - and so, one that's impossible to have a rational solution. But we can try - and maybe this could help us with regards to the old "The Whole World vs. Richard Meltzer" topic: the one that says that it's only our sentimental attachment to the recordings that we listened to in our youth that makes it impossible for us to see the good points of many new trends.

It's not "styles" I'm talking about. But of a "flatness", a lack of depth, the rarity of those elements that slowly reveal themselves over time. A perception that at first - given its recent appearance, and its faults in many re-releases of historical albums - regarded the digital format as the culprit. But that we can now define as the "maximum instant satisfaction with practically no effort" factor.

The fact that sales of hi-fi systems - with the exception of the high end sector - have nosedived is an important clue (this being true of every western nation, with hi-fi mags now largely devoted to home video). Listening to music as an exclusive activity is now an uncommon occupation, while listening on one's computer or on a portable Mp3 player is the most common case. That the producers' targets are nowadays mostly distracted people with short attention spans cannot be without consequences for their aesthetical choices. It's here - and not 'cause of nostalgia for the glorious days of Sgt. Pepper - that the real discussion should start.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2003 | Jan. 3, 2003