What is music production actually?
I get asked this question quite a lot – and not just by my mother at Christmas every year – but mainly in interviews and when talking to people about what I do. Maybe, because I do other things as well as produce music, people think I have some kind of outsider point of view of it, like a spy or a mole on the inside. But that, in fact, is one of my definitions of music production – an outside point of view of the music itself.
Music production is the art of looking at the music from the outside. I don’t only say this because it justifies my job. In my opinion, a musician is less able to independently produce an album on their own than when they work with a producer at their side. And this is for the simple reason, and sorry for the sports reference, that a sportsperson cannot coach themselves.
Of course, we can always ask what the actual influence of the coach, the producer, has on the end result, but the answer to this depends on the individual performance. A more interesting question though is when and where music production begins and where it stops. These fringe areas interest me more than the question of how much of the end result is due to whom. I’m not looking to provide any definitive answers here, but I’d like to provide some food for thought.
Here we’re getting closer to the question: how much of nothing at all does a “produced by…” credit cover up?
In the case of Roofman, a Dutch singer-songwriter (I really don’t like that term, but that is a totally different rant), it was interesting from the beginning. Thijs, the man at the centre of Roofman, had sent me an email a while ago asking if I was interested, and available, to mix his album. He explained that Peter Doherty’s Hamburg Demonstrations album, which I recorded, mixed, and produced a few years ago, had been his main source of inspiration in his writing and recording process, and that it struck him as logical now to write to the main person responsible for the sound to mix his album.
I was really happy to receive his email. Not only because it is always good to get positive feedback, and to know people were inspired, but also because I would have done exactly the same, or rather, had already done the same thing. Many years ago, I wrote to Matt Mignall, a producer from Long Beach, to ask if he would mix an album I had produced, because I thought an EP he had done for the band The Cold War Kids (Audience of One) was the best sounding EP of the year. He said yes, and then went on to sign on with Clouds Hill one year later with his band Wargirl. I mean, how cool is that?
But back to Roofman…
After Thijs send me his recordings, I decided to say yes, got the files and set about mixing them. But the whole time I was working on it, I was not satisfied with my own work, for a range of reasons.
Hamburg Demonstrations, back then, was not the result of a sophisticated mixing session. It was more a result of brilliant songwriting, sophisticated arrangements, musical skill, a lot of experimentation, time, mistakes and also radical, irreversible decisions, that brought us to the “right” place. That means, because I was recording the album on an 8-track, a lot of the album sounds were already there, had to be there, in the recording. This “restriction” meant that I had to put the greatest importance on all the musicians giving their absolute best during the recording. What then seemed obvious is unfortunately not always the case today. Or rather, is increasingly rare.
Many musicians and producers have lost the ‘feel’ for the individual performance in their music. The creative, the playful, the performative becomes less important than getting a bass that “is booming”. Getting a “punchy” drum sound becomes more important than a dynamic drumming performance. And so, at some point in the mixing process, you find yourself writing a Velocity performance with a mouse in Pro Tools. It’s just super annoying.
So, when I heard the fantastic Roofman songs, self-recorded in the garage as they were, I noticed at some point that I was coming to the limits of what I could do. It was not only because of my limited skills as a mixing engineer, there was something else. The performance itself. There was something missing, that I couldn’t put my finger on. It was not “ready”, the absolute conviction, the determination, was missing.
Why did that bug me so much? Why didn’t I just keep mixing, write an invoice, and just deliver whatever, whenever?
I think that Thijs, and what he had said about Hamburg Demonstrations was the source of inspiration, he had hit me where it hurt, my ego. Something in me really would not let me produce a result that didn’t feel like it was 100% right. So, I called Thijs and explained my dilemma. I wanted to bring these wonderful songs out in their full brilliance, but I believed that, in their current form, I would only be able to buff them up to 75% of their potential shine. The “rest”, I thought, would have to happen in another part of the production process.
I made it short: “Hey Thijs, I’m in love with your songs. Let‘s delete them! Let‘s throw everything you did away and redo all songs from scratch at Clouds Hill. I‘d like to produce it like I normally produce records and then release it via my label. But I wanna do it right.”
Artists react very differently to these kinds of ideas. There is a broad range of reactions, from desperation, to depression, to anger, to a huge grey zone of more or less reluctant okays, through to Thijs’ reaction: Joyful agreement.
And this is when I asked myself the question, where did it start, that I am producing a Roofman album?
Did it start with producing Hamburg Demonstrations? Or was it not until I said that I would NOT mix the album? Isn’t it interesting that what should be an active process, music production, can also start in a way that is totally passive? By just not doing certain things?
Ultimately, it is just logical. What actually happens, for example, when arranging music? The moments a musician does not play are just as important as the moments when they do. It is the same thing with music production. Not doing certain things has just a big an impact on the result as actively doing something. But you only hear it later, not right away.
So we come to the part that would interest many in a behind the scenes of music production blog. Which microphone did we use, and why, and for which song, and who actually played what and so on.
All this information is on Rhett Shull’s YouTube video:
This process, a healthy mix of active decision making and standing back to let the action happen has brought you everything that you can now hear on Roofman’s album. When 4 amazing musicians like Thijs, his brother Pim, Rhett Shull, and Philip Conrad are in one room, you don’t need much else.
I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror if I had only focussed on getting the world’s biggest bass drum sound. Of course, we also had Mr Schmidt, a great drum technician, and Sebastian “Muxi” Muxifeldt, the brilliant engineer, in the production team, but as always, it is much more than just satisfying a few people’s listening preferences.
Speaking of listening preferences, I digress just once more…
So, what was important to me? How should the finished Roofman album sound? I think, the most important part for me, was that it wouldn’t sound like Hamburg Demonstrations. I mean… just imagine hiring an architect to build a house that looks exactly like another house. Creatively, that doesn’t make any sense. At least not to me.
For me, it was, and still is, about finding unique sounds that surprise the listener. Opening the eyes via the ears, through performance and sound. That only works when you have the courage and the dedication to go where it hurts. The path less taken, where many do not go. Always taking the risk of raising a listener’s eyebrows because it just sounds so… unusual. But, what is a raised eyebrow if not an emotional reaction? And that, actually reaching your listener, is already an achievement.
It is not so easy to do these days, when we have 60.000 songs released per day, 22 million per year, and that’s just on Spotify!
And no, it is not all about trying to sound particularly weird. That would also be too easy. It is about a whole and healthy mix of challenging sound, accessible performance, and the whole feeling of an album that can hold its own over time.