The Greatest Recording Studio of All Times: Where Legends are Born

Location, location, location!  There are some recording studios that are as legendary as the bands that graced them.  They have become icons that house the romance we have had with the bands and the music that they helped birth.  I am always curious as to what really went on behind the scenes in the famous recording studios.  Aren’t you?

Abbey Road Studios is notorious for being the official location where the Beatles recorded their masterpieces. If walls had ears.  Located in London, England, Abbey Road Studio walls no doubt hold some secrets all their own as to what it was really like when the Beatles came together over the years to produce their songs.  Pink Floyd, The Hollies and Badfinger recorded at the Abbey too so just imagine…

As far as Country Music goes, Sun Studios is to producing as the Grand Ole Opry is to performing.  Sun Studios is in Memphis, Tennessee and was the recording location for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, BB King, Jerry Lee Lewis and countless others.  It is said that Rock and Roll was born there and I am inclined to believe that it possibly was.  It is also worth noting that it is also said that the Rock that was birthed there was done so out of a string of errors and because of the lack of rules which lead to unleashed music that we came to know as Rock and Roll.

Chess Studios in Chicago’s has quite the Rock reputation as well.  I can’t put my head around what it would be like to be there as the Rolling Stones recorded their hit albums.  They even sang about the studio in “2120 South Michigan Avenue”.  Back in the days of such works, it is a well-known fact that the Stones were quite wild, strung out on drugs and intent on doing their own thing, I just wonder what craziness went on inside that building.  The Stones weren’t the only ones to make the studio famous.  Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, the Who, the Beach Boys, Etta James, Chuck Berry were there in the days of old too.

You can’t mention recording studios and leave out Sunset Studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California.   That would simply be wrong.  Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Prince, the Dixie Chicks, Celine Dion and U2 have all spent time there recording their music.

I have had the chance to visit some of these studios and for me, it was like when I visited the Holy Land in Israel.  There was just something that I couldn’t put my finger on that made it a sacred event.  It was a spiritual experience that I dare not try to describe.

No, it’s not the location that makes the music great but rather the music that makes the location great.   Or…is it?  There has to be something magical within these studios that these great artists glean from, something that has been there before them and will remain long after they leave.

Great Music Producers Make the Dream a Reality

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A music producer, or manager, is one who often goes unnoticed unless they don’t produce in which case; they are no longer the producer.  It’s much like the manager or owner of a professional football team or basketball team.  If the team doesn’t win, the manager is in hot water.

George Martin was perhaps the most well-known producer.  He was deemed the “fifth Beatle” due to his work with them.  He not only basically discovered their talent, he helped empower them to success.

There have been many music producers that have plunged their team to victory.  Take Phil Spector.  The American producer was ultimately responsible for many great hits and albums for the Beatles both during their time as a band and as individual performers afterwards.  He worked with The Righteous Brothers, Ike and Tina Turner, Cher and many, many others.  He was one of the great precursors for music producers to come but his career was cut short due to a lengthy prison sentence he is currently serving.

Another popular music producer, Dr. Dre, was on Death Row, Death Row Records that is.  Dr. Dre is a modern day producer responsible for helping such rappers as Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Ice Cube get to the head of their game.  He originally produced for Death Row Records but has since left the company and has moved on.  He has won a total of six Grammies and was also awarded Producer of the Year so he has seen more glory than most producers see if a lifetime.

Did you know that Jimmy Page was a producer and an excellent one at that?  He is mostly popular for his talented guitar playing in the group Led Zeppelin but he was a very renowned music producer of the 1970’s as well.  He excelled in the field of sound and had a unique interpretation of it which has made his music and the music he has produced the one of a kind masterpieces that they are.

Prince is yet another record producer that has made a name for himself not only through his own musical abilities but through his production of them too.  And not only has he produced his own, he has worked for such stars as Stevie Nicks, Madonna and Chaka Khan.  His one of a kind style helped revolutionize traditional rock into the heavily synthesized musical sounds that moved the music world to a new generation of sound.

We can’t forget Rick Rubin when mentioning great record producers who have made a difference in the culture of music.  He is widely responsible for hip-hop and rap becoming what it is today.  Def Jam and Jay-Z are a few of his products.

There are many great singers, awesome bands and talented musicians but it takes a music producer of great magnitude to channel the greatness.  A music producer must not only possess excellent skills in music mixing, recording, recruiting and so on, he must be a leader and a promoter.  A music producer has to take a dream and make it a reality and that is exactly what the great ones have done.  And sometimes one is excellent enough to leave a footprint in the sand and his life in the shadows is made visible.

Producing Heavy Metal – Not Scrap Metal

You take an emphatic beat and rev it up with lots of amplified distortion, then you lay on some thick textures. You mix it up with an aggressive, loud sound and hyped up guitar themes. For flavor, you add high volume and some crunching noise, layered with palm muting…and what do you have. A great recipe for heavy metal. This ain’t no scrap, mind you, you don’t turn this in for a few cents at Scrap Sales. It’s the real thing. And it still survives, saved from junk scrap metal that is characteristic of mellow, bland, insipid, contemporary pop today.

There has been nothing akin to it in music history. While the 20th century saw a succession of numerous styles, heavy metal had a unique following for decades. Early rock grew out of the Big Band Era and soon morphed into something fresh and new thanks to Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and eventually the British invasion. Folk hit a high note for a while along with disco, punk, and grunge. Rap ultimately dominates side by side with a kind of modern country fusion characteristic of Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood, a distant cousin of the real thing (a la Willie Nelson and George Strait). But heavy metal stands out among the parade of genres for its emphatic rhythms, dense bass and drum sounds, and vigorous vocals. There are subcategories as well such that you could do a family tree starting with Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath extending down to Iron Maiden and Motley Crue. Metallica certainly gets a good position on a solid branch as does Poison.

I grant you this is music history in a nutshell. However, it is to make the point that there is a great legacy here in the rhythms, tempos, and harmonies that mark much of the style. If you want to get technical, I could go into modal scale progressions and the use of pedal points, but let’s leave it at the novice listener level for now. Relatively few fans out of the millions out there are actual musicians themselves, although we can certainly count on them to be loyal supporters as well.

While women like heavy metal, it has been the purview of young males because of the macho associations. The particularized image of the top artists support this as expressed in album covers, band logos, attire, long hair, stage sets, and the music videos. Bright guitars in very odd shapes were in abundance. Ripped, frayed, and torn jeans reigned supreme. It is common place today but was quite radical at the inception of the style. The glam metal particularly liked to flaunt individuality with gaudy clothing and makeup. Then there were all those crosses, skulls (which have made a big comeback in recent years in high fashion), tight leather and spandex pants, teased hair, and the requisite boots. It was a colorful era that brought on an obsession with Goth in fashion, as well as chains and distressed jeans. We owe a lot to the music of our parents. Let’s not forget our rich heritage.

Background Noise: The Bane of Music Production

I am in the music business so I know that soundproofed studios must be used for recording sessions for good reason. Background noise is the bane of production. You can filter it out later, but why not prevent it at the start. I have been to the best state-of-the-art facilities, and I have heard the results from home efforts (when I get demos). There is a huge difference. You wouldn’t expect it to be otherwise. It costs enormous sums to install a quality studio for professional use. There are engineers trained in just such an enterprise. For top artists, nothing but the best will do.

Meanwhile, I once got a tape from a young male artist. I get lots of them all the time, but I rather liked his sound. It was new, raw, and appealing. Something stood out in his voice that kept me listening. However, oddly enough, I heard some kind of whirring noise in the background each and every time. I checked my equipment and it was clearly not responsible. No malfunction there. It was embedded in the tape. This doesn’t usually happen. Those sending in their samples are careful to give me the best of what they can produce.

I tried to ignore the strange, almost eerie sound. I supposed that it came from some primitive recording device; but now it was a mystery I wanted to solve. I asked my sound engineer and he surprised me with an answer, “it’s a ceiling fan or loud air conditioning unit—one or the other, I’m sure.” Ha! That rang true. The poor kid had forgotten to turn one or the other off. It didn’t matter as this was an introductory tape, but it amused me and reminded me how naïve some young artists are when starting out. I guess he knew he would get the royal treatment if I signed him to a label.

I called the young man. Normally, I invite the prospective individual to come to my office. I give a tour, explain the ins and outs of representation, the royalty structure, etc. However, I wanted to see his abode myself. Upon entering a small apartment in the suburbs, I encountered the mystery ceiling fan and a window AC unit. He had both! The ceiling fan was some huge modern thing, something like the ones shown at firstratefans.com. They were both on full blast and the noise was worse than in the demo.

“Turn those darn things off,” I said before even greeting the kid. “I can’t hear myself think.”

“Oh, sure,” he replied as he hurried to execute the task. “I’m so sorry.”

“Didn’t you know that they were in your recording?” I queried.

“God, no,” he stammered and tensed.

“But I liked it anyway,” I added and he started to relax.

The rest of the interview went well—noise aborted. We hit it off and I listened to some live renditions of his own compositions. It was a fruitful experience for both, and I scheduled a second appointment for the following week. As you can imagine, he was thrilled.

There is some kind of lesson here for the inexperienced. Go ahead and make your tapes, but please, turn off the extra sound!

Wind Beneath Their Wing: The Role of a Record Producer

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Record producers are underappreciated in my estimation.  There’s just not a lot of glory being in the wings.  Being a producer requires as much or more hard work and dedication as the band members put in, but there are no fan clubs, no audience dancing before you and no lighters lit begging for your encore.

The life of a record producer is spent in the shadows.  It’s like being the woman behind the man.  It’s like the soccer player who gives the assist that ultimately wins the game.  Being a producer requires being a team player with little or no recognition.  But that is what I find so appealing about them.

Can you name five record producers?  Most people can’t even name one, much less five.  Can you name five bands?  Of course you can.

Who was the Beatles’ producer?  George Martin was the one behind the band who originally discovered and unleashed the talented group although initially, he was not greatly impressed by them.  He did see potential and liked them as people so he gave them a go.  While Martin did receive more credit than most producers, he still remained in the background, never to be the household name that the Beatles became.

Record producers wear many hats.  There are many jobs that go along with being a producer.  A producer is the visionary, so to speak, of the end result.  He is the one who makes it happen from point A to point Z.  He is responsible for putting together the talent, promoting the talent and delivering it as well.  He is a master of recording, mixing, reverbing and bringing the sound to perfection.  He motivates the musician or musicians and helps them to attain and keep their exalted position. Some producers are even musicians themselves and some musicians produce their own labels.  Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys not only was in the band, he was the co-founder of the group and a famous producer as well.

Some producers excel in one or more areas and are not as strong in other areas.  They may be really strong in the field of public relations but depend upon help when it comes to the actual production of the music in the sound area.  Or, they may be excellent in the technical areas but not so much in the social setting.  Some are like Midas, everything they touch turns to gold.   As long as they have their bases covered, the area of expertise is not an issue, as long as they have one and can ultimately make their product (the musician or group of musicians) shine, that is the only thing that really matters.

A record producer can be compared to the coach of a pro sports team.  Lots of work and little to no glory.  They recruit, enhance performance, promote the team and ultimately are in charge of making sure the game is won.  A record producer is the master behind the masterpiece and the method to the madness.  To sum up the individual job details of a record producer is difficult but it is easy to sum up his ultimate responsibility…he must make greatness happen, period…the end.

Great Fiery Songs

Fire is one the natural elements along with earth, air, and water. Though we crave to control it and box it up in stoves and fireplaces (like the ones reviewed at finestfires.com), fire is naturally wild. No doubt this is why there are so many songs about it. It’s a great topic for music with all its metaphorical references about love and romance, not to mention nostalgic memories of times past (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”). Ditties like “Great Ball of Fire” evoke the old days of rock and the hot emotions it produced.

I personally like “Light My Fire” by Jose Feliciano. Nothing better about the sensual subject than that. Okay, the Doors also did a good job with less vocal intensity on their debut album. The word “fire” is hard to sing and rhyme. There is “pyre” and “dire.” Not great topics. If you delve deep, however, you will find gems like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” the Cult’s “Fire Woman,” and Nilsson’s “Jump into the Fire.” Some might remember Bob Seger’s “The Fire Down Below” or the Rolling Stones “Play with Fire.”

Need I say more? This turns out to be a common topic! A classic has to be Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” while “Fire and Rain” by James Tailor is a sentimental favorite. These two are real standouts. They make you want to get in front of the fireplace and bask in the warmth and brilliance of the flames evoked by the lyrics. Fire can denote many things other than its literal presence. James Tailor was describing his experience in a mental institution after battling depression and the suicide of a friend. You feel it in your gut. “I’m on fire” has a different twist as Springsteen embraces mental consumption. Abstract or not, this element can express an array of sentiments from hope to devastation.

A songwriter would do well to sit in front of a fireplace now and then for inspiration. We don’t often see, touch, and feel it to any extent. Perhaps an allusive flame from a match or a gas stove at best. Some people have it down there internally and can draw it out at will. Fire will fuel creativity, ambition, and success. It will also destroy when at its extreme.

With all this baggage behind it, fire is a staple of music with references galore. Think about its connotations:

  • Raw energy
  • Strength
  • Burning love
  • Destruction
  • Evil
  • Power of the sun
  • Brilliance

Think about phrases like “a moth drawn to a flame” or “if you play with fire, you get burned.” Incendiary themes are evocative, mystical, thrilling, and terrifying. There is often a double-edged sword involving mental and physical repercussions. I was trying to set down some ideas for a song to go along with this blog using phrases like “hold your feet to the fire,” “fire in your belly,” or “fight fire with fire.” Those like “keep the home fires burning,” “where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” and “set the world on fire” are well-known clichés. The trick is to use them in novel ways or invent some new ones. I leave it to you to find out how. If music history is any indication, you may come up with a new hit.

Producing is not a Recipe

You hear people talk about a “recipe for success.” Motivators, in particular, are guilty parties. They are always touting how easy it is to arrive at one’s goals. Take a cup of ambition, add it to a ½ cup of talent and a ¼ cup of will, grab a hand mixer or other handy kitchen appliance, and there you have it! Instant results. No need for an oven to let things bake a bit. In my business, producing music is an art, not a recipe. There ‘aint no online appliance review that is going to help you. However, I suppose you could loosely use the concept to come up with a formula just for starters. There is business savvy combined with opportunity and timing. You add people skills, the ability to discern talent, and voila! You may make it in the industry. I wish it were that easy for those aspiring to climb to the top.

But there is so much more. This is not a profession to take lightly and no, not everyone can do it just because they desire it. My own recipe has varied over the years. Adaptability and fortitude have to be big components. But every entrepreneur has his or her secret ingredient. Music is an evolving industry that has drastically changed in the way people listen to it on digital devices and the way they download it. There are different markets for kids, teens, young adults, and oldsters. There are so many genres that it is impossible to count them on two hands. There are cross-over surprises all the time.

Sometimes you get lucky and enter the industry as an intern of sorts and work your way up. Other times you are born into it, marry into it, or buy into it. Yes, the business depends on investors, the money people, to keep it going while it is fueled by those with the right ear and the ability to spot winners. Good artists are out there waiting to be discovered, but many do not have the stamina and will power to make the grade. You have to have it, too, as you wait to find out. Money and reputation are on the line, and both are important.

Building a successful music business has its great rewards. It is an exciting realm of constant innovation. New blood pushes out the old, even though some of the seniors survive (the world is full of aging rockers). It is all about the here and now. What spoke to people decades ago has become retro or nostalgia. Tapping into your time is an art and you may lead the way as you build your own road.

Music is universal and I am thrilled to be a part of it. It never stops surprising you as to what the public likes, accepts, craves, and adores. The same with movies. Hits can be sleepers and blockbusters can fail. Only producers with some foresight (and no one has a crystal ball), their fingers on the pulse of pop culture, and sheer genius can win in this very competitive arena.

Being a Professional Musician: What Does It Take?

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What exactly defines being a professional musician?  That is a topic of debate in the music world.  I am inclined to say that it entails making your living by way of playing music.  While there are those who work a different type job by day and play gigs at night, I would call those individuals part-time musicians because they work it as a part-time job.  If one makes most or all through playing, I would say they are a professional musician.

But, the subject is controversial for sure.  Just because one does play music or sing, even on a full-time basis, does not make him or her good at it.  The same is true for a writer or an artist.  They may just be an opportunist who has lucked into a position by chance.  I suppose that falls into the category of quality.  But, on the same note, if one is able to make a living from what they are doing musically, most likely he or she is good or at least good enough.

How do you become a professional musician?  Lots of hard work, lots of luck and lots of talent.  Aside from that, your chances of earning your living in the field for an extended period of time are slim to none.  Although the life of a musician is known for being one that is outside the box, believe it or not, there are steps to follow in order to achieve the status just like there are for any other profession.

First off, you must be able to perform.  You will need to be not only good at what you do, you will need to be great at what you do.  Practice, listen to others, practice and…practice.  Ask those you look up to for advice on how you can improve and put their suggestions into action.  Never think you can’t improve.  A professional musician improves constantly.

Set your goals in place.  Define the steps it will take to achieve those goals.  If you are just starting out, one of your first goals should be to take lessons or to avidly teach yourself.  List your goals and what it will take to reach them.

Along with physical goals such as finding a group to jam with or the likes, set mental goals as well.  Far too many musicians find themselves led astray by emotional issues such as drug abuse or depression.  You need to be a strong person not only to attain your goals but to live with the results of being a professional musician.  Not all experience fame and fortune but it is very possible that you will if you are good enough so if you do, you must set in place a plan of action to be able to handle that.

Feed the fire that burns within.  You will need to do your homework on a daily basis.  Everything you are must revolve around your goal at hand.  You must be willing to do anything in order to achieve your dreams.  Sometimes that will require stretching yourself.  Maybe you are shy.  Maybe you don’t want to relocate.  Perhaps you don’t like the business aspect of music such as contracts and such.  Obviously, you will need to bend in those areas and accept the things you must do in order to make a profession in music happen.  Once you have given everything you’ve got, physically, mentally and emotionally, you stand a chance.  Music is a profession reserved for those who not only dream the dream but for those who actually make it happen!