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The Producer as Composer: Shaping the Sounds of Popular Music

Virgil Moorefield

(MIT Press; US: Apr 2010)

Producing music has become a big deal. Look at the press releases or reviews of any new album and there’s a strong likelihood that there will be a reference to the producer. Big name producers, such as Timbaland, Rick Rubin or Brian Eno, can be almost as much of a draw as the artists they work with.


However, the actual work that the producer does can vary dramatically from record to record. In some cases, their role is not far removed from that of the studio engineer, handling the recording of the music and perhaps manipulating it to make it sound its best. In other cases, the role of the producer is much more creative; they might have a say in the instrumentation or arrangement of a record, or may coat it in their own trademark style.


Virgil Moorefield’s book examines how the role of the producer has evolved since the earliest recordings in the late 19th century. While he acknowledges that there are still many ‘old school’ producers doing good solid work that simply reproduces the live sound of an artist onto a recording, he is more interested in the producers whose contributions are an integral part of the finished product. As such, the history of the producer as composer starts to get going after 1960; Moorefield’s first major example is Phil Spector and his famous wall of sound. It then takes us through some of the more abstruse studio experimentations of George Martin and the Beatles, and the even more outré work of Frank Zappa.


Technology is crucial to Moorefield’s history of production. The arrivals of four-track, then eight-track, then 16 or more track recorders, are seen as key moments in the development of the producer’s role.  Eventually, the studio becomes so sophisticated that it can be thought of as a musical instrument unto itself. It is at this point that the producer needs to acquire not only the technical aptitude necessary to operate a machine, but also the creative skills required to get the best sound out of this instrument. As he carries the discussion forward into hip-hop and electronica, describing the process of sampling and detailing the typical studio set-up of an act like the Chemical Brothers, Moorefield shows us that this is not an easy instrument to master.


The book includes numerous close readings of songs, in which Moorefield takes us through the tracks from beginning to end, describing the instruments and effects used in considerable detail.  In his introduction, he advocates listening to the songs in question while reading, and although he does a fine job of reproducing audio onto paper, this seems advisable. In fact, reading these passages while listening reveals subtle nuances in the music that may previously have remain unheard, and explains how certain sounds and effects were created.


Many of songs Moorefield chooses for discussion are very familiar – ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ are two examples – and this is beneficial for anyone combining listening with digesting the close readings. However, the records become slightly more esoteric at certain points in this history. After spending some time on Pink Floyd, Moorefield moves onto Brian Eno’s ambient compositions and then turns to the industrial/post-punk band Swans, discussing their 1989 album The Burning World at some length. However, he does have a special motive for this choice: Moorefield played drums with Swans for a while in the late-‘80s and appears on this record, so he is able to provide personal insight into the recording process.


The Burning World was produced by the highly prolific Bill Laswell and Moorefield notes that he had a considerable impact on the sound of the album. The account of how the album was recorded, which includes technical detail and information about session musicians, is certainly interesting, but it would be interesting to hear more of Moorefield’s personal opinions about the finished product. The general consensus among critics and Swans fans is that The Burning World is weaker than much of their other work, and this is in fact a view shared by Swans’ frontman Michael Gira. Much of the blame for this perceived weakness is heaped on Laswell, with the word ‘overproduced’ often being used.


Moorefield is clearly very interested in the technological advances that have influenced the developments in music production. Therefore, we might surmise that he favours this more enhanced sound, which draws on all the available studio techniques. His apparent preference for music that bears the mark of a creative producer may not be to everyone’s agreement, but his argument that the producer can be thought of as a composer is convincing. Moorefield’s own involvement in music is obviously an influence on this book; this is surely a positive influence, since it appears to have made him very good at writing about music.

Rating:

Alan Ashton-Smith has a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London, where the subject of his thesis was Gypsy Punk. He lives in London, and is Live Reviews Editor for the music website Shout4Music.


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