The Recording Studio Becomes a Musical Instrument in Its Own Right in 'The Producer as Composer'

As Virgil Moorefield describes the process of sampling and detailing the typical studio set-up of an act like the Chemical Brothers, he shows us that the soundboard is not an easy instrument to master.

The Producer as Composer: Shaping the Sounds of Popular Music

Publisher: MIT Press
ISBN: 0262514052
Author: Virgil Moorefield
Price: $10.95
Format: Softcover
Length: 143 pages
Publication Date: 2010-04

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.





Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Singles

Detroit's Motown Records will forever be important as both a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence. We select our 25 favorite singles from the "Sound of Young America".


The Durutti Column's 'Vini Reilly' Is the Post-Punk's Band's Definitive Statement

Mancunian guitarist/texturalist Vini Reilly parlayed the momentum from his famous Morrissey collaboration into an essential, definitive statement for the Durutti Column.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

What Will Come? COVID-19 and the Politics of Economic Depression

The financial crash of 2008-2010 reemphasized that traumatic economic shifts drive political change, so what might we imagine — or fear — will emerge from the COVID-19 depression?


Datura4 Take Us Down the "West Coast Highway Cosmic" (premiere)

Australia's Datura4 deliver a highway anthem for a new generation with "West Coast Highway Cosmic". Take a trip without leaving the couch.


Teddy Thompson Sings About Love on 'Heartbreaker Please'

Teddy Thompson's Heartbreaker Please raises one's spirits by accepting the end as a new beginning. He's re-joining the world and out looking for love.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Little Protests Everywhere

Wherever you are, let's invite our neighbors not to look away from police violence against African Americans and others. Let's encourage them not to forget about George Floyd and so many before him.


Carey Mercer's New Band Soft Plastics Score Big with Debut '5 Dreams'

Two years after Frog Eyes dissolved, Carey Mercer is back with a new band, Soft Plastics. 5 Dreams and Mercer's surreal sense of incongruity should be welcomed with open arms and open ears.


Sondre Lerche Rewards 'Patience' with Clever and Sophisticated Indie Pop

Patience joins its predecessors, Please and Pleasure, to form a loose trilogy that stands as the finest work of Sondre Lerche's career.


Ruben Fleischer's 'Venom' Has No Bite

Ruben Fleischer's toothless antihero film, Venom is like a blockbuster from 15 years earlier: one-dimensional, loose plot, inconsistent tone, and packaged in the least-offensive, most mass appeal way possible. Sigh.


Cordelia Strube's 'Misconduct of the Heart' Palpitates with Dysfunction

Cordelia Strube's 11th novel, Misconduct of the Heart, depicts trauma survivors in a form that's compelling but difficult to digest.


Reaching For the Vibe: Sonic Boom Fears for the Planet on 'All Things Being Equal'

Sonic Boom is Peter Kember, a veteran of 1980s indie space rockers Spacemen 3, as well as Spectrum, E.A.R., and a whole bunch of other fascinating stuff. On his first solo album in 30 years, he urges us all to take our foot off the gas pedal.


Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!

The passage of time tends to make old films more interesting, such as these seven films of the late '40s and '50s from British directors John Boulting, Carol Reed, David Lean, Anthony Kimmins, Charles Frend, Guy Hamilton, and Leslie Norman.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.