default_mobilelogo

THE DESK, THE GLASS AND THE MIC:  objects and players – ways of communication in different recording sessions.

 

By Dr Mike Hajimichael

Intercollege Communications Department

& Olive Tree Music Cyprus.



Having worked in studios for two decades – on all sides of the glass, desk and microphone, I have become more sensitized to the roles being adopted by producers, artists and engineers.  Inevitably, like most things in the creative process of making music one has to live to learn. My paper today although mainly anecdotal, will I hope provide some insight into understanding these different roles, as integral parts of what is often termed as ‘the culture of production’ . Popular Music studies, in the pioneering but rather limited paradigms set out by Adorno was transfixed with the notion that audiences were empty vessels, victims of phonographic companies who produced culture (meaning popular music) for mass consumption. While this type of approach may be just as valid in many people’s minds today – it lacks any understanding of how culture is produced – let alone any kind of consideration for the kaleidoscopic possibilities of popular music, the mediations, clashes and compromises.

This is perhaps where I should elaborate on my title a little, which assumes linkages between objects, but without the players. The desk the glass and the mic are all items deliberately located in the studio. People fit in and out of these objects in creative and operative ways. How people relate  and use these tools through  specific roles that are relevant to where they are located in the studio. The Producer - behind the mixing desk in the control room feeling like Captain Kirk on the maiden voyage of The Starship Enterprise. The singer on the microphone in a cell like vocal room on the other side of the glass – perhaps nervous at ease, deeply 'into the session' or indifferent. The sound engineer, behind the desk, knowing what each button and fader is capable of doing.

It may sound like a well regimented environment, where labour is divided according to where you are in the studio – which in turn makes you what you are. In addition, if it was all so straight forward, every one knowing their place, what to do, how and when, may be making music could be more scientific. May be we could just press buttons and people would sing correct one takes every time. In a real sense, despite the clarity of roles, creating in the studio environment is just as artistic and adventurous as it has always been. Despite claims that digitization is making everything less live and more fake, these roles, producer, artist, sound engineer still have a degree of creative freedom of expression to them. That ‘magical’ quality is just as pertinent in artists as it is in producers and sound engineers. Another point I would like to clarify from the outset. This paper focuses mainly on the three key players in a studio as a kind of basic template for how things often work. In doing this I am guilty of ‘in the studio determinism. I am however aware that ‘being in the studio’ is just one part of a much ‘bigger picture’. The complexity of making and promoting music as a totality is beyond the confines of this paper.  There is a  myriad of people who act as gatekeepers in the music industry. Managers, promoters, A&R, publicists, legal advisers, stylists, lyricists, beatmakers, tour managers and many others. All these play a part in the music industry. For the purpose of this paper however I want to focus more on key people inside the studio, what roles they play and how, and how important it is to distinguish between different possible production combinations.

In addition I would like clarify, from my known background as an artist and producer that my main sources of information come from independent artists trying to ‘break through’ or trying to promote themselves. Some references will also be more to more established groups. My choice is partly related to my own experience as artist but also to a desire to analyze the music industry as made up of real people, doing their every day creative work.

By way of introduction, I will discuss some of the key elements of each person’s role in a studio.

The Producer’s role is multifaceted, depending on the demands – aesthetic, entrepreneurial and most of all acoustic – of the recording session. A Producer controls the session; they can tutor and guide the recording artists, supervise the recording, mixing and mastering – basically oversee every stage of the production. The Artist on the other hand is a far more complicated and sensitive part of the production chain. Depending on who you are and how you work - artists can be unique and gifted people. They can also be good actors, imitative and obedient by-products of TV- reality shows – but that is another paper altogether. In most cases artists seek producers to make their works come to life. Usually a commercial relationship comes into place – with artists or their managers paying producers for their input. Many producers also work on ‘spec’ – without advance payment. And some will work on other kinds of deals, such as a royalty split, if they co-wrote the song or even as part of an agreement to help some one develop a demo, with no strings attached.

Finally, the Sound Engineer. While it is easy to dismiss sound engineers as mere appendages of a desk or a producer on a desk, the art or alchemy of finding the right sounds, balancing them and making useful production recommendations is often crucial to a mix.  At the same time, it is usual for a sound engineer to be hired by or through a producer, based on previous work experiences. In this sense then their role is more functional or operative.

These three roles can also be seen in terms of what happens during a session and what happens after. In a real sense a producers produces in the studio, an engineer mixes and their jobs are effectively done. An artist however, having sung in the studio has to bring the work to life beyond the session.

So let’s now turn to issues of communication in the studio and a number of possible production scenarios or combinations.  As a starter, the most obvious set up is between a producer on the mixing desk and  artist on the microphone, separated by the glass.

Image
Diagram 1 The Producer and solo artist.

Different forms of communication occur in this set up. Scientifically people are linked via headphones and microphones – signal paths that can be traced through the mixing desk (in red). Also communication can be non-verbal (in black), for example hand signals, cues, through the glass. The cut off switch on the desk is a key tool as well but that comes more into play when we add a sound engineer in the mix.

Image
Diagram 2 – Producer, Sound Engineer, Solo Artist

This is more complicated. The presence of a Sound Engineer makes the communication process more triangular. The Sound Engineer is primarily related to The Producer but they also communicate with the Artist directly for feedback on levels in headphones and on the mic. The dynamic has changed though as The Producer has some one else in control room. The cut off switch comes more into use, a lot of the decisions made between a Producer and Sound Engineer on specific takes are made without the artist hearing the commentary as this may disturb the Artists sense of focus/performance. For example saying something like ‘terrible take – scrap it!’ can offend some people in the vocal room.

So far I have only referred to solo artists. The scene and dynamics change when it’s a 4-piece band being recorded live.

Image
Diagram 3 Producer, Engineer and 4-piece band.

Potentially every one relates to every one, although there is usually a band leader. Here the Sound Engineer and Producer have a much more challenging job and the Band have to be rehearsed otherwise much time and money will be wasted in the studio trying to learn the songs. Eye contact and body language on both sides of the glass are crucial. Also body language and ‘slanguage’ from a particular music scene can play an important role and this is something which a producer (as well as all band members would have to familiar with). For example in reggae music, in  live and recorded band settings a lead singer may say ‘wheel’ or ‘rewind’ and re-enact this saying with the index finger of their hand simulating a DJ on a turntable ‘rewinding’ a record. A producer not knowing this characteristic form of communication, specific to reggae music would immediately manifest a form of ignorance which could in some circumstances upset the ambience or mood of the live band recording session.

In a more minimalist sense there’s the home studio tendency – which can have many permutations but in its simplest form one person is the Artist and Producer in one space.

Image
Diagram 4 Artist as Producer

A producer of say house music may also be the artist – in which case – without having any live audio recording – using only MIDI instruments – the Producer/Artist communicates only with the equipment. In some cases this may happen without a mixing desk- straight through a soundcard via music software such as ProTools, ACID or Reason - where the mixing desk or feel of a mixing desk is replicated virtually. There might not even be no glass, no desk or even a microphone. There are also many examples of home studios that try, within logical economic bounds to replicate a professional studio, with a desk, glass separation and vocal booth.
One final possibility, perhaps a little impossible to manage is that of a Crew of 40 people working in different environments simultaneously.

Image
Diagram 5 ‘The Crew Satellite Mode

Here we have a core group of people, who control the overall collective which is much bigger. The different colours represent different roles played in the production process. Red is the producer, Green MC 1, Red MC 2/or singer, and Black represents the sound engineer. Each sub unit is part of the collective whole. Some of these sub units may be based on neighbourhood/growing up together or styles of lyrical flow. They could also be based in different countries/studios at different times. Members of each sub unit could also collaborate within the collective. What’s important is each one forms an integral part of something much bigger than the individual or a 4-piece band.  However the affiliation varies, as some times people relate to each other in more distant ways. Such production networks often become unmanageable due to infighting between producers or individuals weakening the collective entity.

Having discussed a number of variations, in terms of production and studio set ups, I will now turn to what happens in the studio with reference to notions of producer or production ethos. Much of this discussion will focus around notions of different types of producers with the objective of suggesting different modes of production work. This I must stress has little to do with forms of music but more to do with how producers work in the studio in terms of authority, role playing and organization. As a kind of preamble to  these ideas I would like to refer to 2 anecdotal experiences which I had as an artist at different points in time.

I can recall a session in Barnet North London. It was one of the first times I had been in a studio, within the context of a band or group. JellyFoot - the name came about after the session – was a loosely collective.  ‘Tuse’ the band leader who had the original idea  was embarking on a career as a label/artist/producer. Much  later he set up the label Sound of Money  and eventually became a music lawyer! Along with drummer Richard Thair – who went on to much greater things with Red Snapper JellyFoot was born. Tuse and Richard linked up with a diverse array of people around 1988-89. I cannot remember all the names now, the group only played one gig at the legendary Hope & Anchor in Islington. The recording session in a 16 track analog studio, pre-Pro Tools, pre-Cubase and Logic Audio was scheduled to begin at 9, but eventually started at 11.30. Tuse decided to produce the track, making his debut on the desk. Due to inexperience time had not been allocated for mic’ing up the drums – a process that can in some cases take days. Recording six people during the day, one by one on different tracks by the time it got to the mix at 7 o’clock Tuse was totally lost. Everybody had an opinion as to what could or should be done. The sax player, way out of it, was on another planet and just blew to his hearts content rather tunelessly. The bouzouki, mic’ed up straight through the desk sounded very ‘thin’ lacking in its characteristic dynamics. My rap on the mic, a rather abstract offbeat tribute to ‘breezin’ or passing through London, when finally mixed sounded like I was coming from the back of the studio control room or I had a gag on my mouth. Everybody had to start somewhere, and many of the people at that session went on to do much bigger things. Most of us learned however that a professional studio session needed better organization and fundamentally, an organizer or in music terms - a Producer who ‘knew the ropes’. In this case however a lack of experience and knowledge, meant overall, a poor sounding product. As none of us in this loose collective knew how to produce, how to organize a live session to tape, how to use a mixing desk, inevitably the sound of the end product suffered.

A few years later, following an appearance I made on BBC 2 TV’s ‘Rhythms of the World’ I found myself on the verge of a nice breakthrough as an artist. Simon Emmerson (Working Week and later Afro Celt Sound System, and producer for Baaba Maal) had spotted me on TV and said ‘I’d love to do a tune with you’. It was around 1992, the early part of the year and Sly & Robbie had produced this monster of a song called ‘Murder She Wrote’ by Chakademus & Pliers. I had this crazy idea of doing my own version in a mixture of Greek, the Greek Cypriot dialect and Jamaican patois. Simon had also versioned the same song with Femi Kuti and we reasoned about doing a whole LP in different languages of the same rhythm. ‘Ah ha, great idea – but you need some development money for that’ said Simon. ‘Who do I talk to?’ – ‘why not give Trevor Wyatt a buzz at Island, ask him for some development money to record your track’. I proceeded to do this and found myself in a position where an A&R person in a major music company had agreed to back me on something creative. It felt like an achievement. When I sat down to work things out with Simon the next day, things appeared more complex. I was told what I would need to do next. Swanyard was a music publisher who had some major acts on their books, such as Adamski, Incognito, Galliano and Simon Emmerson. They also had a huge studio complex, located behind Highbury & Islington Tube in North London. In approaching Swanyard’s publishing person, Rob Bozas, I found another person who liked my idea. He liked it so much that he offered me a publishing deal on three more songs. What I also realized however was things had become much more complicated. I also needed to hire an engineer, a backing vocalist, a bouzouki player and Simon as Producer. In addition Swanyard would only offer one of their B studio suite, not the main mixing room, on a limited basis. Usually this meant one day to record a song and another day to mix it. I decided to take the risk and responsibility, and had to pay for much of this in advance and then recoup these expenses. But in doing this I had for the first time entered my first professional production environment – where everything was so clear cut. The engineer – engineered. The singer, Janet Sewell sang a flawless one take five part harmony on the chorus. Sugar, the bouzouki player played bouzouki. I mc’ed on the mic. And Simon Emmerson produced the track. This process was my first taste of a professional session where every one knew their role as part of a team.

Many years later, I dabbled in Production myself. Trying to recall all the experiences of the last decade in studios as an artist and watching many producers at work. From much of this I learned to be as diplomatic as possible. With production I always feel I am, learning something all the time. The role of Producer gave me a wider sense of vision. I started to picture the song through the session – a common technique with many producers where you imagine the environment of the song, and then try to project that vision into the singer and the song.

Having these experiences as an artist and producer has in a lot of ways informed me as an academic studying and teaching about popular music. It enables me to work in the studio but also to be quiet conscious of my role as a producer and as an artist. Through these experiences I would like to suggest 4 general types of producer or production models:

THE PRODUCER AS TYRANT
THE COLLECTIVE PRODUCER
PRODUCER AND ARTIST  AS A TEAM
THE ARTIST AS PRODUCER

THE PRODUCER AS TYRANT: the Producer makes all the decisions, the sound engineer and artist are merely subservient. A common term that comes to mind here is “when you say jump I say how high!” I have even heard of artists going into studios with well known producers saying ‘I will do whatever you tell me to do, I never answer back’. In many cases the Producer becomes a ‘control freak’ a tyrant to work for. Then again some Producer’s were both tyrants and pioneers for example the late Joe Meek.  Others have built ego-centric notions of who they are production wise. Lee Perry for example.

Image

2. The Collective – perhaps this is the most mythical, as it appears there is little or no role play. Soul II Soul when they first broke the national pop charts had this kind of “be a part of the collective“ public image.  In reality Jazzie B made most of the executive and production decisions with his business partner H and the “collective“ as such was made up of people working under their authority ‘ either on a salary or as session musicians The Clash also had a collective spirit, dismissing from very early on input from more mainstream corporate pop producers placed their way by major companies. So in some cases the roles are overlapping:

Image

This could also look slightly different with may be one person being the lynch pin. Decisions would still be collective, but one person would link every one together. This could be for organizational reasons – after all most bands have a leader.

 
Another variation on this could be band with a collective writing and production ethos.. Pink Floyd’s historic ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ for example was produced by all four band members with Alan Parsons as the Sound Engineer.  So while one band member played in the studio another produced on the desk with Alan Parsons as the Engineer.
 
Image

The most complicated collective work I have been involved with was ‘Music Is Joy’ which features 12 artists from Cyprus, based on both sides of the unwanted Green Line was made with support and funding from the United Nations Office for Projects - UNOPS. US Producer Stand Out Selector produced this track in 1 day at MusicWorks Studios in Cyprus. A week’s preparation proceeded the studio time, with specific workshops on writing lyrics, making beats, music and arranging the song musically and linguistically. In the end a tri-lingual, Greek, Turkish and English song celebrates the ‘joy’ of music. I will not try to draw a diagram as to how this happened! What I will say however is the whole production worked as a team and that is the sole reason why it was done, to foster that spirit of team work, co-operation and understanding. I have some copies of the CD with me, so I’ll pass these around afterwards. These are also available free on request from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
That team work spirit is for me the ideal way for a studio session to work.

3. PRODUCER – ARTIST TEAM

Image

In this scenario team work, mutual understanding is the main method. In most cases, the Producer has the final say, but communication with the Artist and Sound Engineer is two way and respectful.

4. THE ARTIST AS PRODUCER – the producer as artist is some one who fulfills many roles at the same time, and gives an image to the public that they can do it all, alone. Examples of this are Dr Dre and Jay Z

Image

The Producer here is a multifunctional entity – who writes lyrics, engineers, mixes, masters, produces the songs and functions as a successful business person in the music industry.

I would like to clarify that these are by no means absolute blue prints for production roles in studios – they are simply possible ways in which artists and producers, and engineers often relate to each other. In addition there are many other mediators and gatekeepers that play their part in the process. Artists often have Managers, who make deals with studios, producers, publishers and music companies on their behalf. A&R managers often have a say in how a song is produced. Producers in some cases also have people managing and organizing their time. Even people who write lyrics for Artists, depending on who (how famous they are) or how precious/protective they are may have a say in how a song is sung. We all know James Blunt’s ‘Beautiful’ – he had nothing whatsoever to do with the writing of the song’s catchy chorus. Coming out of nowhere from the ashes of military service in Iraq, well at least that’s what the hype said on MTV, ‘Beautiful’s’ chorus was in fact written by Amanda Ghost an experienced top ten songwriter.

A final area of role play I want to touch on is that of trust – or what people expect from each other. If we take our simplest model, with three players Producer (P), Artist (A) and Sound Engineer (SE) at different locations in a triangular relationship:

Image

Each player expects the other to comprehend their role in the studio. Perhaps the expectation between Artist and Sound Engineer is more one way – as most Sound Engineer’s stay away from direct comment on an Artist’s work – that’s The Producer’s role. Generally though there is an expectation. The Artist expects the Producer to be able to Produce. The Producer expects the Artist to be able to sing. The Producer expects the Sound Engineet to know how to use every single button on the desk, every piece of equipment in the studio. In return The Sound Engineer expects a Producer to Produce, although this expectation is not so direct or openly manifest, because Sound Engineer’s in the main do not have an opinion unless asked.

The minute these expectations are violated, there is a breakdown in trust, conflict and misunderstanding can arise. The picture then may look radically different if The Singer is not singing consistently, or if The Producer keeps answering their mobile or even if The Engineer cannot deal with a computer that keeps crashing! At all times that trust, or expectation is what keeps the session going and perhaps the best model is that of the team working together, with The Producer having the final say, but always with consultation and dialogue with The Singer and Sound Engineer. Producer’s often do this asking an Artist after a take ‘How did you feel with that take?’ and then entering an exchange, giving the Artist space for expression. If the take was problematic in some way, the producer communicates this to the Artist and usually as diplomatically as possible. Conveying this message in the wrong manner can change the whole ambience of a recording session, and turn it more into a confrontation. Making an Artist feel comfortable is part of that mentoring role played by The Producer. In building this understanding Artists feel The Producer is on their wavelength, speaks their artistic language – ultimately manifesting respect for their work.

I would like to end this paper by suggesting there is not one way of communicating or working in the studio environment nor is there one type of music producer – there are many. The roles adopted by artists, producers and sound engineers are complex -some times overlapping some times distinct but each time a session occurs no matter how big or small, it is tailor made or defined by its own characteristics and terrain. Needs and expectations vary as does talent, creativity and technology.  Like any communication process, interaction, organization and symbiosis create culture. 

BIBIOLGRAPHY


1.    Negus, Keith  Popular Music Theory – an Introduction (Wesleyan University Press 1996)

2.    Owinski, Bobby The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook (Mix Books 1999)

3.    Pink Floyd ‘Dark Side of The Moon’ Classic LP DVD series

4.    Interview with Producer John Themis, Cyprus summer 2005.