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Representations of Sound: The role of the producer in the artistic formation  of sound in popular musical forms.  

  Becky Shepherd  

 University of New South Wales, Australia 

   This paper will canvas a component of research I am currently undertaking in  reference to the art of record production and the codification of a sound, more  specifically the re-birth of “vintage/retro” music and how production plays an  integral artistic role in the construction of this sound.  
  The research will focus on the development of nostalgic sounds reproduced in  contemporary contexts, subsequently investigating what I have labelled the  ‘reproduction of production’  
  I will focus on two salient points, from both a practical and a theoretical  viewpoint. The first practical focus refers to the role of the studio producer in  the re-creation of what is now the “vintage/retro” sound. The former term  arrives as common dialogue from popular cultural publications such as Rolling  Stone, MOJO, NME and Q magazines. It is used to describe and/or represent  music of a recognisably early derivation of sound. At this point it becomes  necessary to investigate the extent to which the popularity of the vintage/retro  sound is stifling, or conversely facilitating creativity in the realm of popular  music and the recording studio as a creative space.  
  The second theoretical component of this discussion requires an  acknowledgment and subsequent deconstruction of how and why the overt  demonstration of the “vintage/retro” sound has come to gain popularity within  a contemporary context, and how this music and the role of the producer  works within a criterion of authenticity and artistic validity in what is often  considered to be a post-modern cultural domain, or for those who reject the  later, the ‘now’.  
   As a case study I’ll focus on the resurgence of 70s rock within the Australian  music industry. In the last decade there have been a string of Australian  bands dedicated to the reproduction of the 70s rock sound. Names include  JET, The Vines and Wolfmother. It is the latter I wish to discuss specifically. I  make particular reference to this group and ‘the reproduction of production’.  While this discussion has yet to be furthered in the realm of accurate field  research I will present a thorough listening analysis that I hope to confirm  through the channels of fieldwork to be conducted during the remainder of  2006.  
  At this point it will prove useful to actually hear the music in question. After  this point, our discussion can begin to focus on aspects of production in  reference to this recording and earlier recordings to which it harks back, both  unashamedly and in my opinion, quite cleverly.  

  PLAY DIMENSION – WOLFMOTHER  

  While it appears obvious the connection between this particular sound and  sounds of 1970s rock, it is the production procedures involved and the theoretical  underpinning throughout the re-creation of this sound that most concern us in the  context of today’s discussion.  
  It can be suggested and quite obviously so, that this band from Sydney Australia  sound a heck of lot like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath primarily. The popular  music press have had a field day with this analogy but as is commonplace, there  is seldom any more to their observations than one simple comment that of course  appears obvious from the most rudimentary listening of the music generally.  
   However, it is of course, not enough to assume something sounds a heck of lot  like something else without investigating the intricacies of this sound both at its  point of conception and its point of reception within a larger popular cultural  domain.  
  While it is impossible to canvas all aspects of the recording process involved, due  to the time constraints today particularly, I have chosen to provide a listening  analysis, as explained earlier, that I hope to confirm through extended field  research throughout the remainder of this year and my candidature working on  this project.  
  I want to break this recording into a few different components, that to me seem  particularly useful ways of approaching a listening analysis of this sound  generally. The production credit for this album belongs to Dave Sardy, and the  engineering to Ryan Castle. The album was recorded, mixed and mastered at  three different locations across the United States, Sound City in L.A. Sunset  Sound Factory in California and The Pass.  
  The first obvious point of recognition on this recording is the treatment of the  voice.  
  It is unashamedly noteworthy that Andrew Stockdale, lead vocalist for Wolfmother  has been produced to sound as though he was recorded circa 1975, re-creating  the sound of someone like Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame. It appears the  Wolfmother vocal has been treated to a similar if not almost identical signal chain  to that which was used in the tracking of Plant’s voice particularly circa Led  Zeppelin III. This signal chain consists of what sounds like the use of a dynamic  microphone fed through overdriven pre-amp chains, into an opto compressor.  Firstly, the use of a dynamic microphone assists in the crisp and aggressive top end of the Wolfmother vocal, and the overdriven pre-amps aid the particular tone  and partly contribute to the saturated sound coming from the punchy delivery.  The compressor is limiting the dynamic range coupled with tape saturation  creating further compression/limiting of the overall vocal sound. The vocal is  placed at the forefront of the mix allowing its presence and ambience to be heard  as one of the focal points of the sound. This appears to be a noted feature of the  retro/vintage sound; a reverb drenched vocal situated at the forefront of an overall  mix and sound.  
  The recording of Robert Plant’s vocal, produced by Jimmy Page on Led  Zeppelin’s material possessed a noticeably natural room reverb that was  achieved by recording the voice in a naturally reverberant space. It has been  noted that Plant’s vocal were often run through something resembling a Shure  Unidone microphone, not dissimilar to the dynamic SM58 used on Wolfmother  recordings. Plant’s vocal was always situated centre of the final mix and  subsequently appeared as a feature of the ‘large’ middle strength recordings of  Led Zeppelin. As to the vocal techniques used by both Stockdale and Plant, while  these are recognisably similar and noteworthy, they are not immediate concerns  of a focus on production necessarily.  
  The second faction of the Wolfmother recording concerns the overall tracking and  mix of the band specifically.  
  It appears that the band have been tracked live to tape, mixed in mono, the actual  tracking of the live sessions taking minimal completion time. This mono  procedure adds to the strength and bombasity of the rhythm section of the sound.  Tape saturation, once considered a mistake of sorts, is now heard as a  characteristic of a recognised vintage type appeal. Predominately the initial  recording of the band appears to be in the centre of the stereo picture, while guitar overdubs add a further spaciousness by making use of the width of the  stereo picture i.e., stereo panning. Once the track has then been mixed down to  a two track or stereo mix, compression has been used overall. This creates  spaciousness in the sound and yet a ‘big’ punchy presence for the overall rhythm  section of the riff driven sound of Wolfmother generally, again not unlike the way  Jimmy Page chose to produce the Led Zeppelin sound in the 1970s.  
  Led Zeppelin recordings are often praised for their spaciousness and ambience.  Of course ambience was created as a direct result of the use of space in  Zeppelin’s sound. Page would often use smaller amplifiers, miked at a distance to  emphasis depth and tone in Zeppelin’s sound. Like the Wolfmother recordings  Page’s production meant the rhythm section and lead vocal of the music was  always placed centre or middle and in this way he chose to cleverly overdub  guitar tracks in the stereo picture post initial live tracking. The prominence and  bombasity of the drums is another feature of Zeppelin’s sonic appeal, and again  this was largely a result of Page’s innovative and experimental approaches to  recording the drum kit in terms of mic choice and placement, space allocation and  mix placement. As the famous recount goes, Page recorded John Bonham’s  drum kit for both Kashmir from within a hallway. The mic placed a significant  distance from the kit. This created a ‘big’ spaciousness to the sound of the drums  and subsequently came to characterise Zeppelin’s monstrous rhythm section  sound. While Dave Sardy, Ryan Castle and Wolfmother have not employed the  same techniques in the studio, in terms of experimentation, they have worked  with available equipment to emulate this sound, recording instruments in naturally  reverberated spaces adding significant depth and vastness to the mix as a whole.  
  Interestingly, one particularly noteworthy difference between a modern and a  vintage recording is the treatment of bass frequencies. This is obvious to hear,  and additionally obvious to understand. Our ability to reproduce bass frequencies is far more developed nowadays with hi-fi digital equipment. If one removes  and/or at best ‘tweaks’ the bass frequencies of the Wolfmother recording for  example, they are left with something that is sonically more akin to a 1970s  production. Subsequently, the treatment of bass frequencies on this recording  and most modern studio productions is what most recognisably situates this  music within a contemporary context.  
  Mind’s Eye, the first released single for the group, demonstrates these same  ‘production markers’ if you will. With the addition of the Hammond organ and the  closely miked Lesley speaker, as you will hear, this track contains a similar  amount of tape saturation, double tracked guitars spread across the stereo  picture, opto compression, emphasising the bombasity of the sound, and, of  course that now characteristic Stockdale vocal, recorded in a reverb drenched  space through a dynamic microphone. This treatment could almost be considered  ‘the vintage signal chain’, as we hear a similar approach from other Australian  bands of this vein such as JET and The Vines’. The main difference between this  track, Mind’s Eye and Dimension, the track we heard earlier, is the narrow stereo  picture, which is instantly recognisable. This particular track has been additionally  compressed so as to be best represented within the ‘singles’ market. This  production approach is not uncommon for the market savvy producer and/or  engineer.  

  Play Mind’s Eye – Wolfmother  

  We can now move to a discussion of the theoretical considerations of this  approach to production, the role of the producer and the vintage sound generally.  It would appear nowadays that the role of the studio producer of a vintage sound  becomes akin to a modern interpreter of sorts. I refer now to a paper written by  David Carter, presented at last years’ ARP conference. This paper outlines the responsibility of a producer across a continuum of what is represented as  production practice. This continuum works from left to right, stating  documentation at the far left, collaboration in the middle and composition at the  far right. David Carter states that the producer role is essentially a combination of  all three domains. I would add that the producer of the vintage sound specifically,  is one of documentation and not purely a documentation of a musical event as  Carter explains, but as a documentarian of history as a past style. The producer  works as a gateway to the past.  
  In reference to the vintage sound, more so than a musician, a producer/ engineer  is particularly offae with the manifestation of sound, be that the sound of varying  genres and/or the sound of varying time periods. Interestingly, most producers of  the vintage/retro sound are contemporary producers who have worked with a vast  range of modern artists, creating predominately ‘modern’ sounds. Dave Sardy, for  example is often, most notably associated with his work on Marilyn Manson  recordings and the sound of Slayer. The objective appears to be - ‘get the sounds  right, work with them a little and create something that sounds contemporary but  unashamedly vintage to even the amateur listener’. If this is in fact the case within  the popularity of the vintage sound, with genres such as Britpop, Americana and  the Detroit sound with the likes of The White Strips for example, then is what  we’re beginning to look at creativity, or merely appropriation within a new context,  and/or can this music be both? There are several ways one can look at this  situation and subsequently several different opinions that can eventuate as a  result.  
  ‘Sound’ is no longer a superfluous element of music; this is not at all a new  realization. The beginning of this concept can be recognise during the 1960s and  70s or as I have loosely titled this time, ‘the period of technological innovation’.  During this time most recognisably, sound became as important or noteworthy an aspect of a musical text as the more fundamental elements of rhythm, melody  and harmony both in terms of how an instrument was used and how it was  recorded in the studio.  
  As Paul Theberge writes, 

  “The various means by which musicians have coaxed new and unorthodox  sounds from an instrument such as the electric guitar – the ‘bottle neck’  slide technique, B.B. King’s sustained vibrato and trill, Stanley Jordan’s  right hand finger tapping, Jimi Hendrix’s use of feedback and other  techniques – demonstrate that traditional instrument technologies can  sometimes be little more than a field of possibility within which the  innovative musician chooses to operate. The particular ‘sound’ produced  in such instances is as intimately tied to personal style and technique as it  is to the characteristic of the instrument’s sound producing mechanism”  (187). 

  I would add to this, that the studio producer opens a field of possibility within  which the musician chooses to operate. Sound produced in this instance is as  intimately tied to musical expression and notions of genre and/or style codes, as  it is to the sound producing medium and or technical content of the music as text.  Wolfmother are predominately recognised and subsequently popularised for  ‘sonic’ qualities often described as huge, ethereal, and spacious, as opposed to  anything specifically musical in the way of harmony, melody and rhythm. This is  not to say however that Wolfmother do not demonstrate these characteristics, in  fact they do quite competently and at times spectacularly. However, the music is  first and foremost recognised and in most cases valorised for reasons relating to  sonic material as opposed to musical technique and application.  
   This moves us to the question of how and why this vintage revival is popularised  within contemporary society. If one considers contemporary popular culture to  exhibit characteristics of postmodernity then one can more comfortably accept  this re-birth of vintage production as a signifier of pastiche, irony and nostalgia –  common characteristics of postmodern ideology and style.  
  However, post-modernism is a loose and at best multifaceted term, and it is  problematic for many who deal with its conceptualisation and its subsequent  implications within both academia and the wider poplar cultural domain.  Frederick Jameson, a noted theorist on the subject of postmodernism, claims that  postmodernism is the state of late capitalism and the decline of national and  individual identity. He states that 

  "in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum" (Jameson).

   The imaginary museum Jameson refers to in this case could be associated with  the canon of rock music and the reproduction of history which he explains was  and is, a style in itself. In this way Jameson would view the recreation of vintage  music as a negative characteristic demonstrating the decline of innovation and  creativity within the postmodernism context.  
  On the contrary much of the conceptual understanding of postmodernism is the  embrace of pastiche, irony and randomness. It is the need to create coherent  aesthetic value from artefacts and patterns within society as a whole, and within this creation comes works of art as social commentary. If one interprets  postmodernism in this way and history becomes a style in itself, represented  through nostalgic images of pop culture of the past, then it becomes easy to  understand how and why the re-birth of something like the vintage sound is an  honest portrayal of social consciousness and authenticity within a contemporary  context.
   If one does not adhere to notions of postmodernity, as many do not, I myself am  particularly sceptical, then this situation become a possible dilemma, one in which  this music comes to be viewed as regurgitated material with little artistic  relevance and value. Theordore Adorno is an advocate of this line of thought, not  only does Adorno view all styles of popular music as renegade and negative  influences on society, in his view the reinvention of a popular style is another rung  further down the ladder of artistic value. Similarly, the ‘pop eats itself’ mantra of  the 1980s could well be transferable to the world of rock which appears at times  to be less innovative than pop music. This is of course a result of rock’s general  conservatism and allegiance to the canon.  
  Whatever the perspective, one’s outlook of the vintage sound and its place within  popular society is closely linked to one’s opinion of the cultural climate of the 21st  century.  
  The supposed fragmented cultures of the late twentieth and early twenty-first  centuries, embrace elements of pastiche and irony while seeming to cling to  notions of nostalgia. In the case of rock music this nostalgia is explicitly tied to the  notion of a canon of ‘valuable’ music - Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, The  Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. In this way music aficionados (still those largely  associated with rock music as opposed to pop music), assign authenticity and  artistic value to the criterion, which has long been established in relation to the traditional canon. Wolfmother are appropriators of a nostalgic sound. They  recreate 70s rock music within a twenty-first century context. It is this association  or notion of a post-modern context that appears to validate their authenticity  within the wider popular cultural domain. They are, as Richard Middleton explains  contextualising their music as cultural expression, “since honesty (truth to a  cultural experience) becomes the validating criterion of musical value (Middleton  1990, 127). For this reason these same popular cultural groups assign artistic  value to the music of Wolfmother for example, because it appropriates  unashamedly and accurately the music of the canon.  
  We could suggest at this point that the producer appears to be at the centre of an  argument surrounding authenticity and representation. While an artist may be the  creator or spokesperson of a cultural climate as we have before discussed, the  producer becomes the facilitator of the cultural climate, orchestrating sounds that  provide a landscape or commentary of musical expression. In this way it could be  suggested that a producer knows what is considered an authentic representation  of a particular genre, a particular time period and a particular audience.  Producers create generic codes that become characteristic markers for musical  styles. In reference to this point, it becomes necessary to investigate a type of  typography of referents in relation to the production of rock music. To what extent  a producer adheres to these accepted conventions and/or referents is a matter  for further research. In the twenty-first century can we still assign ‘production  markers/referents’ to the recording of rock music, or has popular music in its  various permutations become so pastiched that the production practices are  becoming as hybridised and elusive as the musical elements of the text, the  represented image of the musician and the reception of the cultural populace?  
  In reference to these codified practices and/or referents, should we consider the  work of Wolfmother for example to be of lesser significance or artistic value generally. Well this is multifaceted query of course. No we cannot valorise a band  like Wolfmother to the heights of brilliance and/or innovation, in reference to any  vintage recreation, surely allegiance and artistic validity in this case first and  foremost lies with the sounds from which the new music has originated However,  despite the fact that there appears to be particular genre codes within which a  producer works, particularly in reference to the vintage sound, this work should  not, by association be considered ‘less creative’ or stifled necessarily. While  Australia’s Wolfmother have unashamedly appropriated a sound from the past  they have worked to produce this sound within a modern context. In this way, is  the direct reproduction of a sound in a new context a creative endeavour? As we  have previously mentioned, this music is a hybrid production, loaded with stylistic  codes of 1970s rock and yet also contemporary codes that situate the music  within a 21st century context. In this way the vintage sound is self-confessing, it  makes no bones about its position within the pop/rock domain and subsequently  its concern is an endeavour to produce a brand of nostalgia within a new and  contemporary context, adding to the irony and pastiche of popular cultural  expression as art within contemporary society.  
  Interestingly while production codes may exist and have done so since recording  came to useful and valued prominence, producers, studio engineers and  musicians alike constantly challenge these codes. Particularly in the mid-late  twentieth century and into the twenty-first, these codes appear to be significantly  less fixed. This is evident in the myriad of cross genre styles of this period;  alternative rock, country rock, acid rock and cock rock, to name only a few. In this  instance pre-existing codes and/or referents are now working in a more  collaborative sense creating greater hybridity in sound across the popular music  domain.  
   It is these referents that will be further explored alongside other silent points of  focus in reference to record production, the genre of rock music and the twenty- first century throughout my current research project. The extent to which a  producer adheres to these codes and/or referents, and the impact these practices  have on creativity within popular culture and the recording studio is an interesting  and relevant consideration for further research. The ‘vintage/retro’ sound is a  product of the use of production codes, but perhaps within a contemporary  musical domain the vintage sound is one of the only manifestations of sound  directly and unashamedly adhering to conventions of tradition, wearing the  production codes or referents of the past on their shirt sleeves, rather than  creating a patchwork of sounds and approaches that are becoming increasingly  representative of the musical pastiche of the twenty-first century.