When listing my producers, I failed to mention one influence who had nothing to do with funk or soul, but was amazingly inventive. George Martin who produced the Beatles albums also came with some serious skills and techniques. His actual background was classical music, which translated well to the expansive work he did with the ‘Fab Four’ on their Sgt Pepper album. Another producer to pay close attention to is Marcus Miller, owner of some of the best ears in the industry. Having Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, E.U. (Da Butt), The Jamaica Boyz, and Chaka Khan among his credits would make him one of the most diverse producers in the business. Another favorite producer/ band director is Joe Sample and his work with The Crusaders as well as Randy Crawford. However, while his classic version of “Street Life” is a great record, it’s his recent versions of the song with just Ms Crawford and a trio that bore some true influence on this project.
“Multiplication Rock” and subsequently DeLa Soul had it right: three is a magic number. The power trio has been and remains a mystical element in the music business. The Nat Cole Trio, Buddy Holly and The Crickets, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, The Jimi Hendrix Experience and the subsequent (and musically superior) Band of Gypsies, Pieces of a Dream, Genesis, The Jamaica Boyz, The Police… the musical mystery of a band comprised of three people that sound like twelve people, even when they perform live. However, the advent of multi-track recording led to the phenomenon of the record
and the live show becoming two different entities. For example, the handclaps and tambourines that enhance the “live” version of The Ramsey Lewis Trios’ “In Crowd” the same way that the six voice female chorus fleshes out the harmonic elements of Jimi Hendrixs’ “Hey Joe”. In other words, taking a trio in the studio, recording them, mixing it and calling it a record in this day and age sells the potential of the recording short.
Listening to an album used to be and should be an experience. It’s the producers job to make it such. Whether it’s John Coltrane’s “OM” or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” from the first note of the first song, to the fade on the final tracks end should be a journey along the lines of an epic poem or novel. The challenge of any producer working with a trio is the maintain the integrity of the band’s magic, while expanding on their sound. The other challenge is that this ability is not a precise science.
With The Groovalottos, we ended up with these amazing basic tracks, without a drum machine or sampler in the house. The main idea was to get a good take on the drums, knowing that there will be a few fixes on the bass, and the initial keyboard and lead vocal tracks being purely reference or “scratch” tracks. The great thing with this band is that we have been playing together, live for so long that the tracks were pretty tight and very funky. However, what a band does live often has to be simplified for the recording process. What makes the song great in a live setting comes across as way to busy, or in the words of the movie “Amadeus,” ‘too many notes…’. At the same time, certain
elements that are crisp and pop live, often need to be enhanced in the studio.
Off and on, I’ve been listening to the raw tracks in my truck’s stereo (my preferred listening room) for the past couple of weeks and taking notes: spots where the drums need to be fixed; spots where the bass needs to be tightened; keyboard sounds and styles that will better fit the mood and groove of the song; percussion parts; backing vocal arrangements… all of the elements that the average listener is unaware of that Quincy Jones refers to as “ear candy.”
When Jones shared his process during the production of a project, he noted that he will obtain what ever the top ten albums are of that year and analyze them for what them hit albums; infusing this analysis into his own work. Of course the context of this conversation was in relation to his work on Michael Jackson’s hit albums “Off The Wall” and “Thriller” as well as his own “Back On The Block”, all of which were recorded before 1990. It’s safe to say that the top ten pop and r&b albums of those days were by top musicians and producers. Today’s top ten albums are done on computers for the most part. Other than mix down and post-production/ mastering, there is very little in the contemporary top ten that could have any kind of meaningful impact or influence on this album.
As I learned in the early part of the 2000, even albums by bands use a lot of sampling, looping, cutting and pasting. The musicians play their parts and the producer goes back, finds the 8 bars that they want for the verse, then the 8 bars for the chorus; cuts and pastes them and viola! A backing track. Even one of my favorite band producers of these times, Quest Love of The Roots uses this technique. Even Prince, back in the days of The Revolution, handed his drummer, Bobby Z a drum machine to work with.
My last three albums were primarily MIDI productions with a few live elements added as enhancements. For the most part, I manipulated MIDI to sound as much like a real band as possible, leading to a side career as a re-mix artist, with electronica producers from around the world sending me tracks to give the ‘mwalimadelic’ touch. The basis of these productions is a click track, basic keyboard part, and minimal quantizing, as well as 16 and 24 bar loops. As a musician, there is a certain indescribable charge and pleasure that comes from playing with other musicians at the same time that MIDI just can’t touch.
Most labels won’t admit to it, but there is such a thing as a “producers kit” consisting of kick, snare and percussion patches that the producer cuts in over the real drummers part so that the sound is consistent with the ‘industry standard’. Very few drummers of today’s music world have actually heard their own drums on their band’s record when the producers get through ‘fixing’ them.
Two things happened to the music industry that have basically killed the industry: labels stopped hiring music people as A&R and instead started hiring MBAs and technology created an artificial sense of perfection. A first glimpse at this, as well as the beginning of the end of my innocence as a musician came as a young studio musician. I had the opportunity to do a session with a legendary artist (who I will not name). He made a record many years earlier that I literally wore out, and I learned to play a keyboard passage from the album that was very complex. At a break in the session, I played it for him on the piano. He watched and was blown away, admitting that his version was recorded in two pats that had been over-dubbed, and it took him a number of passes to get it. “Too bad I didn’t know you back then, we could have gotten it out in one shot.” He chuckled.
It was the influence of Billy Preston that led to my habit of assigning keyboards like guitars, with one as the rhythm, one as the color, and the other as the lead. I also like using horn arrangements for my backing vocal parts, along the lines of The Turtles on “Happy Together” or Joe Cubas recording of “Be With You”. On the next trip into the studio, I’ll be laying down the rhythm keyboard parts, locking in with the drummer. After that, we’ll do the bass line fixes with Red Bone, followed by percussion tracks.
To Be Continued…