Photograph by Nick Hynan
A group of musicians and a lead singer pour their hearts out into a handful of microphones. When the song finishes a cheerful voice from the control room booms over the speaker, "That's it boys, it's a take!" and the band members slap each other on the back and run into the control room to their awaiting girlfriends who are, of course, all models and starlets. It's a notion and an image that has Hollywood's fingerprints all over it – reality is a little different.
On my first recording session, I was the bass player; I too heard that booming voice, only he said, "That wasn't very good. You guys will have to keep going until you get it right. Bass player: your E string is flat!" We were desperately bashing out this song for an hour or so under the audio equivalent of a microscope. The booming voice was right. The playback of our last take was sloppy and my bass was out of tune. Left to our own devices we would've given up and said that was the best we could do. But the booming voice was persistent, and the next few takes steadily got better, all the more so for checking the tuning of my bass before each take. The booming voice saved the day.
When I grew up I became a booming voice, well, actually, a booming voice with a nasal Brooklyn accent. I wanted to be the lead singer or at the very least just one of the boys in the band, but circumstances put me in the director's chair instead. The circumstances uprooted me from Manhattan and planted me firmly on British soil at the height of Swinging London. I took root and stayed there for nearly twenty-three years. In the end, I think it was a better deal.
The role of a record producer hasn't changed much since Fred Gaisberg cut the performances of opera singers to wax cylinders in the 1890s. He instructed them to move closer or further from a horn; he was the voice of experience, helping the artists to get their performances to a high standard onto the recording medium.
The first time I heard the term "producer" was in the '60s when a mad-looking man on the Jack Paar TV show (one of the very first talk shows) audaciously proclaimed that he dictated the musical taste of teenagers in America. He was introduced as a record producer and his name was Phil Spector. I already loved his productions without really knowing that someone other than the artists and musicians were involved (I still melt when I hear "Walking In The Rain" by the Ronettes). It was Spector who brought this role to the public's attention, but most records of that time were still produced anonymously. It was many years later that the great Quincy Jones admitted to arranging and producing "It's My Party" for Lesley Gore in 1963.
When I heard a Beatles record produced by George Martin I began to understand that record production was an art form, not just an aural mirror of a live performance. Before those intricate Beatles recordings it was just that, a live performance captured on cylinder, disk or tape. It is said that once Bing Crosby, the legendary crooner, discovered that two performances could be edited together by cutting audio tape with a razor blade, he gave birth to the "art" of record production.
There was one pioneering genius who stood the recording world on its head and changed everything forever – Les Paul. His name is on millions of the solid body electric guitars that he designed. But his greatest contribution was his concept of the multi-track tape recorder. With his wife, Mary Ford, he produced supernatural recordings of complex arrangements (supernatural in the sense that two people sounded like twenty). His guitar was used over and over again on a simple song as he created a guitar orchestra. For very fast passages he slowed the tape down, played a phrase and then returned the machine back to normal speed. The result was impossible tinkling runs of demisemiquavers. Wife Mary was transformed into a very precise female jazz vocal quartet. At first his one-off eight-track tape recorder was considered a novelty, but when multi-track machines were mass-produced the world of making records changed forever. Since the '60s most recordings have been made in assembly line fashion, not all the sounds recorded at once, but in layered overdubbed sessions. Even in the sacrosanct world of classical music Maria Callas broke the rules by overdubbing a missed high "C" in an otherwise perfect performance. There was a critical furore but since then classical record producers have been doing virtually what a pop record producer does.
A record producer is responsible for every aspect of a recording. In the early days the word "producer" was more descriptive because the record producer put up the money for the recording and hired a team of experts to execute the various creative jobs. Eventually the role of a producer became more creative and resembled that of a "music director". George Martin crossed the line and wasn't shy about giving the Beatles positive feedback and suggesting changes in their musical arrangements. A straight-up producer would not be qualified to give such dramatic direction, but George Martin was a very accomplished orchestrator, pianist and oboist. I think the most glorious moment in the Beatles' recorded repertoire was his stunning octet arrangement for "Eleanor Rigby". Equally stunning is the sheer wizardry of "Strawberry Fields Forever". Of course the Beatles contributed greatly and John Lennon refused to take "no" for an answer when he wanted two disparate takes, recorded on different days, in two different tempi and keys to be joined together. George Martin and their extraordinary engineer Geoff Emerick stayed up all night and made it work! There might have been four Beatles, but there were two more Beatles working in the shadows. Record production, as we know it today, started with George Martin and the Beatles. I make it no secret that I fashioned my style of production after Martin's.
To be responsible for every aspect of a recording a record producer should have a working knowledge of recording techniques and music. Many modern record producers are experts at one or the other or both. I have read that we also have to be psychologists, but that's a bit far fetched. I see us more as coaches, a job where some psychology might be necessary. My mentor, Denny Cordell, instinctively knew how to get the best out of an artist and the best sound out of a sound engineer. My policy is to interfere as little as possible, but to draw out the best in the artists I work with, especially the singers. Sometimes I offer advice for the substitution of a word or melody (for which I don't take a royalty); I've also sung backing vocals and played various instruments too. The best part is towards the end, when I sit at a mixing console and put it all together. All in all it's a very nice occupation.
From Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy, published by Harper Collins. Tony Visconti is a Grammy award-winning music producer and has worked with, amongst others, David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Morrissey, Angelique Kidjo and Kristeen Young. This extract first appeared in 2017's print edition of One Hand Clapping.