Development of production techniques in mainstream popular music-making
The making of mainstream popular music has developed exponentially over the past five (5) decades, in terms of musical style, site (creative location), technology and workflow (Owsinski 2013, Huber and Runstein 2013; Izhaki 2013; Gilreath, 2010). As a flow on from both globalisation and technological development, hybridity in mainstream music-making is ever increasing. Musical styles in mainstream popular music draw upon an ever-widening lineage of musical style influences (McLaughlin & McLoone 2000, 187, 190,192, 193). The trend of hybridity, innovation and adoption of technologies and workflows from other approaches to music-making however is not new to the roots-based approach to music-making.
Throughout the 1900’s there was continual experimentation and inventiveness in the industry, enabling a recording industry to develop to what it is today. However, it was in the late 1940’s that saw a noticeable change to the approach to music-making, by a musician who was motivated by trying to make his guitar-playing sound more textured that what it sounded as a single instrument. As a guitarist in the 1950’s, Les Paul experimented in his home with low-level recording devices, recording and over-dubbing guitar parts (Théberge 2004). Paul experimented with, adopting principles that he had observed in other music-making approaches, and applying them in new and innovative ways. Paul has been attributed with the mantle of the first modern recording engineer, using the recording process in the studio for creative effect. Paul’s experiments with tape players and the “placements of recording and playback heads“ enable him to multi-track his guitar parts with just one tape recording device (Moorefield 2005,4). Further experiments placing playback heads behind the recording head revealed out of sync playback, “resulting in now-standard effects such as phasing, flanging, chorus, and delay”(Moorefield 2005,5). The results enabled Paul to have his electric guitar recordings appear more layered, more complex, more textured. Paul went on to achieve considerable commercial success as both an artist (guitarist) and a recording engineer.
(Sound on Sound 2017)
A few years later, American Phil Spector reimagined Paul’s creative process, creating his own recording workflow. Spector progressed Paul’s legacy by using studio and musical equipment he had access to, in ways the manufacturers had originally designed for them to be used. However unlike Paul, Spector saw the potential of his role as more than just an engineer. Developing his own unique approach to production, Spector saw the role of producer as being in control of the creative process, in control of the artist. In the Spector model, the artist was a commodity in the production process, where Spector was producing them:
“By taking total artistic control of a recording, Spector in fact redefined what it meant to produce a record” (Moorefield 2005, 12).
(MPR News 2016)
Spector looked beyond the previous generation’s approach to production, to merely capture traditional band format instruments for inclusion on the recording. Spector immersed himself in the newly envisaged role of creative producer, exercising curiosity and adventure in every aspect of the production process. Unlike his predecessors, Spector was inventive with his approach to instrumentation, arrangement, production and post-production processes:
“He handles the control dials like an electronic maestro, tuning various instruments or sounds up, down, out, every which way, using things like two pianos, a harpsichord and three guitars on one record; then re-recording the whole thing with esoteric dubbing and over-dubbing effects—reinforcing instruments or voices—coming out with what is known throughout the industry as “the Spector sound.” (Wolfe, 43 in Moorefield 2005, 10)
As one of the earliest examples of a commercially successful creative producer, Spector composed a musical and sonic wall of sound – multi-layered, complex-textured productions – more than what had been created previously. Spector’s approach to the production process was:
“not just with the overdub and mix, but also by using the studio as an acoustic space, certain microphones, and unconventional instrumentation”(Tankel 1990).
Spector approached the studio as that of a composer, using the studio and any musical and sonic equipment within, to create an extravagant music and sonic production experience for the listener.
“the studio was a musical instrument, to be tuned and practiced on and performed with. The degree to which he took this idea was considered excessive by some at the time” (Moorefield 2005,14).
In just a few short years, Spector had established a new legacy for the recording industry. Spector developed the definition of a record producer, and the approach to production
“Whereas the craft of the studio technician and producer had formerly been to create for the home listener a perfected version of an artist, band, or orchestra in concert, the rules of the game were now changing: the object was no longer to create a flawless “real-life” experience, but rather to use the available technological resources imaginatively in order to create sounds that were no longer functioning within the metaphor of realism which had previously been the norm. Thus, by the mid-sixties, “manipulating technology” had come to encompass a whole lot more than mic placement or fader levels (Moorefield 2005,15-16).
Turning Songs into Records: The Many Roles of Producers in Popular Music (PBS Learning Media, 2017)
Once Spector had some success in the US, he moved to the UK to and it is here where his multi-layered, complex-textured approach to production influenced British artists and the UK production scene. George Martin and the Beatles embraced the experimental approach to production, exercising curiosity and adventure in every aspect of the production process. The Beatles, Martin and his studio engineer Geoff Emerick became very inventive with instrumentation, arrangement, production and post-production processes (Emerick & Massey 2007, pp6-14). Tape recorders and creative processing was explored to full effect, inheriting the legacy and techniques from both Spector and Paul. Again in their first experimentation into psychedelic style music production with “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Lennon’s voice has a hallucinogenic quality:
“This effect was achieved by an early use of a tape recorder’s record head being used for playback as well as recording. When played back in combination with the signal from the playback head, the gap between the two heads created a delay which could be time-varied according to the speed at which the tape was played back. This is the same principle used by the once widely popular effects unit known as the Echoplex. (Moorefield 2005, 31)
(Lennon McCartney 1966)
However, Martin did innovate the workflow one step further: “a number of tape loops …. are featured prominently in the song and give it its unique character”. Martin then used each of the channels on the studio console to highlight these loops by raising the volume of each, one at a time. Much like a musician could do on an electronic organ, Martin was now using equipment within the recording studio as a musical instrument (Moorefield 2005, 30).
 Paul was experimenting with some of the earliest forms of domestic tape players available.
 I will discuss the influence other approaches to music-making had on roots-based music-makers such as Les Paul, in a later section on experimental music-makers
 Perhaps the best example of Spector’s production approach was with the 1963 global hit by The Ronnettes, “Be My Baby” (Moorefield 2005,12).
 Spector became famous for his production approach, know as the Spector ‘Wall of Sound’ (Moorefield 2005,14).
 Other musicians and composers were experimenting with music and sonic production experience for the listener – such as John Cage , but were not realising the same degree of commercial success.
This blog will continue next month with History of Music Production Part 4b – Experimental practice changes the approach to mainstream music production (Page 2016).
Emerick, Geoff and Howard Massey. 2007. Here, there and everywhere: my life recording the music of the beatles. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Gilreath, Paul. 2010. The guide to midi orchestration. 4th ed. Oxford: Focal.
Guerrieri, Matthew. 2016 Via Spector and serendipity, the harpsichord invaded pop Image courtesy of Boston Globe Accessed 16th March, 2016
Huber, David Miles and Robert E Runstein. 2013. Modern recording techniques. 8th ed. Burlington: Focal Press.
Izhaki, Roey. 2013. Mixing audio: concepts, practices and tools. 3rd ed. Oxford: Focal.
Lennon, John & Paul McCatney. 1966 Tomorrow Never Knows. 45rpm Parlophone label. Image courtesy of Northern Songs
McLaughlin, Noel and Martin McLoone. 2000. “Hybridity and national musics: the case of Irish rock music.” Popular Music 19 (2): 181-199.
Moorefield, Virgil. 2005. The producer as composer: shaping the sounds of popular music. London: MIT Press.
MPR News, 2016. Phil Spector Wall of Sound Accessed 16th March, 2016
Onion image courtesy of: Onion Layers Accessed 28th March, 2015
Owsinski, Bobby. 2013. The mixing engineer’s handbook. Boston: Cengage learning.
Page, David L. 2016. History of Music Production Part 4b – Experimental practice changes the approach to mainstream music production Accessed 5th March, 2016
Paul, Les. 2016. Les Paul tracking Mary Paul Courtesy of Les Paul.com. Accessed 20th February, 2016
PBS Learning Media, 2017. Turning Songs into Records: The Many Roles of Producers in Popular Music Video courtesy of PBS Learning Media. Access 1st May, 2017
Sound on Sound, 2017 Classic Tracks – Ronettes – Be My Baby Image courtesy of Sound on Sond.com magazine. Access 1st May, 2017
Spector, Phil. 1981. Wall of Sound Vinyl LP Phil Spector International label Image courtesy of Discogs Accessed 20th February, 2016
Tankel, J.D., 1990. The practice of recording music: Remixing as recoding. Journal of Communication, 40(3), pp.34-46.
Théberge, P., 2004. The network studio: Historical and technological paths to a new ideal in music making. Social Studies of Science, 34(5), pp.759-781.
– ©David L Page 20/02/2016
– updated ©David L Page 16/05/2016
– updated ©David L Page 01/05/2017
Copyright: No aspect of the content of this blog or blog site is to be reprinted or used within any practice without strict permission directly from David L Page.