The “virtual” producer in the recording studio #arp13

The Vicious Five recording at Namouche in 2009

CAMPELO, ISABEL (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)
HOWLETT, MIKE (Queensland University of Technology)

The “virtual” producer in the recording studio: media networks in long distance peripheral performances

[abstract] The producer has for many years been a central agent in recording studio sessions; the validation of this role was, in many ways, related to the producer’s physical presence in the studio, to a greater or lesser extent. However, improvements in the speed of digital networks have allowed studio sessions to be produced long-distance, in real-time, through communication programs such as Skype or REDIS. How does this impact on the role of the producer, a “nexus between the creative inspiration of the artist, the technology of the recording studio, and the commercial aspirations of the record company” (Howlett 2012)?

Improvements in the speed of digital networks have allowed studio sessions to be produced long- distance, in real-time, through communication programs such as Skype. From observations of a studio recording session in Lisbon produced through Skype from New York, this paper explores questions regarding the role of the studio producer in this context: how important is the physical presence of the producer? Is this physical presence an essential part of validation and authority? What are the implications and limitations on direction of the musical performances? How is performance interaction affected between what I have named central and peripheral performances in a studio setting – the central performance being the one carried out by the musicians and the peripheral those developed by both sound engineer and producer (Campelo 2012)? Methodology will involve participant observation carried out in Estúdios Namouche in Lisbon (where the session took place), as part of my doctoral research.

This ethnographic approach will also include a number of semi-directed ethnographic interviews to the different actors in this scenario – musicians, recording engineer and producers. Photos and footage of this session will be displayed. This study also involves the collaboration and co-authorship of a Grammy award-winning UK producer and academic who will provide a practitioner perspective considering the importance of senses such as sight and touch in relation to aural perception and musical performance in the studio.

Isabel begins with an historical overview, looking at the studio from 1967, when its build began, through its rename to Namouche in 1985, to its salvage and repurposing from 2005. It is now marketed as “the biggest live tracking room in the country”. We now look at the physical setting, including the live rooms and lobby. Isabel describes (from her own session singer perspective) the visual and aural information that is processed, described as the ‘setting and its main actors’. There was  a keyboard player, a sound engineer, the conductor, the comosor and the mentor of the project.

The project is called the WESO – West European Studio Orchestra – a project conceived by André Miranda; the goal was to record film scores with minimal rehearsal time and maximum recording efficiency. Isabel notes the tension that was in the room due to the logistics problems that had arisen the same morning. We now hear some audio of the orchestra, working to an audible click track. The session was highly charged, musically, commerciall, logistically, psychologically and emotionally. The New York-based composer would be following the session through Skype. There were concerns that the Skype connection might not be flattering to the mix or to the player. When the Skype connection began, the tone of the session changed, and different levels of communication were evident, which Isabel goes on to outline.

The film was called ‘Snake Eyes’. Although this was film music, the visuals were disconnected because they were interfering with the sound stream. Notably, not all the musicians had headphones – some were following the click, others were [I infer] following each other and/or the conductor. We now see some control room video from the session, and Isabel identifies individuals and their roles.

We are ‘looking for the producer’. The interviewees gave conflicting accounts of who was producing, and the extent to which these individuals were perceived to be able to affect the session (and its product) for the better. Different levels of prejudice and perspective were revealed. One performer said “In an orchestra, there isn’t so much this figure of the record producer; […] the role of the music producer is fairly relative”. Literacy of languages were identified (literal language – that is, Portuguese; technical literacy; score literacy; familiarity with the work).

Preliminary conclusions are that live online streaming for such sessions is not uncommon. There is one central performance and two peripheral performances separated spatially. She identifies various levels of authority and ‘virtual producing’ duties and returns to the same question “who was the producer”?

Mike now takes the floor and describes the context of these individuals – who is rewarded, who communicates with whom, and which functions (formal or involuntarily acquired) are undertake by the various individuals inside and beyond the control room. Clearly, he notes, a production takes place, but it is clearly a team effort. He states that the remote communication did not impeded the process; inadequacies of the session were the result of a lack of clarity about te identity of the producer. Indeed, the nominal ‘producer’ actually stepped back from production duties in many ways. However, a successful result was obtained. He concludes that the ‘producer’ was present in the sum of the roles played by the key participants – that a ‘virtual producer’ is created out of all those present.

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