Amateur Recordings and The Ghost Producer : Beyond the Technical Interventions of the Sound Engineer
ABSTRACT: Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’, George Martin as the « Fifth Beatle », Teo Macero and the bonding of solo takes. The years go and the myths remain the same. Largely borne by a wind of romanticism, the record producer is often described as this « mixing hero » who could transform any uninspired composition into a classic that will be sung by a whole generation. If this paradigm of the record producer makes the amateur musicians who want to reify their creations dream, this utopian representation of the recording process quickly encounters a more pragmatic reality. Generally prohibitively expensive, the services of such producers are most of the time inaccessible for artists who aren’t financially helped by record labels. Consequently, a majority of amateur recordings are made in the context of the home studio, or within professional studios where the personal is a priori exclusively employed to be responsible for technical tasks.
Focusing on this latter situation, I will base my presentation on an ethnographic study to explain how the « function » of the record producer stays omnipresent in an amateur session despite the fact that the « profession » of the record producer is neither explicitly neither contractually embodied by the studio personal. Linking audio takes with oral exchanges that occured during the session, I will show that the amateur studio experience and its common one-personal-team organization incite the sound engineer to constantly overstep his initial technical functions, being thus a new mediation in which the ghost of the record producer will express.
On the basis of this specific study case, I’ll more globally try to highlight the increasing porosity between the producer and the sound engineer that, blurring all the past rigorous conceptual boundaries, is being to generate a new paradigm of music production.
Marzin’s historical opening takes in the move from brick and mortar to project studios over the last 30 years or so, and the rise of self-producing creators. In amateur recordings there is, now, a reduced staff and sometimes a ‘one-person production team’. He cites Richard Burgess [throughout]
Is the sound engineer limited to their contractual obligation or are they creators? Marzin discusses the way ethnographic approaches can inform our understanding of musicians because they are authentic and [can be] non-intrusive.
The context for the forthcoming case study is provided: it’s a small studio in Dijon, France, over a 2-day session. Participants are anonymised. The sound engineer ‘James’ refuses the title of ‘record producer’ – he defines himself only as a functional/technical engineer. He takes no money at the point of sale and no royalty on the musical work. James is a self-taught sound engineer although he has a degree in musicology.
Under observation, James participates in the ‘installation time’ – it’s a pre-session activity that enables the engineer’s session to go smoothly. But Marzin argues that this pre-session time helps to bring the engineer into the social space of the band. By sharing jokes before the session, this helps to break down potential barriers between engineer and band. The installation time, and its social element, is not purely technical and social; it’s an intentional strategy to help to make the session more effective when it begins.
As a pro engineer, James never shares negative feedback with the band at critical moments in the session (ref: Guastavino and Pras 2013). The producer is described as ‘a modern conductor’ and several examples are given of his encouraging use of language in the studio. There is a moment where James makes very subtle observations about collective dynamics and band balance, advising the band (very supportively and sensitively) that one player is too loud, and that it would be easier to fix this in performance than in the mix. The band agrees; Marzin infers that James, here, is playing the role of a proxy audience – an intermediary between artist and public.
There are times in the session when James pushes the boundaries of documentary engineer and takes a more itnerventionist producer role – for example, he chooses different backline (from his own studio) by substituting the Rhodes player’s amp with a Leslie speaker. This makes the keyboard player respond to the Leslie sound, and choose different, more dissonant chords. Marzin observes that James is materially contributing to the composition here.
We then get to the DAW. James asks the band ‘which take do you want to keep’, and Marzin notes that this subtractive role (of weaker takes) gives James a further creative contribution. James also makes arrangement suggestions at times. Do these contributions make him a co-composer?
Marzin concludes with a diagram of Mission, Sills and Interaction (from Guasavino 2011) and highlights some of the issues around record producers’ contributions to contemporary compositions. The distinction between engineer and co-creator, he suggests, does not exist any more outside the specificities of the ‘for hire’ engineer contract.
We end with a quote from Howard Becker (1963);
Deviancy is not a quality of the act a person commits but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’. Deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label.