(Check out the playlist below!)
It is a long, strange trip for a song to go from an idea percolating in an artist’s head to the finished item that we, the music fans, hear. Some songs are born fully formed and some take years of tweaking before they are deemed worthy of release and some never do fully developed and either come out half-formed or never see the light of day. There is an art to creating the perfect song. Think about a song that you feel is perfect, what is it about that song that makes you feel that way? Is it the lyrics, the instrumentation, the “sound” or something entirely different? Thousands of songs are written every year but how many of them do you remember? A song has to start somewhere, usually by someone creating lyrics and then by marrying those lyrics with music, followed by recording the result so we can hear it and then mixing it to perfection. Some artists are very good at doing this themselves but sometimes (a lot of the time) it takes a fresh set of ears to achieve greatness. This is the role of the producer. Most producers are never recognized by the fans of the music. But sometimes a producer’s body of work is recognized and appreciated by the listener to the point of discovering and appreciating other artists that the producer has worked with.
What exactly is a producer? According to EHow.com “A music producer is a professional who works with recording artists, sound engineers, record labels and marketing teams to oversee all creative and technical aspects of an album”. That basically means that the producer takes input from everyone involved with the song and decides how best to present it. This could be deciding what songs to record to what instruments would be best for a particular song. This could be a harmonious relationship with the songwriter and performer or an acrimonious one. Sometimes the artist wants it a certain way but the producer has other ideas. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
There are dozens of successful producers we could discuss but in the interest of brevity (such as it is) we will limit ourselves to the three Martins. George Martin, Martin Birch (bear with me here) and Max Martin.
George Martin was the producer of the Beatles and really set the tone for how a producer can influence the material brought to the studio by a band. He started producing albums in the early 1950’s and continued until 2006. George Martin was able to extract more from musicians than they knew was possible. He had an ability to see past the surface to the greatness that lay below the surface. Much like Michelangelo could look at a block of marble and see the sculpture that hid beneath the surface. In 1971 John Lennon stated “George Martin made us what we were in the studio. He helped us develop a language to talk to other musicians”. That is the skill that a producer brings, helping artists who have something to say, but may not know how to say it, to be able to express themselves better. George Martin is mostly known for his work with the Beatles but also produced Shirley Bassey singing the theme song for the James Bond film Goldfinger as well as albums by Ella Fitzgerald, America, Kenny Rogers, Elton John, Stan Getz, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Jeff Beck, Cheap Trick, UFO and Celine Dion (amongst many others). When a producer is as successful as George Martin was, other artists want to work with them and we all benefit from the good music that comes from the collaboration.
Moving forward to the 1970’s we get to Martin Birch. Martin Birch started out as an engineer, as do the majority of producers. That’s the person the producer works with to get the music recorded, the knob twiddlers. They have to know the qualities of the machinery they are working with to be able to record what the producer is asking for. Martin Birch engineered many early Fleetwood Mac, Wishbone Ash, Jeff Beck and Deep Purple albums before becoming a producer. He is known for letting albums sound more “live” than some producers, that is, more like they are spontaneous and less overly thought out. He is regarded as the person who helped Deep Purple achieve their signature sound and with reviving Black Sabbath's career when he produced their Heaven & Hell album. He also worked with Rainbow, Whitesnake and Blue Oyster Cult. In 1981 he began to work with heavy metal band Iron Maiden, producing nine of their most successful albums from Killers to Fear Of The Dark. It would be safe to say his “sound” shaped the new wave of British heavy metal in the ‘80’s and is still the template for much of heavy metal music today.
Currently the producer that garners the most attention is a guy from Sweden named Karl Martin Sandberg but who goes by the name Max Martin. Max Martin has been producing hit songs since the beginning of the ‘90’s. He has a way of working that artists and artist managers gravitate towards and a track record to back it up. He has had the second most number one hits (22) of any produce (second only to George Martin (23). He has produced songs for Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Usher, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and Ariana Grande. That pop sound you hear everywhere these days… Max Martin. With songs like “Baby One More Time”, “I Kissed A Girl”, “Blank Space” and “Can’t Feel My Face” under his belt, Max Martin has his finger on the pulse of contemporary music and the artists and their labels know it. That is why he is in such demand. People may not know who Max Martin is but they know what they like, and he’s the one who produces it.
Producers can be an integral part of the creative process of making music. Look at the liner notes of your favorites, or even do a Google search and find the name of the producer. Look them up and find other things that they have done. Listen to it, you may discover some new music you are drawn to that you didn’t know existed based on the producer. Here’s a homework assignment for you Power Chord TV family. Who are some producers that have worked on your favorite songs? Why do you like their work? Feel free to post a comment after this article so we can all share in discovering new music.
(Click here for playlist)