Music production tools are incredible. Today, you can clean up bad notes, correct timing and pitch errors, sweeten the sound and make everything polished, homogenous and perfect. Music producers that make music this way do so in order to make the music appear to have been made by musicians of such a high calibre, that flawless music just poured forth from them effortlessly. It’s to give the impression of superior song-writing, musicianship and levels of performance unattainable by ordinary mortals. The producer is trying to make the musicians seem God-like.
Of course, as listeners, that’s what we’re supposed to think and it’s all an illusion. The human beings that made the music struggled as much as anybody else to write the song in the first place, to actually play their parts correctly, to sing in tune and in time and to make a sound that was pleasing, rather than irritating. Over-production can suck the life out of a good song and leave it sterile and remote, like some kind of ancient artefact that you can only handle with white gloves, preserved and displayed in a climate-controlled glass case. Not only that, everybody has the same music production tools, now, so all musicians can appear to be Gods. Where’s the differentiation?
Interestingly, Neil Finn, who has been making music for over forty years, claimed that he liked music that didn’t polish away the struggle. He asserted that there is beauty in the audible evidence of the artist wrestling with bringing the music to an audience.
“Embrace the struggle”, he said. “There’s an element of it every time you make a record. There’s a default setting. It’s a trade-off between knowing you’re cosmically insignificant and knowing this is the most important thing and the world needs to hear it. Some days you feel like you don’t have a musical bone in your body. When you get a good idea pop out of hours of struggle, it feels so worth it. It feels worth chasing it to the ends of the earth.”
If that means the struggle to put the right words to the right melody, to play the right notes or to deliver an emotion-laden performance should be preserved, during the music production process, then so be it. Neil is suggesting that music producers shouldn’t be so quick to remove it.
In perfecting each and every note in a music production, something of a song’s humanity is lost and the artist is distanced from his audience. If what the song is trying to convey is intimacy and relevance to a listener, then distance is not what you want.
Giorgio Moroder, when he was producing Blondie’s hit single, “Atomic”, insisted that the band play the song until they could give a decent, coherent, exciting performance of it. They rehearsed it, as a band, for days. Only then did he press “record”. The energy and confidence captured, by recording the song in that way, produced a feeling that is still evident when you play it back today. The sound is fresh and vibrant. It’s what makes it attractive to our ears and memorable.
To achieve the vocal performance in “Oh! Darling”, Paul McCartney would come into the studio, once a day and attempt a single, end-to-end take of the lead vocal part. If he didn’t feel he’d nailed it that day, he would walk away and try again the next day. He was committed to capturing an emotional performance of quality and with the feel he was looking for, rather than belabouring it, accepting the limitations of his vocal cords on a particular day or attempting to fix it in the mix. What he didn’t want to release was a half-baked or emasculated version of the vocal performance.
In modern music production, this dedication to capturing the humanity and struggle has gone missing in action. It might be time to bring it back.