Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Wall-of-Sound Explained: Part 8

At this point, Arta raises an worthy objection to Part 7. It is reproduced below.
I disagree with your fundamental assumption that music production has to be a hierarchical and authoritarian project. The "conductor" of an orchestra provides a beat and helps each of the hundred instrumentalists stay in sync with the whole -- he doesn't "ignore" anyone's will or act as a veto. Does a string quartet have a conductor? Why does the producer have to "ignore" the wishes of the bandmembers -- why create that kind of dichotomy in the first place, a rigid binary between "band member" and "producer"? That might be the way Phil Spector operated, (the man was also fond of pointing guns at his musicians) but plenty of bands have been able to have a cooperative, egalitarian artistic process. You might think that Radiohead started to sound shit when their producer started to let them have free rein, but I think they actually started to suck when Thom Yorke essentially became the band leader and yeah, producer - the one who was free to ignore the rest of the band, make final decisions, and be unaccountable.

In other words, why should people run their bands in a way that you and I find repugnant when applied to the organization of larger institutions (such as the state)?
When I said conductor, maybe I should have said composer. In classical music, all the parts are written out and all the instruments pre-assigned. The individual members of an orchestra cannot do much else but to play their assigned parts, with very limited space for interpretation. But this is quite acceptable to many musicians, and their work is rewarded by creating a beautiful, massive sound with the rest of the hundred-odd instrumentalists. There are those whose art is simply to play their own instruments at a high level, and they possess neither the inclination nor the ability to create music from scratch. For the record, a conductor does more than just provide the beat; he or she is there to direct the volume changes and provide a visual cue of the level of energy required at any given point in the music.

This essay seeks to recognize the rock producer as an artist, and to empower the producer with the privileges of the classical composer and conductor.

A producer should not ignore all the comments from his musicians. In the last section, I was only giving specific types of suggestions (mostly regarding the mixing) that are likely to be rejected for the sake of the wall-of-sound. If it came across as something else, then I shall revise my wording.

Like some medicines, the wall-of-sound is not for everybody. I would hate for producers to work with musicians who are adamantly opposed to the wall-of-sound even after the philosophy is explained to them. But admirers of the wall-of-sound have included the likes of John Lennon and Brian Wilson. Clearly, it is something worth studying, worth applying.

Let's continue with Arta's comment.
We've always been a completely egalitarian institution. We do all our own recording, producing, mixing, mastering. It's not a perfect process, we revise and redo things a ton of times until everyone's happy, but isn't that sort of consensus-driven system a hell of a lot better than having some outside producer who dictates to us?
As Arta correctly notes, The Tonics are an egalitarian institution, and it works because each of them understands where they should fit in the mix. In fact, they don't always agree with where they should fit in the mix, but they all recognize that it's an important enough question to consider. None of the Tonics are extraordinary players of their musical instruments, but they play the instrument of production that is rarely played by other bands. They are all producers.

I am writing this essay in the hope that entire bands will get behind a production philosophy and work towards it without having to use an outside producer. I want to show that production is just as important to a record as songwriting. I want to show that pages upon pages can be written about production from an artistic viewpoint. It doesn't have to be wall-of-sound, even though this author believes it to be a most effective production method. You have to figure out which philosophy right for yourself. Alas, many bands don't even take this first step. Many bands walk into a studio, perform, and walk out and leave the engineers to mix. The Tonics don't do this. They would rather spend weeks in postproduction.

But enough about us. In the next section, we will continue reinforcing the wall-of-sound concept by considering if/how some post-1960s records measure up to our definition of the wall-of-sound.


Anonymous said...

See, I totally agree with you here, when you say that "The Tonics are all producers." I think that's the approach you should have taken all along, but last time it really did seem that you were demarcating a division of labor between "musician" and "producer." If we realize that "musician" and "producer" are really just two hats worn by "artists," then we can go somewhere. But my problem with Spector is that I really don't think he saw it that way. He employed legions of session musicians and used a really rigid formula for his arrangements, making them pretty boring, upon repeated listening, to my ears. His whole approach is antithetical to the making of a flexible creative process between equals. You should really give more credence to the negative accounts of artists who actually worked with the guy -- a lot of people seem to think he was an anti-social, egotistical dictator.

If he was just composing music, that would be fine. As you note, a composer lives a solitary existence and has a lot of freedom to create his individual world. But a conductor, or a musician, or a producer, needs to be a social creature that understands consensus, flexibility, revision, and criticism. And I am convinced that Spector did not. He worked fine with artists who were willing to completely defer to him, like the girl groups composed of naive 18 year olds, but older artists (who actually composed their own music) and had a sense of pride in their work tended to hate Spector's egotism and arrogance. Anyway, I don't doubt that he was a smart guy. But I reject him as an object of adulation, and I think you could be a bit more critical in your analysis of him too. This all reminds me a bit too much of the "Clapton is God" stuff of the Cream era.

I think studying wall of sound or any other production technique is valuable to an artist, but only if we approach it with open eyes and an objective stance. Saying the wall of sound is the "best" way for a band to realize its musical potential seems like an obviously false statement to me, just like it would be silly for me to say that "impressionism" is the best way for a painter to realize her best artistic potential. Phil Spector and the wall of sound don't need apologists, in other words, the body of work can defend itself. A good analysis shouldn't be a defense, and it should take criticism into account.

Anonymous said...

And dude, be honest with me, don't you think the paragraph below sounds a bit authoritarian?

"You are in control of your musicians. If your musicians want to go and create their own records so that they would individually sound the way they want, they can do so. But right now they are working for the collective good, the wall-of-sound, and you are the organizer of this project."

That's what kind of pissed me off, because if anyone in our band had ever acted like that, the rest of us would have whooped him upside the head. And it really didn't seem like you were talking about a metaphorical "spirit of production" guiding the band, it seemed like a pretty literal endorsement of the Spector approach: one man, the Producer, is in charge of the Collective Good (the Wall of Sound) and makes decisions for the whole, free from criticism. If the people in the band aren't cool with that, they can get lost. Doesn't that sound a little USSR?

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