A great production and mix are essential for the optimum listening experience but you can’t polish a turd!

We’ve all experienced a song that sounded so good we needed to play in multiple times to catch every nuance and discover parts that we missed on the first 20 listens only to say on number 21, “Wow I never heard that before”.  That wonderful aspect of discovery that puts a smile on your face and allows you to truly appreciate the essence of a song comes when the blending of the recording process and studio world meshing together in a magical way. Those elements that make up the ultimate listening experience for an audiophile and music fan are Production and Mixing and the lack of either can kill a great song or take a wonderful potential recording and limit its success to a great degree.

Now just for the sake of keeping you all on board in this discussion, let me explain and differentiate between the two and why each matters if one wants to the achieve the full greatness of a song. In the order of their relevance as it pertains to the creation of a song, let’s first look at Production.

Production is that process by which a song is evaluated by the producer who then determines the best path to take it to capture it true essence. This is usually an interactive process by which the Artist or band begins a dialog with the producer and they give their thoughts on the initial creation of the song and make the decision on the arrangement, instrumentation and indeed the direction that a song will take prior to the recording actually beginning. This is not as easy as it seems, as many songs have a multiplicity of ways which they can be produced and many times the artist or band has one idea of how each should be recorded and the producer a totally different one. Enter the economy size Excedrin into the picture. The battles are great at times but it is not always a slam-dunk that the right way to record wins and there are also times that hindsight leads to the fact that submission on either side may lead to a total disaster by not sticking with convictions. There is as much instinct in this process as there is logic and science.

It you want to get it right the first time, you must do the homework and choose a producer that is a match for the task. It’s common knowledge that the right producer has the ability and vision to turn recordings into masterpieces. In our industry, if not for them, a potentially great band may have fallen to the wayside and slipped through the cracks. Think back at history and you will find a multitude of wonderful collaborations between artists and producers that have brought us some of the most memorable moments in music history and heightened our own listening enjoyment and experience. As a matter of fact, without some of these collaborations, the results may have been destined to obscurity or at least the cutout bins rather the perpetually best selling catalog items they became. You see, a great band cannot and does not always know what’s best for them and it takes that outside objectivity of a producer to bring the element of direction to the process.

Reflecting back at history, I can only marvel at how fortunate some of the match ups were and how these projects would have turned out had it not been for the producer’s involved and arsenal of sounds and creativity. I know, as I have seen this time and time again where a band with wonderful concept went into the recording studio and without direction ended up with a failed final outcome.

Look back in time and think for a moment what the Rolling Stones would have been without Chris Kimsey, Michael Jackson without the magnificent efforts and direction of Quincy Jones, The Beatles without the masterful orchestrations of George Martin, the Wall of Sound groups without Phil Spector, the Police without Hugh Padgham and Celine Dion without David Foster and finally AC/DC, Def Leppard and Shania Twain all of whom benefitted incalculably from the efforts of my role model and one of my personal heroes, Mutt Lange. This list goes on and on and I think you get the idea that the producer is the person who assures that the magic is captured to the fullest and the album is a cohesive body of work that can be listened to without sounding disjointed or like a train wreck mishmash of disjointed songs.

The producer gives a recording its personality and delivers the backdrop for the artist to perform against. They listen to the songs that are being considered for an album and either choose or discard them depending on their belief in the acceptance of them by the audience or their own personal tastes. A producer must feel that a song speaks on its own and then reveals itself to them by showing them the best way to capture it while at the same time never losing sight they their jog is building a sound and fan base that is truly representative of the band or artist that they have in the studio.

It is a big No-No to take a band into the studio and come out with hit songs that do not in any way relate to or represent the band in a way that changes them or loses their potential base. It’s a tricky business but producers are the captains of the ship and their job is to provide a positive atmosphere for the recording and be there to direct the sessions while never getting in the way of the creative process and the magic that happens when everything comes together without interference.

Now that understand the producer’s job in the creation of a masterpiece, let’s look at the next crucial player in this process, the engineer. What exactly does a great engineer do and how can he or she contribute to the final outcome of a project with nearly as much impact as the producer? Well they do a lot and without them, frankly, many producers would be lost as they are the co-pilots, their conscience, the maintenance and tech crews on a space flight heading out to the planets Hit Recording and Music Immortality where nothing is assured but the unknown.

The engineer has a very difficult job in their capacity as they are required to understand the overall sounds and direction that the producer and band are going for prior to the project getting off the ground and then to use their knowledge and recording expertise to capture that direction and see that every sound is recorded without any inferior flaws, external elements or distraction and tech glitches that can kill the momentum of a project. They do all that and also see that everything that was recorded makes it to the final recording to give the producer what they want and need to deliver the ultimate version of the song fulfilling the expectations.

The engineer has the job of overseeing that everything is organized in the way the tracks are recorded, insuring that every one of the best performances by the band is captured and making sure everything is easily identified when it comes time to mix the project. They must always be able to keep the final vision of the project in front of them so that every time the tracks are played back, the vibe of them and the placement of sounds is relatable to the final outcome which makes it easier for a producer and the band to assess if they are on course or not. As I said, if the producer is the Captain the engineer is everything else to keep the ship running properly and stay on course.

At the end of project, the engineer must take all the tracks, performances and sounds that were recorded and find the best way to get them all to work together in what becomes the Final Mix. This process called Mixing or Reduction in the UK is something that is an art form in itself and can also make or break a record. I know because I became one of the best mixers in the world saving many records that may have died and seeing to it that the classics created remains just that.   It is the embodiment of every aspect of the recording process and defines what the sessions would become and if they would be realized to their full potential. This is where the placement of instruments and the sounds recorded comes into play as the producer decides where in the listening sound spectrum the listener must be placed.

There is much latitude here as you can pan the instruments and alter even recorded sounds placing them anywhere you want and at the same time determine what room size and sound you want the instruments and the vocalists to be in from a small venue to a cavernous church. There is more room to be creative and experiment then anyone could ever imagine at this stage but if the song is not great, the production not efficient and powerful, arrangements lack emotion and the playing and performances captured are far less then the best possible, you are screwed and all is lost.

If the producer and engineer have not each done their job to their best capabilities, nothing is going be a success and even a great mix will only make garbage sound like a little better sounding garbage. A good song with a great mix can be a success and a great song with a great mix a timeless classic but there’s No Mix, regardless of how great an engineer is, that can turn a horrible song, production and recording into something listenable because as we say in music, You Can’t Polish A Turd!

Go back to your music collections armed with this knowledge and listen to a great classic. Hear for yourself how truly amazing it is that with all the variables involved, that the music you enjoy ever makes it to the finish line at all considering the many times between creation and the recording process that it has to fall flat on it’s face!!

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  • Bill_Henderson

    Interesting article. I do think it is possible to like an album or song despite lousy engineering. One that comes to mind is the first Mason Proffit album, “Wanted”. I love this album and it defined my high school years, but the recording quality is not good. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I’m willing to overlook that for this album.

    • John Luongo

      That is an absolutely excellent point and example Bill! Yes, believe me there are many recording that are horrible that I ended up loving because feel and execution can top excellence in the sonic areas.

      Look at the years of the Psychedelic Bands and the Garage Rock genre where you could almost see the musicians trying to stand up!

      My point is that overall in the world of the audiophile who pays thousands to hear every nuance, that great music takes a great concerted effort.

      I am willing to make a concession on a magical moment that has great relevance to you as you have just so eloquently and passionately stated!

      Long live freedom of choice and thanks for reading and following me.

      Kind regards,
      John