The past week my local PBS station has been broadcasting an eight-episode series that explores the impact of the recording industry on modern culture. It’s called SoundBreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music and was the final project produced by legendary record producer Sir George Martin before his passing in early March of this year. I haven’t watched every show yet but I highly recommend the series for those interested in learning about the process of making commercial recordings and the forces that have influenced music production and the business. It’s very compelling stuff to hear from artists like Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt but all the more informative to listen to producers like Robert Margouleff, Don Was, and Rick Rubin talk about the stuff that was going on behind the scenes. Most music documentaries don’t present the huge contributions that producers and engineers make to the ultimate sound of the records we love.
The focus on the role of record producers, the introduction of electric instruments, the magic of multitrackings, and the special environment of a record studio make this series worth the watch. I learned about the series from my friend Robert Margouleff a couple of years ago because he asked if Maro Chermayeff, who co-directed and produced the series, could use my main studio as the backdrop for his interview about introducing Stevie Wonder to synthesizers. The end result is very good — and I haven’t finished watching all 8 episodes.
What I found interesting is that there is almost no mention of fidelity or accuracy. Instead, it’s clear that the right musical motif or “hook” or the connection between the lead vocal and the audience are among the most important factors in the success of a hit record. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise — it certainly didn’t to me. Engineers are tasked with capturing the best rendition of the sounds produced by the musicians on their instruments. And those instruments can be acoustic or electrically amplified, synthesized or sampled, pristine or distorted beyond recognition. George Martin and The Beatles experimented with tape in very compelling ways. The ran the tape backwards, made tape loops or varying lengths to produce repetitive patterns, and edited segments of acoustic recordings out of sequence. The results were new sounds and textures that pop/rock records hadn’t possessed previously. Although, avant garde composers and sound artists had been doing this kind of thing for a couple of decades before Sir George and the fab four brought it to a popular audience.
There is magic to be heard when Giles Martin, Sir George’s son and a very well know producer and engineer in his own right, solos some of the tracks on the Rubber Soul album. Listeners of final mastered records never get a chance to hear all of the component parts AND the imagination and work that went into crafting them. The process is painstaking and requires artists to be musicians, engineers, sound artists, and critics at the same time. It turns out that the right combination of sounds at just the right time far outweighs the necessity for high fidelity. From all I’ve learned during my 40 plus years of making recordings it all boils to that. A great record doesn’t have to sound good to be a hit.