Ethnography: Producing Rulers of the Planet.

This essay is full of messiness.

I feel that the approach to academic writing is too often a question of “How can I get a complicated idea into one sentence”. Organising is done to such an extent that loose ends are left out and inconclusive data is covered up. Often only the answered questions are included, leaving out unanswered ones. Showing off knowledge, being superior, or acting it! I prefer simple writing with complex, life encompassing ideas- my favourite author is Kurt Vonnegut. His themes reach into sociology, psychology and philosophy. The bibliography contains mostly messy articles. A good example of non- messy is Richard Bauman’s definition of Performance.


One of the things I’m keeping in mind while I write is roles: producer, engineer, assistant engineer, friend, comedian, story teller, psychologist, moral high ground (drink), morale maintenance, food delivery, coffee boy.

Porcello: the engineer is Sartre’s attentive pupil.

This is the first time I’ve produced a band in a commercial recording studio with an engineer. Previous album projects were recorded in the bands rehearsal space with me acting as producer and engineer simultaneously- not an easy task.

This time I can dedicate my brain to artistic rather than technical considerations. Artistic: Groove, tone, vibe, feel, flow, structure etc. Technical: mic choice and positioning, eq, noise etc.

I acted as an executive engineer, in that I decided on specific technical things, such as recording at 48kHz to give more top end, instead of the more standard CD rate of 44.1kHz; using a Coles figure of 8 ribbon mic in an MS configuration over the drums, instead of the more usual spaced pair. I also worked on the guitar sounds- choosing amps, pedals, POD settings etc.

There was a certain amount of overlap in the roles of the engineer and the producer. As far as Finny (the engineer) was concerned, My work was not visible. His running joke was ” give him some work to do” . This meant that he was leaving it to me to edit takes together or compile the vocals, etc. Finny made a lot of good decisions on guitar amps. I would have been happy with the Pod (a digital device that simulates the timbre and distortions of a selection of guitar amps). But he said “we have a real Marshall and a Vox, so why use virtual ones?”.

Ref: Goffman:
Production allows you to “get on with life”. Producer allows band to get on with music. Keeps them in the frame by taking responsibility for judging takes/ quality of performance.

How did I get this job? I knew most of the members from previous bands, one of whom (the singer’s last band, called Semi) I co- produced. I was primarily theengineer and synth programmer on that project. It was the second publicly released album I had done as a freelance engineer. So I went along to the Bróg pub one night to see this band, mainly because I knew most of them. They made a strong impression the minute they came on stage, wearing masks of various world leaders- Bush, Bin Laden, Putin etc. backed by a powerful heavy metal style riff, played in unison by the three guitarists and backed by a pounding drum rhythm. Barry the singer is the type of front man who talks with the audience. He always tries to get them going, joking and “free- associating”. He knows how to develop one of his random statements if the crowd picks up on it, so he connects with them. Most of the songs are very easy to sing along to, such as “Pissing in you Café”. Barry turns this into a set piece, where he teaches the words to the audience beforehand, and gets them to practice it. If you can get about ten people going in some sort of chant, then the rest of the audience will soon follow. Then you have people’s attention and they’ll listen to the music. Especially in a pub, with a line like “Always pissing in your café”!

The great thing was that they were doing a mixed pop/ punk/ heavy metal style of music. I don’t normally like punk or HM, but I love music that connects with people- and that’s pop. This band clearly enjoyed their music and entertaining people. They were not precious about their music- for example, the crowd was never told to hush up for a poignant acoustic number. They were allowed to have fun.

Anyway, I spoke to them afterwards and told them that I really liked the gig, that they should release an EP soon, and I’d love to produce it. They liked my previous work, so after a few emails we agreed a price. My first task as producer was to listen to the band rehearsing, and discuss ideas with them. I got them to play their complete repertoire- eight songs! So we discussed what songs we’d choose for the EP. I was wary that they might have some good songs that they didn’t think highly of, or songs that could would work better as well produced recordings rather than as live performances. As it happened, we were in agreement about which songs should be recorded- they liked the same songs that I did. A very good sign that we’d get on generally.

They were actually quite nervous when I recorded their rehearsal, which surprised me. As a result, they played badly, but that didn’t matter because I was able to get a good idea of their sound, rather than relying on my memory of the gig. It also meant that they got over the dreaded red light syndrome before we got to the studio. It would be the rhythm guitarist’s first time in a studio, so this was an important exercise, to put him at his ease. I also reminded them to put new strings on all the guitars in the week before the studio session.

It’s interesting to explore the two performances- the gig and the rehearsal. The gig was great fun but musically a bit rough. The songs are fairly simple punk rock arrangements, so whenever anyone made a mistake it was obvious from their pained expression. But the overall performance was good… why the sweeping generalisation and my particular choice of words?

What’s musically rough? I mean that they sometimes didn’t play what they had decided on in rehearsals (the band doesn’t write anything down, they rely purely on memory). Even without the visual focus of a score that classical musicians have, these punk musicians are more concerned with the music they play than the reaction they generate in the audience. As a producer, this is fascinating to me. The musicians are totally caught up in something they can control (what they play) rather than with something they think they can’t control- the audience reaction. But their success as a band depends on how the audience reacts. They won’t sell any records or get any gigs if they cannot connect with audiences. Does the band want to sell records? Very often they’ll say that they do it for love of music. Is it wrong to love your music so much that you don’t care what anybody else thinks about it? An interesting question! You might be a gifted classical pianist, who is so good that no matter how much of an ass you are, people will pay to hear you play. So you can make a living with music, and not have to worry about anything else, like being a good person. On the other hand, if you’re just too weird for most people, you might live in poverty to the detriment of your health, dedicating your life to music in the hope that you’ll be famous after you die. This is clinical insanity- by definition, you’re mad if you’re a danger to yourself or others. Devoting yourself to music to the detriment of your physical health is wrong, but it is part of the Beethoven legacy. The myths about that man have damaged the lives of many unknown artists.

Barry was clearly the only one who had thought about his effect on other people. He is flamboyant, and loves to talk to the crowd, cajoling and encouraging them, parading around the stage dancing with whoever/ whatever he finds.

The rehearsal was different to the gig. The band was nervous because they were being examined musically, and all mistakes would be captured on digital tape. They were worrying so much about the audience (me) that it had a negative effect on their performance. So they played badly- out of time, out of tune and lots of bum notes. But that didn’t matter. The object was to hear their complete repertoire, and study the structures of the song. As long as they played the verses and choruses in the right order, it didn’t matter if they weren’t tight with the drummer, or if Barry forgot the words.

Actually, the issue of lyrics is an interesting one. Until recently, most musicological studies examined the lyrics of a pop song, leaving all other issues aside. They didn’t consider arrangement, structure, timbre, loudness, dynamics etc. As a producer, the lyrics were the LAST thing I worried about. All that matters is that the phrasing of the words gives a good rhythmic flow that works with the music. This is achieved as much by the singer’s technique as by the choice of words or subject matter. Unless something stuck out rhythmically, I pretty much ignored the “meaning” of the lyrics. As always, this is not a hard and fast rule. With this type of band, the lyrics of a slow song are very important- that’s why such songs ARE slow and have simpler structures than the faster songs; so you can understand the words. For example, Barry had written a song called “Copenhagen St.”. It was a stream of consciousness lyric with a great emotional meaning for him. His last band (Semi) tried various versions, including their most complex arrangement ever, complete with modulations, stops and starts and double solo sections (i.e. a “middle 16”- 8 bar trumpet solo and 8 bar guitar solo). The version they finally settled on comprised of acoustic guitar with a repetitive drum machine backing and root note base on synth to re- inforce the guitar tone. Sound effects of birds, traffic and children playing served to emphasise the textual meaning. In contrast, all the songs recorded for this EP were fast, so the arrangements were what we polished.

My second task as producer was to organise a studio date that suited everyone. I had heard good things about a studio in Douglas called bpm studios, run by Finny. He’s been on the Cork music scene for quite a while now, and is always highly spoken of- he has a reputation of being a nice guy. Another engineer whose ears I’d trust with my own music also liked the studio, so I went along to check it out. Finny had turned a nineteenth century warehouse building into a very comfortable, well lit and tasteful studio. The main room sounded very nice. I got him to play back some drums he had recorded in the room, and it sounded really good in an “unmixed” state, better than anything I’ve heard in any other Cork studio. He had good mics and pretty much the same computer setup as I have in my studio. I had some specific recording techniques I wanted to use, and he had no problem with this. In fact, he was curious about some of them. For example, I’m a fan of the MS (Middle and Side) stereo recording technique. It’s not widely used because it requires one mic with a figure of eight pattern, and there’s a bit more work involved in setting it up than other stereo mic techniques. It’s the only one that’s fully phase coherent and therefore fully mono compatible. It’s also possible to change the apparent width of the stereo image in the mix, so you can make the sound bigger or smaller as required. He’d never used this technique before, and on the session he asked me to explain how it worked. Curiousity is a good thing in any technician. He was a very agreeable sort of chap, and he worked sensible hours (10 am ’til 6 pm, instead of the more common and insane 10 hour studio day) so I decided to use his studio. I then had to organise amps and guitars with the band, borrowing and begging from friends. As it happened, Finny had a good selection of amps in the studio, and we ended up using his and none of the amps we brought, except for an Ampeg bass amp.

With the band I planned our recording method as much as possible. I thought we could get it all done in one day, but they sensibly decided on two. (Another example that the producer is not a dictator!) The important thing was that they’d all be able to see each other, just like they do when rehearsing. The best compromise was to put the amps in separate booths and put the guitarists in the same room as the drummer. The singer Barry would be in the control room with me and the engineer. The band were not at all sure if they’d be comfortable performing with headphones, but they were willing to give it a go. To their surprise it worked perfectly.

When we arrived at the studio there was the usual few hours at the start setting up mics and amps for tone and isolation. Finny and I made some initial mic choices based on experience, before we heard anything. The guitarists played around with Finny’s amps and some of the funky guitar pedals I’d brought. Dave, the rhythm guitarist was happy straight away with a borrowed Les Paul humbucker guitar and a Marshall JCM stack- a classic heavy rock/ metal combination. Mick, the lead guitarist took quite a while before he was happy with his sound. He used a telecaster with a Vox AC30, a combination often used by George Harrison of the Beatles. The Kinks guitarist used it almost exclusively. Mick didn’t know that, but when he played around with it for a while he decided he didn’t like it because it was “too Kinks- y”! Finny suggested we take a DI from Mick’s guitar, so that we could route the clean sound into an amp later and re- record this sound during mixing. This cheered Mick up a lot, and he became less fussy about his sound because he didn’t have to commit to a sound there and then. He decided to use an overdrive pedal (my Boss HM2) with the AC30. As it turned out I didn’t use the clean track in the mix. The miked up AC30 was perfect- it sat very well in the arrangement and did not require any extra treatments. The Les Paul did require treatment- some parametric eq, possibly because we used a Neumann TLM170. This is a large diaphragm microphone with a very flattering tone, making things sound larger than life (For this reason it is particularly effective on vocals) I used the eq to make the guitar sound smaller, otherwise it was too forward in the mix.

I am a firm believer in getting things “right” before pressing the record button. If the song is well recorded, it should mix itself. This approach means that people must commit themselves to the song. If it’s a good song, there should be no problems getting a good sound on the CD.

I like to suggest small improvements. Most often, these are things like shortening a bridge section or an intro, or adding an intro, or getting rid of one etc. Songs often benefit from an outside ear, someone who hasn’t been rehearsing the same songs for weeks or months. It’s interesting how bands react to these suggestions- more often than not, they agree to the changes, wondering why they hadn’t noticed it before. Of course, there are no hard and fast rules. For example, I mixed three songs for an artist called Stanley Super 800. He had recorded them himself in Cubase, a PC based hard disc recording system. I not only balanced the instruments in the mix, but I also shortened sections, particularly intros, outros and bridges. He was delighted with all the edits I did, saying that the flow was much better. This shows that it is possible to fix things later, but that’s not the point. If the philosophy from the outset is to postpone big decisions, then the whole process will be very drawn out and painful. There was no point in doing any pre- production work with Stan to tidy up arrangements, because he was more comfortable recording himself and experimenting with the possibilities of the studio in his own time. A band (as opposed to a solo artist) does need pre- production, simply because there are so many creative people involved. Discussing arrangements, sounds and approaches to each song should be done before the recording session. In the studio, people need to focus on good performances, and not waste €80 an hour arguing about solos!

Back to the session- Niall the drummer was late arriving because he had been working late in his bar the night before. This was fine because it allowed us to take time with the guitars. While Niall set up his kit, the rest of the band went for lunch. This avoided the usual boredom that occurs on sessions- normally, the drums are set up first, and the drummer takes some time to tune them. The engineer spends somemore time getting a sound, listening to the drummer in the room, then moving mics around and trying different mics to get a similar sound in the monitor speakers. Different snare drums will be auditioned, because this is the most important of all the drums in the kit. This process can be very boring- while the engineer checks levels and timbre, the drummer will be asked to play metronomically on each drum for long periods of time. Quite often, too much time is spent on it to the detriment of the other instruments in the band, particularly the bass guitar. It’s much easier if the engineer can accept the sound the drummer makes as the “right” one, instead of trying to make him sound like a commercial recording. At least, that’s what Steve Albini says.

It’s the producer’s job to get all the little things right. For example, having new strings on the guitars a few days before recording is quite important. If the strings are dead it will be impossible to get a good sounding mix no matter how much technology is applied afterwards. The stereotype of the producer is the bespectacled studio wizard labouring over a hot mixing desk. In reality he has to make sure that everything is right before the band ever gets to the studio. The most important question he will ask is “Are the songs any good?”. The next is “Do the arrangements work, are the songs too long/ too short, does the intro fit, does it need an intro, do they get the point across well?”.

What is the point of a song? It can be many things. Often the lyrics are clearly the point, and the music will support this. Sometimes the music creates a particular mood or moods, and the lyrics can highlight these in many different ways. There’s no easy answer- the best approach is to trust your instinct, because that’s what the record buyer will do. He’s not going to analyse the music to see (for example) if the dynamic is a golden ratio. But the producer is the one who knows what these technicalities are, and knows how a listener will react to them. He can use all these technical tools, both compositional and technological, to make the song as good as it can be.

The artist has created the song because it stimulates emotions in him. The producer connects with these emotions and makes sure that they’re maintained, not lost, throughout the record production process- the songs journey from the writer’s soul, out of his instrument into a microphone, after which it might be digitised, equalised, compressed, mixed, mastered, couriered, pressed, packaged,distributed, sold, converted back into compressions and rarefactions in the air, into the listeners ear and (if the producer did a good job) into his soul.

Back to the session- my job in the studio involved no obvious labour apart from occasionally moving mics around. I sat apart from everyone else, evaluating the performance of each take. I decided if another take was necessary. In a way I was outside the music because I wasn’t performing it and I wasn’t recording it. But as a listener I was very much inside the music, and in a very different way to everyone else. I was putting myself in the position of the potential consumer. I had to imagine what the final recording would sound like, and which each take would form the basis of that recording. I knew that the rhythm had to groove in a certain way.

As I discussed previously, the band were more concerned about playing the right notes in the right way on their individual instruments. Here is an example of how that could have had a detrimental effect on the EP. On take 3 of the last song we recorded, the bass player fluffed the very last bar of the song. Additionally, take 3 seemed to be a bit too fast, so we decided to do it again. This was a rush decision made with one eye on the clock. The following day, as we evaluated the takes, I really felt in my gut that take 3 was the best (take 4 made me feel sick). I knew I would not be happy mixing that take! I couldn’t really use those as valid reasons to get the band to agree on take 3 as the master. I had to rationalise my feelings about the two takes. The quicker pace gave the song an edge- it seemed to be on the edge of falling apart, but it never did, except for the bass at the end. Mick, the lead guitarist, thought that take four was “punchier”. It seemed to me that the band was so in control of that take that it felt contrived, lacking soul… So I said to the band that in my opinion, take 4 was technically perfect, with all the notes in the right place, but take 3 had a dangerous edge to it which really worked. I was pleasantly surprised when they agreed with me instantly. It was really nice that they trusted my instinct, and gratifying for me that my instinct was right.

Getting back to Finny saying “give him some work to do” and the negative side of that- he would say this while making a shovelling gesture with both hands. He ended up being a bit carefree with keeping track of the recordings. I ended up having to back up 7 Gigabytes of data onto 12 CDs. Even with burning at 24x, this task took three and a half hours to complete, between drive errors and figuring out which files belonged to which song. He even kept false starts and non starts, which was very confusing. The positive side of this is that there is an archive for the anthology in twenty years time…

This issue was partly my fault- I was not familiar with the file management in Steinberg’s Nuendo, the dedicated audio software Finny recorded with. I prefer Steinberg’s older Cubase program, which integrates audio and sequencing. So when I’d say “delete that, we’ll never use it” he’d just delete it from Nuendo’s arrange window- the actual AIFF file was still in the project folder. He was playing it safe, his reasoning being that we might regret deleting anything. But I take the pragmatic approach, like Brian Eno and George Martin. Make decisions during the session, don’t leave everything to the mix. Martin used this approach because of the limitations of four track recording- clutter was just not possible. Brian Eno takes the view that if all the elements of the arrangement can’t fit within 24 tracks, then it’s cluttered. This makes a lot of sense- the primary use for a 48 track recording system is for slave reels, which allows endless experimentation with the arrangement of the song. You can fill 24 tracks of the slave reel with guitar solos, then choose the best one or compile the best sections onto a single track of the master 24 track reel. Recording on hard disc allows the same flexibility, without the hassle of having to make a slave reel every time you want to experiment, while allowing you to keep everything “just in case”. It’s best to pretend you are limitted to 24 tracks and delete clutter often.

Rulers of the Planet, like most bands, are very guarded when it comes to commercial considerations. This is a good thing. They are wise enough to know that there’s no way you can decide on a successful commercial strategy to write music that is guaranteed to sell. They have their regular jobs so they’re not putting all their eggs in one basket. They also want to have fun with their music- commercially successful bands also enjoy their own music, so this is wise of the Rulers.

The issue of “the self in music” is a difficult one for me. “Know thyself”. This is a very powerful maxim. I’ve just started seeing a counselling psychologist, and there are some things I’m learning about myself that are quite painful to explore. This pain is what prevents most people from knowing themselves- for a long time it scared me, but I knew I had to do it to grow. How many musicians know themselves? There is the prevailing myth of the musician who is a social outcast off stage, and only finds themselves in the music. I have never met one of these people, and I believe the maxim “Believe none of what you read in print”. Music is entertainment, and for most people entertainment is about escaping from the drudgery of every day life. This is not the place to go into why many people can’t take responsibility for their own lives and remove themselves from drudgery. Is there some nebulous means which no- one has yet quantified by which musicians can reach out to others through music and make an emotional connection? Maybe there is, but most musicians never consider this connection in any way. Many don’t even try- they believe in rehearsing, knowing the dots, so that if they play it right they will be adored. They don’t seem to be aware of the bigger picture- you need to connect with people. There needs to be something in the music that people can relate to on a physical or emotional level. In trad, the big sellers are slow airs and dance tunes. In sessions, auditoriums and the record charts, these are the big sellers. Bands like Flook and the Chieftains keep the dance energy, but channel it in a format where the consumer can’t dance- the seated auditorium. There is a connection, so they are successful. Clannad took the slow air format to TV and film soundtracks and the pop charts. Afro Celt sound system took dance into the charts by fusing it with other dance genres and cultures. But there are hundreds of trad CDs released every year that sell less than 1000 copies, because they are musically excellent performances of trad tunes that make no emotional connection with any one outside the tradition- they are for connoisseurs only. One engineer I spoke to would agree with me. He is a brilliant engineer and often records trad musicians of the high calibre I’m talking about. He feels that sometimes these albums are recorded for the benefit of the performer rather than the listener. His idea is that they should be sold as limited release items at a higher retail price, possibly through the artist’s website rather than in retail stores, thereby avoiding the extra costs of distribution and advertising. The reasoning is that only fans would be interested in these releases, so there’s no point in targeting consumers generally. To this end, the internet is ideal, because the fans would check the artist’s site regularly.
So the band is off on a short tour, and they have some rough mixes to play at the radio interviews they’ll be doing. The concurrence of my counselling sessions and this producing job is amazing. I’m learning that yes, I am good at music, and it doesn’t have much to do with playing an instrument. There’s a lot more to music than that! I’m also learning that I do have an innate ability, that I can trust my instincts and be guided by them. So that’s MY self in music.


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