I remember one day in 1975 when I went to a friend’s house to hear some new albums played through a state-of-the-art sound system. “This is going to totally blow you away,” he said, as he lowered the needle on the last track of Queen’s new album, “A Night at the Opera,” an ambitious little number called “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The sound seemed to explode from the speakers. The lush harmonies, Freddie Mercury’s powerful lead vocals, the quasi-classical piano, the “Galileo/Magnifico” operatic portion, Brian May’s hard rock guitar solo — all of it sounded like it was right there in the room with me. “Holy crap,” I said, “the production is spectacular! How do they get it to sound so damn good?”
While the members of Queen deserve plenty of credit, the man chiefly responsible for the crystal-clear sound quality was producer Roy Thomas Baker, one of the titans of the recording studio in the ’70s, ’80s and beyond. He was a true innovator whose work includes some of the most successful albums of the era.
So what exactly is a record producer? What does he do?
That’s a loaded question, because he may wear many different hats, depending on the circumstances of the recording session.
In the industry’s early years, different professionals worked for the major record labels, carrying out the various tasks that made up the recording process. Beginning in the 1950s with the advent of the independent commercial studios, entrepreneurial producers created and occupied a new layer in the industry, taking on a role in the musical process that was more direct yet also more multi-faceted.
Depending on his clout and level of influence, the producer might handle any number of functions. He may identify up-and-coming artists, select songs, choose musicians, suggest arrangements, coach artists in the studio, control the recording process, and sometimes supervise the post-recording phases of mixing and mastering. Some may take on broader roles such as scheduling, budgeting, even contract negotiations.
“A producer creatively guides the process of making a record,” summarizes Phil Ek, producer of current indie bands like The Shins, Modest Mouse and Fleet Foxes. “Basically, his job is to create, shape and mold a piece of music, whether it’s one track or a whole album.”
Perhaps even more important, though, is this key role: “A producer should be a psychologist,” noted Marc Tanner, producer of albums for Nelson and The Calling, as well as numerous film soundtrack LPs. “He’s typically working with bands and artists with big egos who think they know everything, so when the producer has an idea and wants to steer things in a certain direction, he needs to make them think it was their idea. And that’s a tricky thing.”
The producer also needs to know who’s really in charge. If a musical giant like Paul McCartney is making a new record, clearly he’s going to have the final say-so. When an industry mogul with the power of a Clive Davis is involved, nothing’s getting released without his stamp of approval. In some cases, though, the producer himself is the one who holds the most sway, and he can then operate differently, knowing he won’t be second-guessed.
The best producers, naturally, are those whose reputations precede them. The track record speaks for itself and makes them the most sought after in the business. They may be pleasant or gruff, but they’re known for getting the best work from their artists.
Let’s take a look at my subjective list of the top dozen rock music producers of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. In my view, they’re the ones who developed innovative recording techniques, used them to maximum effectiveness, and brought out the very best in the artists they were producing.
At the top of the list is George Martin, whose work with The Beatles put him in a category by himself. He and his talented engineer Geoff Emerick came up with wildly creative ideas and methods to conjure up the sounds John Lennon and Paul McCartney envisioned (in a time before computers and their ability to produce sounds by simply pressing a button). Martin also knew, as The Beatles learned the recording process and became more adept at executing it, to defer to their wishes and get out of their way when the situation warranted. Martin later worked with McCartney on his solo career, and also with Jeff Beck, Kenny Rogers, Elton John and America, among many others.
In both quantity and quality, Quincy Jones qualifies as a god of record producing. With 28 Grammys on his mantelpiece and more than 80 nominations, he is the most celebrated producer ever. He’s been a conductor, arranger and composer for everyone from Lesley Gore to Frank Sinatra in the ’60s, from George Benson to the Brothers Johnson in the ’70s, and Miles Davis’s final LP in 1991. Most notably, he’s the producer of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the best-selling album of all time, as well as Jackson’s “Off the Wall” and “Bad,” and the single “We Are the World,” on which he had to juggle the egos of two dozen rock stars in the same studio.
The late Phil Spector may be in better known for his second-degree murder conviction and sketchy mental state, but that doesn’t diminish the astonishing advancements he made in the field of record production. His famous “Wall of Sound” technique — in which he used multiple guitarists, keyboardists, drummers, horns and strings to create an all-enveloping sound on record — was one of the most ingenious innovations in the history of sound production. Designed to enhance the sound coming from AM radios and jukeboxes of the 1960s, Spector’s Wall of Sound took the material being recorded by girl groups like The Ronettes and the Crystals and duos like The Righteous Brothers and made them sound like dense mini-symphonies. He did the same thing later with George Harrison, John Lennon and The Ramones.
Among the influential developments that producer Tom Dowd came up with in the 1960s were multi-track recording and methods for altering sound after the initial recording. He has a long and impressive resumé of production credits with some of the giants, including: every album by The Allman Brothers Band; Eric Clapton (“Layla” and “461 Ocean Boulevard”); Rod Stewart (“A Night on the Town” and “Blondes Have More Fun”); Kenny Loggins (“Keep the Fire”); Dr. John (“Remedies”); Wilson Pickett (“Hey Jude” and “Right On”); Bobby Darin (“Mack the Knife”); Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Gimme Back My Bullets”); and jazz legends John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
From the mid-’60s right up through the 2010s, Glyn Johns has been at the helm of some of the biggest bands and best albums in rock. He produced every Rolling Stones album from 1963 through 1975, encompassing the group’s very best work. He engineered and mixed the incredible debut LP by Led Zeppelin. He worked on The Beatles’ “Let It Be” album. He produced multiple projects for Steve Miller Band and Boz Scaggs. He was producer for the first two Eagles releases. He worked with Pete Townshend to produce “Who’s Next,” arguably their finest LP and one of the best sounding records ever made. He also produced “Who Are You” and “By Numbers,” two by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and Humble Pie, “Combat Rock” for The Clash, and Clapton’s “Slowhand” and his 2016 release “I Still Do.”
John Robert “Mutt” Lange, another innovator in multi-track recording, has been a hugely influential rock music producer, responsible for the superlative production on such chart-toppers as AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black”; Def Leppard’s “High ‘n Dry,” “Pyromania” and “Hysteria”; Foreigner’s “4”; The Cars’ “Heartbeat City”; and albums for Bryan Adams and Huey Lewis & The News. In 1997, he produced “Come On Over” for his then-wife Shania Twain, which is one of the best selling country albums of all time.
The phenomenal sound production you hear on The Bee Gees’ best known songs is the work of Albhy Galuten, who also produced albums by Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers, Eric Clapton and Olivia Newton-John. He was at the helm of the mega-platinum soundtrack album of “Saturday Night Fever” and Franki Valli’s theme song to “Grease.” Galuten is a true sound technician who holds several technological patents in the digital age and has served as a chief tech executive at Sony and Universal.
Take another listen to James Taylor’s “Mud Slide Slim,” “One Man Dog” and “JT”, and to every Linda Ronstadt album from “Heart Like a Wheel” through “Cry Like a Rainstorm.” They all sound fabulous due to producer Peter Asher‘s savvy in the studio. He was one of the few who capably served the dual producer/manager role, and Taylor and Ronstadt were the clear beneficiaries. He won Grammys for Producer of the Year in 1977 and 1989 for his work on their albums. Asher also produced key records for Bonnie Raitt, Andrew Gold, 10,000 Maniacs, Cher and J.D. Souther.
Vocalist Steven Tyler has credited producer Jack Douglas with being “the unofficial sixth member of Aerosmith.” He brought out the best in a very rowdy band on their hugely successful ’70s records — “Get Your Wings,” “Toys in the Attic,” “Rocks” and “Draw the Line.” And it was Douglas at the soundboard controls when John Lennon returned to the studio in 1980 after a five-year sabbatical to record the songs that comprised the “Double Fantasy” and “Milk and Honey” LPs. He also produced records for Cheap Trick, Montrose, Alice Cooper and Slash.
Roy Thomas Baker, mentioned at the top of this essay, was at the helm for such classic albums as Queen’s “II,” “Sheer Heart Attack,” “A Night at the Opera” and “Jazz”; The Cars’ debut LP, “Candy-O” and “Shake It Up”; Journey’s “Infinity” and “Evolution”; Free’s “Fire and Water”; Foreigner’s “Head Games”; Ozzy Osbourne’s “The Ozzman Cometh”; and the soundtrack LPs to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Wayne’s World.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and watch the great producer/mixing engineer Bob Clearmountain at work in his home studio just down the road from me in Pacific Palisades. He has worked on many dozens of classic albums by artists including Bruce Springsteen (“Born in the USA”), The Stones (“Tattoo You”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Bryan Adams (“Cuts Like a Knife”), Roxy Music (“Avalon”), Simple Minds (“Once Upon a Time”) and Crowded House (“Woodface”). Not coincidentally, these LPs are among the best sounding albums in each artists’ careers.
Gary Katz gets a nod of appreciation for the incredible results he got working with Donald Fagen and Walter Becker and a host of session musicians on the records of Steely Dan. At first they were just a six-man band, but five of their seven albums saw the songwriters in search of evermore-pristine production values, and Katz was instrumental in helping the artists find that near-perfection, especially on “Aja” and “Gaucho.” Katz also produced albums for Diana Ross, 10cc and Joe Cocker.
Honorable mentions go to a few other talented producers: Daniel Lanois, who steered the ship on multiple LPs by U2 (“The Joshua Tree,” “Aching Baby”), Peter Gabriel (“So”) and Bob Dylan (“Oh Mercy,” “Time Out of Mind”); Bill Szymczyk, the man behind the sound for every album by The Eagles beginning with “On the Border,” the first three LPs by The James Gang, Joe Walsh’s “The Smoker You Drink, the Player You Get,” Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind,” B.B. King’s “Completely Well” and Michael Stanley’s “Friends and Legends”; and Eddie Offord, who specialized in progressive rock records by Yes (“The Yes Album,” “Fragile,” “Close to the Edge,” “Relayer”) and Emerson, Lake and Palmer (“ELP,” “Tarkus,” “Trilogy”).
In the realm of record production, there are many artists who have taken on the producer role for their own albums. Baker had this to say about that: “All artists, I think, would like to produce their own records. To me, it’s like someone trying to be their own lawyer in court. Even if you are a lawyer, everyone knows you shouldn’t do it. Artists should never produce themselves. They still need someone else around to make sure they get the best out of themselves, because you can’t be two places at once.”
There are always exceptions to the rule. Self-professed “studio nerds” like Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and ELO’s Jeff Lynne are listed as producer on nearly all of their albums. Bob Dylan produced many of his works from 1975 on, and Pink Floyd — as a group — are listed as producer on their LPs.
Most notable, I think, are these two examples:
Brian Wilson was not only composer, singer and bassist for The Beach Boys, but became their sole producer beginning in 1963 when recording studios were still extremely basic. But Wilson had an extraordinary ability to hear sounds in his head — in many cases, fully formed songs — which he diligently, and successfully, worked to transfer to tape. All those amazing Beach Boys hits, culminating in “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows” from the “Pet Sounds” album, sound as stunning as they do because of Wilson’s producing talent.
Todd Rundgren, who took on the artist/producer dual role from the very beginning of his career in 1970, was, as his album title suggests, “a wizard, a true star.” He has successfully experimented with new equipment, new techniques and new approaches to album production ever since, and it has served him well. A number of other artists took notice early on, and tapped Rundgren to produce their albums: Grand Funk (“We’re an American Band”), Hall & Oates (“War Babies”), Badfinger (“Straight Up”), The Tubes (“Remote Control”), The Band (“Stage Fright”), the New York Dolls debut, and most successfully, Meat Loaf (“Bat Out of Hell”).
Hey Bruce interesting column. Lots of talent there for sure. Honourable mention to Gus Dudgeon as well.
Another great post, especially after your feature last week of Motown producer Berry Gordy. So many great albums were as much the result of a great producer as they were the talent of the artists.
You touched on the best of the best, but George Martin is at the top is without question, since he was only working on 2-track machines in the very beginning (just enough for stereo!). They switched to 4-track with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and that’s all they had until 1968. Even 4-track is next to nothing by today’s standards, yet Martin & team creatively used tape manipulation (e.g., double tracking) to create more layers. Same with Brian Wilson for the early Beach Boys. This means that they had to get as much instrumentation/vocals on each track as possible…which meant doing essentially live performances for most of the album. One screw up and the whole song was a re-take. So producers and performers had to be true craftspeople in those early days.
By contrast, today every single instrument, vocal and effect are handled separately, which means you can repeat sections over and over to get it “perfect” before blending it all together into one master recording. Complex multi-track machines, coupled with plug-n-play software, are readily available even for amateurs. The performances must still be good, but much of the true artistry rests with those early days. It’s like the difference between an artist with simple canvas and brushes versus someone with an advance graphics program on their Mac.
Thanks again for a great post and all your efforts on the blog!
Great stuff, Bruce. Some artists probably had a difficult time “letting go” of the production process. But the great producers sure enabled some exceptional results.
Thanks for writing in, Joe. I have a daughter and son-in-law who work as artist and producer, respectively, in the music business (sometimes together but more often not), so I have heard some interesting tales of what it takes to make things click in a session…
Have a great Memorial Day.
Great job, Jessica the best along with In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed.
Thanks, Hugh! can’t beat Dickey Betts…