Identifying elements within a piece that reveal the sonic finger print of a producer

Just like certain bands have a particular sound, some music producers can also give a song a particular feel by how it’s been mixed. Examples of this include Rick Rubin, Trent Reznor, Dangermouse and many more, as they use the studio itself as an instrument, to give the song(s) produced by them their own signature sound.

Our task today was, in small groups,  to listen to a CD composed of 17 tracks given to us by our lecturer, and see if we could group them together by their production style.

These tracks where not titled so we couldn’t look up which producer each band used, the only information we were given was that the 17 tracks consisted of 4 different producers.

Each of these producers had particular methods which what they became renowned for and we had to group them by common features in these songs.

As a result we had been given a selection of tracks produced by the following:

Steve Albini:

Steve Albini arrived on the scene in the early 80s as the lead singer and guitarist of a band called Big Black, and in later years with Shellac, but in addition to this carving out his name as a musician, he has also made a name for himself as a producer, whether he wanted it or not.

One of Albini’s trademarks was the quiet/loud dynamics, as well as his records having a more raw sound, this can be heard on Nirvana’s In Utero album, Pixies’ Surfa Rosa, and PJ Harvey’s Dry to name a few.

This raw sound can be attributed to his very minimalist approach to recording and mixing, favoring the band to play live in the studio rather than multi-tracking.

He very rarely uses any post production editing unless it is necessary, using light compression on bass guitar and the kick drum, to give it a smoother sound, taking out some of thud of an aggressive player.

In an interview with sound on sound, he also stated that he likes to close mic drums, using as many as eight microphones at any given time. He also states that sometimes during recording the snare gets too loud in the overheads, he solves this by putting a fast attacking peak limiter while recording to stop this.

He also prefers analog tape to digital processing, favoring it more reliable.  Below are two examples of his work, off Nirvana’s album In Utero, Heart Shaped Box and PJ Harvey’s “Rid of Me” off the album of the same name.

Jeff Lynne:

Jeff Lynne appeared in the early 70s with his band the Electric Light Orchestra, and later on was a co-founder of the super-group the Travelling Wilburys, featuring George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Rob Orbison and Tom Petty, who he shared production credit with. In addition to this, he also has worked very closely with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and produced albums by them.

Jeff is known for having a heavily compressed room mic-ed drum kit, with a very hard attack, literally letting very little through, as well as his mixes having very little bass in them, this especially on acoustic guitars, of which he over dubs multiple ones, giving them a “glistening” sound, slightly panned to give a stereo image.

His work as opposite to Albini’s, has almost no dynamics changes at all, preferring everything to sit at the same level in the mix, as well as having layered backing vocals, filling up the space left behind by the low end not being present.

Lynne’s style is heavily inspired by the way the Beatles sounded in the late 60s, especially his music with the Electric Light Orchestra, and a lot of his records have this feel even when he isn’t the featured artist.

The examples below are the song “Showdown” by the Electric Light Orchestra, and  The Great Wide Open, off the Tom Petty and the Heart-breakers album of the same name, both produced by Lynne.

Dave Fridmann

Dave Fridmann is an producer active from the early 90s onwards and is most known for his work producing the band, The Flaming Lips, as well as his work with Mercury Rev, which he was also a founding member of, but gave up touring to focus on other artists. He has also had some recent success producing records for newer groups, such as MGMT and Tame Impala.

He favors a large distinctive, expansive and open sound, which can be especially heard when hearing Lips and Rev recordings. The way he achieves this is by recording multiple layers and placing them on top of each other, while keeping the drum takes in the mix to a minimum. By the time the track is completed, so many layers have been arranged, added and discarded, Overdubbing becomes less of a fairer description and could be better described as a soup.

Another characteristic of his sound is that it’s always on the move, automating panning of instruments, a Ping Pong effect with electronic or orchestral elements, as well as using them to contrast with guitars or vocals. Most of these instruments are heavily processed, sometimes leading them to sound nothing like they would do normally.

What’s also worth noting is that he produced the Flaming Lips experimental album, Zaireeka, which consisted of 4 separate CDs recorded with the intention to be played each on a separate speaker. This results in a unique listening experience as it was intended on being interactive, having to pay attention to the tracks and mixing them manually.

This was an artistic and practical decision, giving a larger sonic pallet compared to a stereo mix-down.

When recording, he records on both analog tape as well as digital, using an Otari 24-track analogue reel-to-reel, an Otari RADAR hard disk multitrack, a Pro Tools system, and an Alesis ADAT digital 8-track tape recorder, allowing him to record on many tracks if he is needed to.

Below are two songs, both from opposite ends of Fridmanns career. the first is by The Flaming Lips called “Shine On Sweet Jesus: Jesus Song No. 5” and the second is MGMT’s “Time to Pretend”  both are both pretty expansive songs caked in Fridmanns production.

Robert John Mutt Lange:

Robert John “Mutt” Lange first rose to prominence producing records for Hard Rock and Glam Rock bands from the late 70s onwards. Some notable records include AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, Foreigners 4, Def Leppard’s albums High and Dry, Pyromania, Hysteria and Adrenalize, as well as more recently in the 90’s Bryan Adam’s Waking Up the Neighbors and Shania Twain’s album Come on Over.

His sound is characterized by a big drum sound, with layer guitars and vocal harmonies giving a “wall of sound” type of effect.

His work tends to lack dynamics, with everything being overly compressed, while allowing  the drums and vocals to be the most prominent in the mix. He also pioneered the using MIDI samplers, allowing him in the studio to experiment with different timings, which is now commonplace.

Guitars would be overdubbed so every note would stand out, and that apparently on Def Leppard’s Pyromania album, the guitars where recorded through a Shcolz R&D Rockman Practice Amp, showing with the right production you dont need a Marshall Amp stack to achieve  a massive guitar sound.

He also would layer a synth bass to the mix, even if he had a talented bass player, giving him more options while mixing. Backing vocals would be layered multiple times, and even pitched to act as another instrument in the mix, he also would add his own backing vocals to the mix to fill out the sound more.

Below is the Def Leppard song “Photograph” and Shania Twain’s “Feel Like a Woman,” even though the songs are a decade apart, they still have the same production style.

So I hope this has introduced to you how a certain Producer can have an effect on the sound of  a record. As you may find you like records by the same producer even if the bands are years appart or different genres.







2 thoughts on “Identifying elements within a piece that reveal the sonic finger print of a producer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s