This article originally appeared in the April 1996 issue of Electronic Musician.
Producing some of pop music's most accomplished songwriters can be a tricky business. On one hand, it's the producer's responsibility to help enrich and document the artist's vision. But on the other hand, if the producer imposes too much control or offers musically inappropriate suggestions, he or she risks diminishing the individuality of the artist.
Mitchell Froom walks that creative tightrope like a master aerialist. His production style is often characterized by an uncluttered, almost intimate, soundscape. The sonic and musical arrangements are brilliantly subtle and spotlight the unique voice of the artist rather than the technical panache of the producer.
Froom's devotion to supporting the needs of the song brings to mind a story in movie producer Robert Evans's autobiography, The Kid Stays in the Picture. Evans said if anyone commented on how great his tie looked he immediately tossed it in the trash. The tie's job, he said, should be to make him look good, not to call attention to itself. Like Evans's ties, Froom may disappear into the fabric of his productions for artists such as Elvis Costello, Crowded House, Los Lobos, and Richard Thompson, but he sure makes the artist sound great.
I talked to Froom before he left for a recent session in France, and he offered to share some of his production concepts with EM readers.
What are the most valuable skills a producer should possess?
The main thing is having the ability to adapt to each situation. You have to find where you're needed and try to supply help. To do this effectively, you should have a lot of knowledge in different areas. For example, I really get involved in the musical arrangements, and I can also play — I often put down some keyboard tracks on the records I produce. My weakness is that I'm not a recording engineer, but I've solved that problem by forming a creative partnership with [engineer] Tchad Blake.
Also, being empathetic to the artist and the songs is critical. Producers who bring their signature sound to each project don't tend to hang around very long. After a while, their records all start to sound the same, as if they're always producing the same band but with different singers. These types of producers may become fashionable very quickly, but they often become unfashionable just as fast.
Arranging seems to be a lost art these days. I often think it's because young producers — especially in the alternative and rock genres — are intimidated by the classic perception of an arranger sitting at a piano writing out all these complex orchestrations.
Let's look at it another way, then. An arrangement can simply be referred to as the overall noise, and you want this noise to be an engaging one that pulls the listener into the track. The mistake people sometimes make is to separate sonics from the musical arrangement. Great-sounding records are invariably great arrangements, not just feats of brilliant engineering and mixing. I'm a fan of what George Martin did with the Beatles. The essence of his production was looking at guitars in an orchestral sense and putting the sounds together to make something really powerful.
To do this, a good arranger must respond to the music. I try to discover and develop something in a song that defines an overall theme. There are no rules, really, but it's important to know what you're trying to achieve musically, as opposed to just getting a decent drum sound and then doing a bunch of meaningless overdubs.
Can you describe how you might "discover" an overall theme?
Some of the stuff on Suzanne Vega's 99.9°F album has real R&B roots. Few people would notice that, but if you listen to the bass lines you'll hear it. The idea for that direction came about when we were running down the songs. You see, when you're in a room with the artists playing their material, you can often get a unique insight into their particular kind of groove. Working with Suzanne, I realized that the rhythm of her melodies came from this R&B, street-singing sort of place.
Do you find that a lot of preproduction time is required before the essence of an artist's work is revealed?
It varies. For me, preproduction typically involves a couple of weeks of sitting in a room with some guitars, keyboards, and a drum machine, just making noise and figuring things out. I usually work on one song per day. I've found that if you can just come up with one compelling idea, that idea rules the day. After that, your job is easy. You just have to take a critical look into the song to find clues about its internal rhythm.
In Dan Zanes's case [for the album Cool Down Time], we had the luxury of a huge amount of preproduction time, but that's because we were also writing songs together. On the other hand, when I work with Los Lobos, we simply walk into the studio and get going. They write a lot of songs on the fly, so the sessions have a real open feeling — it's almost a form of improvisation. With Richard Thompson, we may get together for a day before the sessions start. I tend to work with the same people over and over, so for these projects I don't need to do a lot of preproduction.
When I work with artists for the first time, however, I start the preproduction process with some very serious discussions. First, I ask them to send me some of their favorite records, because you can get some really cool ideas based on what someone grew up listening to. Then, I ask whether they had specific problems with their previous record and what they think I can do for them. In return, I try to be very specific about what I think we should try to do on the next record and why.
Ideally, the preproduction process should be used to develop an overall scheme for the record. You don't want to walk into the studio with a first-time artist without knowing what to do. Having said that, after I communicate my ideas to the musicians, the track often develops its own plans. Sometimes, the initial ideas I developed during pre-production prove to be completely wrong. But if I'm working with good players, we all realize immediately when an idea isn't happening and find something else to do. You have to be flexible and let the song guide you.
Working up one song a day is cooking by some standards. Do you try to maintain that level of immediacy during the actual studio sessions?
Things come together really quickly. My main concern is getting that "engaging noise" from the voice and track, so I like to get everything going right on the spot. If a part isn't recorded live with the band, it's often put on immediately afterward. In our situation, what most people call the basic track is pretty much the complete track. At the end of the day, the song usually sounds just about how it's going to sound when the record is released. 1 like to keep things moving and to mess around and have a bit of fun. If everything is too planned out, the track tends to go down real flat. If you want to generate any excitement on tape, you have to allow for spontaneous performances and be prepared to live with what may seem like imperfections.
What you don't want to do is cut a basic track and then try to make it sound interesting later. You'll just get yourself in trouble by putting on more and more overdubs. If that happens, you're trying to be interesting for interesting's sake, and those overdubs will probably have nothing to do with the real heart of the song.
So what happens if a track just isn't coming together?
If we're in the studio and something is not working, we completely tear the song apart. We don't bother with subtly changing it around the edges. If a song is lying flat, there's some real fundamental problem that must be solved, so we just start over.
Do you find that certain situations never fail to sabotage a recording session?
The worst thing that can happen — the absolutely worst thing — is for people to get fearful. Good music cannot develop without a basic feeling of confidence. Now, I'm not talking about arrogance, I'm just talking about an artist having the confidence to trust in his or her instincts and stay open minded if the music starts heading into radically different directions.
Also, there's no way I'll get involved in a project if an A&R person wants to be in the studio every day pitching ideas or if a label executive wants to change this and that. These are warning signs that the project is going to be grief and that the compromises I'll be forced to make will be the ugliest kind — compromises that are not based on the good of the music.
When outsiders impose themselves on a project, they fail to understand that a certain aesthetic emerges as the artist-producer-engineer relationship develops. Someone from the outside can't just come in and start changing everything. I'll listen to whatever anyone has to say, but if they enter the field, they must he prepared to be put down if they don't make sense. After all, between Tchad, myself, and the artist, there are already plenty of opinions.
This may he coming out of left field, but I've noticed that your records tend to be pretty organic. You seem to use effects rather sparingly.
Tchad is really responsible for the amount and type of effects we use, but I will say that we tend to prefer records that may seem uncomfortably dry to some people to those where you can hear a bunch of reverbs clattering against each other. Using a lot of effects can bury the music and the personality of the artist, whereas a drier sound spectrum, with wide stereo panning, can make an intimate song almost confrontational.
Speaking of which, one thing I've admired about you is that the artist's personality always seems to be at the forefront of your productions.
The main part of the job is to stay absolutely out of the way when you're not needed. If you can't make the decision to leave a good thing alone, you've no business being a producer. In fact, one reason I'm not very proud to be a member of the "producer club" is that a lot of producers just can't stay out of the way. Many decisions are made purely for personal ego gratification rather than for what is musically appropriate.
On the debut record by Cibo Matto, for example, I literally did almost nothing. I had never experienced a project so complete that the band needed me so little. It was hard to stay out of the way, but it was the right thing to do. Actually, my main motivation for working on the record was making sure it didn't get ruined. The group is composed of one woman with a sampler and another woman who sings, and they put together these amazing loops at home. There are intentionally a lot of rough edges to the way the loops fit together, and if the wrong people were involved in the project, they might have tried to soften things up a bit — although I don't think the band would have tolerated it.
Another project that required limited involvement was the Latin Playboys record, which I love. The band brought in these home-studio tapes that were recorded on an out-of-alignment 4-track cassette deck. However, the arrangements, the musical ideas, and the performances were amazing. Making the record consisted of bouncing the [cassette] rhythm tracks to a 24-track deck in a pro studio and letting the group figure out how to sing something over them. My job in that situation was to hear these home tapes and say, "We shouldn't try to redo these tracks; they're great."
As you've just used two home-bred projects as examples, I'd love to hear your take on the personal-studio boom.
Well, it certainly helps the people who are good and does nothing for the people who aren't. One bad aspect of home studios is that records have become totally devalued because so many people can put out an album now. There are something like 300 records a week that get released, and a lot of stuff gets thrown out into the public before it really should be. Conversely, in the 1930s and 1940s, very few people actually recorded. Musicians would have to struggle in the clubs and be able to present themselves very powerfully before they could even think about recording. Today, you can do so much with mirrors and samplers that anybody can put out anything. And it's so fashionable now to leave things rough. You know, it's cool to have tracks that just fall apart at the end, or tracks that are extremely distorted, or whatever. But people tend to forget that for a track to he cool, it still has to be good.
Obviously, giving everyone access to powerful tools doesn't mean everyone will make powerful music.
That's for sure! I often think about why records used to be better than they are now. They had a lot more spirit, and they tended to sound more unique. I think the key was that there wasn't much money to be made back in those days. People would just go off and make their own records, and they had to work very quickly. There was no standard that anything had to live up to, so the records ended up having, well, personality.
Also, when I was growing up, the rock section of our music store was one bin filled with maybe twenty albums. If I liked a record, I listened to it every single day for a year. It just seems that music meant so much more to people back then. Most music today, however, seems to he experienced functionally. It's something to exercise to, or to provide background for cleaning the house, or to liven up your commute.
But I still naively make records thinking somebody may listen to it more than once — that there's a kid sitting in a room somewhere who really digs music and will listen to a record intently from start to finish. I can't help myself. That's the place I come from.