Diva's Choice

Arif Mardin is, quite simply, one of the foremost names in modern music production. Born in Turkey, he emigrated to the United States to attend Berklee
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Arif Mardin is, quite simply, one of the foremost names in modern music production. Born in Turkey, he emigrated to the United States to attend Berklee

Arif Mardin is, quite simply, one of the foremost names in modern music production. Born in Turkey, he emigrated to the United States to attend Berklee College of Music and subsequently joined Atlantic Records (itself formed by Turkish brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun) at a time when it was one of the premier labels for jazz. Mardin worked his way up to producing just in time to help Atlantic make a big break into the pop and R&B markets. The list of artists that he has worked with is long and star-studded; it includes the Young Rascals, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, Laura Nyro, Willie Nelson, the Bee Gees, and George Benson. Mardin's most recent projects include an upcoming holiday album with Jewel and a song for the soundtrack to South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. But though the range of projects produced or arranged by Arif Mardin is quite broad, he has gained his greatest popularity among singers.

Although he is now most recognized for his production work, Mardin first won notice for his arranging skills, which he has continued to exercise throughout his career. Like Sir George Martin, whom I interviewed for the February 1999 issue of EM, Mardin has worked in the studio since mono records were the standard. He has been part of three and a half decades that have brought us to today's 5.1 all-digital world of recording. And Mardin, now a senior vice president at Atlantic, shows no sign of slowing down. His Turkish roots are still a bit audible in his speech after all these years, but he is unquestionably a New York kind of guy.

You came to America to attend Berklee College of Music. How did that come about? I was a self-taught arranger in Istanbul-asking musicians how high the trumpet can go, that kind of thing. I got a scholarship to Berklee College of Music on the strength of a recording that Quincy Jones had made of three of my arrangement/ compositions with a stellar New York jazz band that included Hank Jones and Lee Konitz. Quincy sent the tape to Berklee College, and I got my scholarship because of it.

How did you get your arrangements to Quincy Jones? I met him in Turkey. He came with the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra; he used to write arrangements for Dizzy's big band then. I was arranging for local bands, so when Dizzy's band came, I submitted an arrangement. And Dizzy was kind enough to play it at a rehearsal, just to teach me what a big-band rehearsal was like. I was out of my mind; it was such an honor. I was a big-band groupie; I traveled with the orchestra from town to town and became friends with Quincy. My scholarship to Berklee was called the Quincy Jones Scholarship.

Did you know the Erteguns in Turkey? No, but they were a very well-known family. The Erteguns' father was a respected ambassador; Washington, D.C., was his last post. Later, I met Nesuhi Ertegun, Ahmet's older brother, who was in charge of the jazz department at Atlantic Records, and he became aware of my arranging capabilities. I was at Berklee at the time and had been writing arrangements for local bands. Two of my arrangements were played at the Newport Jazz Festival. Nesuhi heard them and was instrumental in my getting a three-week BMI scholarship for a wonderful music seminar with Max Roach and John Lewis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lee Konitz-all these jazz greats teaching us music for three weeks up in the Berkshires. When the time was right, Nesuhi brought me into the company.

When did you join Atlantic Records? I came into the company in 1963. It was a lowly job: tape research and unearthing unreleased material by famous artists like John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus. Then I got into more of the administration, and I became studio manager very shortly after that. That's how I learned about quality control, pressings, and recording schedules.

My arranging capabilities were kind of pushed aside because I was doing a lot of production there. Finally, I got gigs writing strings for Atlantic's pop stars, horn arrangements for Wilson Pickett, and things like that. I was an arranger for jazz big bands, but when I started to write arrangements for pop and R&B acts, I couldn't use all those jazz chords; they were strictly taboo for those styles of music.

Then my big chance came when Atlantic signed the Young Rascals. Up until that point, I had been producing and arranging with artists like Herbie Mann and King Curtis, and supervising jazz sessions, but the Rascals' music was the first big-time pop material I had worked on. Veteran engineer Tom Dowd and I were assigned to them as coproducers, and our first record, "Good Lovin'," went number one. That was it. I was bitten by the bug.

How did you become attracted to producing records? I used to watch how Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler produced. I think my first experience of being in a studio during a recording session was in 1963, when Betty Carter was recording 'Round Midnight with Nesuhi. I thought, "Wow, what a great idea! You're in charge: you're in the control booth, and you can press the button and tell the musicians, "Can you play a little slower?" It was really an eye-opener for me.

The early stuff was all recorded live, wasn't it? At Atlantic, even in 1963, Tom Dowd had an 8-track machine, and even though he recorded live to a mono tape-that's what everybody did-he also had a backup of the orchestra and the rhythm section separately, and the vocalist on a different track. I wasn't there, but I heard that Ray Charles wasn't happy with the background vocals on "I Believe to My Soul," so he sang all the parts in a girl's range. That was one of the few instances in which multichannel was put to good use in '61 or '62.

So by the time you came to Atlantic, they were already multitracking? Right, but it was always for a backup or for future stereo mixes when stereo started to become more mainstream. It was never the industry technology of taking a line from one of the takes and flying it into another. Sometimes, though, I saw Lieber and Stoller edit their masters. For example, they would have three takes with the orchestra and the singer, and I remember watching them splice together verses and choruses from different takes.

When you started producing a lot, was stereo already common? No. We used to mix to mono all the time. For instance, Tom Dowd would often mix the vocalist in live right off the booth, and that would be the master. For the Rascals, though, we put the 8-track to good use: we would record the track and add the harmonies later.

So you got more into multitracking when you started working more with pop than with jazz? Yes. And then we'd have to go back to our old 8-tracks to make stereo mixes of earlier hits for the Atlantic back catalog.

Can you contrast the way things changed for you as a producer when stereo began to replace mono, versus the way things are changing now as people are starting to mix more in surround? Have you done any surround mixing? No, but I've been to many demonstrations. First of all, it's great for a record company when you have a new technology, a new product, because you sell more. When CDs replaced LPs, there were a lot of reissues, some of them very badly mastered. But with the early stereo, for example, it was all very gimmicky: you'd have things that would happen on one channel and then move to another channel. I remember there were sound-effects records-trains going by from one speaker to another-and the man of the house would have to try and justify two speakers to his wife: "Look, honey, it's moving." I'm talking about the very early days.

How did you approach stereo when it came in? Well, it's interesting, because it gave us depth; you could actually move things to the back, and certain things could be in the front. One could make multilayered sound vistas in stereo better than in mono. Definitely, it affected us. I mixed a lot of records for Atlantic at that time. Not only was I producing and arranging, but I was doing my own mixing, too. Some of the mixes that I'm very proud of are Aretha Franklin's Live at the Fillmore West and Amazing Grace, and King Curtis's Live at the Fillmore. These are all live recordings that we made. Instead of taking a clinical approach, we kept a lot of audience and ambience in there. Now, with 5.1, I could do so many things like that. In fact, when the time comes, if they want those records mixed to surround, I would be the first one to try and do it again.

Would you mostly be putting audience and ambience in the surrounds? Everybody's used to that from the movies. When you go to the movies, you hear whatever sound effects are in the surrounds coming from behind. I might do that with a recording of a live concert. I would make it from the perspective of somebody sitting in the audience and make that the focal point.

However-and I'm just thinking out loud now-if it's a classical concert, and I want to hear certain instruments coming from the back, I would do that too. I don't think there's a law saying that your back speakers must be the audience and applause and sound effects.

Let's take chamber music for an example. A string quartet. It could be gimmicky, but I wouldn't be averse to trying each instrument on a different speaker with, of course, different ambience. Maybe I want to make a circular mix. I could give each instrument its own right, center and left, by spreading the signal, maybe making the signal center in one speaker and then spreading the signal to the next speaker a little bit so you have a bigger sound of each instrument. We're talking about four instruments, so when the violin comes in from left front, it also comes in a little bit from the right front and a little bit from the back speakers. Of course, if it sounds lousy, then I won't do it.

Also, sometimes when they really go into movie mixes, you have dedicated center and dedicated left and right. Why can't we bleed a little bit around? Depending on the songs, sure. With Bette Midler's Bathhouse Betty, I did four songs and all of them were distinctly different. One was a very beautiful sort of Hawaiian song called "Ukulele Lady," a kind of novelty, but, at the same time, nostalgic. What can I do with that? I'm not sure. I have to think of having the background maybe bleed to the back speakers so the singers sound interesting. Do I want to put a surf sound in the back? Perhaps I would. For a dance track like "I'm Beautiful," I think the mix should be more precise. It should definitely be more of a true stereo mix; maybe I would not use the back speakers, to keep the mix from becoming too fuzzy.

It's relatively rare in this industry that you get a change as big as surround. And, as with the advent of stereo, for the first few years nobody really knows what they're doing. They're all just experimenting and trying things. Also, don't forget with the first stereo mixes, the engineer would place the bass on one side and drums on the other. That's just the way it was done. Even at Atlantic, the rule from Nesuhi Ertegun would be, "bass left, drums right," things like that. But then the poor mastering engineer would have so much trouble putting all of that in the grooves. Eventually, we ended up with the formula of kick drum, especially, and bass in the center. It made cutting the records easier, which was the consideration. That, and trying to keep the stylus from skipping out of the groove.

With DVD and surround, obviously, there are no considerations like these. It all has to do with musical considerations and art. I would love to hear Pink Floyd come up with a great new mix of Dark Side of the Moon.

I think they are doing a surround mix of that. And it will be fantastic. I will be the first to go and buy it and tell my wife I need three more speakers.

You have done a huge amount of work producing vocalists. That must be something you really enjoy. First of all, I am blessed to have worked with people like Aretha Franklin and Roberta Flack. For me, 1997 was like the Year of the Diva: Patti LaBelle, Barbra Streisand, and Bette Midler all in one year. This year, I worked with Brandy and Whitney Houston on the made-for-TV movie Cinderella, and I also worked with Diana Ross.

Vocalists like these are so great. There really isn't anything to tell someone like Aretha or Patti LaBelle or Barbra Streisand. At the most, you might give a general idea of what you think, if you're presumptuous enough to speak, and say, "Maybe you could do something like this here, but you know best, darling." She'll do her take and you'll say, "Aretha, this sounds great. We all love it." But she will say, "No, I have to do it again." For us mortals, that was a great take, but she hears something that's even better.

Vocalists can get so close to their work that they lose perspective. When we would record a track with Laura Nyro, she would turn to me and Felix Cavaliere, my coproducer, and say, "Okay, boys, now you can leave. I want to do my vocals." She was very shy; she would do her vocals at night with the engineer. You'd come in the next morning and there'd be a great vocal there.

Sometimes artists flagellate themselves. The late Dusty Springfield comes to mind. Because of her death this year, a lot of people have asked me about working with her. She was very hard on herself, she would say, "I don't think I'm good. I'll have to do it again and again." Of course, the end result would be great.

Would something like that ever spiral down and destroy the session? No, no, no. I would definitely be in charge of that. One time when working with Roberta Flack, the engineer gave her such a jolt of feedback in the earphones that she didn't want to sing anymore that day. She was absolutely right to stop, though. She probably had ringing in her ears for a few hours. But that's the only time that I can remember somebody quitting.

Once, in 1966, we accidentally erased eight bars of Aretha's vocals. We were so ashamed, we said, "Aretha, please, could you give us the bridge again? We did something and." She said, "I sang it. You put it together." She meant that she sang it in a different take. We had recorded on 8-track, but this is before we even dreamed of comping, or making a composite of vocals from several takes. She gave us an order, saying, "The technology exists. Take my vocals from another take and put it there." We did just that. We transferred that vocal from a different take to another tape and then rerecorded, and flew that vocal in, trying to sync it and match the tempo.

You must have had to do that wild, because time code wasn't around in recording studios then. That's right, there was no time code, and of course, the takes were different tempos and we had to fly the vocal in phrase by phrase. Now we do that as a matter of course. I don't have to name names because everybody does it-you grab a good verse from one take, a good line from another.

Perhaps you can give me an example of how you have used technology to achieve something, and one of how you eschewed it in favor of something much simpler and more crude. The best way that I have used technology occurred just about a week ago. For Barbra Streisand's latest album, we recorded the tracks in L.A., and then brought the tapes to New York to mix with Frank Filipetti. She likes to hear the work in progress, so we used the EDnet [a codec that delivers full-bandwidth stereo audio in real time over ISDN lines] to send the mix to her in Malibu; she has a pair of Genelec monitors in her living room. We'll make a date of it: "Okay, at such and such an hour we will call you on the EDnet," and she will be in her living room listening. She can give us mix instructions like, "Okay, I think I want to hear my voice a little louder here." So this is one way of really using technology. We're working on an automated, digital Neve Capricorn board, too, so it's no big deal; the assistant engineer doesn't have to go back to the notes and spend three hours recalling a mix. Touch a button, and it's there.

Sometimes I don't care to stay in the digital domain all the time, and there are times when Pro Tools and computers would actually take longer. I have an analog "idiot device" called a Vocal Splicer. It was a late- '80s thing that David Foster and a lot of L.A. producers used to use. It's like a little six-hundred-dollar crossfader box. I use that to splice together vocal parts, and sometimes I can do in one hour what would take state-of-the-art technology three hours. I'm like the mark of Zorro-zoom zoom zoom on the box and it's finished. But, of course, the other way is more accurate, more scientific.

When you're recording vocals, especially now that things are all multitracked, at what point do you put the lead vocal down? Do you usually have all the rest of the tracks done, or do you record the lead vocal over rough tracks and then replace them? I must have a rough vocal by the artist to give me a simulation of where the dynamics will happen. If it's a synthesizer track, I may even put down the rough vocal before we go to the programmer's home studio. Sometimes, if the artist is not available, I get a session singer and bring her into the programmer's home studio and I'll get somebody else singing. At least I have something. I hate to do work in a void.

You put the rough vocal over simple bass and drums and a couple chords? No, no, no. At least a 70 percent finished arrangement. If we're recording the instruments live, it's good to have the vocalist there, obviously. For example, on the Bathhouse Betty jazz ballad "Sold My Heart to the Junkman," Bette was there singing with the rhythm section, and when we selected the take [to keep], we used most of that vocal. You have all the rubato feeling.

I see primarily music albums on your discography, but there are also many other things like the Cinderella television special, and the soundtrack recordings for Rent and for Why Do Fools Fall in Love, the film about the life of Frankie Lymon. How does your job differ when you're producing that kind of session? For something like Rent, logistics is a big issue-trying to get the best performance out of the singers in a short time-because Broadway cast albums you have to do very quickly. So you have a certain order: start with the largest ensemble, then go to the solo pieces. You have to be a taskmaster because things must be done efficiently, yet in a very musical way. Both musicals I did almost like a pop recording: part of each was done live, the other part in layers, where you do the track first and then bring the vocalist in.

Usually, these musicals are recorded on the off nights [from theater performances]. The musicians come in and record the music from beginning to end, maybe twice, and then the producers and mixers pick out of the choices. I did mine a little differently. We recorded the tracks on some songs and put the vocals on later; other songs had to be done live for tempo changes, and then we had enough iso booths to be able to redo vocals, if needed. I'm kind of proud of Rent because the sound is alive, but I was also able to get the best vocals.

So what do you think of the new "swing revival" (which seems to me more like jump blues than swing)? I really love it. Atlantic Records signed a wonderful group called Atomic Fireball, and I did a song with them. They were so fabulous because these are young guys, but they're not faddists. They love their grandparents' music; that's what it's about. They listen to old records-to Louis Jordan and Cab Calloway-and it shows in their music. You know what? Sometimes I don't want a whining baritone talking about gloom and doom. These people want to dance and have a good time, so I think it's a great thing.

Even with all your producing, you still keep up your arranging, too. In 1993 I had a flamenco jazz piece commissioned. And this year I wrote a Duke Ellington medley, three of Ellington's compositions: "Koko," "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," and "Carnegie Blues," which was part of Black, Brown, and Beige. It's a fabulous composition; Ellington was experimenting with the sound of those dominant seventh, raised nine chords around when he wrote Black, Brown, and Beige.

I also wrote a big-band arrangement for what turned out to be Eddie Harris's last gig. So I keep on charging my batteries. I also write for big orchestras: I did that for Barbra Streisand on both albums. I wrote for a 60- piece orchestra, which is a great challenge. I wrote something for Carly Simon in the film noir style, really 1940s.

In the meantime, of course, I also arrange for my pop records. The only thing is, it's not like the old days anymore, where you wrote an arrangement and the rhythm section played it. You cooperate with a programmer, if it's a synth kind of thing. I'm there while we program and I give my input, working and arranging as we go.

You've accumulated such a wealth of production knowledge. I wonder if you have any comments for EM readers. When it comes to producing music, the song is the most important thing. The vehicle is very important. You have to be conscious of lyrics. Sometimes they're nonsensical, sometimes they're very important.

When I say nonsensical, it could be like, "Hey, baby, let's dance." That has it's place: sometimes you like a hamburger, sometimes you want filet mignon. I'm not putting down anything. The only thing is, you have to be aware of the lyrics, of the artist's capabilities, the artist's ability to project to a segment of the record- buying public. If you're working with an established artist, you need to know who's going to buy this record. Of course, I'm really being mercenary now. There are a lot of considerations, but possibly the most important thing is to get 200 percent from the artist. Get a lot.

Another important thing is to select the right key for the song. Sometimes, a guitar player will play in E major because it's great on the guitar, but the vocals may sound much better when the song is in E-flat.

Is there anything else you'd like to add? One important thing about vocalists: the reason that I get along with them is because I respect their genius. I never challenge a person like Bette Midler or Aretha Franklin. If they say, "Can we try this here in the production?" I wouldn't say, "What would she know?" On the contrary, thinking of the body of work these people have done, she may well know something. Okay, let's try it. It didn't work? Fine. Either it works or it doesn't work. No ego, nothing. Respect. I think it's because they realize that I respect them and their art that we get along fine. That's the key, I think, for every producer: don't look down. Respect who you're working with.

Larry the O is a longtime contributor to both EM and Mix magazines, as well as a musician, sound designer, producer, engineer, and maker of magnificent mochas.