Pushing the Right Buttons

Bill Botrell uses technology and psychology to produce award-winning music.

If you want an indicator of Bill Bottrell's skills as a producer, start by looking at the list of heavyweight artists he's produced: Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Thomas Dolby, Michael Jackson, Shelby Lynne, Madonna, Tom Petty, and the Traveling Wilburys, to name a few. Then there are his numerous Grammy nominations, his Grammy win (1994's Record of the Year for Sheryl Crow's Tuesday Night Music Club), and multiple millions in record sales.

But the ultimate proof of Bottrell's skills can be gleaned by listening to the albums he's engineered, produced, and in many cases also played on and cowritten material for. He has a knack for creating records that combine the refinement of a modern studio-recorded CD with a profound sense of rock 'n' roll vibrancy.

Tuesday Night Music Club is a relatively early example of Bottrell's gift. For more-recent demonstrations, listen to Rosanne Cash's Black Cadillac or Van Hunt's On the Jungle Floor, or check out the songs that are uploaded on Annie Stela's MySpace page (www.myspace.com/anniestela). Or, if you want to hear the ultimate triumph of feel over faultlessness — and get a sense of Bottrell's amazing songwriting, singing, and performing talents — listen to his DIY, lay-them-down-in-two-hours demos, a rotating selection of which can be found on his MySpace page (www.myspace.com/billbottrell).


How is Bottrell able to marry sonic sophistication with such a strong sense of spontaneity? Part of the answer lies in his grasp of people skills. He doesn't simply turn on the red light and expect artists to perform at their peak. He believes in managing the psychological aspects of a session. That starts with providing a comfortable working environment, but it involves a lot more.

“The main thing that I do as a producer, for better or for worse,” Bottrell says, “is to orchestrate emotions in a room toward something. I have always tried to begin with an interplay between musicians. I may put a little 808 beat down for the tempo and have the singer sing and play piano or guitar and have a couple of musicians play along. That would always form the basis from which I build the record. And to get a good performance, you need to set a mood — a vibe — and this has to do with the people and the environment, the room they're in.

“I carefully regulate who is in the room. I don't mean [that I] eliminate people — it can be a matter of consciously bringing people in to add to the vibe. I use musicians who can hang in a room and contribute to the energy, whose egos don't shut down the energies. I don't pick musicians for what they play, but for who they are and their ability to bring something to the room. Then I follow the energy of the group, wherever that leads. Group dynamics, the psychology of small groups of people, is a fascinating subject to me — the arcs of synergy, how that ebbs and flows. And the producer has to be integrator of all these energies, making sure they get focused in one direction.

“I don't overly plan things. I like it loose, and I like it somewhat chaotic. I like to find every distraction that I can, short of taking people's minds off the music. Musicians have comfort zones and way too often play their most comfortable thing, as opposed to what's needed and what supports the energy of the whole [see Web Clip 1 href="http://emusician.com/web_clips/web_clips_0707"]. Getting them out of that is the whole challenge, and I may do things like put a thick book on the snare or throw things at the guitarist while he's doing a solo. The aim is to distract. The brain is pretty strong and people's thoughts are many, and distraction creates better performances.”

Strong Opinions

Before talking more about production, Bottrell discusses the state of the music business and music technology. “Recorded music has had its glory days, and it is on the wane now,” he says. “The first indicator occurred during the '90s, the era of CD reissues, when I noticed that anything we put out had to compete with a rich library of 100 years of great recordings. This made it very difficult to create something that you felt would stand the test of time. Myself and others continued making records like the ones we had made in analog — full of nuance, fire, energy, and sometimes cacophony. But we found that on digital they sounded terrible. Only when producers and artists came up with ways of shifting focus, of saying things with minimal dynamics and arrangements, like in hip-hop, did things progress. The fact is that music morphs to fit the medium. And digital breeds Disney-fication.”

According to Bottrell, the most important part of his job is to “orchestrate the emotions” of the talent he''s producing.

In other words, the capabilities of digital workstations and sequencers to manipulate performance characteristics such as pitch and timing are taking the soul out of music. “We have lost something — the real value of music, the story, the humanity,” he says.

“Music has become wallpaper. Everywhere you go there's a speaker playing pop songs, and people have become accustomed to pop music playing as a constant soundtrack to their lives. Pop music takes up 90 percent of the space in the media, leaving the dusty corners for the rest of us. Recorded music has become merely part of a franchise. It's Beyoncé who matters, not the record she makes. In addition, we have to look beyond the idea of recording and selling music, because music will be free. You can't control the copyrights, and you can't keep track of digital duplication.”

Biting the Hand

Bottrell's diatribe seems to predict the end of the music industry as we know it, and when this is put to him, he responds, “Let's hope so!” In his view, what he calls “mediated music” will become purely a calling card for live performance — something he welcomes because he feels that “playing live is what musicians do.” The producer's words symbolize the love/hate relationship he has with the mainstream music machine. While on one hand Bottrell welcomes what he sees as the music industry's impending demise, on the other he has helped supply it with many of its biggest hits.

This ambivalence is nothing new — Bottrell has at various other stages in his career bitten the hand that fed him, and twice he dropped out entirely. Growing up in Los Angeles, the teenage Bottrell played in rock bands and in 1970 bought a Teac 4-track tape recorder. He developed his engineering skills through various jobs at commercial studios in the L.A. area. He went freelance in the early '80s, and by the end of the decade, Michael Jackson and Madonna had sought him out because of his unique combination of technical and musical skills.

Despite his success, Bottrell felt empty and dissatisfied, and he dropped out in 1990. He built a studio in Pasadena called Toad Hall, and vowed to work only with what he called “marginalized artists.” The problem with his plan was that some of those marginalized artists became famous through his Midas touch, one of them being Sheryl Crow. Bottrell nevertheless became known as the enfant terrible of the American music industry.

By 1996 he retreated to the Northern California town of Albion, where he spent time with his family and vowed to work and perform only locally. When he received a demo of Shelby Lynne in 1998, however, Bottrell couldn't resist his instincts. Using his Toad Hall equipment, he built a new studio, called it William's Place, and recorded, produced, and cowrote Lynne's I Am Shelby Lynne, which earned her a Grammy and Bottrell another Grammy nomination.

Click to read more of the Bill Bottrell interview

The Here and Now

Fast-forward to 2007, and the global music machine appears to be reciprocating Bottrell's ambivalence, increasingly rejecting his work. “In the past seven years,” he says, “eight out of the ten full albums I have produced are either unreleased or have only been released as a contractual necessity.”

FIG. 1: Inside Bottrell''s control room at School House Studio, with his Neve 8058 console in the background.

While continuing to champion “marginalized artists,” Bottrell appears to have overcome his antipathy to the big time; during 2006 he spent three months in Bahrain working on a new Michael Jackson album, but the singer never showed, so the project was shelved. Bottrell is now working with Seal on a new album. Part of the work for it was done in Bottrell's latest digs, School House Studio. William's Place was closed in 2004, but Bottrell recently moved his gear a few miles down the road and set it up in his home. The first thing to officially come out of the new setup was the theme song he did with Seal for the movie The Pursuit of Happyness (Columbia Pictures, 2006). In the context of Bottrell's tirade against digital and the music industry, and his idea that recorded music is going to die, what moves him to rebuild his studio and still record music?

“A person wants to stay relevant,” he says, “and I'm doing that through finding my own way in the digital medium while still applying certain standards of art and expression.” From a technical perspective, how does Bottrell go about remaining relevant in the digital age? The omnipresence of analog and old-school equipment at School House hardly comes as a surprise, but has he changed his way of working or at least some of the equipment in his studio?

School House Studio's heart is a Neve 44-input 8058 console (see Fig. 1), which incorporates 28 31102 mic-pre/EQs and 32264a compressor/limiters.

In addition, he has an array of vintage mics, tube-mic pres, and classic signal processors. Naturally, there's a Studer A800 analog 16/24-track. Oh, and there's the small matter of a full-blown Digidesign Pro Tools HD 7.3 system, running on an Apple Power Mac G5.

But didn't Bottrell say that digital audio recording and editing programs like Pro Tools have helped take the humanity out of music? Has he sold his soul to the digital devil after all? “Well, I was a fan of analog, and I still am,” he says. “It still excites me to work on analog, and if I have a project that's appropriate, I'll go straight to my Studer. The Rosanne Cash album was recorded at the Pass Studio in L.A. on a Studer 827 24-track. But all the other projects I've done in recent years were recorded to Pro Tools. Sonically, Pro Tools took a huge leap forward with HD. They really got the system over the hill, and high-definition digital definitely has more sonic detail [Bottrell routinely records at 24-bit, 96 kHz]. But the emotional details of a performance come through better on analog — it's just a different thing.”

Of course, the million-dollar question still is, why do performances sound so gripping on analog? Countless digital applications try to answer this, with varying degrees of success; witness all sorts of Warmth, Harmonics, and Analog Mode buttons. I suggest to Bottrell that while recording on analog is like painting on a white canvas (that is, the background noise and tape compression), recording on digital is like working on a transparent canvas. “I think that's a very good analogy, and rather than what sounds best, you have to ask what sounds most appropriate for the music,” he says.

“I've never attempted to make things sound as realistic as possible, but I still go for the illusion of a bunch of people playing a room; that's the basis,” explains Bottrell. “You don't work it too much. You go for early takes and you go for immediacy, as opposed to any sort of perfection.

“I never believed in perfection, and the temptation to endlessly rework things in Pro Tools is not irresistible for me. I've done many things with Pro Tools as just a recorder, using the same recording techniques as I did with analog. I'll use the Pro Tools arrangement and editing facilities, but I really dislike the sound of an all-digital mix, so I'll always split it out and put it through my Neve console. I think that's a fundamental difference. Anyone who uses Pro Tools or a computer should save up $1,500 and go out and get an analog board from the late '80s or early '90s and mix through that. Leave the EQ flat and do what you want to do in Pro Tools, or whatever system you're using, but get the sound out by running it through a console.”

FIG. 2: Bottrell and Mimi “Audia” Parker in the studio.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the way Bottrell applies his Pro Tools rig today goes much further than just as an analog tape recorder with advanced editing facilities. Although he has a Pro Tools engineer, Mimi “Audia” Parker (see Fig. 2), the producer now very much likes to get his hands digitally dirty (see Web Clip 2 for studio techniques from Bottrell and Parker). “The sound of my Neve console is lovely, so I use the EQ and often instinctively walk over and twist the knobs. I'll also use the Neve mic preamps and the Pro Tools A/D converters. I take plug-ins on a case-by-case basis [see Web Clip 3 for plug-in settings from Bottrell and Parker]. I can't remember the names — Mimi sets all these things up for me — but there's this equalizer that's green [McDSP Filterbank F2], and I can put that thing over everything that I record. I love that thing. It is flexible and brilliant — all I need from an EQ. I also use Pro Tools for creating samples, depending on the music. I have an open mind about Pro Tools now and will try anything, but I'll also know when it's crap. The Auto-Tune thing is a blasphemous thing to do to a vocalist, absolutely evil. We can talk about changing media and the death of the music industry, but part of the blame for the state of music has to go to crap music made by people with poor taste.”

Free and Clear

So what advice does Bottrell have for those recording in personal studios? “Technique has to be secondary to what you want to express and hear. Whatever tool you have, you have to master it and make it transparent for you, and then move on to the art. I probably cursed Pro Tools for two years. At first it subdued me, and then I subdued it, and now it's transparent for me.

“You start with something vibrant, and if you are the artist recording yourself, be the artist. Technique should be put out of your mind. I suppose that's what I do on my solo work. I record quickly and spontaneously, and whatever comes, I leave it, even as I may later go back to it and edit or otherwise change it. But it's very important to not let anybody or any concept stop you because you think it is not supposed to be done in a certain way. I like to start over with every project that I do and see where that leads. There are a thousand ways to make a record, and we have to find the one that works.”

Paul Tingen is a writer and musician in France. He is the author of Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard Books, 2001), a book on early weird funk experimentation. For more information, visitwww.tingen.co.uk.

Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol, 2006); producer, engineer, mixer

Van Hunt, On the Jungle Floor (Capitol, 2006); producer, engineer, mixer

Annie Stela, Annie Stela (Capitol Records, 2006); producer, engineer, mixer

Five for Fighting, The Battle for Everything (Sony Music, 2004); producer, engineer, mixer, cowriter

Kim Richey, Rise (Mercury/Lost Highway, 2002); producer, cowriter, musician

The Stokemen, Class of Dude (This Records, 2002); producer, cowriter, musician

Alisha's Attic, The House We Built (Mercury UK, 2000); producer, engineer, mixer

Elton John, Songs from the West Coast (Mercury UK, 2000); mixer

Shelby Lynne, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island, 2000); producer, mixer, cowriter

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Surrender” from Anthology: Through the Years (MCA Records, 2000); producer, engineer

Rusted Root, Welcome to My Party (Island Def Jam, 2000); producer

Sheryl Crow, Sheryl Crow (A&M Records, 1996); cowriter

Michael Jackson, “Earth Song” from History: Past, Present and Future — Book 1 (Epic Records, 1995); producer, engineer

Linda Perry, In Flight (Interscope Records, 1995); producer, mixer, cowriter

Rusted Root, When I Woke (Mercury Records, 1994); producer, engineer, mixer

Sheryl Crow, Tuesday Night Music Club (A&M, 1993); producer, engineer, mixer, cowriter

Michael Jackson, Dangerous (Sony Music, 1991); coproducer, engineer, mixer, cowriter

Madonna, Truth or Dare (Miramax Films, 1991); producer (soundtrack)

Madonna, Dick Tracy (Warner Brothers, 1990); coproducer, engineer, mixer (movie songs)

Madonna, Like a Prayer (Warner Brothers, 1989); engineer, mixer

Tom Petty, Full Moon Fever (MCA Records, 1989); engineer, mixer

Traveling Wilburys, Traveling Wilburys, vol. 1 (Warner Bros., 1988); engineer, mixer

Thomas Dolby, Aliens Ate My Buick (EMI, 1987); coproducer, engineer, mixer