(This article originally appeared in the November 1996 issue of Electronic Musician)
Shel Talmy's production credits are all over classic singles by The Who, The Kinks, Easybeats, Chad and Jeremy, Manfred Mann, Small Faces, and countless other acts from the 1960s British invasion. Back then, Talmy was identified so strongly with the sound of English rock that I assumed he was a Brit himself. Not so. The famous expatriate started out engineering surf music sessions in his native Chicago until wanderlust brought him to England and a career as one of that country's first independent record producers.
Talmy recently ended a long hiatus to produce the debut album for Nancy Boy (Nancy Boy, Sire Records), a much-ballyhooed glam act that sounds retro enough to slip effortlessly into the producer's resume. To complete the '60s connection, the band includes vocalist Donovan Leitch, the heir of flowerpower troubadour Donovan, as well as guitarist Jason Nesmith, the son of—you guessed it—Mike "Wool Hat" Nesmith of the Monkees. Happily, the success of Nancy Boy has brought Talmy's wonderful production sensibilities into the here and now, and he has returned to the studio full-time.
How would you describe the Shel Talmy method of record production?
I'm a handson producer. I start each project from scratch and stick around until the record is done. The artist and I review the material together, I help choose the songs we'll record, I assist with the musical arrangements, and I go to all the prcproduction rehearsals. When I walk into the studio, I'm about 90 percent sure of what I'm going to come out with at the end. In fact, I already have a final mix in mind. I try to leave 10 percent unplanned to accommodate the hopefully wonderful things that happen spontaneously in the studio.
Is there a basic formula to producing a record, or does each project require different methods?
Record production requires a lot of planning and checkandbalance types of decisions to determine what goes on which track and how all these various tracks are going to fit together when you finally get to the mixing stage. Beyond that rather vague explanation, I don't think there's any way to walk someone through the process. I know there are a ton of [production] classes out there now, but I don't know how you teach someone to produce a record.
Having said that, I did learn audio engineering and started out as an engineer, but I gave that up in the 1960s to concentrate on production. It's just too hard to engineer and produce simultaneously because engineers and producers listen to the music in different ways.
That's an interesting point—especially because the personal studio revolution, by definition, impels many artists to engineer and produce their own work.
Well, I believe it's almost impossible for most people to do both. You can never maintain any objectivity. You need an outside opinion. If I were a serious artist with a home studio, I'd try to get someone in to do the engineering so I could concentrate solely on the creative part.
On that topic, home and project studios allow recordists almost unlimited time to tweak their productions toward hopeful perfection. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
It is a mixed blessing. I don't love spending tons and tons of time tweaking something to death. I'm not good at wringing the emotion out of a piece of music until there's nothing left, and I'm not good at building up a record one instrument at a time, because I just don't see the point in it. I mean, we're talking about music here, not mathematics.
I know producers who are as anal as you can possibly get. They're happy to sit for days and listen to every stroke on the hihat. Give me a break! These people take months to do a record. I couldn't do that—I'd die of boredom for openers. The Nancy Boy record was recorded and mixed in twenty working days, and we weren't rushing anything.
They were simply very good musicians, and they had the same attitude as some of the '60s bands: let's get in there, get it right, get it done, and not spend money that is going to be taken out of our royalties.
We didn't pull allnighters to make that 20day schedule, either. I've never believed that working around the clock is very productive. We worked eight or ten hours a day, went home, and then started again the next day. By keeping reasonable hours, we saved lots of time and effort, and we got better tracks because no one was overtired. It's simple, really: when the energy level starts fading, it's time to call the session and get some sleep.
Of course, to get these tracks so easily, it helped that Nancy Boy is a bit of a throwbackas are a lot of bands today. They are a selfcontained band that writes its own songs and actually plays together. I like that. We recorded them live in the studio, keeping the bass, drums, and rhythmguitar tracks. On one or two occasions, I actually used Donovan's scratch vocal on the final mix because it was so good.
And this brings up another aspect of record production: There is no set way to do it. You try to plan for every situation and use the best of what happens. Sometimes the scratch vocal is the right performance. You've got to be able to hear that.
Speaking of creative hearing, your productions always have these wonderful earcandy bitssuch as the sparkling tremolo guitar that animates the choruses of the song "Colors" on Nancy Boy. How do you come up with those things?
I wish I knew how I figure out the parts I use to sweeten a track because I'd bottle it. The only thing I can tell you is that I get an idea for a part, and it just feels right. I'll hear a track and think, "Gee, this needs a bit of, um, washboard" or whatever. Again, back to the productionclass thing, you can't teach a person to hear this stuff. It's not a science, it's an art.
Now, when you finally get to the mix stage, what is your primary goal?
The mix is the wrapup. You're finishing up the story. It's like editing a film where you have to put all the components together and come up with a box-office hit. This is the stage where you use every bit of experience and expertise to reach that point. It always turns out that the real crunch part of producing a project is the mix. The mix is where you make or break the record.
That statement about the mix making or breaking a record gets tossed around a lot, and I've always found it a vague and ominous threat. Specifically, how could someone kill a record in the mix?
For the sake of argument, let's say that you have a 24track master on which each track was recorded extremely well. In the wrong handsor with the wrong conceptthose 24 tracks can be put together so that they sound like absolute crap. The music can turn out sounding unbalanced, sluggish, and without dimension or overtones. The EQ can be all wrong from top to bottom. Simply put, you can make a total hash out of it. Now, those same 24 tracks in the hands of somebody who is good at mixing can come out sounding brilliant.
I must admit that I envy your working with bands such as The Who and The Kinks when they were young and full of passion. Those must have been exciting times.
Oh, yeah. Actually, the one thing I regret about those days is making the decision not to hang out socially with the bands. We were all roughly the same age, and I thought I'd have no authority in the studio if we were friends. I would only hang out in situations where, say, the Davies brothers were kicking the heck out of each other, and the rest of the band and I would go and have tea until things settled down.
In the early days, most British studios were run quite formally: some even had rules for setting levels and equalization. Did you experience any culture shock?
I think the "shocks" were more on the British side. When I first got to England, most of the engineers were miking drums with four or five microphones, and I started using eleven or twelve. They thought I was crazy because we were only recording on 3track decks. I said, "That's okay. 1 don't care what you think. This is the way I'm going to do it."
I was also very concerned with sound isolation, so I'd spend hours and hours with an engineer building our own isolation booths and carpeted risers for the amps. No one else was doing this at that time. I was very hot on using isolation booths for vocalists, and in some cases, I was able to use the live vocal on the record because I had enough separation between the singer and the band. I was definitely trying to get as much down in one take as possible because the most I could hope to overdub without risking a ton of noise was a single bounce from one 3track machine to another.
Recording sessions back then were unbelievably fast by today's standards; it wasn't unusual to cut an entire single in one day. Was the speed due to the recording budgets being so stingy that you had just enough time to get in and out?
Well, yeah, our recording budgets were pretty small, but that wasn't the only reason we made records so fast. People tend to forget that, back then, the bands' attitudes were different. It was uncool to take a lot of time in the studio because it meant that you sucked; you just weren't good enough to get in there and do it quickly.
Obviously, that attitude has taken a 180 degree turn, and it's entirely the opposite now. In those days, the better bands took less time to complete a record.
Today, everyone seems to be touting vintage recording gear. What was it like working in studios when that stuff was new?
There's no comparison. The tools today are five thousand times better. We were working with primitive equipment. But that doesn't mean I'll rely solely on modern technology to make a record today. I'll use whatever sounds the best for a particular situation.
Obviously, I still use some of the old tube gear because it sounds good. But for someone to say that they'll only use old stuff—or only use new stuff—is crazy.
However, I do believe analog tape is the right way to go for recording rock and roll. We tracked Nancy Boy on an analog Studer 24track. I needed more tracks on a couple of songs, so I slaved a TASCAM DA88 to the Studer. I'm happy about using digital, whether it's an MDM or Digidesign Pro Tools, if it's warranted, but analog still sounds better for rock than digital.
So what does the future hold for you?
Well, I'm back producing fulltime again, and it's nice to be somewhat in demand. The rumors of my demise were slightly exaggerated, so to speak. The problem these days, compared to the '60s and '70s, is that the lawyers have gotten into the act and things take five thousand times longer to sort out. I have a couple of projects lined up, but I have no idea when they're starting because the lawyers are still screwing around with the contracts. I'm just going with the flow these days.
TALMY'S GLAM SAM GUITARS
Shel Talmy's classic British productions tended to have real roughand-tumble guitar tones. That tradition is maintained on the debut album by Nancy Boy, which showcases all kinds of glam guitar sounds with spanking mids and delicious distortion.
"We used some vintage gear for the guitar tracks," explains Talmy. "Jason [Nesmith, guitarist] ran through an old Matchless openback combo with two 12inch speakers and an old Marshall loaded with 30watt Celestion speakers. I miked each cabinet with a Neumann U 87 set to a cardioid pattern and placed the mics three to six inches away from the speakers. On the Matchless, I also pointed a Sennheiser MD 441 dynamic mic into the open back and set that mic out of phase to the U 87. The resulting stereo picture was massive."
FIVE EASY PIECES
So you want to be a record producer, eh? Well, getting your production chops together in front of a band and an engineer or two can be a scary and humbling experience. To help you survive some very difficult situations, I'd like to share five tenets that kept me reasonably sane throughout the panic and paranoia of my first production gigs. Good luck. And remember: you can always erase your mistakes.
1. Your name is not Adolf (or Phil Spector). There is no rule that says a producer must be a dictator. Repeat after me: the recording process is a collaborative experience. You're there to help the artists maximize their gifts, not to take control of the circus and make everyone so miserable that, ultimately, they can't bear to listen to their own record.
2. It's not your album. The artist is hiring you. Do whatever you can to ensure that the best stuff gets on tape, but if the artist is adamant about doing something you're not thrilled with, just shrug your shoulders and move on. (You can always bury lessthanbrilliant parts in the final mix.) For better or worse, it's the artist's record.
3. Don't do something just to do something. There will be times when the artist doesn't need your help. A brilliant song or performance will simply spring onto tape fully formed and exquisitely faultless. Do not soil perfection just so you can feel that you've contributed something. Shut up and enjoy the moment.
4. The producer's job description includes stuff that is absolutely terrifying. Don't think for a moment that your production duties end at evaluating performances and suggesting cool parts. No way. You are going to be shackled to the artist's psyche for the length of the recording process. You will be this person's therapist, cheerleader, teacher, roadie, social worker, and surrogate daddykins or mommy dearest. (And producing bands is even more fun because each of the band members will want his or her share of your attention.) Deal with it.
5. Let the playback be the "badcop." A revealing playback is worth a thousand arguments. Don't get an ulcer—or even waste valuable time—trying to convince a brutish singer that he or she is too tired to deliver a good performance or reasoning with a rhythm section that can't seem to play together. Just press Play. When the artists hear for themselves how bad they sound, their sense of selfpreservation will prompt them to see things your way.