Star producers and signature sounds

Photograph of a man with headphones

Producer Steve Albini, © unhip records

Because of their direct input into the creative process, many prominent producers became known for achieving success with ‘signature’ sounds. Sometimes producers have become associated with particular types of effects or with getting particular performances from their artists. In his work with 1950s rockabilly stars such as Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, Sam Phillips was noted for his search for the ‘perfect/imperfect’ performance which valued the emotional intensity of an artist’s delivery over any attempt to capture technical perfection. Phillips also pioneered the use of ‘slapback’ echo, a short single delay on a particular channel achieved by running tape through a second recorder head. The technique became so widely imitated that it "quickly came to be regarded as a quintessential trademark of the 'rock and roll' sound" (Doyle, 2006: 166).

Ever since this period certain producers have become synonymous with particular music genres and have often been credited with introducing individual techniques and sounds. The 1980s for instance, saw a variety of ‘name’ producers coming to the fore across differing genres. The success of these producers would go on to place them in positions of power in the record industry. Their involvement in a particular project often meant that record companies would invest heavily in the promotion of an album and sometimes their names were even used as a selling point.

John ‘Mutt’ Lange is a good example. He became known for producing a highly polished, sonically clear sound based on using a meticulous recording process and a ‘pop’ approach to guiding songwriting and arrangement. Lange used techniques such as: multiple layered (and highly edited) vocals to create pristine and upfront vocal lines; multiple mic placement for guitar tracks; and sampled and sequenced drum parts to create perfect timing. Lange’s techniques resulted in multi-million selling albums for a host of AOR (Adult Orientated Rock) artists in the 1980s such as AC/DC, Def Leppard, the Cars and Foreigner. At a similar time, Trevor Horn was using an equally big and multilayered sound to electronic pop music, while Stephen Street was introducing a polished commercial feel to British indie rock music.

These producers’ demanding working methods led to undoubted commercial success, but they also caused a reaction against what was seen as the over-production of  certain records. Big name producers were accused of stripping much of the life from a recording by their insistence on multiple takes and the endless pursuit of perfection. Many producers and musicians preferred a back-to-basics approach that attempted to capture the energy and excitement of performance. A well-known exponent of this approach is the US punk producer Steve Albini. Albini’s techniques include attempting to record very quickly in order to capture spontaneity, the use of ambient mics to capture the ‘liveness’ of the recording space, and a particular style of aggressive guitar sound. These have been widely copied across various alternative music genres and indeed, have become signature sounds of particular genres such as hardcore punk, lo-fi and post-rock.

Other producers have used even more unusual techniques and experiments to get differing results and provide originality for their recordings. Phil Spector’s famous ‘Wall of Sound’ technique, for instance, resisted the multitrack and stereo technologies. Rather, it involved gathering large collections of musicians together, and having them play simultaneously and often in unison. This method of layering (often with two or three musicians playing the same instrument) created a full sound which was designed to stand out from other recordings when played on the radio. In the 1970s Brian Eno’s use of ‘oblique strategies’ in the recording studio (a series of cryptic and often obscure instructions given to artists) was another example of a technique used to create a fresh approach to the creative process.