I was flipping around the channels tonight when I stumbled upon a great PBS documentary series, SoundBreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music. I always dig the PBS end of the television dial and I certainly love the work they do with documentaries. Frontline is one of my favorite shows. Throw in all that Ken Burns stuff and it’s pretty compelling television. I always feel like I’m doing my civic duty, like returning a library book on time, when I watch PBS. And let’s face it, I’ve always been fascinated by that mysterious magic that goes on in the recording studio.
Soundbreaking is a apparently an eight part series about the actual process of making, recording and producing recorded music for album and single release. At first I feared this was going to be too “musically wonky” for my tastes. I’m not, nor have I ever been a technical person. I have a number of friends who are musicians, and at least the guitar players are always getting into these deep, mysterious conversations about “pick-ups” and “open guitar tunings.” Listening to those guys and trying to follow the conversation is like trying to decipher and translate some ancient druidic runes. I will admit I enjoy the edifying conversations about amps. I mean, the amp is the key piece of equipment for a great sound on stage. (I feel like even this statement about amps will draw the wrath of my guitarist friends as I’ve likely stated something incorrectly.)
Luckily I was wrong about Soundbreaking being too technical or musician-y to follow. This is fascinating stuff. The series was put together, at least at first, by the legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin. You can tell this is a labor of love. Alas, he passed away before he could finish the series, but many of his friends and admirers came together and helped finish the series. The spotlight is on the studio and more critically some of the more famous producers throughout the history of rock n’roll. I must admit that the Rock Chick did ridicule and laugh at me as I geeked out over seeing the interviews with some of the producers. As a music nerd obsessive, I used to always read the liner notes of every album I ever purchased. I got to know who a lot of these producers were/are and began to realize what an impact certain producers can have on an album. George Martin was probably the first guy I came to recognize. Tony Visconti who worked with Bowie and later Rick Rubin, whose worked with everybody, were a couple of others whose work I always seem to enjoy.
The series starts with the “cradle of rock and roll,” Sun Studios and Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins’ (amongst others) legendary producer Sam Phillips. There is some archival interview stuff with Sam and some great, rare film of Elvis. From there they move to George Martin, Phil Spector and the Wall of Sound, and keep going all the way to hip hop producers like Rick Rubin and Dr. Dre. It was almost too much to cover in merely an hour. Like the Elvis segment they talk about the different innovations of each of the producers. You see archival and sometimes very rare films of the bands in and out of the studio. There was a shot of the Beatles performing in the Cavern Club. I love some of the photos of these bands in the studio. The show really did a nice job of giving you a chronological history of producing. All my producer heroes were mentioned or interviewed.
There is a great group of musicians who are also interviewed or whose performances are shown during the course of the documentary. Elvis, Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, The Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, Ronnie Spector, and Sly and the Family Stone just to name a few. Sly Stone would eventually self-produce and play every instrument on his latter albums… he’s truly Lenny Kravitz’s spiritual father. It’s worth it just to hear the musicians talk about what can happen in the studio. Petty tells a great story about how producer/musician Jeff Lynne helped him “find” the song “Free Falling.” It was probably George Martin and Phil Spector who really turned the studio into an actual musical instrument in and of itself. So many of the things these guys did no one had done before them – multi tracking, introducing strings, so many innovations that if I list them all I’ll start to come across as wonky and God knows that’s the last thing I want.
The key thing a producer does in the studio, is draw the magic out of the artist he’s working with. Many artists are shy, or they play something as just a throw away riff and it’s up to the producer to say, “Wait a second, you’re onto something,” or “Play that again but do it slower.” This show gets right at the heart of the creative give and take between artist and producer. As a music geek I really found that interesting.
I have no idea what the remainder of the segments will delve into or how technical it’ll get. But I really liked the first one and will definitely be tuning into the next one. If you love music, and if you’re on a sight named BourbonAndVinyl, I’m gonna go out on a limb and presume you are, tune in! Enjoy.