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Platinum Producers: Where’s The Song?

By Steve Harvey. The takeaway from "Platinum Producers and Engineers," chaired by locally based mastering engineer Michael Romanowski, was simple: Never mind the technology, where's the song?

Platinum Producer panelist Young Guru reminded the audience that “The song is the most important thing.”
By Steve Harvey.

The takeaway from “Platinum Producers and Engineers,” chaired by locally based mastering engineer Michael Romanowski, was simple: Never mind the technology, where’s the song?

“The song is the most important thing,” says Young Guru, perhaps best known for his work with Jay-Z. “People are relying too much on technology and not playing. I would prefer everybody to be in the same room.”

Narada Michael Walden, who had a long, hit-laden working relationship with Whitney Houston, agrees: “Most of the records I have done were cats in the room.” Capturing a performance in the studio meant that the session could move quickly: “You could have a smash in a day.”

The majority of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint was laid down between a Friday and Monday, recalls Young Guru. It was all about “creating that vibe.”

Producers may have to take differing roles depending upon the needs of the artist. “I become part of the band” with Aerosmith, says Jack Douglas, who has worked with artists as diverse as John Lennon and Miles Davis. “Other times you’re a priest or a psychiatrist.”

“You have to zone in on what the artist needs,” concurs Young Guru, who has no time for temperamental clients. “I started refusing to work with prima donnas.”

“Technology is great. It’s never been better for us; we can create miracles,” says Douglas. But, he notes, “Nothing sounded better than the old four-track dates,” which required the producer and artist to commit to sounds from the get-go.

“Now,” he says, “I’m looking at 150, 200 tracks–and I have to mix it. Good lord!”

In the subsequent panel, mastering engineer Bob Ludwig moderated a two-man “Platinum Mastering” panel on the topic of Mastering for iTunes. There have been complaints that it only offers an increased bit depth, not a greater sample rate. But as Ludwig notes, over 400 million Apple players can only play 44.1 or 48 kHz files.

“It’s a big improvement and you can notice it on small computer speakers,” he says.

In an interesting contrast that might say something about the issues on the minds of audio professionals in a position to influence the shape of contemporary music, Saturday’s Legendary Artists special event on the “San Francisco Sound” featured the venerable Bay Area sage Country Joe Macdonald offering this bit of insight: “Someone told me about working on a Beyonce record, and they recorded something like one hundred tracks. Then they picked seven for the album, and then overdubbed ten vocals on each track. And I’m wondering, Where’s the artist?”

Between “Where’s the song?” and “Where’s the artist?” is the shape of things to come. You heard it here first.