Describe the most common type of work you do for your clients.
I write, co-write, arrange, orchestrate and produce.
What type of music do you usually work on?
I am very comfortable working on projects that might be loosely defined as R&B, Dance, Reggae, WorldBeat, Jazz, Blues, Blues-based Rock, Blues-based Country or Country Rock. I prefer not to work in the idioms of Rap, HipHop, EDM, Heavy Metal, Folk, Bluegrass or so-called Modern Country.
Tell us about a project you worked on you are especially proud of and why. What was your role?
Artie Mogul, the now deceased former Chairman and CEO of United Artists, signed me to produce 20/20: Bob Dylan Revised. In the history of the music business, Artie remains second only to Arista CEO Clive Davis in terms of the number of new artists discovered and successfully launched. Glen Ballard was actually Artie's first choice but he wanted way too much money up front. After I recorded the first five tracks, Artie said that he was glad things had worked out like they did and that now, even if Glen offered to produce the record for free, he would still prefer to have me do it. I am not a guy that needs or looks for any sort of validation. I know what's good and I know that I know what's good. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic support and feedback that I received from Artie was huge both in terms of confidence building internally and reputation/relationship building externally. Artie was known for expecting professionals (artists, musicians, producers even record executives) to come into United Artists fully confident that they belonged there. He was not about "developing" or "encouraging" talent in the sense of providing any sort of validation or hand-holding or otherwise helping people overcome any form of self-doubt. So that is one reason why I still, and will always, cherish my time with Artie. Anything good he had to say about me or my work was just Artie being Artie, overcome with in-the-moment enthusiasm because he really liked what was going on.
What do you bring to a song?
In terms of writing and arranging, I have a very thorough understanding of music theory and history. In terms of record production, my process combines the best of modern technology with the best old school recording techniques. My palette includes all instruments and all relevant options. I am going to craft a strong bass line and basic drum track foundation and then orchestrate it with the best possible ideas consistent with the production concept that we have discussed and agreed upon before we begin tracking.
What questions do customers most commonly ask you? What's your answer?
How long is it going to take and how much is it going to cost? We can record a song from first tracks to final mix and mastering in about 30 to 50 hours at a cost of about $3,500 to $5,500 per song including studio time, engineer, musicians, vocalists and my services.
What other musicians or music production professionals inspire you?
Dave Grusin, Larry Rosen, Gary Katz, David Sanborn, Henry Mancini, Jazz Crusaders, Weather Report, Bernard Herrmann, Bob Marley, UB40, Joni Margaux, Bill Davidow and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky would be at the top of my list. I intentionally do not listen to much so-called popular music. I don't want to be influenced by mediocrity. Instead, I program my subconscious with the best of Dave Grusin, David Sanborn, Henry Mancini, Joe Zawinul, Bernard Herrmann, Tchaikovsky, and so on, so that when I open my subconscious up to allow musical ideas to flow, I get great quality ideas. Garbage in = garbage out, right? Well, the corollary to that is: Quality in = quality out.
What's your 'promise' to your clients?
Our record is going to be perfectly in time and perfectly in tune. All of the arrangements are going to be musically correct as well as interesting and appropriate to the idiom in which we are working. All of our tracks are going to groove - both individually and collectively. You are going to listen to the final mix over and over again and actually like it more and more overtime as it begins to settle in that we have made a great record.
What's the biggest misconception about what you do?
Thanks to movies and bad music videos, a lot of people still think we record the whole band all playing at the same time even though that paradigm has been more or less dead since The Beatles White Album.
What questions do you ask prospective clients?
The specific questions will vary but the objective is going to be to define our production concept. For example, with 20/20: Bob Dylan Revised, Artie felt that he would get more airplay especially on Jazz-oriented college stations with a record that would be perfectly in tune and perfectly in time but still have enough elements of Dylan's Nashville period to be appealing to hardcore Dylan fans. In order to accomplish this, I suggested that: (1) on as many tunes as possible, we needed to incorporate a strong acoustic rhythm guitar track, harmonica, Hammond B3 organ and acoustic piano; (2) that we should abstain from using horns or synthesizers of any kind on the entire record; (3) that we could and should include back-up vocals that used both male and female voices in a Memphis-like Gospel style; and (4) that we could and should include some slightly Jazzier chords and harmonic structures in order to update and add new musical horsepower to the material. Artie loved my analysis and green-lighted the project exactly as I described it... after, of course, having listened to Artie describe what he was trying to accomplish in the first place.
What advice do you have for a customer looking to hire a provider like you?
You need to understand what you are going for in terms of a production concept that highlights and showcases what you do best and whatever it is that is unique and original about you. You and your producer need to be able to discuss these parameters and define your production concept before you even start to finalize your selection of material to be recorded.
Analog or digital and why?
Digital. It sounds better and you have much more control.
What do you like most about your job?
I really like listening to the finished product. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, I like having recorded. Unlike Dorothy Parker, however, I don't hate the process. I just really enjoy listening to the final mix and not being able to find anything wrong with it. Then I can really let myself go and, very much like someone hearing the tune for the first time, imagine what the band might look like playing that tune live.
What was your career path? How long have you been doing this?
I started out playing guitar in R&B clubs and in the local studios in my hometown of Washington, DC, right out of high school. I made the move to Los Angeles in 1981. I have been playing and recording now for over 40 years.
What's your strongest skill?
In one sense, my strongest skill is that I take responsibility for all aspects of the production. Anything and everything that is not right is my fault and I will keep working on it until I make it right. Aside from the technical aspects, I have become really good at working with young singers. The key is to give them just one element to work on at a time. Of course, you have to know what they need to work on and you have to know the best sequence for them to work on and master those elements without losing or giving up whatever strengths they have that make them, or have the potential to make them, unique. Then, you have to communicate that information to them in a way that they can understand and act upon and which does not undermine their confidence.
How would you describe your style?
I work across a variety of idioms which all have their own idiosyncrasies but I do have some elements that show up regardless of the style of music we are working on. The best modern recordings are not live performances. They are the illusion of a live performance. My records are perfectly in tune and perfectly in time but they do not sound mechanical. They sound like real people playing real instruments because they are real people playing real instruments. We do not use Auto-Tune or any other pitch correcting hardware or software. We do not use Beat Detective or any other time correcting hardware of software. I believe very strongly that a great bass line and basic drum track are essential. From there, I like to work with a rhythm concept that supports the vocal (or solos) and adds a new element on each successive verse or chorus the idea being that you give the listener something to process and enjoy and once they have learned that part, you give them another part so that by the end of the tune, the listener is actually processing quite a few counter melodies and harmonies whether he or she is entirely conscious of this process or not. If you add the parts gradually enough and in the proper sequence, even unsophisticated listeners are able to follow what you are doing and they actually get a sense of satisfaction at being able to process all that musical information.
Which artist would you like to work with and why?
Joni Margaux. She has a great sound, very rich tone with perfect intonation. She is a true artist in the sense that her primary goal is always, first and foremost to make a great record or live show. She has great focus and lets nothing get in the way of that primary goal. She was signed to Disney at age 11 so she has been working in a professional environment for 14 years even though she's only 25. She learns incredibly fast and is willing to try almost anything. She also has great ears. And whether performing live or in a session or just sitting on a piano bench between takes, Joni oozes a natural, star-like charisma not unlike Judy Garland. I would also like to work (again) with Shanica Knowles. Like Joni, she has a great work ethic and some truly unique qualities including a strong background in roots Americana which, so far at least, I don’t see other producers having recognized or showcased. With the right production concept, Shanica (just being Shanica) could own Nashville.
Can you share one music production tip?
If you can write and record a strong bass track and the basic drum track that work together and groove all by themselves, you are well on your way to making a great record. If you don't have that strong bass and drum foundation, there is nothing else you can do, production-wise, that is going to overcome that and you are not going to make a great record, period.