A Crash Course in Music Production

One of the common complaints about 21st century professional music recordings is that producers have overdone it with studio tricks. So I want to set the dials of the time machine back to 1996 when I worked on-air at KWOD in Sacramento and regularly interviewed music industry figures. This interview with producer Brendan O'Brien was from the spring of 1996 (probably April or May). O'Brien produced albums for Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against The Machine and many others.

Brendan talked about letting artists have control of the their recording projects, since they were the ones hiring him. He explained how the magic of a great recording comes down to the song and musical performance. It was during a period when rock recordings began to sound stripped down compared with the big arena bands of the 80s. He discussed how he got into production as a Led Zeppelin fan and how the process turned out to not be as mysterious as he originally imagined hearing his favorite music growing up.

The music industry had its last big sales year of its heyday in 1999, following a lot of record label consolidation. That's around the time production of rock recordings started getting bigger with wider bandwidth, even for three-piece bands. Not that over-production was the only cause of a massive music sales decline (free file swapping is often cited as the root cause), but it's worth noting that bigger sounding recordings haven't helped much.

The reason this interview stands up as still relevant is that it may contain the secrets for indie artists to improve their recordings. After all, Brendan's simplified approach to production was proven to be commercial, selling millions of units. Instead of spending so much time in the studio trying to come up with the perfect sound or mix, indie bands can save a lot of money by working on performance and being well rehearsed. High quality recording studios can charge from $50 to $200 per hour. Many indie artists feel they have to spend up to $20,000 on an album to compete with major label artists, who usually spend at least five times more.

The economics of recording have been out of reach for many musicians since the 1970s. But recording software from the 1990s on has made it possible for artists to make clean digital sounding recordings that simply need audio sweetening in the mastering phase. Artists who focus on songwriting and performance have an edge in producing multiple albums over those who spend their life savings on one expensive album. Music at its most powerful is about the message or feeling it conveys, not so much the expensive bells and whistles of fancy production.

Created by Alex Cosper