Richard Nisley

“Little Symphonies for the Kids” - the art of making pop records
Pop Culture Released - Dec 01, 2013

It was one of those pivotal moments in popular music, when the success or failure of a recording career is decided.

It was early 1963. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had written a song for their next single and the producer at EMI Records George Martin told them it wasn’t good enough. He handed them a song by one of EMI’s songwriters to record instead, entitled “How Do You Do It.”

“That’s a number-one hit record,” Martin said. “That’s what I want you to do.”

Lennon and McCartney were miffed. They wanted to write their own songs. So they went home, retooled what was a ballad into a fast-paced rocker, and the following day auditioned the song again. This time, Martin was impressed. During the recording session he asked John to add harmonica. A week later EMI Records released “Please, Please Me” by the Beatles. It was their first record to top the charts. The Beatles were on their way to rock stardom (and Beatles’ song publisher Dick James on his way to his first million). Martin was right about “How Do You Do It.” It was a number-one hit record--for Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Behind every great recording star is a great producer. A record producer is not a mere recording engineer, but an artist in his own right. Many are musicians; some are classically trained. Their real job is to help recording artists achieve their vision. Producers play a number of roles: engineer, arranger, problem-solver, critic, psychologist, cheer leader, slave driver, and friend. George Martin at EMI was so influential with the Fab Four he became known as “The Fifth Beatle.” The same can be said of Roy Halee, the producer of Simon and Garfunkel, and Phil Ramone the producer of Billy Joel. Other notable examples include Quincy Jones with Michael Jackson, Gus Dudgeon with Elton John, and Lou Adler with Carole King.

When producer Sam Phillips took Elvis Presley under his wing, the future King of Rock-N-Roll had his heart set on singing like Dean Martin. It took Phillips nearly a year of coaching to develop Elvis into a truly unique singing talent. In some cases, the producer becomes more famous than the recording artists he serves, such as Phil Spector, or ends up owning his own record label, such as Berry Gordy with Motown, Lou Adler with Dunhill Records, and Sam Phillips with Sun Records.

The art of record producing didn’t became an art until after World War II, with the advent of magnetic tape. Prior to that, record producers were merely engineers who did little more than set up microphones and adjust the sound levels. Song arrangements were the work of arrangers, such as Axel Stordahl, Sy Oliver, George Siravo, Billy May, and Nelson Riddle. In fact, the industry continued recording music that way up through the 1970s for a number of mainstream singers like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet. Working with a 30- or 40-piece orchestra there was little need to enhance sound recording. The sound was already full. With Country, Folk, Blues, and Rock-N-Roll, where ensembles were much smaller, there was the need, and that’s where recording advances were made, beginning in the later half of the 1940s.


One of the early pioneers was Tom Dowd. During World War II, he worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project at the Columbia laboratory for the government office of Scientific Research and Development. After the war, he was hired as a sound engineer for Atlantic Records in New York City. Under Dowd’s direction, the label switched from recording onto acetate to magnetic tape, resulting in improved fidelity and the ability to edit and overdub. In addition to engineering countless sessions, he built the label’s recording console and designed its eight-track studio.

In Dowd’s own words, “When I started recording in the late Forties, I was light years ahead of the hand-me-down equipment being used. By default, I suppose, I became an innovator. The early Atlantic sessions had me experimenting like a madman. I had no choice.” In his memoir, “Rhythm & the Blues: A Life in American Music,” producer Jerry Wexler recalled the division of labor at Atlantic’s recording sessions: “(My) gig was to get the music played right and righteous in the studio; Tom’s job was to capture it on tape. It was up to him to find a mix of timbres, bass, treble and midrange; to load as much volume as possible without distortion. When it came to sound, he displayed an exquisite sensibility.”

At the same time in Memphis, Tennessee Sam Phillips was innovating as well, creating a million-dollar sound with a ten-cent recording studio. This was painfully clear when RCA Records paid Phillips a king’s ransom to buy Elvis’ contract and brought him to RCA’s studio in Nashville to record his next record. Steve Sholes, the A & R man responsible for signing Elvis, discovered his job was on the line unless he could duplicate the quality of records Elvis had made for Phillips.

Becoming desperate, Sholes set up a makeshift studio inside an auditorium and brought in a host of electric guitars, a grand piano, electric bass, drums, and a number of percussionists. He handed a mic to Elvis and told him to go stand inside the stairwell. With everyone performing at once and enough echo to wake the dead, Sholes finally had a sound that almost rivaled what Phillips had achieved in an eight-by-ten room with three musicians. How did Phillips do it? With a bit of technical wizardry, a lot of reverb, and the unique acoustics of his tiny studio.


Which brings us to Phil Spector and his “Wall of Sound.” Like Steve Sholes, Spector stacked the deck with lots of instruments--electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, horns, strings, woodwinds, you name it. Even secretaries and delivery boys were handed something to shake--castanets, tambourines, shakers, and sleigh bells. With everyone playing at once, mistakes were inevitable but it didn’t matter to Spector. What mattered was the volume of sound being generated. Spector called his technique “a Wagnerian approach to Rock-N-Roll: little symphonies for the kids.”

In the 1960s, Spector recorded at Gold Star Recorders in Los Angeles which was known for its exceptional echo chamber. Microphones in the recording studio captured the sound, which was then transmitted to an echo chamber--a basement room fitted with speakers and microphones. The signal from the studio was played through the speakers and reverberated throughout the room before being picked up by the microphones. The echo-laden sound was then channeled back to the control room, where it was recorded on magnetic tape. Spector would have his studio orchestra play over and over, sometimes for up to eight hours, until they were exhausted and less inhibited, before he had a take that he was satisfied with.

What appeared to some as sheer madness paid off--big. Spector produced more than 25 Top-40 hits from 1960 to 1965, including “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” by the Righteous Brothers, which BMI listed as the song with the most U.S. airplay in the 20th century. By age 25, Spector retired as a millionaire.

Among Spector’s greatest admirers was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, who doubled as the group’s producer. Using many of the same L.A. musicians and the same recording studio, Wilson created his own “Wall of Sound” with the Beach Boys’ album “Pet Sounds” and a single Rolling Stone Magazine named as the greatest Pop Record ever made: “Good Vibrations.”


Simon and Garfunkel were the next to maximize the possibilities of the modern recording studio. Their accomplice was producer Roy Halee, a classically trained musician who worked in television before landing a job as a sound engineer for Columbia Records. He met Simon and Garfunkel while recording their first album. At the time--1964--the boys from Queens thought of themselves as folk singers. Their album didn’t sell and Columbia Records dropped them. Two years later, however, one of their songs began getting airplay at a radio station in Miami, Florida. Roy Halee was no fool. He knew the song needed work if it was going to crack the Top-40. He located the master and overdubbed electric guitar, bass, and drums, and enhanced the vocals so that the boys’ two-part harmony sounded as full as the three-part harmony of the Byrds. In fact, that was what he was after--a song that sounded like the Byrds, which were hot at the time. Simon and Garfunkel, meanwhile, had no idea of what Halee had done to their record and were absolutely stunned when “Sound of Silence” became the surprise hit of 1966.

“Sound of Silence” was the first of a string of highly-produced smash hits for Simon and Garfunkel. For the next four years Roy Halee, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel worked closely together, as if joined at the hip. They utilized the recording studio like a painter uses all the colors of the pallet. They peaked with S & G’s fifth and final album, “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” One of the album’s songs-- “The Boxer”--consumed a hundred hours of studio time.

Meanwhile, the engineer who started it all, Tom Dowd, was producing every imaginable type of music: jazz, blues, country, and pop. He recorded the likes of John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin, and had a reputation for being a “Mr. Fix It.” If a recording artist was having trouble, Dowd was called to the rescue. One of the groups Dowd rescued was Buffalo Springfield. They had recorded a song everyone agreed was a hit record, entitled “For What It’s Worth.” Only the song didn’t pop. It lacked some indefinable element. Dowd had the answer. He had the group record a guitar solo that mimicked the song’s melody, ran it through the echo chamber at Gold Star to give it ample reverberation and, like a surgeon, engrafted it onto the recording. The result was a top-ten hit that made stars of Buffalo Springfield and shed the spotlight on the group’s two most-promising talents--Steven Stills and Neil Young.


Another band needing rescue was a trio of supremely-gifted English musicians calling themselves Cream. They had made an album no one was happy with--not the band, not the record company, and not Cream’s management. It sounded muddled and mediocre--especially compared with Cream’s dynamic live performances. Cream was comprised of three strongly individualistic personalities with equally strong opinions, and that was part of the problem. Management wanted to make guitarist Eric Clapton the frontman. Clapton was handsome, charismatic, and played Mississippi Delta Blues like no one since Robert Johnson. Only Clapton did not see himself as a frontman. He was not a natural singer nor did he write songs. He played guitar, and played it so brilliantly that on the walls of London clubs fans scrawled “Clapton is God.”

Capturing Clapton and Cream in the studio was tantamount to bottling lightning. How to do it? Atlantic Records called in their ace engineer Tom Dowd and a young new producer named Felix Pappalardi. Dowd worked his magic at the recording console, but it was Pappalardi who had the answer. Rather than build the sound around Clapton’s guitar, Pappalardi created a balancing act among guitar, bass and drums--a competition of equals. It worked on stage with mesmerizing power. With Dowd’s wizardry and Pappalardi’s vision, it worked in the recording studio too. Cream’s next single--“Sunshine of Your Love”--topped the charts as did their next album, “Disraeli Gears.” Over the next two years, Pappalardi’s influence was so complete that among industry insider’s the band was known as “The Cream Quartet.”

Nothing stays the same. As Rock-N-Roll began to dominate the record industry several rock stars began producing their own records but not always with the best results. Crosby, Stills and Nash self-produced until sales fell off. They got the message. Their next record was produced by a pro and sales picked up again. The biggest band of the 1990s, Nirvana, was getting nowhere until they hooked up with producer Butch Vig. The rest, as they say, is history.

With the advent of digital recording, a number of the old studios were torn down, such as Gold Star Recorders in Los Angeles and Mediasound In New York. The old producers, the ones who had been around since the 1940s and ‘50s, felt the loss deeply. Sound wise, digital recording was “cold,” and the new studios were “dead.”

“I much prefer analog recording,” says Roy Halee today. “I feel there’s no comparison (between analog and digital).” Halee doesn’t think much of building a record layer by layer either, which is now the industry norm. “I like ambience and I like to cut a good live track with a band. I’ve gone into the studio with producers and heard them say, ‘Hey, that’s leaking! That’s leaking!’ And I say, ‘That’s right, I like that! Listen to the sound!’ If you don’t have the leakage, the sound suffers. You have to have ambience.”


Below are six records with ambience to spare and are suggested listening:

“The Sun Sessions” - 1954-55 (Elvis Presley) - The critics agree: the best records Elvis ever made were his very first, produced by Sam Phillips at Sun Records. This is the moment when country and blues, black music and white, collided with a big bang, all of it amplified by Phillip’s creative use of primitive recording equipment.

“Be My Baby” - 1963 (the Ronettes) - Producer Phil Spector rehearsed this song with singer Ronnie Bennett for weeks, but that didn’t stop him from doing 42 takes before he was satisfied. “The things Phil was doing were creative and exhausting,” said one of his engineers. “But that’s not the sign of a nut. That’s genius.”

“Revolver” - 1966 (the Beatles) - Having completely dominated Pop Music for two years, the Beatles were out to create something different, with guitars that didn’t sound like guitars, and piano that didn’t sound like piano, and drums that sounded as if recorded in another dimension. It was pop music put through a time warp. “No one heard anything like that before,” said one of the engineers. “It changed the way everyone else made records.”

“Good Vibrations” - 1966 (Beach Boys) - Brian Wilson started work on “Good Vibrations” while “Pet Sounds” was in production. During the next seven months, in four studios, at a cost of more than $50,000, Wilson could not stop wrestling with combinations of instruments and rhythmic approaches. One discarded version of the song had an R&B backbeat. When it was finished, “Good Vibrations” became the Beach Boys’ third Number One hit. To this day, the song still gets standing ovations whenever performed in concert.

“Disraeli Gears” - 1967 (Cream) - Recorded in two weeks, “Disraeli Gears” showcased Cream’s outsized talent: bass, guitar and drums in equal measure, thanks to Pappalardi’s and Dowd’s superior production work. The members of Cream weren’t just great musicians--they could sing and write songs of equal power and sophistication. Psychedelic music was seldom this tasteful or ever performed this well.

“Bridge Over Troubled Water - 1970 (Simon and Garfunkel) - “Bookends” had better songs overall, but “Bridge Over Troubled Water” featured three studio masterpieces: the title song, “The Boxer,” and “The Only Living Boy in New York.” The latter had the boys singing at the top of their lungs from inside a stairwell at Columbia Studios in New York, which was overdubbed 16 to 20 times (depending on who you’re talking to) resulting in a far-off wall of harmonies that gives the song its ethereal quality. The sound world of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” takes one’s breath away.

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