By: Travis D. Stimeling (West Virginia University) //
Much of the music we encounter in our daily lives comes to us through recordings, whether we stream it over our phones, pull it out of the ether on our car radio, or passively hear it over the public address system at the local supermarket. But despite recorded music’s pervasiveness in our everyday lives, we seldom stop to think about the team of people who create the recordings that have become so important to our musical lives.
Since the advent of sound recording at the end of the nineteenth century, the creation of a recording has required several different groups of people, each with specialized skills. The most audible contributors are the musicians who play and sing for us. Recording musicians are a special breed; not every talented stage performer can sing or play convincingly for a microphone. In a live setting, feedback from the audience can buoy a musician’s performance, and the recording studio can seem sterile by comparison. Moreover, a microphone can pick up flaws in one’s technique that are often overlooked or not heard at all in a live venue.
Recording is an expensive process, so musicians are often expected to perform at a high level on demand and with relatively few takes to minimize time spent in the studio. As a consequence, instrumental and vocal specialists—known as “session musicians”—emerged early in the recording industry’s history to provide accompaniments quickly and consistently. These musicians often received little to no credit on the recordings themselves and earned a relatively small fee for their services. Groups such as the Nashville “A Team,” the Wrecking Crew in Los Angeles, and the Funk Brothers at Motown contributed to thousands of recordings in a wide variety of musical styles. Session musicians typically work quickly. Because they are paid a fee per session, their continued employment depends on their ability to create improvised arrangements and countermelodies, to read various kinds of notation quickly and precisely, and to be fluent in a wide range of musical styles. The members of Nashville’s “A Team,” for example, accompanied artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Loretta Lynn, Perry Como, and Bob Dylan, among hundreds of others, playing in country, pop, and rhythm and blues styles, to name but a few. Session musicians often crafted the most memorable parts of a recorded performance, such as Wrecking Crew bassist Carol Kaye’s improvised groove for Sonny and Cher’s top-ten Billboard single “The Beat Goes On” (1967).
Yet, just as top session musicians are prized for their ability to create iconic performances, they are also valued for their awareness of when not to play. Nashville multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, who has spent more than five decades as a session musician, recalled in a recent interview that session leader Grady Martin, whose work is heard clearly in the guitar fills on Marty Robbins’s 1959 classic “El Paso,” once chastised him for playing too much during a session. As a consequence, McCoy works diligently to find space in between the lines of a vocal melody to display his understated, but absolutely essential, harmonica fills.
Nashville A-Team musician Charlie McCoy discusses the relationship between songs and fills.
Along with recording artists themselves, record producers can receive a significant amount of attention in the popular and academic press. Figures such as Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, Brian Eno, and Rick Rubin are celebrated for their efforts to craft iconic musical styles that are often more closely identified with the producers than with the musicians who executed their visions. Like session musicians, producers have skills in a wide range of musical styles, although they may or may not be practicing musicians themselves. Producers coordinate all aspects of a recording session: working with the recording artist to select the pieces to be cut during the session, renting a recording studio and hiring session musicians, and overseeing the recording to ensure that the process generates market-ready products at a minimal expense to the label. At the same time, the producer might be seen as something of a mediator, whose job it is to help the musicians communicate their message as clearly as possible.
Many producers are known for bringing their own approach to bear on all of the recordings that they supervise, as can be heard in Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” productions of the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (1961), the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963), and the Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” (1970). Although some producers work with numerous artists, still others choose to produce their own sessions, taking complete (or at least near-complete) creative control over their own work. Beach Boy Brian Wilson provides one such example. In addition to writing and co-writing many of the group’s best-known songs (“Surfin’ U.S.A.” , “Help Me, Rhonda” , “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” ), Wilson began producing the group with the 1966 album Pet Sounds, coaching the members of the Wrecking Crew to provide very specific accompaniments (often using only verbal cues), encouraging the Beach Boys to sing their harmony parts precisely, and controlling the pacing of the session. As a consequence, many historians point to the Pet Sounds album as a landmark in the history of popular music, marking the beginning of a belle époque of rock and pop record production that allowed the musicians to speak to their audiences as directly as possible.
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys coaching his bandmates and members of Los Angeles’s Wrecking Crew in the production of the AM mainstay “Good Vibrations” (1966). Although this footage has been heavily edited for a documentary film, it becomes clear that Wilson is in charge, much like the conductor of a symphony orchestra. Wilson is seen here encouraging drummer Hal Blaine to play “hard and strong all the way,” asking the musicians to look to him for cues to coordinate parts, and even giving visual encouragement to draw out expression.
Perhaps the most hidden—but most essential—personnel in the recording process are recording engineers. They are responsible for all of the technical aspects of a recording session, from setting up the microphones in the studio to mixing—or balancing—the instruments and vocals in the recording. Historian Susan Schmidt Horning, in her remarkable book Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP, notes that musicians often show respect for recording engineers because “the engineer [has] control over the audio content, if not the artistic integrity of the performance as listeners ultimately [hear] it on record.”1 Despite their central role in the recording process, though, most recording engineers remain background figures who receive comparatively little attention in the scholarly and popular literature. Although engineering was a male-dominated field for many decades, it is becoming increasingly common for women to be permitted access to engineering opportunities, as the work of Grammy Award-nominated engineer Emily Lazar and the non-profit Women’s Audio Mission demonstrate. Recording engineers draw on a variety of skill sets in their work, which requires them to marshal deep knowledge of electronics, acoustics, and musical expression.
Recording engineer Kevin Weber reveals the sometimes circuitous paths that recording engineers take to discover their interest in and develop their aptitude for audio engineering. Some two- and four-year colleges offer degrees in audio engineering, but it is just as common for top recording engineers to have developed their skills through apprenticeship and trial-and-error.
So the next time you listen to a recorded piece of music, consider how many people were involved in the creation of that work. Recording sessions are complicated experiences in which people with various skill sets and sometimes competing demands come together to create the music that shapes our own personal experiences and makes our lives more meaningful.
Who was responsible for the creation of your favorite recordings? Look in the album’s liner notes or on a reputable discographical website (such as allmusic.com) to learn more about the personnel on those sessions. Who else have these people worked with? Have they been involved in recording only one style of music, or are they active in a variety of fields?
Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.
Philip, Robert. Performing Music in the Age of Recording. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.
Zak, Albin J., III. The Poetics of Rock: Cutting Tracks, Making Records. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
1 Susan Schmidt Horning, Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 8.