How important is a producer? Think of the albums you really, really love. There's a good chance the same producer appears on more than one of them. Daniel Lanois comes to mind: He was at the mixing board for some of my all-time favorite albums, like U2's The Joshua Tree, Peter Gabriel's So, Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind, and Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris.
Lanois brings a distinctively warm sound to the records he produces. That has a lot to do with his love of analog equipment and ribbon microphones, as well as the way he uses space. He talked about this with NPR's All Things Considered a few years ago.
But how much of it is Lanois and how much is it the bands? Would The Joshua Tree have been such a big hit if someone else had produced, or if U2 had gone it alone?
We were talking about this recently at NPR Music, and wondered whether a great producer could take a mediocre band and make it successful. Bob Boilen and I recently finished our albums for the RPM Challenge, and they're about as good as you'd expect from two people who barely know what they're doing. But I got to thinking: What if Daniel Lanois (or somebody like him) produced Bob's album, or mine? Could he turn what we wrote into works of art?
So here's the new show we want to do: "Extreme Music Makeover." We take a mediocre, marginally talented musician, give him or her a few days in the studio with a brilliant producer, and see what they come up with. Attention Brian Eno, George Martin, Daniel Lanois, Tucker Martine, Jon Brion, Jim O'Rourke, John Vanderslice and all you other beautifully gifted artists: This is your big chance! Drop us a line at email@example.com, and we'll get you booked into NPR's Studio 4A with whatever middling musician we can come up with.
While we wait to hear from them, tell us what you think. Do producers matter that much? Who are some of your favorite producers, and what do you think they bring to the albums you love most?