Like Larry Klein, Steve Rodby started out as a bass player. His earliest inspiration? Mr. Green Jeans on the kids' show Captain Kangaroo. A native of Joliet, Ill., Rodby went on to study with the revered Chicago Symphony bassist Warren Benfield and with legendary jazz bassist Rufus Reid. Rodby did some studio work in the late 1970s, but in 1981, he got the call to join Pat Metheny's group, and he's been there ever since. He continues to play bass with the group and has co-produced more than half a dozen of the group's recordings.
Like most good producers, Larry Klein started out as a working musician. He played bass in the 1970s for trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and singer Carmen McRae, among other noted jazz musicians. But he was apparently never really happy with his sound on records. So he decided to learn studio techniques to get what he wanted to hear. Klein is probably best-known as the long time producer for –- and former husband of –- Joni Mitchell. He's produced eight records for her, as well as sessions for The Innocence Mission, Shawn Colvin, Holly Cole, Walter Becker and Tracy Chapman's latest, Our Bright Future.
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John Leventhal made his name producing such singer-songwriters as Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale and Rosanne Cash, his wife. Leventhal is also a guitarist and composer — he co-wrote Colvin's hit "Sunny Came Home," which won 1998 Grammys for Record and Song of the Year. Leventhal has also produced records for Rodney Crowell, Kelly Willis, Marc Cohn and David Crosby.
In the recording studio, musicians have many gadgets available to them to build a polished product. But it's often the producer who decides the best way to do that.
But what, exactly, do producers do? And how do they fit into the bigger picture of music and technology?
To help us answer that, we spoke to three award-winning record producers. John Leventhal has worked with artists like Shawn Colvin and Rodney Crowell. He tried to define the role of a producer.
"My glib response is, it can run the gamut from somebody who knows when and how to order a good lunch, to somebody who is, you know, a really total hands-on music person who understands the language of music and understands the language of audio engineering," Leventhal says. "So I think you can be a successful producer at either end of the spectrum."
But however a producer approaches a recording session, Leventhal notes that these days, producers are feeling more pressure to use technology like pitch correction software.
"What is interesting is that I think communally and socially and culturally, our ears over the years have gotten more attuned to pitch discrepancies," Leventhal says. "Because we've been so assaulted by totally correct, perfect pitch for years now. So there's a tendency to want things to be a little more in tune."
Producer Larry Klein is best known for his work with great singers like Joni Mitchell, Madeleine Peyroux and Luciana Souza, who don't seem to need a whole lot of post-production studio magic. But it's not like they do it in one take.
"Perhaps I'll have a singer do a series of takes of a vocal, and then after they finish doing the series, we'll sit together and we go through it," Klein says. "There are places in it: You can feel them make your heart pulse in a funny way. Once we kind of put those together, then you can very delicately hold onto the invaluable emotional content."
John Leventhal is married to Rosanne Cash, the singer-songwriter and daughter of Johnny Cash. He says he'd never use Auto-Tune for one of his wife's recordings, because she wants them to sound as authentic as possible. But he does use it for other artists.
"I've just produced a commercial country record for an artist who's a great artist," Leventhal says. "Really supertalented, with acute ears and a finely tuned sense of their own artistic vision. But I definitely used more Auto-Tune and more sonic manipulation to make her record sound punchier and more 'radio-friendly' to be more competitive with the market in which she's trying to operate. 'Cause that's what this artist wanted."
It's not just pop music that's subject to the smoke and mirrors of studio technology. Bassist and producer Steve Rodby has worked with jazz artists Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny and Eliane Elias. He says that even jazz and classical recordings are usually pieced together from multiple takes in the studio.
Rodby talked about one of the records he was most proud of producing: the two-CD set of the jazz fusion group Oregon performing with the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra.
"In that case, we were under such enormous time pressure, performing this very difficult music with this huge orchestra and everything, that we had to do the music in sections," Rodby says. "So, it had to be assembled, essentially. It's just — it couldn't all happen at once. Sometimes what a producer will do with various technological tools is just be able to give the artist the rehearsal they didn't have."
In the end, every situation is different. All three producers said it comes down to a trusting relationship between an artist and a producer. And only that can tell you how much, or how little, technology should be used.
"I think there's an intuitive moment between the producer and artist where you're looking for the most compelling, expressive experience in listening to the music," Leventhal says. "And if something is slightly out of tune, but you still feel mysteriously compelled and moved by it, you don't care whether it's in tune or not.
"And then I think there are those moments where you go, 'Eh, there's something just not right.' And then at those moments you'll maybe try anything to see if you can enhance, correct, change the recording experience."